Clock Is Ticking, Says Manfred

After he threatened to move the A’s from Oakland to Las Vegas in October, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pumped the brakes during the Winter Meetings this week. Asked about the state of the A’s, Manfred reverted to good cop mode:

“I think one of the things baseball has done well over decades is maintain its commitment to its current cities and we’d desperately like to maintain our commitment to the city of Oakland. I think the wild-card game and the excitement surrounding it shows there is a fan base there, but the clock is ticking. It’s time to get to it in terms of that stadium.”

It’s important to look at the A’s through the lens of Manfred’s entire tenure, not just through individual moves.

Throughout these five years, Manfred exercised patience with Oakland the market and Oakland the political sphere. The Warriors and Raiders announced their moves, giving the A’s the East Bay to themselves. If that was the goal, Manfred’s patience was warranted. However, emptying out a market couldn’t be the ultimate goal. A new ballpark in that market is the ultimate goal. The resistance to the Peralta site didn’t raise Manfred’s ire. The friction at the Coliseum did. Additional obstacles at Howard Terminal could do the same. Manfred’s “clock is ticking” comment is a gentle reminder that he can break out the move card at any time.

The question I have for you readers is, How much of a threat does Manfred actually hold? Vegas is a sore spot because they’ll be the home for the Raiders starting in 2020 and into the foreseeable future. Yet Vegas isn’t exactly ready to build a ballpark for the A’s, or the Dbacks, or anyone else for that matter. Vegas plays the classic stalking horse role at the moment, same as they did when Oscar Goodman was parading showgirls in front of The Lodge 15 years ago. A ballpark in Vegas would be predicated on the same ancillary development scheme being considered in Portland and yes, Oakland. In addition to the 2-3 years needed to build a domed ballpark, Vegas or Clark County or the State of Nevada would have to fire up the political machine to put together a land deal and financing scheme for the ballpark-cum-village, an effort that will surely take at least two more years.

Last week St. Petersburg’s Mayor shut down the Montreal-shared-custody Rays plan. Manfred responded by continuing to push the plan with far less fervor. Instead, he said that for now, the lease at Tropicana Field would continue to be honored. Of course, another city like Nashville or Charlotte could act as a new stalking horse for the Rays.

Manfred supported Stu Sternberg in the latter’s cockamamie scheme. Kriseman said no. Back to the drawing board. While some Rays fans are left dreaming of a new home for their team, the team itself remains status quo, for better and worse. They’re not going anywhere until after the 2027 season, unless a successor ballpark is built in the area. The A’s are in the same scenario until 2024. Just as threats to move the Rays ring hollow, so do the threats to move the A’s. Honestly everyone, don’t fall for it.

Enjoy the walkoffs

As the media starts to write their farewells to the Raiders, it’s important to remember that one team remains and should be here for years, if not decades, to come. It’s not time to scramble to make any deal just because the A’s are the only team left in town. Everyone – the team, the fans, the citizens of Oakland and Alameda County – deserves a fair deal. That means questions need to be asked. Questions that you might not want to ask. Questions that some of us haven’t even considered to ask yet. Maybe some of those questions won’t be fully answered. It won’t be for lack of trying. For now, enjoy the team that calls Oakland home. As we’ve seen with the other teams, nothing is forever.

Offseason News: Sans-Oakland Edition

Next week the MLB’s annual GM meetings get underway in San Diego. Before that, the business sides of several franchises used this week to take care of, er, business.

The Angels struck a deal with the City of Anaheim to extend their stay in town until at least 2050, as reported by the LA Times’ Bill Shaikin. The team will also develop much of the Angels Stadium parking lot, which should help fund a new stadium on the 153-acre site. Much like what deal the Giants made with San Francisco to develop the parking lots near China Basin, and the more complex reimagining of the Coliseum by the A’s, ownership groups are using their teams to propel nearby real estate investment. In the Giants’ case, the process was delayed until the stadium was practically paid off. The A’s are trying to manage two sites several miles apart, while the Angels want to keep everything in one place. The one major complication for the Angels is the status of the The Grove, a city-owned 1,700-seat auditorium on the north side of the lot. The Grove’s location is right on Katella Avenue, the main arterial street in the area.

