AP Baseball Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Only a few feet beyond the outstretched glove of Giants centerfielder Angel Pagan, over the outfield fence at AT&T Park, is a hidden gem unlike any other in big league baseball.
This special space has been transformed into a lush garden with kale and Swiss chard, tomatoes and avocadoes, blueberry and lemon trees, and planter boxes packed with fresh herbs that fans are encouraged to pick and sprinkle on their food.
That's only the beginning of what can be found in this tranquil garden, believed to be a first at a U.S. sports facility. Fans can also picnic on the small sod farm, the very grass used to replace that inside the ballpark when needed.
"There's the sustainable part of it, but there's also the health food aspect of it," Giants CEO Larry Baer said. "People can eat out there in a healthy way. People think ballpark, 'I'm going to cheat on my diet or cheat on my health.' When you come to the ballpark, you don't have to cheat."
The makeover this year behind the 399-foot sign where home run king Barry Bonds regularly directed fastballs, not far from where his record 756th clout landed in August 2007, has been remarkable. Fans can enjoy the nooks and crannies and relax on benches beneath all the greens.
It's not a farmer's market, though. One sign reads, "Edible Garden, Please Do Not Touch," and the only thing that fans can actually eat are the herbs in designated centerpieces. Not to fear: There are still plenty of ballpark staples such as hot dogs, garlic fries, popcorn and beer.
From the 20-some cutting-edge, space-saving vertical towers that require far less soil and water to the more traditional raised beds and planter boxes, the garden is not only a magical spot in the middle of a bustling ballpark along San Francisco Bay but also an outdoor classroom to teach children and teens -- even adults, for that matter -- about healthy eating from fresh ingredients and urban farming.
In fact, health nut Hunter Pence took part in the late June opening ceremony and helped the Jr. Giants kids plant a seed in a cup they could take to grow at home. The right fielder received credit for some of the creative inspiration.
Pence eats a kale salad almost daily, with regular helpings of cauliflower, beets and broccoli.
"I like vegetables, and I enjoy gardens. I enjoy plants," Pence said. "I'm sure if I was a kid and I saw whoever I looked up to saying, 'Eat vegetables and it's good for you,' it makes a difference. I was lucky that my dad kind of forced me to eat healthy, I had really no option. But I grew up and appreciated that."
The garden has its unique baseball elements, too, complete with cutouts through the wall, providing a ground-level view so fans don't miss a key play or batting practice swing. The protective netting above the plants is being extended ahead of the next homestand to avoid a barrage of balls landing in the veggies or planter boxes -- or in somebody's plate. Pence homered to the garden shortly after it opened.
The 4,320 square-foot garden area can't produce enough to supply the restaurants run by the Giants' food service partner Bon Appetit Management Co., though some of the fruit, vegetables and herbs are used in recipes.
Picking a pinch of fresh basil, rosemary or thyme from the designated centerpieces to add punch to a flatbread or other meal is highly encouraged. The chocolate mint is used in a popular smoothie at one of two eateries surrounding the space. One sponsor and partner is Peet's Coffee & Tea, which provides coffee grounds to help fertilize the soil.
"They do a lot of things here and are the first to do some innovative things," Pence said. "They have good vision and truly do want to make an impact."
President Barack Obama has even taken notice.
The president offered a shout out in support of the idea, saying the Giants are "champions in the community" for "what is believed to be the first ever edible garden in a major American sports facility."
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