A’s lease situation looms in the shadows

Lost in all the postgame recriminations from Friday night is an article by the Chronicle’s Will Kane. It’s about the lease extension talks between the A’s and the Coliseum Authority, which to date haven’t yielded a new deal. When we last left off, Lew Wolff indicated that the A’s presented the JPA an offer of a 5-year extension at a higher annual payment, which would cover maintenance and some improvements at the Coliseum. The actual amounts and terms weren’t publicly disclosed. Wolff aimed for an escape clause that would be triggered by the Raiders building a new stadium that would presumably adversely impact the A’s. That was followed by Raiders owner Mark Davis pushing to demolish the old Coliseum and build a new one in its place.

Having this game as one of the last in the Coliseum is surely inconceivable. Right?

Having this game as one of the last in the Coliseum is surely inconceivable. Right?

Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who has been touting the potential for Coliseum City since its public unveiling, believes that the two sides are close to a 6-8 year extension. What’s a little disturbing is this message from Kaplan:

And the six- to eight-year window should give Oakland plenty of time to get serious about building a replacement ballpark and luring the A’s to stay, Kaplan said.

Hold a sec. Plenty of time to get serious about building a replacement ballpark? You’ve got to be kidding me with that. I’m sure that Kaplan was merely referring to the idea of shoe-horning a ballpark into the A lot, a secondary item within the overall plan. It’s the tone that’s disturbing. It places doubt on the idea that Victory Court was serious, and it certainly raises questions on the seriousness of inclusion for the A’s in Coliseum City. Just as the A’s aren’t winning back burned fans by talking about leaving, Oakland isn’t going to win the A’s over by considering them an add-on or second/third phase. Plus the idea of 6-8 years should give anyone pause. For all the talk by Kaplan and Mayor Jean Quan about how projects could be fast tracked or don’t need extensive environmental review, 6-8 years is an awful long time to effect change. Especially if both Coliseum City and Howard Terminal are under site control, Oakland’s favorite new catch phrase. Mark Davis lightly admonished Oakland about showing urgency last month. A move like this shows more of the same lack of urgency from Oakland. How are any of the teams supposed to take Oakland pols seriously if the general feel is that they’re making moves to make it look like they’re making moves?

While Kaplan was quick to say that a deal was close, A’s President Michael Crowley doesn’t see it that way.

“We’ve had some discussions, but we still remain far apart,” Crowley said of the lease talks. “I really don’t want to negotiate in the press. We certainly hope to be playing here in 2014.”

We certainly hope to be playing here in 2014? That’s also a pretty bad tell. Wolff has been careful to talk about playing at the Coliseum for years to come, even talking to a fan about it in Anaheim during the last regular season road trip. But this is not a certainty. And if your argument for the A’s staying is simply, They have nowhere to go, think again. Of course they have somewhere else to go. It’s really a question of how much money they’re willing to pay to make it happen – short and long-term.

Consider this game of musical chairs.

  • The A’s Coliseum lease ends at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
  • Same goes for the San Jose Giants at San Jose Municipal Stadium. Obviously the A’s aren’t going to play at Muni, it’s much too small and is older and more dilapidated than the Coliseum.
  • Raley Field is not old and dilapidated. It has 11,093 seats, plus berm seating up to 14,000. I did some measurements of the berm in RF and some of the other areas, and have concluded that if bleachers were installed atop those areas, the capacity could reach 20,000. Without standing room admissions. The A’s would sell that capacity out for 2-3 years straight, the transition time needed to build in San Jose. That capacity isn’t necessarily too small for MLB since there would be a clear transition path, and the A’s have been playing to an average of 20,000 per game for the last three years anyway.
  • What about the River Cats? Well, Lew Wolff would have to call in a favor. The team is owned by Susan Savage, widow of Art Savage. Art Savage was an executive with the Sharks almost 20 years ago, and Wolff called him and his family good friends. Wolff would have to work with the family, who runs the stadium, to compensate them properly and plan Raley’s temporary expansion. The River Cats could continue to play select games there, or…
  • Move temporarily to San Jose, where city leaders would be happy to kick the intransigent High-A Giants to the curb in favor of a AAA team while waiting for the MLB A’s to arrive. As of two weeks ago, there is no movement on a lease extension for the SJ Giants. Sound familiar?
  • That leaves the SJ Giants without a lease, without a home. That will not go over well with long-time SJ Giants fans, some of whom are part of the Stand For San Jose lawsuit. Sucks for them, I guess. If the Giants started looking for a home somewhere else in the Bay Area or NorCal, trust me, there will be no shortage of smaller cities ready to roll out the red carpet for them.
  • When the temporary arrangement ends in 2016 or thereabouts, Raley Field can be restored back to its previous glory. While there would be a big grassroots effort in Sacramento to attract the A’s full time, much of the available political capital has already been spent on the downtown Sacramento Kings’ arena. We already know that, when Raley was under construction, changes had to be made that dropped the possibility of easy vertical expansion. That makes it difficult to envision Raley as anything larger that 20,000 seats, unless someone’s willing to pay to gut it and rebuild the suites and a new upper deck. Besides, after 2-3 years it’ll become readily apparent how much better Raley is suited to being a AAA park than a MLB park. It’s akin to what happened when Bud Adams moved the Oilers out of Houston, Absent a modern stadium, Adams had his team play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis for a year, followed one season at Vanderbilt Stadium. Adequate, and definitely not permanent.

Is any of this based on inside information? I assure you, it is not. Rather, it’s an example of a well-conceived Plan B, just in case the A’s can’t work out a Coliseum lease extension. It gives the A’s a decent place to play while they wait out the legal drama, while not infringing on T-rights. The way T-rights are written, Santa Clara County can accept any team it wants provided it’s not a MLB franchise. That’s how Wolff, Davis, and Crowley should be thinking. If they aren’t, then they’re not doing their respective jobs.

Talking bobbleheads, giveaways, and expectations

The A’s held a 1973 team reunion on April 27. A raft of greats from that repeat championship team were on hand, including Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, and Reggie Jackson, who was honored with a commemorative bobblehead.

While the weekend-long reunion went well, the bobblehead giveaway didn’t. Only 10,000 bobbleheads were available for the 31,292 in attendance, which left many who had waited long hours sans souvenir. It’s becoming a common theme: schedule a bobblehead day, line up a bunch of fans, someone inevitably goes home unhappy. Subsequent bobblehead days for Coco Crisp (in June) and Yoenis Cespedes (yesterday) attracted sellout crowds, leaving even more fans without a souvenir. It’s gotten to the point where if a fan is not in line several hours before first pitch, chances are he’ll go home empty handed.

A’s marketing guys Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce invited into the business offices in Oracle Arena before today’s game. I spoke with them for 90 minutes about all manner of giveaways and marketing strategy. Smith admitted that Reggie Jackson day was a debacle and that there was major room for improvement. To that end they bumped up the orders for both the Crisp and Cespedes giveaways from 10,000 to 15,000, a move they had to make months ahead of time in order to ensure prompt delivery. It’s all part of the guessing game the A’s front office constantly has to play regarding demand.

