Ballpark fever in February

Last week I felt like getting a glimpse of Mark Appel, the Stanford hurler and East Bay product who may eventually be the #1 pick in the June draft. So off I went on Friday to Stanford’s Sunken Diamond, one of the many immaculately kept athletic facilities at The Farm. My baseball cravings have come early, too early to be sated by spring training. College baseball is an excellent, affordable brand of ball, and I have to admit being more curious than usual thanks to my recent reading of The Art of Fielding, rookie novelist Chad Harbach’s work about baseball at a small, fictional Midwestern private university.

An unusual 70 feet from the plate to the backstop at Sunken Diamond. Nevermind that as Stanford P Mark Appel rarely had to make C Eric Smith do more than reach down to rein in a pitch.

What started with Appel toying around with the Texas Longhorns to the tune of 10 K’s turned into a mad dash all over Northern California to see baseball wherever I could find it. (This is what happens when you’re not married, have no kids, and you’re comfortable seeing your friends only twice a week.) Sunken Diamond is a pleasant, serene environment, with more than ample foul territory and trees beyond the outfield that effectively block out civilization. The Friday night game, with a published attendance of 2,624, was typical for Stanford baseball: a very family friendly environment with kids running up and down hills to grab foul balls.

On Saturday I drove up to Sacramento because I felt like being environmentally irresponsible. On the way to Cowtown I stopped in Stockton, where there was nothing happening at Banner Island Ballpark. Not wanting to stay in Stockton any longer than humanly necessary, I jumped back on I-5 and headed north. I stopped at Raley Field, hoping that someone was there or that a gate was open. Thankfully, as I arrived a college team (JC?) entered the gates and was getting ready to take the field. There was a sign advertising National Anthem singers, though I didn’t see any staff on hand to guide any audition process. I quickly went in and took a few snapshots, which I’ve never had a chance to do with Raley Field empty (I’m sure if I called the River Cats’ media relations they would’ve granted it but I tend to operate by the seat of my pants). The field was in fine form, just waiting for its masters to handle grounders and make great catches on it.

Ready to go in West Sacramento

Three (!) years ago I wrote an article about how difficult it would be to expand Raley Field to MLB size. Rain caused major changes in construction methods, including a change from enormous steel columns to poured-in-place concrete columns and light steel trusses supporting the press box and suite/club level. This is what that structure looks like:

All of this would have to be scrapped to make way for multiple decks and/or suite levels.

This is what a properly sized (overengineered) column at Busch Stadium looks like:

Now that's a knife column.

After the brief stop at Raley, I crossed the river and went to the train station, which as far as I know is the closest the public can get to the Railyards site where the planned arena will sit. I’ve written enough about that so I won’t bother with that subject in this post. Once I got my fill of downtown, I headed east to the CSU-Sacramento campus, where the Hornets were getting ready to play a day game against Seattle University. If Sunken Diamond is one of Northern California’s nicest college ballparks, Sac State is one of the most spartan. The grandstand is all aluminum, with mostly bleachers and a smattering of real seats in the first few rows. There is no press box and no actual restrooms. Tickets cost $5, but I could have easily gotten a good view for free from the parking garage in left field. The PA announcer sounded like an older Rick Tittle. Ambience was provided by a busy rail line across the street and a handful of coeds who cheered on every player on the Hornet squad. Regardless, I enjoyed the experience.

View from the 6th floor of the student/faculty garage just beyond the left field fence.

I got my fill of Hornet baseball after about six innings. The UC Davis baseball team was on the road over the weekend, so I skipped The other Farm and headed back to the Bay Area. My last stop was scheduled to be Albert Park in San Rafael, home of the San Rafael Pacifics of the independent North American Baseball League. That leg of the trip was ruined when I got a hankering to visit Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, a half-hour and another county away. By the time I got to Albert Park it was completely dark and a few transients were lingering about. That’s just as well, since only yesterday did a Marin County judge allow the Pacifics to start operating in full with ticket sales and improvements to Albert Park. The old fashioned covered grandstand will be expanded from 800 to 900 seats. Tickets will start at $10 for general admission, though you have to think there will be numerous merchant nights to provide free or heavily discounted ducats. There’s even a tryout on March 17, so if you have a few tools and you aren’t dunk by noon, you may want to drop by for a tryout.

The high nets at Schott Stadium are a necessity as the field is only steps from traffic.

