Black and Blueprint
At the end of yesterday’s 2-2 draw between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, the Quakes’ shoo-in MVP candidate Chris Wondolowski headed to the supporters’ sections behind the north goal to do his ritual handshakes and celebration with the fans. A camera followed him over and suddenly, in view, was a large sign featuring a drawing of Lew Wolff’s head. The banner thanked him and John Fisher for, well, being the owners of the Quakes. There were no mustaches or devil’s horns drawn on the image, no effigies of Wolff hanging nearby. Whether it’s love is based on one’s perspective. Clearly, there is a level of appreciation among Quakes fans that isn’t being felt in Oakland, and perhaps never will. Being more tuned into what’s happening in Oakland, I thought my eyes deceived me at first. Thankfully, another observer saw the image on television as well.
At the Earthquakes game, there was a banner with a drawing of Lew Wolff, thanking him and John Fischer. #WillNotSeeThatInOakland
— Ken Arneson (@kenarneson) October 22, 2012
That appreciation was on display earlier in the day, as the Quakes held their stadium groundbreaking ceremony on the other side of the tracks from Buck Shaw. 6,256 fans showed up at 1125 Coleman Avenue for what would eventually be declared a Guinness World Record for the most simultaneous participants in a groundbreaking. During the typically long __, Quakes President David Kaval thanked Wolff, his son Keith Wolff, and Fisher for bringing the team back and getting the stadium underway. That elicited hoots and hollers along with the expected applause. Lew was introduced and spoke briefly, thanking the fans. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council was there too, keeping the procession of dignitaries going.
Kaval and Quakes defender Jason Hernandez explained to the crowd how the groundbreaking was supposed to work. A large painted soccer ball was hooked onto the end of a crane. When the ball dropped and hit the ground, an airhorn would go off, signaling to the “crew” that it was time to start digging for two minutes. Thousands of commemorative shovels were stuck in the dirt field, which had painted lines and goals at each end. When the horn went off, the assembled crowd started digging. Since we were all in a fairly compressed space, many of us found that within a minute we had pretty much dug up most of the loose dirt in our respective vicitinities, leaving the next layer of hard clay to deal with. For me, that made the second minute of digging more a minute of manicuring. A countdown led to a second horn announcing the end of the two minutes. Public address man Danny Miller laid down a little suspense as he said that the Guinness people had to tabulate the crowd on hand. Miller announced “Six-thousand…” and was quickly drowned out by the crowd’s roar. Kaval held up a certificate in victory, and the masses started to depart.
It’s no secret that the stadium has taken longer than anticipated to get built. Whether it was concern over sponsorships needed to get it built or process issues like permitting, fans have been waiting long time for the first permanent, unshared home for the franchise to materialize. When AEG took the first MLS incarnation of the Earthquakes to Houston, Colts-style, after the 2005 season, a pall descended on the fanbase. The logos and branding would remain in San Jose, but there was no indication that a new franchise would materialize right away. AEG, which operates the Coliseum complex, Staples Center, and owns the LA Kings NHL team, is reviled in San Jose even more than Lew Wolff is in Oakland. Don Garber, the MLS commissioner who flew in to attend the ceremony, was AEG’s evil puppet and accomplice in December 2005.
The expansion Quakes franchise took the field for the 2007 season, when Wolff and Fisher swooped in. For MLS, Lew Wolff and John Fisher represented enough money and local ties to keep the team going throughout what would be trying times ahead. Fisher may well have been the most interested person within the ownership group in getting a franchise. As for Wolff, building a stadium for the Quakes would be a good warmup for doing a much larger, more expensive stadium for the A’s, whatever the location. Wolff’s son Keith would focus on the details. As the recession struck and sponsorship dollars disappeared, the Wolffs pursued land deal concessions, which they received. The vision for the stadium was scaled back, then when the economy recovered, expanded. When the Earthquakes Stadium opens in March 2014, it will have been over 8 years from when the team was purchased to opening kickoff. If the Wolffs are tired of going through the “process”, the outward signs are slight. Still, Lew has talked about not being around for when a ballpark finally happens, and Keith has certainly dealt with enough that he may be gunshy about saddling up for an even bigger battle. Yet that’s what will be necessary if they want to get something built for the A’s. Maybe it’ll be in San Jose, maybe it’ll be in Oakland. However it proceeds, there are probably a lot of lessons from the Quakes stadium experience that are applicable for an A’s ballpark. Given how hard it is to get something funded and built in California, having that experience can’t hurt one iota.