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

For instance, take yesterday’s game. Now that we’ve come to expect sellouts on bobblehead day, it’s natural to want greater quantities of items. Because of the parking situation associated with the circus next door at the arena, it was decided that the gates should open at 2:30, 90 minutes before the normal time. Throughout the day A’s marketing staff including Smith and LaDolce were monitoring the situation. D Gate, which appeared to be most heavily impacted, ran out of bobbleheads at 3:27 PM. However, by that point lines had fully dissipated so if you had walked up prior to 3:30, chances were good you’d get one. Chances were even better at the season ticket entrance, which usually is stocked well enough to handle giveaways past the point when other gates run out.

What wasn’t known about the game was that the A’s had only sold 25,000 tickets to the game 24 hours prior to first pitch. An incredible 10,000 tickets were sold as either walkups or online during that period. That’s rather typical these days due to the rather predictable number of advance tickets sold. Some additional amount were sold after Cespy won the Home Run Derby. The problem is that the A’s have to plan everything for each game well ahead of time, including staffing and giveaways. Staffing can be handled with some flexibility. Because of the lead times associated with giveaways, bobbleheads have almost no flexibility (well, except for the actual bobblehead itself).

Two other examples of this phenomenon occurred in the last several weeks. The first was on Grant Balfour Gnome Day (June 16), which was a full standing room only sellout. Walkup sales were so high that in the week prior to the game, the front office worried if only 25,000 would show up. On the Fourth of July, less than 27,000 showed up for a picnic blanket giveaway, which left the marketing crew (and me) baffled because the annual fleece blanket giveaway day typically goes gangbusters.

Now think about the leadup to yesterday. All sorts of things could’ve dampened attendance. Cespedes could’ve been eliminated early in the HR Derby. He could’ve been injured early in the season. The team might not have been in postseason contention. All of this comes into play, and if you’re working off a steady base of about 10-15,000 attendees, it can be difficult to justify bumping it up more. The easy thing to say is to order 30-35,000 right off the bat. Because of the team’s limited marketing budget, 35,000 bobbleheads would’ve negatively impacted some other promotional day, potentially getting rid of a promotion altogether. I asked about other teams that sell 40,000 or full capacity quantities such as the Brewers or Dodgers. Those teams can afford to do it because marginal tickets they sell in the leadup to the game are usually very expensive ($100 or more), so they have headroom to make up for it. The A’s have dynamic pricing, but even then prices might go up only 20-30% in the process. Sponsors attached to each giveaway have little say over the quantity since the giveaways have to be planned as early as November prior to the following season, and they generally don’t directly fund giveaway purchases. I pressed on with 35,000 items. Smith countered that the last thing the team wants is to have 5,000 left over. When I said the items could just be sold in the team store, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) that if that’s the case, they’re not a good promotional tool. The whole point is of giveaways is to get people in the park and to give them a special memento. Sell overstock in team store would defeat the purpose (though I suppose it would give the naming rights sponsor an avenue, hint-hint). Judging from the response at the Coliseum, it’s working whether the quantity is 10,000 or 15,000. He admitted that there may be room for more in the future, but it would all be linked to ticket sales since everything flows from there.

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James Venes’ June chart showing different teams’ bobblehead giveaway figures

The chart above, put together by the inimitable James Venes independently from this article two months ago, shows the wide spectrum of bobblehead quantities for the various teams. The Brewers and Phillies give to capacity, the Giants and Dodgers are pretty close. Then again, those four teams surpass 3 million in attendance annually. The A’s are in the middle of the pack as far as the bobblehead-to-capacity ratio goes. Last weekend I attended the Ken Griffey Jr. day at Safeco Field. Despite a sure sellout crowd (47,000), they had only 20,000 bobbleheads. Like it or not, giving items to around 40% of the house is standard practice.

Over the years the A’s have tweaked the types of giveaways they’ve done. Gone are the cheapo caps of yesteryear as few people care about those. Smith showed me a commemorative back-to-back World Series champs pennant from 1974, to which his mother added “1974” in pen. I asked why there aren’t giveaway pennants anymore. Smith replied that people don’t seem to hold them in any value. I imagine the same thing could be said about the old end-of-season baseball card giveaways (remember how those were sponsored by Mother’s Cookies?). LaDolce had a similar pennant commemorating the A’s 1992 division crown, a moment that reflected the true end of the Haas era. Nowadays the stuff people want are collectibles, with bobbleheads at the forefront.

Troy Smith's assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each.

Troy Smith’s assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each. Game 20 isn’t there because Smith he was working the scoreboard that day.

When I was asked for future giveaway suggestions, I only had one: an A’s fan. Preferably an action figure or figurine with a gold jersey if that can be done. He/she might be donning a green cape or a Reddick luchador mask. I can’t speak to how racially non-specific it should be or to anatomical correctness. I’m sure it can be done. It would be a great acknowledgement of how faithful the hardcore A’s fan is, a kind of olive branch disguised as an in-joke. I’m no marketing genius, but I think it’d be cool. Accessories could be given away at future games. Besides, if the marketing folks have to order these before knowing what will happen with the notoriously volatile A’s roster, a good bet would be one thing Billy Beane can’t trade: a fan.

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

We talked about a great number of topics including the upper deck tarps, ballpark sites, the Josh Reddick effect, crossing over from being a lifelong fan to working for the team (as both Smith and LaDolce are), what it means to move from an old stadium to a new ballpark, and other matters. They showed me a prototype Green Day trucker hat to be given away at the end of the month, along with a hint about surprise guest they’re hoping to secure in time for the next Star Wars fireworks night. We didn’t talk about costs to produce items, though some of that information can be found elsewhere. I don’t know if our talk or the feedback from this article will effect change. The team has a fan committee that it listens to regularly. Smith and LaDolce were happy to talk to me at length. They read this blog, as do others around the league. Hopefully the kinks can be worked out to a happy medium. Maybe they can institute a ticket system like the kind employed for concert ticket sales or iPhone/iPad launches. There are ways to get these things in the hands of people that really want them. Until then, we’ll keep waiting in line. Thanks to Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce for inviting me into the inner sanctum for a little bit. I’m sure we’ll have more to chat about in due course. Maybe we’ll be talking action figures.

—-

P.S. – The team and bobblehead manufacturers can take months to work on items and still not get them exactly right. Case in point:

Evolution of the concourse

Since the beginning of the recent stadium boom, no part of any venue has undergone a greater transformation than the seemingly utilitarian concourse. Once considered little more than a long corridor fans used to access concessions and restrooms, the humble concourse has expanded to something much greater. Concourses now house a great variety of ways for fans to spend money. Restaurants and lounges now often take up concourse space. And no discussion can be had without recognition of the concourse as a flowing hangout space, whether via the proliferation of drink rails or the simple widening of concourses to invite people to mill around and circulate. Taking cues from modern airport design, stadium operators recognized some time ago that they had captive audiences due to ticket sales, so might as well milk the faithful for what they could. Judging from how fans have reacted, they love it.

The phenomenon seems to be more uniquely American (or at least North American) than anything else due to marketing and expectations of the ticket-buying public. Nevertheless, concourse expansion has taken hold in several new top tier European soccer stadia. The Olympics and World Cup haven’t been touched as much because of the sheer cost of expanding multiple venues, but single-team or single-sport venues continue to follow prevalent trends.

Let’s start our discussion with the concourse we’re most familiar with as A’s fans: the field level concourse at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

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At times it can be hard to tell how full the Coliseum is because the field level concourse gets jammed quickly.