Sunday was a day of rest and no baseball. With no games scheduled on Monday, I chose to take in a game at Schott Stadium at Santa Clara University on Tuesday afternoon. The park is tightly wedged into a corner  of El Camino Real and Campbell Avenue, surrounded on two sides by university apartment housing and a few industrial buildings. There are a good number of permanent seats, and while there are plenty of bleachers, you can tell that a few corners have been cut there. The bleachers are basically standard aluminum sections that aren’t connected to each other. Even though the park is only seven years old, the bleachers feel rickety. The dugouts are not set much below grade, so the roofs of the dugouts obstruct the views down the line. The PA system is distractingly loud. Other than those niggles, the experience is quite pleasant. Schott Stadium is across the street from the main campus and down the block from the Santa Clara Caltrain station. A small parking lot next to the stadium has a space reserved for namesake and former A’s owner Steve Schott.

The whole trip reminded my of one of my other ballpark trips in the Midwest or East Coast, except that I didn’t have to shell out for hotel rooms. I’ll try to do one of these with the various minor league parks later this year, and perhaps another trip involving more college ballparks.

Ground broken on Pac-12 Network headquarters

A ceremony was held today at the San Francisco site where the Pac-12 Network studios are expected to be constructed. Officials called it a groundbreaking, but it was more of a wallbreaking, since the studios will be in the same building as the Comcast Sportsnet studios on Third and Harrison.

The new network, which will be the third conference-specific network after the Big Ten Network and the mtn., is expected to be the first to be wholly owned by a conference. Despite the Pac-12’s insistence on owning the network solo, it will have no shortage of partners, starting with housemates Comcast. College football will always be a considerable draw, and while college basketball throughout the conference may be in a bit of a slump, there should be plenty of interest in many of the non-marquee sports (baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, etc.) to provide plenty of programming. When the network launches in August, it’s scheduled to show 850 sporting events every year.

One operational difference between P12N and other conference networks is that they’re setting up to provide up to six regional feeds along with its national feed. That should allow every market and cable operator to show games specific to those markets if multiple events are happening simultaneously. I’m not sure how this would work with satellite providers like DirecTV and Dish, other than for them to pick up a package of all seven channels. Will all seven be available on both cable and satellite? The Merc’s Jon Wilner has some info from last week’s pre-launch announcement.

With just the cable providers, the network will be available to 40-45 million households. At $0.50 per month per household, that’s potentially $270 million per year in subscriber revenue alone, or $22.5 million per school before costs are deducted (not accounting for ad revenue). That figure could reach nearly half a billion annually if the satellite providers are included, perhaps more if the cost for the channel were more than $1 per month. The University of Texas’s Longhorn Network charges $0.40 per month/subscriber, the Big Ten Network charges $0.36. The Longhorn Network experienced problems getting cable systems to partner up, a problem Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is looking to avoid. The network, or at least the national and specific regional channels, will appear on lower tier cable packages, so Joe Customer will be paying for it.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the various RSNs now that a significant amount of Pac-12 programming will be going elsewhere. The other western college conferences have little general fan interest compared to the Pac-12. On one hand, carrying Pac-12 games and shows is a cost. On the other hand, it’s good filler and has a fairly good fanbase to draw upon. The alternatives are to focus more on a market’s pro teams, high school sports, or the aforementioned non-glamour conferences. Heck, the only FBS schools in California besides the Pac-12 members are San Diego State, Fresno State, and San Jose State. Not exactly a ratings bonanza waiting there.

Personally, I don’t look forward to my DirecTV bill going up because the Pac-12 wants a little more coin. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing more college baseball, soccer, even women’s sports. That might make it worth it.

SJSU to build Bill Walsh Center

In keeping with its efforts to maintain relevance in the high stakes world of college football, San Jose State University will build Bill Walsh Center, a $9-13 million football training complex on the north end of Spartan Stadium. The Merc’s Jon Wilner has the details.

Bill Walsh Center overlooking the north end zone. Credit: SJSU

The Bill Walsh Center is expected to house the football program, while the existing Simpkins Center will be repurposed for academic support. The project has been in the works for over a year, while donations have been gathered. The BWC is expected to be completed in time for the 2013 football season. $9-13 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the $321 million Cal spent on Memorial Stadium or even the $100 million John Arrillaga used to rebuild Stanford Stadium. Despite that disparity, it’s enough for San Jose State to continue its program in the WAC, and in light of the outlandish amounts spent at other FBS schools, is a refreshing show of restraint. And in honor of a coach whose genius was largely predicated on dinkin’ and dunkin’ down the field, I suppose the expenditure’s size is appropriate.

