SAN DIEGO -- So, is this Wimp City, or what?
Few places in California make severe demands on their residents, but only this coastal metropolis has taken the soft life to such enervating extremes.
The average year-round temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, as if God had set a thermostat. Gentle sea breezes ripple the palms. The sky radiates a pastel blue. The citizenry may shiver when the mercury plummets as expected to 66 degrees on Super Bowl Sunday, the first time San Diego will host the event, but that's winter for you.
In a city full of charming, well-kept neighborhoods, Republicans and Democrats fall over each other for the environmentalist vote. If you dare touch a blade of grass, you're history.
San Diegans do not need signs telling them not to feed the animals in their world-famous zoo; they cringe at the very notion of such thoughtless anarchy. And as for rowdiness at Jack Murphy Stadium, political scientist Sam Popkin notes, "I have been going to Chargers games since 1970, and I have yet to see anyone throw a bottle at a referee."
Such behavior might seem an asset to any community. Mayor Maureen O'Connor, born here 41 years ago, says "the essence of this city is the people. San Diegans are outgoing, they are very hospitable." A stranger lost in Old Town or the sparkling new Horton Plaza will find people eager to give directions. Shopkeepers are always polite.
So it is not news to Tom Blair, columnist for the San Diego Union, that some big-city chauvinists consider this city's demeanor weak-kneed and un-American. Many Chicagoans lampooned San Diego as a Yuppie backwater before their Cubs were dispatched by the San Diego Padres in the 1984 National League baseball playoffs. "At least we didn't set any cars on fire when we won," Blair said. "We just went off to Mission Beach and drank a lot of beer and slapped ourselves on the back."
Big American cities usually display some muscle and a few hard-won bruises. San Diego shows little of that, which may explain why outsiders find it so hard to believe that this city is about to surpass such urban giants as Detroit in population, not to mention other measures of civic pride.
Depending on whose figures you accept (the U.S. Census Bureau says Detroit is still slightly ahead), San Diego's 1,022,400 people make it the nation's sixth or seventh most populous city. That fact is so difficult for Americans to accept that out-of-town newspapers are forced to repeat it in nearly every report from San Diego, just so readers will know they are no longer dealing with some hick Navy town.
This was the first California locale Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo saw in 1542. He thought it had possibilities. Fr. Junipero Serra founded his first mission here, and San Diego's gorgeous harbor seemed to portend greatness. But the city fathers let the hustlers up in Los Angeles get a head start in building docks and railroad lines. Only after World War II forced a major naval buildup here did the city begin to reach its potential.
San Diego now has a booming industrial sector, much of it military and high-technology, that would please any large city. Tourism is big business. And no community with 48,000 Marines within hailing distance should have to defend its fortitude.
But San Diego has suffered from its many years out of the mainstream. "We are a cul-de-sac," Blair said. It has been difficult to erase the image of a town full of languid beach people -- which brings to mind the efforts of an untamed group of revisionists known as the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC).
About four decades ago, or so they claim, a group of lifeguards and other beach habitues began to experiment with a new form of recreation -- a rough marriage of softball, golf and stickball called "Over The Line." It required only a ball, a bat and three players on a side. Its popularity slowly spread up and down the coast and to assorted international enclaves, including the snowy wastes of Canada. It metamorphosed into a way of life.
Today, OTL games can be found every weekend at the beaches here. Each summer, more than 100,000 people converge on Fiesta Island in the middle of Mission Bay to watch a thousand teams compete in the annual World OTL Championship.
The atmosphere at these games is considerably at odds with the city's lingering white wine and sunset image, and that is the way the participants like it.
"This is a very vital city," said Fred Thompson, a promoter and publicist who serves on the OMBAC board. The world championships -- no admission charged -- produce enough beer and other beverage consumption to earn the local Boy Scouts $10,000 each year for the recycled cans. Most of the team names, which are blared over loudspeakers during the tournament, cannot be published in any mass-circulation newspaper. Two from last year -- "It Wasn't Gary's Hart That Got Him Into Trouble" and "It's OK -- We're Doctors" -- offer only a mild sample.
Yet Mayor O'Connor heartily endorses the championship and OMBAC's off-season good works. She usually throws out the first ball.
OMBAC, Thompson asserts, has its standards. Team names may not refer to God, mother, the 1978 PSA air crash in which 144 people died or John Wayne.
"Why John Wayne?" a visitor asked. "Because he's our hero," Thompson said.
To Thompson, it takes true grit to hurl one's half-naked body into the rocky sand to snag a sinking line drive, particularly when surrounded by tens of thousands of celebrating spectators with no stadium to hold them back. If San Diego needs a symbol of toughness, this is it.
"The Super Bowl," Thompson said, "is nothing."