San Diego Padres star first baseman Wil Myers signs autographs for enthusiastic fans. Photo by Chris Stone
A young wiiffle ball player sizes up his teammate, the Friar. Photo by Chris Stone

“There’s a void in San Diego, so it’s definitely going to pick up interest (in the Padres),” said Kevin Richter of Bonsall. He wasn’t optimistic about a winning season, but “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Richter was among thousands attendeding the annual Padres FanFest to become acquainted with 2017 players and get autographs and memorabilia.

The event, drawing thousands, included autograph signing, pitching games for children, question and answer sessions with players and management, batting practice and ballpark food favorites.

“People need to support some team down here,” said Jordyn McGrath of San Diego.

Guillermo Cortes of Chula Vista said baseball attendance will increase “most definitely” — since at least the Padres “win every once in a while.”

While some fans expressed lingering disappointment over the Bolts bolting for Los Angeles, they said some diehard Chargers fans will travel up to coast to see games, while others may follow the Boys of Summer.

Fans cheered loudly for first baseman Wil Myers, who recently signed a six-year contract with the Padres.

Also getting much attention was Christian Bethancourt, who joined the Padres as a catcher but played outfield and pitched in the Cactus League. Management said his arm holds promise for the bullpen.

A young fan proudly poses with outfielder Travis Jankowski. Photo by Chris Stone

“When do the Padres expect to win another World Series?” a fan asked during a Q&A session at the foot of Park at the Park. “We want another 1998 season.”

Calling 2017 a “season of development,” Padres executive Ron Fowler said management is investing in the future. He advised fans not to expect a championship team for a couple of years as minor league players are developed and brought into the big leagues.

One immediate improvement is the expansion in craft beer options at the park, he said.

General Manager AJ. Preller said, “I think ,quite frankly, we not there yet as an organization. I think this year is to get it going toward that step and that stage. It’s a process.”

He added that 2019 or 2020 may be more realistic” for being competitive for postseason.

Another fan asked: How about uniform colors returning to brown?

“We understand that there is a group that really likes brown,” Fowler said. “We’re going to do significant research probably later this year or early next year. It’s going to include uniforms and the whole thing and we will make an objective decision at that time.

Fans ask for autographs of pitcher Jose Torres and outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Photo by Chris Stone

“I will keep an open mind because I guess that I’m the one being blamed for this,” the executive chairman said. “I’ll see where the data takes us.”

Many fans climbed up the grassy hill in the Park at the Park to have their photo taken with the Tony Gwynn statue.

At the foot of the hill, a fan asked about banning chewing tobacco in light of Gwynn’s death from oral cancer after years of chaw use.

Fowler addressed the issue.

While it’s against California law to use smokeless tobacco in a major league baseball park, the legality varies from state to state, he said.

In reference to visiting teams, “We’re not looking for be in enforcer position,” Fowler said.
“Looking back to Tony Gwynn and Randy Jones, it’s a bad habit,” he said. “It’s not good for your health.”

He said the Padres have spent a significant time with the players union, trying to get chewing tobacco banned, “and they won’t do it.,” Fowler said, added that he hoped it would be banned across baseball in the next couple of years.

In the meantime, Padres management uses health professions and older players to warn younger ones, Preller said ahead of Monday’s season opener against the host Dodgers. San Diego’s home opener is Friday against the Giants.

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