News for 12/2/11

Now that the tryptophan has worn off, we’re starting to get some news again.

  • Wolff Urban Development (Lew & Keith Wolff among others) is buying the Hotel Sainte Claire in downtown San Jose. The hotel, on the corner of Market and West San Carlos, is currently owned by Larkspur Hotels. Marin-based Larkspur dozens of other hotels throughout California, including the Larkspur Landing chain. Prior to Larkspur’s ownership, the Sainte Claire was part of the Hyatt chain. That’s all well and good now that the Wolffs will have three hotels in downtown (Fairmont, Hilton, Sainte Claire). The interesting scuttlebutt is that there may be some higher-ups at MLB that may be involved in the Sainte Claire purchase, perhaps with an eye towards revamping it so that it becomes the official hotel for MLB road teams. That would be a smart move, since right now the Hotel Valencia at Santana Row is eating their lunch in terms of attracting road teams (in this case, NHL squads). The Valencia is only slightly larger, but much newer than, the Sainte Claire, so the Wolffs will have to put a good amount of money into improvements to match or surpass the Valencia. SV/SJ Business Journal asked a consultant, Thomas Callahan of PKF Consulting, how much the Sainte Claire would cost. Callahan pegged the price at $34 million. (David Goll, Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal).
  • Staying downtown, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed may be able to avoid a divisive budget battle with public employees unions thanks to new, lower pension cost projections that cut next year’s budget deficit in half, from $80 million to $40 million. Reed will argue that the projections are a one-time reprieve and that more fundamental changes are required, but this news will certainly make his case look weaker, especially because the unions appear to be offering concessions that will bridge that $40 million and more beyond the next budget year.
  • Moving to a mayor with a different set of concerns, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s supporters held a press conference yesterday that may have actually been a proactive rally against a recall petition effort, which is expected to begin next week. So that’s the point when Mayor Quan starts getting proactive. (Matthai Kuruvila, Matier and Ross, SFGate)
  • Meanwhile, a few A’s players have been making the rounds within the community. First it was Jemile Weeks and Tyson Ross at the Alameda County Food Bank on Wednesday, followed by the annual A’s Community Fund Holiday Party on Thursday. (Jane Lee, MLB.com)
  • A ceremonial groundbreaking at New York’s Willets Point (outside Citi Field) kicks off a $50 million redevelopment plan that will surely gentrify that part of Queens. (Nicholas Hirshon, NY Daily News)
  • Historical footnote: the New York Post revealed that prior to building the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the pinstripers were looking for a stadium on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Now that would’ve been different. (David K. Li, NY Post)
  • In what may be the start of a trend, the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins are pursuing development of casinos within shouting distance of their respective stadia. (Douglas Hanks, Miami Herald)
  • Ed Roski’s Majestic Realty (of the City of Industry NFL plan) and UNLV are still working on a new arena/stadium deal. (Paul Takahashi, Las Vegas Sun)
  • Magic Johnson is teaming up with Stan Kasten as part of a group bidding on the Dodgers. (Bill Shaikin and Bill Plaschke, LA Times)

More as it comes.

News for 11/09/11

Tomorrow morning I’ll be in SF to check out oral arguments for the State vs. Redevelopment case. If I can liveblog it, I will.

The regular media (SFGate, Merc, MLB.com, KGO) covered yesterday’s proceedings fairly well, though I’m surprised there wasn’t a bigger mention of the discussion about the referendum requirement. No matter, the San Jose City Council formalized the requirement by amending the motion just before passing it. Still, I don’t think this is the last of the referendum discussion.

There’s other news on the ballpark/stadium front:

  • The Royals may or may not have agreement in place to sell the naming rights to venerable Kauffman Stadium.
  • Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is undergoing $12 million in renovations, including a major revamp of the area behind centerfield. Changes will include relocation of the suboptimally located visitor’s bullpen, the addition of an indoor club and several concession stands.
  • The University of Washington’s Husky Stadium just started a massive $250 million renovation project. The track will be removed, the field dropped four feet, and more seats will be added close to the field, similar to the changes at the LA Memorial Coliseum. In addition, new locker room and training facilities will be added, as well as premium seating options. Like the $321 million Cal Memorial Stadium renovations, these will be largely dependent on donations for funding. The Huskies will play next season at CenturyLink Field (formerly Qwest Field).
  • The Populous architect overseeing the 2022 Qatar World Cup project believes that the venues will not need air conditioning. The goal is to make the venues carbon neutral, something that made the winning Qatar bid attractive. A company called Arup Associates has a demo of the technology in place at a 500-seat stadium, though you could naturally be skeptical about the ability of the tech to scale to a venue with 100 times the spectators.
  • The Sacramento Bee’s Marcos Breton wonders what the ongoing NBA lockout means for the local arena effort.
  • A report on NPR’s Morning Edition goes over the economic impact of the lockout.
  • A’s naming rights sponsor Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) beat the Street today, which may signal an upswing for the networking giant. The stock was down during the regular session but up in after hours trading.

