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Padres fans pumped for season at Caravan stops

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

Usually, fans go to Petco Park to see the Padres.

But the Padres are going to the fans this weekend, visiting 17 sites over three days.

Padres players and staff visited Westfield UTC, Rady Children's Hospital and the Balboa Naval Medical Center on Saturday as part of the Padres Caravan.

The three-day tour ends Sunday with stops at the San Diego American and Coronado Little League fields, Tienda de los Padres in Tijuana, Fire Station No. 19, Otay Ranch Town Center and Northgate Gonzalez Market.

"I've had a great time," new Padres outfielder Matt Kemp said as the caravan bus headed back to Petco Park after players signed autographs for military members and their families during the Invincible Spirit Festival at the Naval Medical Center.

"It was definitely cool to be a part of this. I've noticed a lot of fans are really excited about this season," said starting pitcher Ian Kennedy. "Some of the people told me they had been Padres fans for 35 years and this is as excited as they've ever been entering a season."

Saturday's tour opened at UTC, where seven players were introduced and starting pitcher Andrew Cashner and recently acquired catcher Derek Norris addressed a crowd that grew by hundreds during the program.

One woman grabbed her phone as the Padres walked toward the stage at the mall and told her husband: "Grab the kids and the camera, the Padres are at the mall and so is the big mascot."

She was talking of the Swinging Friar, who was almost as popular with fans as the players on hand -- Cashner, Kemp, Wil Myers, Norris, Clint Barmes, Joaquin Benoit and Kennedy.

Also present were members of the Pad Squad and club officials.

"I've done this before and it is fun," Cashner said as the caravan was boarding the bus en route to the second stop. "It's a chance for fans to see a different side of us."

Like Kennedy, Cashner commented about how excited the fans were about the upcoming season -- the result of the Padres acquiring hitters such as Kemp, Justin Upton, Norris and Will Middlebrooks.

"There's a buzz," said Cashner. "I feel the same way as the fans. I'm excited. I think everyone is excited."

The second and third stops of Saturday's caravan offered poignant exchanges between the Padres and the crowd.

Rady Children's Hospital was hosting its annual Heart Party for patients and their families.

Cashner, Kennedy and manager Bud Black sat down and signed autographs in a booth. Kemp and Norris moved among the party attendees and posed for pictures as well as signing autographs.

"Any time you have a chance to work with kids who are battling diseases ... as a parent and to see what other parents and their kids are going through, it just draws you into wanting to do more," said Kennedy. "You want to give them more than just an autograph. But they are all smiles to get that. I'll be spending a little more time here during the season."

That sentiment was echoed by Kemp, who ran a program benefiting children while he was with the Dodgers.

"Kids always touch my heart," said Kemp. "I'm going to get involved with Rady's. They were talking today about their first two heart transplants at Rady's. Hearing things like that boosts the spirit."

"One of those transplant patients was here today," said Kennedy.

The Padres Caravan started at Mission Beach Park on Friday morning with the launching of another community-related program -- the Padres Volunteer Team.

Video: Padres launch 'The Padres Volunteer Team'

From the beachfront park, the caravan visited the USS William P. Lawrence, the Poway Kiwanis Club luncheon, Father Joe's Village, San Diego Police headquarters, Feeding America, the Rancho Santa Fe fire station, the Boys and Girls Club of National City and the Ballast Point Tasting Room and Kitchen.

The players involved in Friday's tour included Cashner, Myers, Norris, Upton, Dale Thayer, Barmes, Benoit and Nick Vincent plus Black and coaches Glenn Hoffman, Dave Roberts and Mark Kotsay.

Read More: San Diego Padres