I’ve written before about how this concourse has three hallmarks of old stadium design: it has is narrow at 30 feet wide, it has no buffer space for the seating sections, stairwells, or concession stands, and there are no attempts to divide traffic to better manage the flow. While the last issue can be addressed by instituting better queues at the concession stands, there’s still no substitute for greater space. Even during the day the concourse is devoid of light and claustrophobic thanks to fairly low ceilings. There are views of the game at many points, but the overhang is low enough to compromise those views.

Wrigley Field lower concourse has no views of game and no natural light, yet is wide enough to be navigable.

Wrigley Field lower concourse has no views of game and no natural light, yet is wide enough to be navigable.

The oldest ballparks still in use, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, have large main concourses underneath the bulk of their main grandstand. It works for providing interior space. It doesn’t work in terms of making fans connected the game. Whether that’s important to you as fan, it’s important to teams and architects. They want the best of both worlds – connectedness AND amenities. There’s no perfect solution and some have succeeded more than others in implementing their solutions.

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Lower concourse at Camden Yards – closed to the stands, open to the outside

Camden Yards’ design was largely influenced by difficulties encountered at cramped Memorial Stadium. Natural light floods the concourse, though there are few views of the game from the main grandstand concourse. Additional rows of seating sit atop the concession stands on the right of the picture above, with the backs open to allow some crowd noise to enter the concourse.

Stacked concourses at Camden Yards

Stacked concourses at Camden Yards

Target Field's lower concourse down the lines has great views of the game due to a lack of overhanging seating.

Target Field’s lower concourse down the lines has great views of the game due to a lack of overhanging seating.

In a similarly reactionary manner, Target Field was designed to accentuate field views. The finished high ceilings make the lower concourse feel like an airport, for good and ill. The upper deck also has an open concourse.

AT&T Park's Promenade Level is open with the exception of the area behind home plate, which contains the writers' press box.

AT&T Park’s Promenade Level is open with the exception of the area behind home plate, which contains the writers’ press box.

Many parks built in the 2000’s have placed a premium on space behind home plate, leading to level after level of suites and clubs. At times a grandstand can look more like a hotel or office building than a grandstand.

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Angel Stadium was built with a closed main concourse and a mini-mezzanine that is open behind the seats. Much of Rangers Ballpark was laid out in similar manner.

Then there are a handful of ballparks that went against the grain. Along with Camden Yards, Angels Stadium, Rangers Ballpark, and Busch Stadium have “closed” concourses – largely to bump up capacity.

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Petco Park tries to have it both ways

Finally, we have the concourses at Petco Park, where the concessions lines are often well-removed from circulation. It creates a sort of mall food court-like feel. There is sunlight and there are views, but is it perhaps too open?

As we’ve moved over the years from utility to feature, we’ve seen in hindsight the number of compromises that have needed to be made to provide openness (to the field) or better circulation and light. Disregarding for the moment any space or footprint constraints at a potential new A’s ballpark, what kinds of concourses would you like to see implemented?

Safeco shows the safe way over train tracks

I first visited Safeco Field in 2001, during the Mariners’ 116-win season. The place was hopping back then the way it hasn’t since. When I planned this trip to Seattle I didn’t expect much. The M’s had the Brewers in town, so I wasn’t expecting thrilling baseball by playoff contenders. I looked closer at the schedule and found out that I was in for a treat. Saturday was Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, and there was to be an extensive pregame ceremony commemorating the event. There was also a Junior bobblehead, which was to be distributed to the first 20,000 fans (very A’s like number there), which forced many fans to line up six hours or more before the scheduled 6:10 game time. Needless to say I wasn’t interested in the collectible, so I took a tour and grabbed lunch instead.

View of Safeco Field from nearby light rail station (Stadium)

View of Safeco Field near light rail station across 4th Avenue South (Stadium Station)

During that first visit in 2001, I took a cab down 4th Avenue South from a downtown restaurant. The cab dropped me off on the east side of the railroad tracks from Safeco Field. Like many had done, I crossed the tracks at grade, looking both ways for freight or passenger trains. At the time local planners were working on a light rail extension that would finally link downtown and the neighborhoods to the south, including the SeaTac airport. The line finally came to fruition in 2009 and I was eager to try it out.

In conjunction with the light rail launch, additional road infrastructure was built to better support cars and pedestrians traveling to Safeco and CenturyLink Field. 2010 brought the Royal Brougham Way overpass, a simple two-lane structure that feeds pedestrians from light rail and parking facilities to Safeco and cars to a nearby garage. This overpass and another on the south side of the ballpark were part of an $84 million road project. During the intervening years, four pedestrians had been hit by trains on the BNSF tracks adjacent to Safeco, including one fatality. Naturally, ongoing safety concerns prompted the overpass(es) project, to good effect.

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Royal Brougham Way overpass runs elevated behind Safeco Field roof support and curls around before rejoining street grid. At grade access was eliminated.

Like Seattle, Oakland’s Howard Terminal has an active, working rail line adjacent to the site. We’ve highlighted the train safety issue before. Seattle has dealt with the problem properly and elegantly, if also rather belatedly in the process. When you exit the light rail station just two blocks to the east, you can easily negotiate the gently curling ramp that leads over the BNSF tracks. There’s even a little plaza at the midpoint that provides a good view into the park. Once you cross, you can take stairs down or take an elevator straight to the center field gate.

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West end of sidewalk drops down to grade via stairs or an elevator immediately next to center field gate. Vehicle ramp is visible to the right.

Unlike Seattle, where Safeco is in the middle of the street grid with multiple entry and exit points, Howard Terminal is hemmed in on three sides by the Oakland Estuary to the south, Jack London Square to the east, and Schnitzer Steel to the west. That means it’s extremely important to ensure that there’s safe, reliable way to get thousands of fans from the north side of the Union Pacific tracks along the Embarcadero to the south side, where HT and JLS are. If thousands of parking spaces or a garage are built at Howard Terminal, it’ll be even more important as no one will want to compromise the rail line by having cars create gridlock around HT before or after A’s games. Chances are that a HT ballpark will need one vehicular bridge (probably at Market Street) and another dedicated pedestrian/bicycle bridge near JLS.

As you can see from the video above, the solution is working. It may have taken a decade, but Seattle finally got its rail and pedestrian solution figured out. Oakland can thank Seattle for leading the way. Stadium name sponsor Safeco, a nationwide insurance company based in Seattle, probably abides too. The issues for Oakland – if Howard Terminal moves into a real planning stage – are what kind of solution they can come up with, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Seattle set the example. Oakland fans deserve the same kind of safety.

If you’re still skeptical, ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Coliseum without the BART bridge?

PNC Park Tour

Before I begin, I feel I need to make something clear.

There is no such thing as a perfect ballpark.

Our very perception of a ballpark is framed in terms of quirks, imperfections, and uniqueness. We can go on and on talking about how the experience at one was wonderful or breathtaking, and in a particular moment with the right weather or a great team, it may well seem perfect.

It’s not.

As we know from merely watching the game, one game is a ridiculously small sample size. If I had the time and money, I’d spend at least one homestand at every park just so that I can get the feel for it. The nooks and crannies, the neighborhood outside, day and night games, weekdays and weekends. One game provides a pretty small subset of those variables. Knowing that makes me reticent to judge a ballpark based on one game.