That’s all for now.

News for 6/8/11

Several weeks ago buzz surrounded SB 286, a redevelopment reform bill working its way through the state legislature. That bill has stalled in committee and has been replaced by AB 1250, written by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas). AB 1250 is working its way through committee, and the reasons why may be related to what it restricts and supports. Namely, the restrictions on redevelopment of military bases and new stadium projects are not in AB 1250, which leads me to believe that the big developer lobby had a hand in ensuring that those big ticket projects remained untouched. Language for projects involving casinos, golf courses, and race tracks is the same. The bill may face further amendments and is up against the session deadline, with Governor Brown still committed to abolishing redevelopment instead of reforming it.

The cost of the 49ers stadium has risen from $937 million to $987 million, with precious few indicators of how the team would pay for it.

The College World Series will kick off June 18 at its new home, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. The ballpark has already had numerous dry runs thanks to it being the home of Creighton baseball, though the constant crowds will prove to be a new kind of test. Dismantling of Rosenblatt Stadium has already begun.

Cal has managed to use up two of its nine baseball lives this year, first by raising enough money to keep the program going and then by mounting a furious comeback over Baylor on Monday to win the Houston Regional. Cal’s Evans Diamond is not considered an adequate facility for the NCAA to host a Super Regional, so it was decided on Tueday that the Bears’ series with Dallas Baptist will be played at the newest baseball stadium in the Bay Area, SCU’s Stephen Schott Stadium. (Yes, that Steve Schott.) Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students/seniors. The schedule is as follows:

Date                          Time (PT)     Television
Saturday, June 11   Game 1    5 p.m.        ESPNU
Sunday, June 12     Game 2    7 p.m.        ESPNU
Monday, June 13     Game 3*   1 or 4 p.m.   ESPN2 or ESPNU
*if necessary

The San Jose Earthquakes, who play their home games on campus at Buck Shaw Stadium, are on the road this weekend in The District, so there should be no parking constraints. I think I’ll go to one of the games, not sure which one yet. Not to be forgotten, Stanford is also in the Super Regionals, but they are on the road at North Carolina. The 1,500-seat Stephen Schott Stadium, which opened in 2005, was shoehorned into a small lot across from the university. Apartments sit behind the right field wall, lending an additional air of intimacy. There’s no room for a berm or additional seats down the lines. The Caltrain station is two blocks away, though unfortunately, no Capitol Corridor trains from the East Bay stop at this station.

ESPN Page 2 writer Paul Lukas (Uni Watch) wrote a cool feature on closed captioning at ballparks, which hopefully will become more commonplace at stadiums all over the country over time.

NBC won bidding for the the next four Olympic Games through 2020 at a combined cost of $4.4 billion. NBC’s bid purportedly eclipsed those by rivals ESPN and FOX by at least $1 billion.

Richard Keit will replace Harry Mavrogenes as head of San Jose Redevelopment, whose staff was reduced to seven.

OT: Apple wants to land a spaceship/office building on the former HP Cupertino campus it bought for expansion. Steve Jobs visited Cupertino’s City Council session last night (YouTube) to present his vision.

Jobs may want to get working on the tube technology needed to move employees between the new campus and the old one. Plans are to break ground as soon as next year and move in by 2015. Amazing how businesses without antitrust exemptions tend to get things done faster. There’s an interesting exchange towards the end of his discussion with the City Council about why there’s no Apple Store in the moribund Vallco Mall.

Former Oakland City Manager and Nationals Park dealmaker Robert Bobb stepped down from his post as emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools. Turns out he wasn’t only fighting corruption and financial mismanagement within the rundown school system. He was also battling cancer for more than a year. For now, Bobb has returned to DC, where he will run his consulting firm and write a book about his experiences at DPS.

The $131 million bargain

An announced crowd of 22,197 braved near-freezing temperatures to catch the inaugural game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, new home of the College World Series. The 24,505-seat stadium, which also serves as the home for the Creighton University Blue Jays, fared well despite the dreary skies.

