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Column: The Padres continue to consistently draw fans to Petco Park. It's about more than winning

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Column: The Padres continue to consistently draw fans to Petco Park. It's about more than winning

The Dodgers lead the major leagues in attendance. They always do. No surprise there.

The team that ranks second in attendance is the one that has a rally towel hanging next to the home dugout, urging the players to “COMPETE FOR PETE.”

Peter Seidler lived the final decade of his life transforming the Padres into a team that would compete for San Diego. This is a small market in every way — by population, by geography, by television viewers — and Seidler simply disregarded the facts.

San Diego was not a small market because Seidler said it was not. The Padres spent big because Seidler said they should win.

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And, six months after Seidler passed away, his legacy shines every night at Petco Park. The Padres — the small-market Padres — have attracted more fans this season than any team but the Dodgers.

Last year, the Padres attracted more fans than any team but the Dodgers and New York Yankees. In the four post-pandemic seasons, the Padres have ranked among the top five in attendance every season, an era in which their rosters have featured Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Xander Bogaerts, Juan Soto, Blake Snell and Josh Hader, all of them all-stars.

The warning lights flashed in the minds of fans last winter, in the wake of Seidler’s passing, when the Padres slashed payroll by one-third, traded Soto and let Snell and Hader go in free agency.

“It starts to look like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Tony Gwynn Jr., the former Padres outfielder and current Padres broadcaster.

Padres owner Peter Seidler, who died last November, set a tone with his ballclub that has translated into success at the gate.

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(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

“I think it was a little bit more tempered than it was a couple years ago,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who makes his offseason home in the San Diego area, “but I think they have built something here.”

On the field, the Padres don’t have much to show for all the excitement and all the investment beyond three postseason victories over the Dodgers two years ago. They raised ticket prices by an average of 9% for the 2024 season — after raising prices by an average of 18% for the 2023 season and 20% for the 2022 season, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“If you were able to take a step back, you were able to see that this roster still had names and guys that make it nothing like it was pre-2019,” Gwynn Jr. said, referring to the heydays of the likes of Carlos Asuaje and Freddy Galvis.

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“I think people can put their trust in this. I think they have shown that by showing up here. That’s with ticket prices going up, and I think that has a lot to do with the Padres keeping their word to this point.”

Indeed, after the turbulent winter, the Padres acquired pitcher Dylan Cease in March and two-time batting champion Luis Arraez two weeks ago.

The Padres capped season-ticket sales at a record 25,000. You can get on a waiting list, if you pay $100 per year for as many seats as you would like to buy.

The Padres project a new franchise attendance record this year — beyond the 3.27 million tickets they sold last year — and they set a Petco Park single-game attendance record of 46,701 against the Dodgers last Saturday.

Before that game, Jorge Casillas told me one reason why he renewed his Padres season seats.

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“No matter what,” he said, “I’m watching a major league team.”

The Chargers’ move to Los Angeles in 2017 left the Padres as the city’s lone major league team. San Diego State put up a beautiful $310-million stadium to bolster its bid to join the Pac-12 Conference, only to see the Pac-12 implode.

Casillas said he believes the Padres can secure a wild-card playoff spot this season, after missing the postseason in 2021 and 2023, and every year from 2007 through 2019.

“We’re not like the Dodgers, obviously,” Casillas said. “We’ve had more bad years than good.

“But this stadium has everything — food, character, the right spot downtown. It’s really an event. It’s not just baseball. If we win, it’s even better.”

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The Padres invested $20 million in expanding and reimagining the space behind center field, with grass and turf seating for close to 5,000 fans — akin to sitting on the outfield lawn in spring training — and a stage that enables the team to host bands before games and cozy concerts when the team does not play. The requisite social spaces are there, meaning bars for adults and play space for kids — in San Diego, that now includes wiffle ball, cornhole, a slide and “the tallest climbable bat in the world.” (How tall? 35 feet, 2-¼ inches.)

A general view of Gallagher Square, the area behind center field at Petco Park, prior to a game between the Giants and Padres

The area behind center field at Petco Park absorbed $20 million in upgrades that were completed in time for this season.

