SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball's best theme park awaits its playoff makeover, eager to slip some Stars-and-Stripes bunting over its rails. This place loves to dress up.
Three nights after the San Francisco Giants clinched the National League West, their cozy habitat had gone into something akin to hibernation, awaiting the postseason. But the park still drew its fuzzy fashionistas, patrons wearing caps shaped like stuffed animals, each representing the nickname of a player. On the backside of the park, the usual elements of an Epcot Amsterdam were here. Small craft on the water? Check. The bicycle parking lot heavily subscribed? Check. A hint of reefer in the air? Check.
The usual fleet of kayaks in McCovey Cove had dwindled to about three of the hardcore regulars formerly known as the Bonds Navy. Ten minutes before the first pitch, a couple of tourists from El Paso leaned over a railing to hear Dave Edlund, seated in a bright blue skiff with his flip-flopped feet dangling in the murky water, explain his gear and splash-hit hunting strategies.
"I'm the only one out here who looks up statistics so I can estimate where a player's home runs will land,'' he said.
Even in a placid moment, McCovey Cove is an extraordinary baseball place, the aquatic version of the rooftops overlooking Wrigley Field. When the playoffs begin, the spot will have no peer.
It's hard to quantify energy at a baseball park. The Giants say they have sold out every game since Oct. 1, 2010, a month before they won their first World Series on the West Coast. But sellouts don't always mean full seats, and they express a marketplace, not a mania.
Listen, though, to what three generations of Giants first basemen have heard about their park from chatty visiting players since it opened in 2000.
In the early years, J.T. Snow said the comments -- especially from left-handers -- focused on the difficulty of hitting into a cavernous right field while stiff winds did a jig with the fog. Aubrey Huff held the job in the championship season and for much of 2011. Occasionally, he said, base runners would look around at the packed house and ask if the place was always so full and raucous. He'd say yes. "But most of the time,'' Huff added, "they wanted to know how I could hit here.''
Brandon Belt, the current occupant of the job, hears admiration for AT&T Park, sometimes bordering on envy.
"I don't know how many times I've heard people say, 'I've never played in front of a crowd like this before.' They think it's awesome being here, even on the other team,'' he said, "and these are big-league players.''
Snow wasn't surprised that Belt has had a different experience. The park has clearly taken on a bigger personality, and the giddiness of a World Series trophy doesn't explain all of it. "I think if you look at it,'' Snow said, at once amused and confounded, "you have to say it changed when they got the panda hats and the Brian Wilson beards.''
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The panda-hat phenomenon pays tribute to Pablo Sandoval, but it owes its inspiration to Barry Zito. In 2008, Zito saw the movie "Kung Fu Panda" and noted a resemblance between its powerfully unorthodox protagonist Po and the stout Giants rookie who could hit pitches that arrived at hairline level and perform gymnastics at third base.
At the time, Zito's career was taking hideously cartoonish pratfalls and anvils to the head. A year and a half after signing a $126 million contract, he had transformed from the magnificently eccentric Cy Young Award winner in Oakland into the great money pit of San Francisco baseball. Zito had long since stopped doing interviews where he talked about traveling with a pink satin pillow and stuffed animals, including a fish named Smootchie. Nobody wanted to hear it. But that youthful, whimsical side hadn't withered completely, and the Giants were about to spin this particular off-speed Zito pitch into a rebranding of their culture.
Marketing a synthetic animal wasn't completely virgin territory for the Giants. Rubber chickens used to whirl in the air whenever a pitcher intentionally walked Barry Bonds. But nobody wore the chickens. Neither Bonds nor the chicken was cuddly enough for that.
The panda caps link fans with Sandoval and with the character of their park. The accessory wouldn't work anywhere but the coldest site in baseball. They sell for $20 apiece, and the Giants estimate that they and their concessionaires have moved about 92,000 of them. Even as the original-article Panda became excessively bearish and sloppy, forcing a benching in the 2010 postseason, the caps kept selling. The phenomenon had outstripped the phenom.
Wilson's black ZZ Top beard followed, reportedly selling 4,500 licensed versions -- a number surely deflated by all the men who grew their own and inked them with magic marker. Tim Lincecum wigs clocked in at about 6,000 sales.
Last year, the gangly Belt was tagged the "Baby Giraffe'' by broadcaster Duane Kuiper, the buzz-phrase laureate who labeled the 2010 season "Torture." The remark yielded fresh hats in the Dugout retail store and, less predictably, a four-legged Brandon Belt at a Bay Area animal park.
