By Bryce Miller, San Diego Union Tribune
San Diego could have let the Breitbard Hall of Fame die, exhaling a final time before yet another piece of its history drifted into the marine layer.
The Padres, and Executive Chairman Ron Fowler in particular, could have said “not our problem.” The names and tales could have succumbed to ebbing indifference, a city’s sense of place chipped out from underneath it.
On Friday at Petco Park, while unveiling the new home of the 57 years-and-counting brainchild of late community sports pioneer Bob Breitbard, a different, striking message bobbed amid a sea of smiles in the heart of the Western Metal Supply Co. building.
At a time of divisive sports saber-rattling, with fiery debate stretching from NFL offensive lines to the Oval Office, the ongoing legacy of the Hall signaled cohesion and togetherness too often in short supply.
The two walls lined with goldish-bronze plaques telling the story of San Diego’s ultimate dreamers says what came before matters. It shouts that what took root in a special place deserves celebration and all those father-son, mother-daughter re-tellings to come.
In a San Diego without its Chargers, the swell of sports glory and civic goodwill warmed a soul or three.
Willie Buchanon, a Breitbard and Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame defensive back from Oceanside, summed it up artfully.
“Every sports team,” Buchanon said, “needs a home.”
The vision of talented former Union-Tribune sportswriter Bill Center, who hatched the idea for the Hall’s move to Petco, married itself to the relentless community giving of Fowler and businessman Dan Shea to ensure that home.
It’s a home for Buchanon, a self-described “skinny, snot-nosed kid” with talent and drive who refused to forget where it all started. It’s a home for U.S. women’s soccer star Shannon MacMillan, a “shy, timid girl afraid of her own shadow” from Escondido. It’s a home for sailing champions and archers and golfers and a skateboarder named Tony Hawk — 156 enriching lives in all.
It’s a home for any kid who walks through Petco, glances up at the faces and says, “Hey, that could be me.” In a world hell-bent on fueling fights, it’s refreshingly diverse, inclusive and affirming.
And for San Diego, it’s essential.
“We need to keep inspiring the next generation,” said MacMillan, who began playing soccer as a 6-year-old because she liked the orange slices at halftime. “I get chills seeing some of the names. It’s powerful.”
Fowler recalled a conversation with proud, panicked Breitbard as the bank was moving on a $5 million loan that was keeping the Hall afloat. Attendance plummeted as the attraction fell victim to San Diego’s myriad things to do and dizzying ways to spend discretionary dollars.
“Times were changing,” Fowler said.
Fowler helped then. He’s helping now — a driving force in San Diego time and time again.
“Bob was sort of my adopted dad,” Fowler said. “I don’t know if he adopted me or I adopted him. He married Alexis and myself. It’s that type of relationship I had with him.
“When (Bob’s family) saw the concept, I think they realized we’re trying to make (Petco) community central for sports in San Diego.”
Breitbard’s daughter, Gayle Klusky, choked up as she thanked Fowler and Shea in front of an assembled crowd at the Hall’s sharp digs. We should cave to some moist eyes, too.
“My dad was born and raised in San Diego and he was proud of this city,” Klusky said.
All of that effort, collaboration and salty unwillingness to say goodbye meant part of San Diego’s story continues. The Hall added three inductees Friday: former Padres shortstop Garry Templeton, former Aztecs football coach Claude Gilbert and sailing gold medalist and world champion Robbie Haines.
As emcee Dick Enberg introduced the three and coaxed them to stand in front of the crowd, the collective glow drowned out any lingering sadness or sorrow about the Hall of Champions closing its Balboa Park location.
The Hall of Fame, founded in 1960, had watched attendance slide to just 16,000 in its final full year. More people will see those plaques and absorb some of the fascinating fabric of this city in a single Padres game alone.
Fowler, in typical Fowler-esque fashion, has no plans of letting Breitbard’s journey end here. He promised to keep tinkering with ways to display some of the beyond-the-Hall memorabilia from Balboa Park. Center, the former sportswriter, is kicking around ideas about sport-by-sport kiosks, as well.
San Diego could have faced another sad, sullen end.
Instead, it feels like just the beginning.