(Brandon Sloter / Getty Images)

“I think we have established a great ballpark experience, but that in and of itself isn’t going to be enough to sustain this level of attendance,” said Padres chief executive officer Erik Greupner, “nor is it our goal to sustain attendance on the basis of a ballpark experience.”

The Colorado Rockies boast a spacious bar atop right field, with majestic mountain views, and the San Francisco Giants offer a spectacular waterfront ballpark and garlic fries. But the Rockies have been so relentlessly miserable and the Giants so anonymous and uninspiring that fans have stayed home.

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The Rockies, given the product, might have the best fans in baseball. This year, for the first time in 17 years, the Rockies do not rank in the league’s top half in attendance. (Local angle: The last-place Angels do not rank in the league’s top 10, after selling 3 million tickets every year from 2003-19.)

Greupner said the Padres want a roster headlined by established and sometimes costly stars and fortified with annual replenishment from their minor league system.

“I think the Dodgers have done that particularly well for a lot of years,” he said. “I think that’s the holy grail for any team in Major League Baseball.”

Padres CEO Erik Greupner seen during the national anthem prior to a baseball game against the Marlins in May 2022.

Padres CEO Erik Greupner says his team has “established a great ballpark experience, but that in and of itself isn’t going to be enough to sustain this level of attendance.”

(Derrick Tuskan / Associated Press)

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It is. But what the Dodgers and Padres get — and the owners of so many other teams do not — is that sustainability and financial flexibility are boardroom buzzwords. The tell: “Let’s hire a guy from the Tampa Bay Rays.”

Flags fly for championships, not for financial efficiency. Fans want to win, and they also want to invest their hearts and wallets in players they can call their own for years.

Since 2010, the Rays have made the playoffs seven times — five more than the Padres. But the Rays’ roster churn is so unrelenting that the team has ranked in the bottom four in attendance every year since 2010.

It is not, as it turns out, just about winning. It is not just about the fan experience. It is both.

“Everybody has to raise their game to try to keep up with the Dodgers,” Greupner said.

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The Padres try. Can’t say that for everybody.

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Dodgers' star-studded offense fails to capitalize on chances in loss to Reds

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Dodgers' star-studded offense fails to capitalize on chances in loss to Reds

They had the bases loaded with no outs in the second inning. A leadoff double in the fourth. A one-out triple in the sixth.

All night Saturday, the Dodgers threatened to break the game open at Great American Ball Park. All night, they had chances to bury the Cincinnati Reds with their star-studded offense.

But at each crucial point, the team’s offense failed to deliver, continuing its recent trend of poor situational hitting to drop a fourth-straight game 3-1 in front of a sellout crowd of 41,880.

So far this season, one stat has defined the Dodgers’ success — or failures — more than anything else.

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During their 12-11 start to the season, they batted just .244 with runners in scoring position, the 19th-best mark in the majors during that span.

During a 14-2 tear from April 21 to May 9, they batted an MLB-best .328 with runners in scoring position, seemingly addressing their situational hitting woes by cutting down on strikeouts and coming through in opportune moments.

In the two weeks since, however, the team’s batting average with runners in scoring position has cratered again. Since May 10, they are batting just .194 in such spots, better than two teams (the Angels and Texas Rangers) during that span.

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler delivers during the second inning Saturday.

(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

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Unsurprisingly, the team’s record has tapered off, with the Dodgers now 7-8 in their last 15 games — a stretch that has seen their high-powered lineup manage just 3.7 runs per game.

Situational hitting wasn’t the issue for the Dodgers (33-21) on Saturday.

Starting pitcher Walker Buehler couldn’t replicate the dominance he flashed in six scoreless innings against the Reds (22-30) in Los Angeles last week, instead getting tagged for three runs in 5 ⅔ innings in a rematch series the Reds have clinched and can sweep Sunday.

The lineup also remained far from top gear.

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Shohei Ohtani had the triple in the sixth, but struck out three times, leaving his batting over the last nine games at .206.

Will Smith hit a leadoff single in the second (and scored the inning’s lone run on a Jason Heyward double-play ball) and Freddie Freeman doubled in the fourth, but they managed nothing else, continuing slow May performances for each (they are both batting below .250 this month).

Even Mookie Betts couldn’t provide a spark, getting picked off at first base in the first inning after his only hit of the night.