TD Ameritrade Park's first game between U. of Nebraska and Creighton U. on April 19, 2011. Image courtesy of White and Blue Review

Designed to be easily (not sure exactly how) expanded to 35,000 seats, TD Ameritrade Park was built for a mere $131 million. Compare that to a $400-450 million MLB park in either San Jose (36,000 seats) or Oakland (39,000), and there’s a $300 million discrepancy. TD Ameritrade Park looks like it could be a major league park at least on the surface. What, then, is the difference between this so-called “hybrid” park and a true major league stadium? Let’s take a look.

First, let’s start with what it has in common with most modern MLB parks.

  • Large upper deck – The upper deck wraps nearly from foul pole to foul pole
  • Wraparound concourse with views – The lower concourse provides unobstructed views around the entirety of the lower deck
  • Expansive outfield seating – Very similar to what’s offered at Kauffman Stadium and US Cellular Field
  • Wide seats (21″) with lots of leg room (36″)
  • Club seats – Most of the upper deck seats are of the club variety
  • Bullpens beyond the outfield seats
  • Large concourses, at least 30 feet wide
  • Large, modern press box – Important for covering multiple teams during the College World Series
  • Highly modern grass surface and drainage system

Sounds like everything a team would want aside from the total capacity, right? Not quite. Scratch the surface and you’ll soon see where much of that extra money goes. To illustrate this, I’ll compare TDAP with last year’s ballpark gem, 39,504-seat Target Field.

Event/Field level comparison between Target Field (left) and TD Ameritrade Park (right). Cick to enlarge.

Last year’s review of Target Field did not include a tour, so I didn’t get to see the bowels of the place. However, schematics of every level were made available two years ago, so I made sure to download them for future comparisons like this one. On the left you can see the different kinds of color coding and walls built throughout the sunken event level. The red-orange area behind the plate is the Diamond Club. The adjacent gold areas are the team clubhouses. With only eight acres to accommodate the Twins, virtually every possible space was used and optimized. On the right is the buildout for TDAP. While it’s not as detailed as the other drawing, it’s a clear indicator that not nearly as much space has been built out down below. Perhaps as little as 50% of the available space underwent a buildout. As a result the clubhouses are much smaller. There is no club lounge behind the plate. The commissary is smaller. And it all makes sense. There’s no need for all of the luxury amenities at a place that’s meant to serve college baseball first and foremost. Or at least you’d like to think so.

Plenty of other differences pop up once you start looking around.

  • Fewer levels – TDAP has three levels plus the press box on top. Target has six levels and is much taller, which translates to more than double the amount of concrete and construction work.
  • The missing 8-15,000 seats – To properly add permanent seating, a third deck or significant expansion of the existing decks would be required. That means more concrete and structural steel, more $$$.
  • Scoreboard/Video board – The video board is just slightly larger than the new auxiliary board installed at Target Field over the winter, and one-third the size of the main board. The scoreboard is a refreshingly retro line score job, no frills.
  • Electronic signage – There is no ribbon board or other signage along the upper deck facing, which gives TDAP a very clean appearance.
  • Fewer amenities – No multiple clubs or restaurants, team stores, or team offices. The one club lounge is small compared to most at MLB parks.
  • Fewer suites – The 30 suites is fewer than what you’d see at a MLB facility. They’re also not quite as decked out as comparable suites.
  • Simplified circulation – No escalators and few elevators. That knocks off a few million in capital and maintenance costs right there. There isn’t even a complex network of ramps and stairs.
  • Little flex space – There’s no need to build additional space that could be used to rent out as Omaha has its arena (Qwest Center) and the adjacent convention center across the parking lot from the ballpark.

All the stuff listed above adds cost, and in a manner closer to exponential than proportional. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the price to play in the majors. It’s possible to design a ballpark so that it’s less complex, which is what 360 has been doing. Value engineering also comes into play, though at varying degrees and at different times depending on the budget situation. Could the A’s build a ballpark on the cheap? Sure. That said, once you start ratcheting down you get into dangerous territory. Wolff has already received criticism for downsizing the Earthquakes stadium vision. The last thing he’d want to do is recreate the experience of ARCO Arena, which was built on the cheap. The cheapness would become evident quickly, and it may have done the Kings in as a result. As the definition of a “major league” venue has only grown in cost and complexity over time, so has the gap between good enough and great.

For a level-by-level overview of TD Ameritrade Park, check out this interactive Flash graphic from the Omaha World-Herald.