Belt didn't take offense at Kuiper's joke -- "on the play when that happened, I kind of looked like a newborn baby animal, couldn't get my feet under me'' -- and he and wife Haylee say they have visited the namesake several times.
"It's a really cool animal, and it feels almost like he's one of my own pets,'' Belt said. "… I just have dogs so I'm pretty basic, but I wish I could have a giraffe now.''
Back in 2010, general manager Brian Sabean said that over-marketing a player as unformed as Sandoval had been unwise and that the team would not repeat the error with Buster Posey, its NL Rookie of the Year. But the pandas had already bolted the barn, leaving the door wide open for other members of the animal kingdom. Fans have shown up with their own grassroots creations. There were ''Crazy Horse'' hats for wild-eyed centerfielder Angel Pagan, a white shark for Gregor Blanco (who played for Los Tiburones in Venezuela), and full white Melk-man outfits, a concept that curdled after an incriminating Melky Cabrera urine sample.
Add the orange and black team colors, and you have endless Halloween, long the definitive holiday for San Francisco. The city adores costumes, whether for its drag queens or the runners in the annual Bay to Breakers race, which spills Elvis impersonators and toga-wrapped frat brothers into the streets.
Had the Giants really wanted to cash in, they would have licensed Huff's 2010 red rally thong, which he wore for the last month of the season. At the victory rally at City Hall, he pulled the lingerie from his pants and waved it to the crowd. It has not re-appeared since, a rare instance when a piece of Giants iconography went into retreat.
"Let Timmy Smoke'' T-shirts, which proliferated on the streets in response to Lincecum's 2009 arrest for pot possession, have faded as well. But the aroma of marijuana meanders all over San Francisco, and it has found a home, or at least a pied a terre, around the ballpark. The police, who strike fear in cab drivers dropping off at the wrong spot on game days, seem to have no interest in playing weed-whackers.
And however much is wafting in the air, it's not enough to induce mellowness.
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"It's kind of a rabid environment,'' Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said, "and I say that in a complimentary way.''
He couldn't always have said that. When the ballpark opened in 2000, it was a moon-shot upgrade for all concerned -- it was intimate and beautiful, with sailboats peeking over the right fielder's shoulder. Even the damp chill at the Giants' new home seemed balmy compared to miserable arctic nights at Candlestick.
But the place, born as Pac-Bell Park, lacked verve.
"When we came over, I thought 15,000 at Candlestick was louder than a sellout crowd here,'' said Snow, a Giant from 1997 to 2005. "It was kind of corporate, a place to be seen and not as much about baseball. There were a lot of people in suits, because they just got out of work, and we weren't used to seeing people on cell phones at Candlestick.''
The most interesting place to watch a game then was outside, in a stretch behind right field where the team had put up only a fence, no wall. People could line up there and watch for free, for three innings at a time if there was a crowd waiting, indefinitely if not. Security guards monitored the space, maintaining civility. The regulars in this spot did not come in suits, hoping to be seen. Some of them did come to be heard, though, to serve the visiting right fielder some up-close remnants of the Candlestick experience.
"Don't touch yourself, Larry, don't do it,'' a couple of fans would holler at Colorado's Larry Walker, rejoicing when they saw a sly middle-digit back scratch in reply.
To this day, the free view in right remains the best part of this park. The idea of it trumps any costume or kayak or gourmet concessions. It reflects the city's sensibilities, the desire not to leave anyone out. But this section no longer has primary custody of the spirit of Candlestick; some of it has migrated inside.
Looking back at the old park, one could easily mistake sparse attendance for a passion deficit. But the crowds that came, that endured the 'Stick, had a very high concentration of pointed craziness. Gibson, who played there as a Dodger and loved its rambunctious nature, thinks the downtown beauty has become a worthy heir.
"You've got the wind, the fog and sometimes the drizzle, and then they're right on top of you behind the dugout,'' he said. "Go down their stands behind where our guys are warming up sometimes and listen to them give us the business. It's different. It's not like normal. At the same time, they will applaud an opposing player for making a good play.''
The corporate torpor started vanishing a while ago, with the 2000 playoffs and then the 2002 World Series. The surrounding neighborhood kept growing and adding energy. The team started bringing up more prospects, rather than relying on free agents. The fans adored Bonds, but he was a Pirate first. The core of today's team can be defined by its Giants pedigree.
That makes the attachments between fan and athlete that much deeper -- and the fashion statements about a lot more than style.