$458M park was approved in '98

Updated: April 8, 2004, 1:27 AM ET
Associated Press

SAN DIEGO -- A new era in the mostly dismal history of the San Diego Padres begins Thursday night when they open their flashy, new 42,000-seat downtown ballpark against the San Francisco Giants.

Former president Jimmy Carter -- a friend of Padres owner John Moores -- and commissioner Bud Selig are scheduled to throw out ceremonial first pitches at $458 million Petco Park, located two blocks from the waterfront.

Former Padres great Tony Gwynn will be there, too, if he can get back in time from coaching San Diego State's game at Air Force. Navy jets will thunder overhead and a huge American flag will be unfurled in the vast outfield.

And then San Diego native David Wells will try to keep Barry Bonds from wrecking the night.

Bonds is on the verge of tying his godfather, Willie Mays, for third place on the career home run list at 660 -- he had 659 going into Wednesday night's game at Houston. And wouldn't you know it, the Padres have always been his favorite punching bag.

Bonds' 75 career homers against the Padres are his most against any team. He hit 39 at the Padres' old stadium, Qualcomm, his most at any road park and the most by a visiting player.

San Diegans won't be very festive if Bonds hits the first homer at Petco, which the Padres think will be a pitchers' park.

"We made it Bonds-proof, remember?" Padres general manager Kevin Towers said.

The Padres did use a good chunk of downtown for right-center field. It's 396 feet to straightaway center, quickly dropping off to the deepest point in the park at 411 feet. It's just 322 down the line, where a home run porch juts out from the stands.

Then again, Petco's dimensions could be academic against Bonds. He hit homers estimated at 482 and 463 feet at Qualcomm in recent seasons.

"I've only faced him a couple of times, in spring training and an All-Star game," said Wells, a left-hander who left the New York Yankees to sign with the Padres as a free agent on Dec. 31. "You just have to look at some videotape and see how he reacts to guys, because he is a great hitter. But I've got to pitch my game and not worry about who's up there."

Wells gets to open the new ballpark 22 years after he turned pro following a standout career at Point Loma High, which also produced former Yankees great Don Larsen.

"I'll be nervous," the 40-year-old Wells said. "It's just going to be very exciting. It's the real deal."

Wells also started in the Padres' first exhibition game at Petco on Saturday.

"You get that first pitch out of the way, you want to definitely throw it for a strike," he said. "You don't want to launch it into the backstop or anything."

The ballpark was approved by 60 percent of the voters in November 1998, less than two weeks after the Padres were swept by Wells and the Yankees in the World Series. It was delayed for two years by 17 lawsuits and a federal investigation into a gift-giving scandal involving Moores and City Councilwoman Valerie Stallings. Moores was cleared but Stallings resigned.

The Padres are coming off five straight losing seasons, including an NL-worst 98 losses last year.

With a revamped lineup, the time for excuses is over.

"The support that we've gotten from the community, for them to ride out all those pitfalls, they've done their job," closer Trevor Hoffman said. "Now it's up to us."

Petco Park's signature element is the 95-year-old Western Metal Supply Co. Building, a remnant of the once-seedy neighborhood of brick warehouses and vacant lots. The left-field foul pole is attached to the building's southeast corner.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press