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Home Plate Gate at PNC Park

This is why I like to take ballpark and stadium tours. They allow for the opportunity to strip away much of the game fervor (or lack thereof), which can boost or mar an experience without the observer realizing it. I can take in much of the trivial minutiae from the tour guides while filtering out the occasional rah-rah bombast. My mind can turn towards the technical matters, the details that often get lost during a game.

When I took a business trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I had just missed the A’s visit to PNC Park. As a result I couldn’t take in a game with the Pirates on the road. I did have a lunchtime slot for a 90-minute tour before an appointment, so I drove over to the North Shore for a visit. I had seen a game there in 2001, the park’s inaugural year. At the time the place had only been open for a few weeks, and I was eager to see this shiny, new, yet undoubtedly retro ballpark. I was so eager back then that I had mistakenly locked the keys to my rental car in the car. After a blissful afternoon in the right field bleachers, the Allegheny River rolling behind me, I spent a highly stressful hour trying to get the keys out, and then upon giving up, calling the rental car company to report that I was abandoning the car. I hailed a cab for the airport and hadn’t been back until this most recent trip.

View of home plate from LF corner

View of home plate from LF corner

Trying to block out the car crisis, what I remember about PNC Park was that it was the friendliest park I had been to, more than even Wrigley. When I took my seat in RF, the usher directed my down to the seat, took a towel, and brushed it off. I would’ve given him a tip except that I was shocked I didn’t know how to react other than to give a polite thank you.

The seats and steelwork at PNC Park are deep blue, a nod to the Pirates’ ancestral home, Forbes Field. One of the first concrete-and-steel ballparks, Forbes only grew in stature as the Pirates moved into cavernous Three Rivers Stadium. Baseball at Three Rivers was the archetypical cookie-cutter experience: Astroturf, bad seating angles, and a fully encompassing upper deck that killed views. Despite a decent amount of success on the field, the team frequently struggled at the gate, leading many to wonder if the market could fully support the team in the long run.

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from LF corner

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from LF corner

The Pirates were saved when legislation was passed to build two separate, new stadia for the baseball club and the Steelers. PNC Park opened first in the spring of 2001, Heinz Field followed in the fall. Three Rivers is now a parking lot serving the two stadia. Both are reachable by one of the many bridges that cross the Allegheny River. You could park along the North Shore for a game, but you’d be best served parking downtown and taking in the approach to the ballpark by walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. You’ll end up in centerfield, where you can walk along the river or check out the bars and restaurants along Federal Street.

12 years after my first visit, PNC has maintained its handsomeness. The tan limestone facade still looks lovely. Walk in the main gate behind home plate or at third base/left field and you’re greeted a sweeping, octagonal rotunda. For years teams have struggled to figure out how to integrate vertical circulation, and HOK managed to make it a feature at PNC. The rotunda in LF also acts a nice standing room vantage point for a game, regardless of level.

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Panorama from press box

The third base gate is also called Legacy Square and is worth a visit because of the numerous tributes to great Negro League players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and one-time Athletic James “Cool Papa” Bell. Pittsburgh was once home to two great Negro League teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. A team store stands alongside. The outfield concourse is at street level, while the main lower concourse is up a level. Take the rotunda ramp, you’ll enjoy it.

Walk along the main grandstand and you’ll notice that there are no obstructions. There’s no press box behind the plate and no suites or other stands that could block the view. All of the suites are set in their own mezzanine level, and the press box is way up at the top of the upper deck, a situation that many a media wonk have groused about over the years. Despite their complaints, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the best layout in the majors. It’s the simplest, the cleanest, and most importantly, the shortest of the new ballparks. There are two club seating levels, but only one true club concourse. The tallest row is only 88 feet above the field.

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Lounge area of Pittsburgh Baseball Club down 3B line

PNC Park is also the only “two-deck” ballpark of the last 25 years, though the term is somewhat deceiving. The front part of the upper deck is the exclusive Pittsburgh Baseball Club seating area, taking up the first 10 rows. The back 20+ rows are the true upper level and have a separate, regular concourse. The advantage of this layout is the aforementioned vertical space conservation. However, because of the limited cantilever (13-14 rows or 40 feet), the upper deck is somewhat swept back instead of on top of the action. The park was built before the advent of the split deck-single concourse layout, so there are no views of the action from the upper concourse. PBC has views from patio areas carved out where seating sections would normally be. The roof is simple and more ornamental than practical.

The grandstand at PNC Park

Suites in the mezzanine, press box up top

Sure, the press got the short shrift when PNC Park was built. Most press levels are only around 50 above the field and 130-140 feet behind home plate, making for an enviable, cozy view of everything. Recently teams such as the Angels have started to move the writing media to not-so-optimal locations. As more teams look for additional premium spaces to sell within their parks, expect this trend to continue. It’s a reflection of a much larger trend in the NFL, where the media is often relegated to a corner while the space usually reserved at midfield is offered up as a handful of ultra-premium suites. The 2011 renderings of Cisco Field indicated that the PNC or Nationals Park examples would be followed, with the press level(s) up top.

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Legacy Square with rotunda in background

Because of its 2001 opening date and its scenic waterfront locale, PNC often gets compared to AT&T Park, which stands to reason. Both are highly rated HOK products. Both have the water along the right field wall. Both have 68-69 luxury suites and about 6,000 club seats. That’s where the similarities end.

In Pittsburgh, a decision was made to have the facade run right up to the sidewalk at home plate, with the home plate rotunda immediately inside. A small plaza at the corner has a Honus Wagner statue. That’s a very different approach from San Francisco, where the expansive Willie Mays Plaza greets fans before funneling them through the gates and onto ramps or escalators. Personally, I like the PNC Park approach more because it feels more complete. The vertical circulation elements at AT&T are little more than an afterthought, serviceable but ugly, a byproduct of the limited footprint. (Yes, I said something at China Basin was ugly.)

Batting cage adjacent to Pirates' clubhouse. Turf shown comes from Three Rivers Stadium

Batting cage adjacent to Pirates’ clubhouse. Turf shown comes from Three Rivers Stadium

The color scheme at PNC is also better. I had misgivings about the dark blue seats fading over time, but that hasn’t happened at all about halfway through their useful life. The green seats at AT&T are copycat and not true to the team’s colors, though the Giants can be forgiven for not using a garish orange for their seats.

That brings me to the biggest advantage of PNC. Essentially, there are zero compromised seats. Notice that didn’t say “bad” seats, as that term often gets tossed around with little regard for what it means. What I mean is that every seat has a great view of the entire playing field. As you’d expect, there are no obstructed view seats – and every seat in the main bowl has a great view of the Pittsburgh skyline. The comparison is more fundamental than that. At PNC the left field corner is turned at a 45-degree angle, which ensures that fans there will be able to see all of the field. Compare that to the LF corner upper deck at AT&T, which has a great view of home plate but is practically blind to most of the outfield. Again, this was probably decision made because of limited space (and the desire to cram in as many seats as possible). In the end it’s an inelegant solution, one that HOK/Populous did not repeat anywhere else since. Thank goodness for that.

Pirates dugout

Pirates dugout

AT&T Park originally cost $100 million more than PNC Park to construct despite having only 2,000 more seats. Where did the money go? Two separate club levels, for starters. There’s a lot more finished space at AT&T, more concrete, and the foundation was more expensive due to seismic concerns.

