SAN DIEGO -- Sleepy San Diego awoke to the pennant race on Saturday as the largest crowd of the nine-game homestand showed up at PETCO Park: 41,123. It was a crystal clear day with nary a cloud in a typically blue southern California sky. Game time temperature for the Padres' 1-0 victory over the Giants was a balmy 72 degrees. Save for seats in the far reaches of the upper deck, the nearly seven-year-old ballpark near San Diego Bay was almost packed. After the teams swapped taut back-to-back 1-0 affairs, Sunday's game may very well be sold out when young Mat Latos faces Tim Lincecum. The Padres remain in first place by the slim margin of a single game with 22 to play.
Yet, the talk around baseball this week has been the size of crowds here for significant September games during the Padres' run at a sixth National League West title. For the first six games of the homestand prior to the San Francisco series, the Padres averaged 22,632 for the Rockies and Dodgers. "Crowds of 20,000 just remind us of what the challenge is," Jeff Moorad, the team's chief executive, told MLB.com before the key four-game series began. "We're now beyond the start of school. We knew we'd have problems on Labor Day. You can't play a day game in San Diego on Labor Day because you're competing with the beach. But we're confident the crowds are going to be tracking positively for the rest of the year." Such are the vagaries of San Diego sports fans. They often join the fray late, but when they do they are vociferous. On Sept. 20, 1984, the Padres were poised to win at least a share of their first division title if they defeated the Giants at what was then called Jack Murphy Stadium where the team played until 2003. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon and only 15,766 showed up. The Padres snagged a 6-5 victory, and when the Dodgers defeated Houston that night, the Padres had won the West after a run of futility in the first 15 years the franchise existed. The big crowds showed up for the postseason, and in 1985 the team sold the most tickets up to that juncture in club history. Twenty-six years ago, the locals weren't feeling the pain of a lingering recession as they are now, explained John Moores, the team's long-time principal owner who now shares stewardship of the club with a group headed by Moorad. "People used to live off the equity in their houses along the Pacific coast," Moores said. "They can't do that anymore." It's possible the Padres' recent 10-game losing streak had little to do with the turnout early in this homestand. Fans could be carefully apportioning their discretionary dollars. The Chargers still have 10,000 seats remaining for the home opener of their National Football League season next Sunday against Jacksonville. Owner Dean Spanos told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he's almost guaranteeing a local television blackout. Unlike Major League Baseball, NFL games are blacked out in the local market if all tickets are not sold 72 hours before a home game. Moorad, who took over the day-to-day operations of the team from Sandy Alderson just prior to the 2009 season, said response in the community to the direction of the Padres from fans, business leaders and public officials has been very positive. "It's been terrific," Moorad said. "I couldn't ask for a better reception. We're convinced that the fan base is coming back. It may be at a pace slower that we had hoped, but we're not complaining. We understand that we have to continue to focus on putting the best club we can on the field and improving the fan experience." Moorad inherited a team with a base of full-season ticket equivalents that deteriorated from 15,000 to a low of 8,700. It's about 9,200 now, he said. "Until that season ticket base is increased, we're going to be continually challenged to sell out the ballpark," Moorad said. "When you start at 9,200 every night, you have to sell [more than] 30,000 group tickets, individual tickets and walkups in order to sell out the ballpark. That's a lot of tickets each night to be moved." Based on their performance this season, the Padres have already aggressively begun selling season ticket packages for next season and report a 70-percent renewal rate and 700 new seats sold with three weeks to go in the season. And even now the fans have caught on as attendance for the Giants series has shown, growing from 28,456 on Thursday night to 33,662 on Friday night and the 41,123 on Saturday. That's 103,241 for the three games with a chance to surpass the 145,000 mark if they do as well as anticipated on Sunday. The Padres certainly earn a rare break in the schedule on the first full Sunday of the NFL season because the Chargers open on Monday night at Kansas City. With seven more dates remaining on the home schedule against the Reds and Cubs, the Padres have a chance of improving upon last season's PETCO attendance of 1.9 million, Moorad said. "As we sit here in mid-September, that's something everyone in the organization should be prideful of," Moorad said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. This is a process. We're heading in the right direction. Over time I believe the fans will continue to respond."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.