Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | Every so often San Diegans, especially recent transplants, need to be reminded that San Diego is a great sports town. Too many judge our interest in other activities as a lack of interest in watching sports.
This seems as good a time as any, with the Atlanta Braves visiting San Diego to play the Padres tonight in the middle of a three-game series at Petco Park.
Braves second baseman Marcus Giles travels the country as a Major League Baseball player and annual participant in the playoffs. He’s visited plenty of sports towns, and he says he’s never seen anything like the three weeks in October in 1998 when the Padres beat the Houston Astros and the Braves in the National League playoffs before falling to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Giles, the Granite Hills High alumnus and younger brother of Padres outfielder Brian Giles, was still in the Braves’ minor league system working his way up to The Show when he came home in the fall of 1998. He took in those postseason games at Qualcomm Stadium as a fan.
“To this day those fans are the loudest and the most fun I’ve ever seen in a stadium,” Giles said.
I know what you’re thinking: A 27-year-old player from El Cajon doesn’t have the proper perspective to judge a sports town.
Well, consider another example.
In 1984, esteemed baseball writer Roger Kahn came to San Diego to watch the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Padres. The Padres were down two games to none in the best-of-five series.
San Diego fans rallied around the excitement of the playoffs and the Padres won three straight to advance to the World Series. Later, Kahn, the man who wrote about the passionate bond between the Dodgers of the 1950s and the people of Brooklyn in his book “The Boys of Summer,” said he had never heard a louder baseball crowd than ones at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
And it’s not just baseball that we love.
Stan Humphries, the quarterback who led the 1994 Chargers to the Super Bowl, came to San Diego in a trade from the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ fans are considered by many in football the most passionate in the NFL, but Humphries said he never saw anything like the Chargers’ fans when the Bolts returned to San Diego from their AFC Championship win at Pittsburgh to be greeted by fans that filled the stadium.
“It was something that was hard to imagine, and something you’ll never forget,” Humphries said.
If you’re saying there is no defending basketball in San Diego, you weren’t here in 1978-79 when the Clippers averaged nearly 10,000 fans a game. Those were big crowds in the NBA’s pre-Magic Johnson/Larry Bird/Michael Jordan days.
If Irv Levin hadn’t sold the Clippers to Donald Sterling, the team would still be in San Diego. If he had sold it to an owner as committed to building a winner in San Diego as John Moores with the Padres and Alex Spanos with the Chargers, basketball would be thriving in San Diego.
In college basketball, the NCAA has awarded another sub-regional to San Diego in 2006 after the success of the event at San Diego State’s Cox Arena in 2001. If you watch early-round NCAA regional games on TV, there are plenty of empty seats. That’s because the teams playing have a fan base many miles from the host city. But in San Diego, it didn’t matter who was playing at Cox Arena. San Diego fans filled seats.
I could use as an example of just about any city where fans celebrate/riot when their team wins a championship, but let’s look at one of the most recent: the Boston Red Sox.
The sports world romanticized the Red Sox fans, recalling stories about how in 1986 when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by Bill Buckner’s Game 6 error against the New York Mets, Boston fans wandered the streets aimlessly in despair that night. Buckner was hung in effigy by other fans.
In San Diego, when the Padres were swept in four games by the Yankees in the 1998 World Series, with the final game at home, fans remained in their seats calling for the Padres players to return to the field from the clubhouse.
Then fans went home. The next day they went for a run, a bike ride, played golf, played tennis or played sports in recreation leagues. If they went for a walk, it was for exercise, not in despair.
That’s a sports town. Just ask Marcus Giles. Or Bill Buckner.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the Media Coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.