AT&T has its own advantages over PNC. It’s 100 feet closer to the water down the right field line. AT&T’s outfield design is much more iconic and interesting and the beer selections there are slightly better. AT&T also didn’t set the “moat” trend of separating the field club seats from the regular field level seats as PNC Park. (In PNC’s defense, at least the moat is accessible.) That said, AT&T Park is less intimate, not as good looking, is more blatantly commercial, and the main seating bowl arrangement is way too much like Minute Maid Park’s (or most other HOK designs) for me to call it unique or interesting. Neither park has an aggressive cantilever many baseball purists desire.

Both Pirates fans and Giants fans can easily make the case that their ballpark is the best among the new regime. They are. If I’m going to pick one, it’d be PNC for the reasons described above. There’s no shame in using PNC as the model for a new A’s ballpark in Oakland. It’s a standard bearer, even if it’s not perfect.

When aesthetics give way to $$$

Rob Neyer recently made the case for five eras of ballparks. Chronologically he ordered them:

  • Utilitarian era (1876-1908), early days
  • Classic era (1909-1960), first true ballparks as we know them
  • Multipurpose era (1964-1988), cookie-cutters and the like
  • NeoClassical era (1989-2009), retro ballparks with modern amenities
  • Commercial era (now), parks more geared towards revenue generation than watching baseball

Neyer defined the commercial era as a nod towards crass commercialism, with overdone signage and far too many premium spaces/facilities that detract from the game experience, especially for Joe Fan. While I agree with the sentiment, trying to separate ballparks into specific eras is a lot tougher. New Comiskey has the prominent sandwich of suites and club seats, and Jacobs Field opened in 1994 with a massive triple tier of suites down the third base line. Angel Stadium has a quadruple tier of enclosed spaces behind home plate, as does Marlins Park 15 years after the Big A was redone. Signage will forever have varying degrees of obnoxiousness. The least obnoxious park, Wrigley Field, is set to have a lot more blinking lights and electronic signage starting next year. Some people mind that a lot, I don’t.

That’s why for me, the picture below represents the best arrangement conceived in the last 25 years. It’s simple, elegant, inexpensive to build, fan-friendly, and more important than anything, fair.

The grandstand at PNC Park

The grandstand at PNC Park

Now compare that the other two examples I cited today.

Angel Stadium grandstand

Angel Stadium grandstand

Marlins Ballpark grandstand

Marlins Park grandstand

A full review of PNC Park is due later. For now, let’s discuss what we want in a ballpark, and how to balance those desires with what a team may want to improve their revenues (to help pay for the ballpark). While we’re at it, refer back to my review of the Cisco Field (Diridon) renderings from 2010.

US Cellular Field (New Comiskey)

In a previous installment of this year’s Chicago travelogue, I described what it was like to go to both Wrigley Field and US Cellular Field on the same day thanks to a scheduled Chi-town doubleheader. While I went into some length about my experience on the South side, I wanted to save the bulk of my observations for a proper review, especially because I wanted to compare the current version to what I saw in 1996, five years after the park opened as New Comiskey Park.

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View from right field seats

Until the extensive, multiyear renovations package (done by HKS) was completed in 2012, the Cell had earned a somewhat unearned reputation as outdated. This wasn’t entirely HOK’s (Populous) or Jerry Reinsdorf’s fault. Reinsdorf wanted a modern edifice and used Royals (Kauffman) Stadium as his inspiration. The result was nothing like old Comiskey, cramped and dank. The new Comiskey was spacious, exclusive, and packed full of what was then the newest technology outside of a retractable roof. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted the following year, starting the retro ballpark craze, all of the features that made New Comiskey modern made it look fan unfriendly and lacking in intimacy. If that meant outdated, so be it. They lacked the foresight to go retro? Fine. The O’s earned great acclaim for their small urban ballpark, while the White Sox and the City of Chicago spent much of the next two decades playing catchup to the Camden Yards and just about every other new park.

Visiting (Athletics) bullpen

Visiting (Athletics) bullpen, John Jaso (right) getting ready to take some warmup tosses

A look at the bones of the Cell should tell you the era it comes from. There’s a lot of bulky prestressed, pretensioned concrete in the supports and columns. The only structural steel you’ll see is in the upper deck, holding up the roof. The massive pole-to-pole structure backing the outfield concourse holds the scoreboards and numerous ads. If the park were built a few years later, Reinsdorf might have considered turning the ballpark north to take advantage of a great view of the Chicago skyline. Architect Philip Bess offered up his own alternative to New Comiskey in 80’s and in his book City Baseball Magic. Bess’s plan, called Armour Field, was more like Old Comiskey and even more retro than Camden Yards, with extremely shallow dimensions in the corners and a grandstand shape that evoked the Polo Grounds in New York. The park would’ve had a northern orientation, providing fabulous views of the Loop from inside the park. Instead, Reinsdorf chose the parking lot across the street from the old one and oriented the new one southeast towards Bronzeville. Call it a missed opportunity.

Arches evoke old Comiskey Park. White panels cover previously open upper concourse.

Arches evoke old Comiskey Park. White panels cover previously open upper concourse.

New Comiskey was criticized immediately for having a very steep upper deck that was also far removed from the action since it is placed atop two suite levels and a club level (sandwiched between the suites). In hindsight, this critique was perhaps a bit too heavy-handed as many Populous-conceived parks have used variations of this placement. Some may use a large club mezzanine backed by suites (Camden Yards, Petco Park). Another variant had a large club mezzanine, then a glassed-in concourse, then the suites, then the upper deck (AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Coors Field). Others utilized a triple deck of suites on one side and a club section on the other (Progressive Field). Now that we’ve seen 20 years of ballpark development, it’s easier to be kind to the Cell. In actuality, the biggest problem with New Comiskey was that there were too many rows in the upper deck, a chief complaint of the park’s inspiration, Royals Stadium. The latter day renovations chopped the top eight rows off the upper deck and enclosed the upper concourse in translucent glass. A much more substantial roof replaced the previous version and was heavy enough that it had to be supported by the aforementioned steel columns. Curiously, these columns also introduced something that Reinsdorf had worked hard to eliminate: obstructed views. The obstructions only occur in the furthest reaches of the upper deck, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the new structure properly evokes Old Comiskey. Still, it adds definition to a part of the stadium that sorely lacked definition.

Upper concourse at U.S. Cellular Field

Upper concourse at U.S. Cellular Field. Steel beams are meant to support roof, not seats

Obvious nods to Old Comiskey come in the form of arched windows and openings in the facade, and the big scoreboard in center, complete with the multi-colored pinwheels and fireworks that go off after every White Sox home run. The board is flanked by screens in left and right, which are perfectly functional but not complete despite the number and size of the screens. Out-of-town scores are pretty much an afterthought. The arches, while a tasteful treatment, are nothing compared to the hulking network of ramps that nearly encompasses the Cell. The only thing that makes these ramps an improvement over previous cookie-cutter ramp structures is that they’re somewhat removed from the stadium. The problem with that implementation is that since fans enter at gates attached to these ramps, there’s no way for anyone to easily move between the different decks. To this day the White Sox maintain a policy that a fan’s ticket restricts him/her to a specific level. Fortunately, I was taking in three games of the A’s four-game set in Chicago, so I had a chance to roam around all of the non-premium areas. The White Sox have said that they plan to open up the park more in the future to allow for the kind of in-game circulation experienced at other parks. Even if they do that, moving among the decks will still be a pain because of the ramp system. At least at Gate 5, there’s a bar to accept fans pre and post-game.