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An Ohtani fan with a Dodgers cap and jersey holds a sign reading "Shohei Do It for the Shoebaes" at Great American Ballpark.

A Shohei Ohtani fan holds up a sign during Saturday’s game between the Dodgers and Reds at Great American Ballpark.

(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani picks up his helmet during an at-bat in the first inning against the Reds on Saturday.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani picks up his helmet during an at-bat in the first inning against the Reds on Saturday.

(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

Despite that, the Dodgers still had chances. Turning them into runs, however, proved yet again to be an unsolvable challenge.

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Situational hitting can be a fickle stat in baseball. And Octobers aside, it has typically been a strength for the Dodgers. They have ranked top 10 in the category each of the past five seasons. They entered Saturday in the top half of the majors at 14th, too, with a .258 mark that was actually better than their .255 average overall.

Still, the issue has plagued them in the past couple of postseasons — and makes any skid like their current one that much more frustrating, looming as a potential playoff weakness for a team navigating championship-or-bust expectations.

The good news for the Dodgers: They still have a sizable lead in the National League West, up 5 ½ games on the San Francisco Giants. They’ll eventually get injured third baseman Max Muncy back, though his return (once hoped to come as soon as this week) has been delayed by continued discomfort in his strained oblique. Most of all, their recent malaise feels like a temporary blip, more of a frustrating speed bump in their season than some larger cause for alarm.

However, that doesn’t lessen the frustration of Saturday’s loss — the latest in what has become another mediocre stretch for a team capable of much more.

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PGA Tour player Grayson Murray, 30, dies after withdrawing from tournament

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PGA Tour player Grayson Murray, 30, dies after withdrawing from tournament

PGA golfer Grayson Murray died on Saturday at the age of 30, shortly after withdrawing in the middle of this weekend’s tournament.

Murray played 16 holes in the second round Charles Schwab Challenge before withdrawing due to an “illness,” according to the Tour — he shot a two-under 68 on Thursday.

“We were devastated to learn — and are heartbroken to share — that PGA TOUR player Grayson Murray passed away this morning. I am at a loss for words,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan wrote in a statement.

Grayson Murray hits a tee shot on the 11th hole during the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club on Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

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“The PGA TOUR is a family, and when you lose a member of your family, you are never the same. We mourn Grayson and pray for comfort for his loved ones.”

Monahan added that he reached out to Murray’s parents to offer condolences, and the tour has provided grievance counselors.

“They asked that we continue with tournament play,” Monahan said of Murray’s parents. “They were adamant that Grayson would want us to do so. As difficult as it will be, we want to respect their wishes.”

Grayson Murray driving

Grayson Murray competes during the first round of the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club, May 16, in Louisville, Ky.  (David Cannon/Getty Images)

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Murray bogeyed his final three holes before withdrawing — he was the 58th-ranked player in the world.

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He had two wins in his career on tour, including this year’s Sony Open in Hawaii in a playoff against Keegan Bradley and An Byeong-hun. His first came at the 2017 Barbasol Championship.

Murray had battled depression and anxiety earlier in his life, and also sought treatment for alcohol abuse — in January, he said he had been sober for several months, according to NBC Sports. 

No cause of death has been released.

Grayson Murray with putter

Grayson Murray reads the second green during the final round of Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, May 12, in Charlotte, N.C.  (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

He made the cut in both major championships this year, finishing last week’s PGA Championship T43. 

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He also finished T10 at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month.

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Sondheimer: Let's offer ideas to help make high school sports better

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Sondheimer: Let's offer ideas to help make high school sports better

The end of the school year makes it appropriate to review, evaluate and offer observations on the state of high school sports in California. Whether leaders in charge like it or not, they need to hear suggestions and feedback, good and bad, from people without fear of retribution, so let me take a shot.

There have been absurd rumors of some private schools wanting to form their own media networks outside the CIF similar to what the University of Notre Dame does in college. Others want to keep challenging the line between education-based sports and those who want to be part of national championships driven by people seeking to make a buck with fewer rules in place. Good luck and goodbye if that’s what you want.

