For Padres, this is no garden-variety loss
Veggie delight a victim of bullpen renovation at Petco Park
SAN DIEGO -- Before his nose started to run, and even before his eyes began to water, Justin Hatcher knew he was in big, big trouble.
This was the outcome of an impulsive and, ultimately, a foolish decision that the Padres' bullpen catcher wishes he could erase from his mind -- and palate -- forever.
"Awful," Hatcher said the other day, his voice dripping with disdain.
Hours before a home game at Petco Park this summer, Hatcher opted to take a bite of one of the 16 types of peppers head groundskeeper Luke Yoder grew last season inside the home bullpen, a cornucopia of veggie goodness located mere feet away from where pitchers get loose.
This particular pepper, the Caribbean Scotch Bonnet, packed a monster punch, so much so that Hatcher temporarily ditched his pregame duties for a hasty retreat to the Padres' clubhouse for anything -- milk, water, ice block -- to soothe the fire in his mouth and on his lips.
To get there, Hatcher had to sprint across Yoder's other garden -- his pristine outfield grass. He didn't waste time doing so, either.
"We saw Hatch running across the field and we wondered what was going on," said Padres reliever Brad Brach.
Hatcher was fine, as were the other pitchers and coaches who bravely tested many of the fiery goodies in Yoder's bullpen garden, which also included tomatoes the size of softballs, bursting both with color and flavor.
All of it growing in the most unlikely of places: inside a ballpark, in a bullpen, no less.
"Everyone loved it," Yoder said, smiling.
But Yoder's garden is gone now, at least temporarily. This was, as it turns out, an unintended consequence of the ongoing construction project at Petco Park that will see the fences moved in and the relocation of the visiting bullpen to behind the home 'pen in center field.
"It's a little sad," said Will Todd, the executive head chef at Petco Park, who used some of Yoder's peppers as condiments this past season.
Yoder and the Padres are hopeful that the garden will find a new home for the 2013 season, allowing him to expand upon his green thumb.
"It's been a lot of fun," Yoder said. "Hopefully we can find a spot for it with the new design."
Yoder, whose official title is director of field and landscape maintenance, isn't disappointed or deterred in the least. In fact, he admitted to being slightly oblivious that his garden would be removed during the construction phase, until someone cracked a joke about it.
"I honestly didn't think about it at all until it was approved and we're sitting in construction meetings," Yoder said. "We were talking about the bullpen and someone jokingly brought up, saying, 'We can't do that to Luke's pepper garden.'
"I sort of took it with a grain of salt and joked that we had to protect the garden, no matter the cost."
Yoder, who was hired in June 2003, before Petco Park opened the following season, isn't a newbie to vegetable gardens. He previously had one while working for the Iowa Cubs. The veggies he grew there were so well received that he entered some of them in the state fair.
"I look at it as a hobby," Yoder said. "I grew up in South Carolina, and as a kid, I always wanted to be a farmer. My uncle and my father were farmers. I couldn't afford to buy a farm. So this was the closest thing to a farm. I love horticulture and growing things."
Yoder wanted a garden of his own at Petco Park for several seasons, though it wasn't until last year that he and Todd got together and decided to make a push for it.
"I brought it up to management and they said to go for it," Yoder said.
The results were varying types of peppers, which hit their strides during the summer months. There was the Black Cobra pepper, chili peppers, habaneros, the Hungarian hot wax and a Thai hot pepper, among many others.
"Once they started growing, it was like they couldn't pick them fast enough," Todd said.
During games, in the boredom of the bullpen, Hatcher and several players first approached the peppers with caution. Then, after sampling a few, they embraced them -- with the hot ones providing a little fun for those unsuspecting rookies who didn't know what they were getting into.
"Once they [peppers] started coming in, we turned it into a game," Brach said. "They said, 'Let's try a pepper.' Then we won, so we kept going at it."
Todd, who used to get his vegetables 12 miles away from the Padres' downtown ballpark, would wander out to Yoder's garden for peppers that he used to make Strikeout Sauce that was served with pork belly tacos at the ballpark and Bullpen Relish, a sweet and hot relish, served with hamburgers.
In addition to the peppers and tomatoes, Yoder has an herb garden located at the base of the batters' eye in center field. That area will not be affected by the fence and bullpen modifications. He's planted blueberry plants in big pots, all of it flourishing in the unlikeliest of places -- the ballpark.
"We're here 13-14 hours on a game day, and there's going to be some down time for us," Yoder said. "It's something to do to get away, to get my mind off things. The guys will say, 'There goes Luke up to his garden again ... doesn't he have enough going on?'
"I love my job. But when I cut into a tomato, it gives you a sense of accomplishment. And if you're going to grow something, why not eat it?"