View from behind the plate at dusk.

View from behind the plate at dusk.

At least the various food options have improved. The lower concourse has long had a good variety of concessions, including the staple Chicago dog and popular nachos stands. With the upper deck revamp came a number of new selections, including wings from Hooters and several open grills. I had a piled high Chicago dog, just as I did at Wrigley, and I liked the South side version more. A Jimmy John’s ad on the outfield fence teases about sandwich availability at the Cell, unfortunately the only Jimmy John’s is two blocks away along 35th Street, near the El and Metra stops. Outside food is allowed.

The outfield concourse, which has always been reminiscent of the old bleachers at the pre-Mt. Davis Coliseum, is as spacious and friendly as ever. The bullpens have moved from the former slots to Fenway-like spaces along the outfield fence. A patio area sits next to the visiting bullpen in right. The bleachers, which used to occupy both left-center and right-center, are solely in the former. A multi-level outfield platform was erected in the LF corner. Atop this deck is the Comcast-sponsored FUNdamentals children’s play area. Like everywhere else in the park, it has an usher or two to grant access, and when I approached to take look I was naturally looked upon suspiciously as no child was accompanying me.

Ramps and escalators are separate from concourses. This ramp set at Gate 5 is also separated by 35th Street.

Ramps and escalators are separate from concourses. This ramp set at Gate 5 is also separated by 35th Street.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I have with the Cell. The place has staff everywhere. Every aisle has an usher, every open stand (most) has a big crew. Normally that’s a good thing when you need help. At the Cell, it feels more like Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t trust his fans and chose to have eyes everywhere. Most of the staff were friendly enough, but not to the level of either Miller Park or Wrigley Field. During the game, the upper deck ushers will watch the seats to make sure that fans don’t roam around, say, to the top of the stands. This results in a situation where sneaking down is very difficult. Your best bet for a good ticket below face value may be to find seats on Stubhub or via a scalper. US Cellular Field is the most overstaffed ballpark in the majors by far, and needlessly so.

Night view of... mostly ramps

Night view of… mostly ramps

The neighborhood is still not great. The Sox have gone so far as to point out neighborhood restaurants and bars in the vicinity, though none of them are right at the park other than the aforementioned attached Bacardi Bar. After the Saturday game we walked to Mitchell’s Tap, which has a pretty good beer selection including multiple selections from Founders (which is not available on the West Coast). Even so we eventually traveled back to the North side, ending up at the wonderful Hopleaf in Andersonville. The transitioning (or gentrification) process around the Cell is very much a work in progress.

A decade after opening in 1991, New Comiskey/US Cellular Field has undergone major, near constant changes. It started out with 42,000 seats, moved up to 47,000 seats, then dropped down to the current 40,000+.  Royal blue seats were switched to green, while the white outfield framework was painted black. The upper concourse looks nothing like it used to. Ultra premium seats and a club were added behind the plate. The outfield was changed, foul territory was reduced, and the ballpark was made to resemble its predecessor more than the original vision would have suggested. That’s not enough to place it among the top 10 ballparks on my list. It’s enough to make the Cell a very respectable, functional ballpark that should last another 20 years without major changes. After that? It’ll be up to Reinsdorf’s sons.

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P.S. – Many thanks to all of the readers and good people I met out there including Shane/Zonis, Nick, Joe, Derek, Mike, Tom, and everyone else I failed to mention here. All of you made the weekend even better than I expected. I’ll definitely put together a full meetup the next time I’m in town.

P.P.S. – As I’m planning a trip for New York over Labor Day weekend, after that’s completed I’ll do a feature that focuses on the ballparks for the premier teams in the two-team markets, and then another feature on the second banana ballparks (like the Coliseum and the Cell).

Settlement could move Howard Terminal forward

Previous posts about Howard Terminal:

Later today the Port of Oakland’s Board of Port Commissioners will hold a meeting, during which an important settlement with SSA Marine will be discussed. This settlement is important as it should resolve the biggest legal obstacle hanging over Howard Terminal. The settlement discussion is a closed session item, so the terms weren’t made publicly available. Still, there’s no reason to think that the terms won’t be approved as the parties apparently have been in discussion for some time, and would probably prefer to avoid further litigation (which could run through next year).

Howard Terminal overhead shot with Jack London Square nearby

During the Don Knauss interview, he mentioned that environmental concerns were overblown. To wit:

We’ve done the diligence there as well and been assured by experts that a ballpark can be built on that site without a substantial cost associated with cleanup. Basically we can build a ballpark on top of that site without having to scrape the site clean like AT&T was built on (China Basin).

Wait a minute. China Basin was built without having to scrape it clean? Actually, it was scraped clean. Site remediation was done by the Giants, not the City or Port, and reimbursed to some degree by the federal government via the Federal Brownfields Tax Initiative. Piles were driven deep into bay mud (fill) to provide a proper foundation. Knauss is suggesting that a Howard Terminal ballpark can be built without replacing the fill currently at the site or even piercing the asphalt cap designed to contain the site’s contamination. I’ve heard this claim before but not the plan behind it. Naturally I have to be skeptical of this claim. China Basin and Howard Terminal are similar enough that it’s hard to conceive of how this would work.

AT&T Park’s foundation was built the many expected: land was cleared, cleaned up, and piles were driven to support the stands and ancillary buildings. This was required because China Basin sits in an extreme liquefaction zone. Howard Terminal also sits in an extreme liquefaction zone, which would presumably mean similar measures to China Basin would have to be undertaken. The difference with Howard Terminal is that the State of California put the asphalt cap over the contamination over a decade ago instead of cleaning it up completely, a process which would’ve cost $100 million ($131 million in 2012). That cost has long been the biggest source of the site costs associated with Howard Terminal.

Then again, maybe Knauss and the Oakland backers have a clever, innovative plan that would not require piercing the asphalt cap, or at least minimizing the number of intrusions. That would probably require building a smaller number of larger sized footings at the site, then constructing an above grade podium on which the ballpark would be placed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bryan Grunwald proposed a similar approach at his 980 Park site. There’s no concrete estimate of the cost of such a podium, but I’d expect it to be at least $100 million given the the size and load it would have to carry. That could conceivably be cheaper than cleaning up Howard Terminal. Would it be that much cheaper? We’re talking about building a ballpark in a liquefaction zone. There’s no room to cut corners.

Another issue is the amount of planned infrastructure. Again, Knauss claims that costs are being overblown. But he also acknowledged that parking would need to be provided on site, which makes sense given the lack of parking in the immediate area (only 1,200 spaces within 1/3 mile). And if more parking is to be provided on the 50-acre Howard Terminal site, more infrastructure has to be built to bring cars into the site. I had previously suggested two overpasses, one for vehicle traffic and one for pedestrians. Add those to the podium, other site improvements, and additional improvements to the area north of HT, and we’re talking about an estimate north of $150 million. Maybe it’s less, maybe they’ve come up with something really innovative. The problem is that quality engineering is expensive and requires expensive materials. Heck, even bad engineering can be really expensive.

