Indulge the fantasy

It’s hard not to remember the late 80’s fondly as an A’s fan. Rickey in left, the Bash Brothers, Stew dominating Clemens, multiple ROY wins, Eck, the list goes on and on. While the team only went 1 for 3 in the World Series, the idea that the A’s were at the top of the heap was inescapable.

We got a glimpse of what the Coliseum looked like when it brought in 35,000 a night. Now, that usually left 14,219 seats available, but who was really counting? Not the Haas family, evidently. The place was vibrant, pleasant, and most importantly, the team won. Who could complain? Not me. I was just entering the giant bag of awkwardness that was high school, and the A’s were a great refuge from the social mores of adolescence.

In that context, it’s difficult to dissociate the Coliseum, forlorn for much of its life, from the team. The team provided the stadium a halo effect, much the same way a new model sports car will improve the perception of a car brand or dealership. The Coliseum was at times mentioned in the same breath as Dodger Stadium, a comparison which now sounds ludicrous but was fairly apt back then. Of course, the halo effect is never permanent, and nearly all vestiges of those salad days disappeared when the Raiders came back to town.

I don’t fault the end product, Mt. Davis, as much as I blame the circumstances that led to its construction. Unlike the 60’s-80’s era of multipurpose stadia, modern baseball and football diverged significantly in how the two leagues wanted their venues designed. Let’s look at how the two sports diverged:

  • Starting with New Comiskey Park, new ballparks capped their capacities at 50,000, eventually downsizing to 40-45,000 as the comfort zone. Football stadia hold crowds of 60-70,000, with some designed to hold thousands more for college bowl games or the Super Bowl.
  • With few exceptions, ballparks had 40-60 suites. Football stadia had at least double that number. Texas Stadium and FedEx Field each contain an astounding 300 suites. That creates more verticality and reduces intimacy.
  • Football stadia generally eschewed the use of cantilevered or overhanging seating decks. In ballparks, cantilevering is encouraged, though short of the point at which columns would be needed.
  • The first row of a ballpark’s lower deck is usually no more than 1 foot above the field. In football, it’s customary to be 6-10 feet above the field when in the first row.

When considering this divergence, it’s easy to see how Mt. Davis was constructed. Function ruled over form, with the mission being to stuff as many seats and suites into a small space as possible. The east side wing now sits as a massive concrete albatross, costing Oakland and Alameda County a combined $22 million in debt service and operating costs per year for the next 18 years. It’s fine to want the thing demolished, but if one or both teams are going stay there, someone has to pay for it. The meager lease the A’s pay hardly makes a dent. However, you’re not going to get more out of the A’s in the next lease than what you’re getting now. Who knows what an extension for the Raiders might look like? The Coliseum JPA is truly stuck. They have to justify the debt service somehow, yet it only costs them more to keep the two tenants in the Coliseum. How ironic that one of the Coliseum’s tenants has a white elephant as a mascot.

Still, let’s posit that the Raiders do actually leave after the 2010 season, leaving the A’s in the Coliseum for at least 3 years. Let’s go with the idea of demolishing Mt. Davis, then remaking the outfield to look like the old Coliseum. There are several improvements that could be made cheaply that would make the old girl a better experience for fans. The changes wouldn’t bring it up to par with a modern ballpark, but that’s not the point. It’s an interim step until the A’s and Oakland/Alameda County figure something else out, whatever that is.

  • Get rid of the fences and concrete barriers. These “spite fences,” erected when the Raiders moved back in, are the antithesis of fan friendliness. They prevent views of the field from the concourse and limit sunlight from filtering in. The barriers have managed to make the concourse more drab and claustrophobic than it was originally.
  • Remove the last 4 rows of the lower level. By removing these rows, the lower concourse can be expanded 11 feet all around (with the exception of the stairwells). Circulation would be improved. New standing room areas can be introduced, as well as new ADA wheelchair locations, which would be properly elevated above the row of seats in front of them. Net loss of 2,000 seats.
  • Remove the last 3 rows of the plaza level. If you’ve ever sat in these seats, you know what I mean. You’re at eye level with the overhang. You half expect bats to hang from the ceiling. The wind whips through, making things uncomfortable. The seats themselves aren’t the most accessible because you have to contend with the stairs leading to the upper deck. This change only affects the sections down the foul lines, because of suites and the West Side Club. Net loss of 1,000 seats.
  • Tear off the tarps and remove the first three rows of the view level. The seats themselves are useless as long as the first row is used for circulation. For years, the A’s wouldn’t sell many of these seats until the seats above them were sold because of this problem. Instead, convert some of these rows into group or party areas. Cordon them off the way the East Side sections are separated, and the circulation problem goes away. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a bunch of recliners at the front of section 317. Net loss of 1,400 seats.
  • Bring back the bleachers, iceplant, and monuments.
  • Handrails, please. The view and plaza levels are not particularly steep compared to other stadia, but they could still use handrails, especially for those who’ve had a few either in or out of the ballpark.
  • Upgrade the restrooms. This means new fixtures and the removal of troughs. An additional women’s restroom may be needed to properly address potty parity.
  • Reduce the number of suites by expanding them. It doesn’t solve the problem of not having an exclusive concourse. However, reducing inventory introduces scarcity, plus the suites can be redone in a more attractive way by including bathrooms and increasing space inside each suite. Net loss of 20 suites.
  • Move the Stomper Fun Zone to the outfield. Yes, it reeks of Coke bottle slides and gigantic gloves, but it’s a way to spiff up the look of the park. It advertises how family friendly the place is. Plus it’s not tucked into some out-of-the-way location as the current Fun Zone is. May reduce bleacher capacity a several hundred seats.
  • Combine the two DiamondVision screens. They’re old and obsolete, but if no one wants to pony up $5-10 million for a new LED board, combining the two screens would make for a decent sized screen. Or if they only used one, the other could be used for parts.

New capacity would be 44,500, down from the pre-Mt. Davis capacity of 49,219. Again, it doesn’t solve all of the other problems the A’s have with the stadium. It does create a more fan-friendly, intimate atmosphere, with needed upgrades to several locations within the Coliseum. I figure these modifications would cost $25 million, including the demolition and rebuilding of the outfield. I may be underestimating the cost, and I have no idea how it would be paid for. The Raiders could easily destroy the fantasy of so many A’s fans by signing an extension at the Coliseum, which contrary to popular belief, is what they were seeking when they settled with the JPA over three years ago.

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