It’s a tricky time. Club sports remain integral in the college recruiting game, if not more important than ever. Private coaches and “scholarship hustlers” keep seeking greater influence, because that’s how they make money. They’re in competition with teachers and school-based coaches. Lessons learned can be the exact opposite of what is taught at schools, and parents don’t care as long as it leads to a free college education. There’s some exceptional private coaches who should be embraced and others who should carry a sign, “Beware.”

So who is going to fight for the CIF to remain relevant and worthy, and what changes or protections must be maintained? That’s where administrators, coaches, players, parents and even sportswriters need to be to be encouraged to offer ideas, solutions and heart-felt criticism to improve an environment that must not be allowed to look anything like the chaos and wild-west atmosphere of the college sports experience.

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Let’s begin with some observations and perceptions that need to be addressed:

Is illegal recruiting is rampant?

We don’t know for sure because the CIF waved the white flag of surrender years ago with rule changes and legal settlements so it would stop getting sued. Section offices don’t accept anonymous allegations and proving recruiting requires a high bar, so everyone assumes it’s happening. What can be done? It goes back to what was mentioned here earlier on how the City Section is cracking down. Multiple transfer students to the same school involving the same sport should trigger a visit from the section office to review paperwork. It’s an easy fix to restore credibility around the state. It’s pure laziness when a section office can’t devote attention to a matter everyone wants addressed

when recruiting is illegal in its bylaws.

Leveling the playing field on exposure

Just like football coaches travel to colleges and other high schools looking for new ideas, schools need to seize the opportunity to empower their own students as broadcasters, leading to greater exposure. Multiple schools are streaming games. Anyone who wants to learn how to do it can make a call to Harvard-Westlake, which has a network for a variety of sports with students announcing, producing, interviewing. Nothing can excite a community more than showcasing students acting like adults, and the initial cost isn’t as prohibitive as some believe.

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Relying on the NFHS Network to broadcast games is hit and miss, particularly for playoffs. Coverage of the state track finals on Friday was supposed to start at 5 p.m. The only information shown was, “This event has been delayed.” A technical issue with the Internet wasn’t resolved for 59 minutes of missed events. It’s embarrassing and something the CIF shouldn’t tolerate for one of its premier events. Spectrum no longer wants to broadcast certain state events as part of an $8-million, 15-year deal that ends in 2026. The CIF needs to find a reliable partner, even if it means turning to students.

Saving small schools

The competitive equity revolution, in which teams play each other regardless of enrollment or geography, is here to stay, but how do you keep small schools involved before they decide they have no chance and give up? The CIF might need to create a separate small-schools division for state competitions.

Live scoring results

The CIF signed a contract with SB Live right before the pandemic in 2019 with the understanding it would provide live scoring access throughout the state. It never happened. The contract was re-negotiated to bring back MaxPreps as a co-digital provider. Then SB Live changed its focus away from providing scores to college recruiting, videos and story writing. MaxPreps, even with years of familiarity in California, hasn’t been able to pull it off either because schools have to provide the personnel and information on their own.

GameChanger is the closest to giving fans the chance to monitor events live as teams in baseball and softball use iPads to keep score and let fans watch with streaming video. Now the Southern Section is trying to develop an app to make it simple for schools to nput scores since the Southern Section is switching to using current results instead of past data to place teams in playoff divisions. Accurate, fast information will be key to moving forward. If the new app works, the state hopes to follow. “We’re looking where all the information can be found in one place,” CIF executive director Ron Nocetti said.

Competitive equity in playoffs

The Southern Section and City Section are headed to having most ports playoff brackets created by using computer algorithms based on the current season instead of placing teams in divisions based on previous performance. It’s the way to go with a caveat. The Southern.Section is allowing each of its sports to develop its own criteria, so there must be transparency and education so everyone understands what specific data is being used. Schools that don’t post their scores could be denied playoff participation.

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Rising ticket prices

The Southern Section is expected to increase ticket prices. The Southern Section Council has given its approval. Did anyone consult with parents? Families are hurting and many parents are working multiple jobs. If it prevents them from watching their kids play, it will be a big mistake. At championship venues, parking was $15 for one basketball championship with general admission $24. The Southern Section receives no revenue from venues charging for parking, but it needs to be in the mix when deciding on a venue. There comes a point when too much is too much.

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