Finally, there’s the lingering question of Who will pay for it? The Giants paid for their site cleanup, got a tax credit from the Feds, and received a minimal amount of TIF funds for the surrounding area. If Knauss is suggesting the same kind of deal to Lew Wolff, it’s a nonstarter. That’s around $650 million worth of risk, 95% of it to be borne by the A’s, with little promise of the kinds of returns the Giants got at China Basin. (Note: Walter Shorenstein thought China Basin was so risky that he divested his share of the Giants, and many within The Lodge looked askance at the plan.)

Maybe, just maybe, Knauss and his people have this figured out. Maybe there’s a creative way to make this all work for everyone. Again, I’m skeptical. Many of the same claims were made about Victory Court, and that site was swept under the rug with barely a peep.

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P.S. – We haven’t even touched the transportation gap at Howard Terminal (BART or the mythical streetcar). Or whether the City, Port, and County would create yet another joint powers authority. Or lease terms. Or the lack of redevelopment funds for surrounding area improvements.

Miller Park (The Return)

Upper deck behind home plate with the roof open

Upper deck behind home plate with the roof open

Last time I visited Miller Park in 2010, I had scheduled a stadium tour followed by a night game at Wrigley. On the way back on I-94, I was pulled over for speeding. The patrolman asked why I going 78 in a 65 mph zone. I replied that I was in a hurry to make a game at Wrigley. We then spent a minute talking about the differences between Miller Park and Wrigley Field. Other friends from Chicago have commented at times about enjoying games at Miller Park, whether or not those games involved the Cubs. Curiosity piqued, I vowed to return to understand why people from all over the Midwest liked Miller Park so much. After spending a day there, it’s easy to see why. It fills a niche that no other park fills for a thousand miles.

A cheery atmosphere on the approach to Miller Park

A cheery atmosphere on the approach to Miller Park

Lest we forget, the two Chicago ballparks are outdoors. Even if you aren’t stuck under an overhang at Wrigley with the wind whipping around, April and May games can be brutally cold at times. Milwaukee has it slightly worse being 90 miles north of Chicago. And now that the Twins have moved outdoors, Miller Park is the only stadium in the Midwest that provides a comfortable domed environment for those occasional inclement weather games.

Not that the dome was needed during my visit. The temperature on Sunday was 70 with clear skies. The game would’ve been perfect at old County Stadium. Over 30,000 came to watch a tanking Brewers club take on an aging Phillies squad. It was a perfect matchup in 2010. Now it’s a matchup of also-rans. Fans came out to get a Carlos Gomez bobblehead, and unlike many other ballparks I’ve been to, there was a huge supply available at any gate even at first pitch.

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Just outside the left field entrance. Bernie Brewer’s home run slide visible on the right.

Before I entered the stadium, I drove to the general parking lot on the east bank of the Menomenee River. A pair pedestrian bridges connect the stadium to the general lots, with preferred lots located closer. It’s easy to be distracted by the various types of tailgating arrangements on display in the general lots. Orderly clusters lined each row with precision, while larger staging areas were set up next to the river. A live cover band played 90’s hits. Klement’s, the sausage company that makes the meat tubes for the Brewers and sponsors the famed sausage race, has its own outpost on the east bank. The pedestrian bridges, while short, created that processional feel that we A’s fans know from walking on the BART bridge. The Miller Park scenery is far less foreboding than industrial East Oakland, and Wisconsin even landscaped Hank Aaron State Trail along the river. The sausage racers were assembled on the bridges, posing for pictures with fans. The whole thing was friendly, friendly, friendly.

Right field lower concourse plaza

Right field lower concourse plaza

Enter the park at either the left or right field corners and you’re greeted by a wide concourse that feels equal parts arcade, state fair, and ballpark. The concourses are so wide that each corner has its own mini food court. Attractions for kids are everywhere along the outfield. The scene becomes less interesting around the infield, where suites and restrooms line the lower concourse, pushing fans out to the glass skin enveloping the ballpark. Behind home plate the fair resumes and views of the field are available.

Numerous escalators fill the space, and they’re necessary since there are four full levels of seats. The field (lower) deck has at most 26 rows. The loge (second) deck has less than 20. Each has its own full concourse. The loge deck has minimal cantilever over the field deck, extending well back over the lower concourse. A short club/suite level is sandwiched between the loge deck and the 20-row terrace (upper) deck. As if often the case in domes, the limited footprint required to conserve space forces more vertical construction. The upper deck is chock full of Uecker seats. I went up to Section 404 in the RF corner and took pictures from the top. It didn’t seem quite as high or cavernous as Chase Field, but it was close. At least from the bird’s eye view I got a real appreciation for how the roof was put together. A unique, five-panel fan shape, the roof has a pivot point behind the plate and travels on guides atop the outfield wall. Mitsubishi was forced to replace the bogies that move the roof panels in 2006 for over $13 million. The roof was open during the game, which allowed light to flood in from the top and through the large clerestory arches down both baselines. The windows in the outfield were also open. Although the roof’s mammoth presence tends to dominate the landscape from outside Miller Park, it manages to be somewhat minimized inside. It also helps that outfield signage is mostly limited to the center field scoreboard. After the game the roof was promptly closed.

Behind the batter's eye

Behind the batter’s eye

Just beyond the outfield fence are a series of party spaces. In left are the T.G.I.Friday’s bar and the Harley-Davidson Deck, plus Bernie Brewer’s slide, which the mascot uses whenever the home team hits a home run. In right is the Mountain Dew “Dew Deck” and field level seats behind the bullpen. There’s also a patio immediately behind the outfield fence with a full bar.

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Right field fence party patio

No Brewers game would be complete without a Klement’s bratwurst, which I scarfed down after throwing some secret stadium sauce on it. At $4.25 it’s a good deal, if a bit small. I also got a swirl frozen custard for $4.75. Given the poor craft beer choices and the fact that I had to immediately drive back to Chicago, I decided against getting a beer. One thing I noticed is that Miller Park’s concessions, run by Delaware North, are part of that growing trend of using volunteers with nonprofits as labor. I’m sure it’s a good way to raise money, and the staff were plenty competent, but I always come away from the experience feeling that teams only follow this practice to make some extra bucks.

Roof closed after the game

Roof closed after the game

If there’s a big negative, it’s that sneaking down is pretty difficult. The public service announcement for fans entering the ballpark urges them to stay in their assigned seat only. Ushers at every aisle checked tickets rigorously and repeatedly, even through the 7th inning. Maybe it’s easier with a smaller crowd, but while I was there enforcement was strong enough to be a serious deterrent.

View of Miller Park from Helfaer Field

View of Miller Park from Helfaer Field. Area outside 1B line is a designated legal ticket resale (scalping) area

When I visited Miller Park three years ago, I came away feeling it was too big, too gimmicky, and not intimate enough. While those points stand, they’ve been softened a little upon further review. Miller Park may be the friendliest ballpark in the majors, whether we’re talking about fans or staff. Sometimes people make all the difference. That’s definitely the case in Milwaukee.

The reactionary stadium (Chicago doubleheader)

I should go, see you in June – Smashing Pumpkins, “Rhinoceros”

Chicago skyline from Gate 5 at U.S. Cellular Field

Chicago skyline from Gate 5 at U.S. Cellular Field

As a born-and-bred West Coast, California kid, I gleefully admit to my various friends my general ignorance about other climates around North America. Many of my friends are transplants who casually talk about missing seasons while secretly celebrating not needing air conditioning (or much heating) where they currently live in the Bay Area. I’m smug and glib about it, I know. So it’s those times when I go out of my comfort zone that I learn a lot more about baseball and the way it’s enjoyed in other parts of the country.

Midwesterners tell me all the time about weird summer weather and turning leaves. None of it is a good substitute for me experiencing that weather. So it was with a little disappointment that I learned just prior to this weekend’s Chicago trip that the weather would be mostly overcast or partly sunny during the day with highs in the upper-60’s/low-70’s, lows in the low-50’s. I thought to myself, That’s the weather I’m USED to, I didn’t bargain for this. Rain would not be a factor in any of the five games on my slate, with only a tease of thunderstorms on the way in and out of Chicago. Alas.

View from my seat of grandstand. Ramps and fence behind grandstand are visible.

View from my seat of Wrigley Field grandstand. Ramps and fence behind grandstand are visible.

Still, since I was in the area four days, there was time to experience the game at a less rushed pace. Friday was the big doubleheader, a 1:20 game on the North Side and a 7:10 tilt on the South Side. I went to the Cubs game solo and the A’s-White Sox game with Zonis, who lent me a day parking pass for his street just three blocks from Wrigley Field. I had been so used to taking the El up to Wrigley Field that I wanted a different experience, and there was no way I would pass this up. Safe navigation to Zonis’s house completed and after a chat with the young man and his dad (they had just completed their own mini ballpark trip to Milwaukee and Beloit), I walked out of Zonis’s house and started the three block walk.

Vinyl covered exterior seems loud, no?

Vinyl covered exterior seems loud, no?

Then I heard it. The pregame organ. It’s a siren song to the residents of the neighborhood, telling everyone that’s okay to come out and play, to cut school or work, to enjoy a day at the yard. It’s something that often gets ignored coming from the Addison Red Line station because of train and crowd noise. In the comparatively tranquil setting of the Lakeview neighborhood, the organ made me feel like I was already there, that the neighborhood was a big theme park where all the streets would eventually lead me to Wrigley. No other urban ballpark is as integrated to its environs as Wrigley Field is. Fenway comes second at night when it turns into Red Sox game mode, but Wrigley really shines for these day games, making Fenway a distant second. Nothing else comes close, because of the way new ballparks are designed to be insular.

Wrigley Field exterior along Addison Street

Wrigley Field exterior along Addison Street

Wrigley famously has very little façade. Behind home plate is the light gray concrete structure accented by green and the distinctive red marquee. It’s not brick or sandstone, and there’s little to write home about. At some point recently the Cubs decided to have huge vinyl signs of the players cover up much of the concrete, as many newer parks have done. As much as I appreciate the blast of color, I miss the old humble concrete. Along the first and third baselines are chain link fences, so the back of each deck is exposed to the street it faces. Narrow ramps and corridors fill some of the space along the fences, creating numerous places for fans to stand. The back of the lower deck is also a great place to catch some sun, especially if you don’t have the gift of a sun-kissed seat close to the field (or the bleachers for that matter). One of the downsides of the open back is the lack of wind buffeting. Throughout the back of the grandstand the wind has a tendency to swirl, whereas close to the field the conditions are downright placid. An open back design would never pass muster in the current era. Potential neighbors would complain about the lack of noise insulation that a façade and other elements provide. Owners and architects would push for a design with more heft, and that requires a façade whether it’s stone, brick, or glass.

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Gate 5 at U.S. Cellular Field is separated from the ballpark by 35th Street. Fans who enter here use footbridges to enter ballpark.

I had a seat in section/aisle 223, row 27, which had me hopelessly stuck under the upper deck overhang with a column in plain view (but not obstructing). As the winds swirled around and brought the shade temperature down to the mid-50’s, my jacket-less and goosebump-ridden self started to look for ways to warm. The back of the lower deck was nice option. Wrigley’s compact design and unique network of ramps makes it easy to move among the decks. There’s only one concourse at street level, beneath the 200-level seats on the lower deck. I made my typical shutterbug walk in the 4th inning to capture as much with my camera as I could.

The true beauty of Wrigley reveals itself best when emerging from one of the tunnels in either the left or right field corners. Up a long stairway, suddenly you’re among the lucky sun-drenched fans. Ferris Bueller and his friends made the LF corner idyllic, whereas Steve Bartman made it notorious. You go there and then you figure out ways to stay there forever. As the shadows move during the game, those further away from the field down the 3B line get their sun taken away, a cruel tease.

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View of home plate from my seat at Wrigley Field

Old Comiskey Park was even worse from a sun standpoint. The upper deck was only 16 rows from the field in foul territory, and completely hung over the lower deck in fair territory. While Wrigley was “wide open” behind the lower deck, Comiskey had windows to let some natural light in. Nevertheless, Comiskey’s reputation was always darker and more foreboding, an image owed to numerous factors such as the South Side location, the catacomb bullpens, and the generally darker, danker atmosphere.

View of home plate from my seat at U.S. Cellular Field

View of home plate from my seat at U.S. Cellular Field (night game)

Knowing what Sox fans had experienced for decades, Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf would give fans coming to the new Comiskey Park (nee U.S. Cellular Field) a much sunnier, wide open experience. The suite/upper deck cantilever is only a few rows above the back of the lower deck. Initially there was only a small roof covering the upper rows the upper deck. With a modern design derived from Kansas City’s Royals Stadium, New Comiskey was to be the more family-friendly albeit less intimate experience. Ramps were well removed from the concourse, especially the ones on the 3B side (across 35th Street). Escalators brought fans to their exclusive levels on three seating levels, with no way for fans to move from one level to another without proper admission. Seating sections were narrow to provide better access. The outfield seats were a single level, fully exposed like the Wrigley bleachers, and had full concessions plus a huge concourse. Enormous scoreboards and a video board were placed along the outfield, blocking much of the view of the less-than-desirable neighborhood to the southeast.

Upper concourse at U.S. Cellular Field

Upper concourse at U.S. Cellular Field

The upper deck concourse was also exposed, with only the tall seating bowl providing protection from the elements. That was changed in the 2004 renovations, when the concourse enclosed with translucent windows providing natural light. The Gate 3 ramps provided gorgeous views of The Loop, but the ballpark was built in the era before recognizing skylines, so New Comiskey turned its back to the city. Reinsdorf eventually reduced the park’s capacity while introducing touches reminiscent of Old Comiskey, such as the more extensive roof.

And so we have the starkest contrasts in ballpark building (multipurpose stadia don’t count as ballparks per se), mere minutes from each other on the Red Line. There’s “The Cell” with its hulking, seemingly impenetrable concrete edifice, and Wrigley, where the boundary between the ballpark and its neighborhood almost doesn’t exist. The former advances sun at the expense of intimacy, the latter brought intimacy well before anyone cared to consider ballparks as intimate or not intimate. We’ve seen the era of multipurpose stadia rise and fall, to be replaced by retro ballparks that feign intimacy while providing virtue for sun-seekers. It’s a summer sport, and in a place where summer really exists for only three months, we’ve seen owners and fans take great care to appreciate every bit of summer they can get. While Californians take summer for granted, those in the Continental climate savor it just a little more than we do. Therefore I can’t blame new ballparks like The Cell or Comerica for not being intimate. They’re just trying to give as much summer to as many fans as they can bring into the ballpark. As much as I prefer an aggressive cantilever to bring upper deck fans closer, I can see the argument against it. It took a trip to Chicago to fully understand the dilemma.