Locals will undoubtedly complain about the eventual loss of easy ingress/egress as the area is redeveloped. Some may also point to the notion that dev rights or entitlements are a form of indirect subsidy. Pro sports has its price, and if indirect subsidies are what keeps the team from moving to Long Beach or Las Vegas that’s the price. Anaheim’s City Council votes on the deal on December 20.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman laid the hammer down on the Rays, killing any idea of the team having a split home situation: spring/early regular season in Tampa Bay, summer/fall in Montreal. Or did he? As Noah Pransky opined:

Yikes. In any case, the Rays are stuck in St. Pete through 2027. Or until someone concocts the next scheme to get them out. Underneath all of this is the existential problem facing the Rays that no other market has to deal with. The Rays are a major league team in an area saturated with minor league teams. The area is also saturated with spring training teams on a seasonal basis, plus many east coast teams have year-round training facilities there. In the past few years, teams have left the Orlando area to concentrate on the Suncoast or Gold Coast, leaving Orlando as a possible MLB relocation candidate. Former Orlando Magic exec Pat Williams is leading the effort. Orlando may seem to be a sideways move at best for the Rays, but it’s important to point out that Arizona cleared the decks for the Dbacks by getting rid of minor league teams and consolidating spring training facilities. The playbook, however unlikely, has been used before.

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Speaking of Arizona, the Dbacks put together a 67-page wishlist for their new park. The list has all the current trending items:

  • Smaller – 36,000-42,000
  • Retractable roof
  • Integrated concert venue/auditorium seating up to 5,000
  • Lots of ancillary development

While Henderson, NV pitched a plan earlier this year, the team says it’s focused on Maricopa County (the Phoenix area). It’s worth asking if the point of all this development is to help pay for the ballpark, or to use the ballpark to fatten owners’ portfolios. Some might call that synergy. As I live in Scottsdale, I am following this one to some extent. The team continues to look at the Scottsdale-Tempe corridor for a solution.

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The Marlins are installing the new version of artificial turf similar to the kind installed last year at Chase Field and slated to go into Globe Life Field for its inaugural season. They’re also bringing in the fences.

I ventured out to Chase a couple times this year to check out the turf.

We’re getting to the point where the difference between natural grass and artificial turf matters less and less aesthetically. Turf technology continues to incrementally improve in terms of playability and player safety, making the choice between grass and turf mostly a value proposition. Teams in the Sun Belt face dying grass fields indoors, which leads to novel solutions like grass trays that roll outside. That’s harder to accomplish with an irregularly-shaped field used in baseball than with a smaller football gridiron or soccer field, so baseball is trending back towards the fake stuff in some cases. Sun Belt teams also face huge air conditioning bills, which teams can reduce those costs by not keeping a retractable roof with debatable effectiveness open. In California, where it rains infrequently during the baseball season, or the Midwest or Northeast, where there are no baseball domes, there is no debate.

As for bringing in the fences, Marlins Park was extremely triples-friendly and below average for home runs last year. This follows a similar effort in 2016. I suppose it’s better to build big and bring the fences in than to build a bandbox and have little space to expand out.

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Staying in the Sun Belt, the Rangers held batting practice in Globe Life Field. The dimensions were released as well.

Joey Gallo likes it. I’m sure Matt Olson will too. It isn’t as extreme as Minute Maid Park to left, but right field is pretty much the same. Unlike predecessor Globe Life Park, the crazy winds should be kept in check thanks to the dome even when open. Maybe the Rangers have finally built a place that Bill King would be happy to step foot in.

Contraction Comes To The Minors

Change is a-coming. Maybe.

The above map shows the 42 cities MLB is considering to wipe off the face of the earth. That is, if the face of the earth constituted of affliated minor league baseball teams. (Go ahead, take a few minutes to expand the map and study it.) Some people call this a restructuring of the minors. Others call it contraction. I come from the tech world. We call this downsizing.

Read about what’s being proposed:

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the weekend. My initial reaction is to try to preserve professional baseball in all cities and towns that have it regardless of size or affiliation. I do recognize that, historically, baseball has undergone numerous transformations regarding its relationship with its farm system(s) for decades. If you look at the map, you’ll see that California is mostly safe from this downsizing, with the exception of the high-A Lancaster JetHawks, whose current stadium opened in 1996. But if you scratch the surface, you’ll see that the California League has itself undergone a great deal of restructuring, losing teams and changing affiliations at a rapid rate recently. (Remember how the A’s used to have two Cal League affiliates?) The new trends of vertical ownership (MLB teams owning choice affiliates) and minimizing lower level team affiliations is foreboding for cities in the Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues, where the cities are literally several hours from the nearest MLB stadium and long bus rides from each other. Dropping teams is a surefire way to kill baseball fandom in those places, by making it much less accessible to the average fan or family.

The thing is, I see the point of the ruthless efficiency at work here. I live in Scottsdale, within walking distance of the Giants’ Cactus League stadium and training facility. I’m 15 minutes from the A’s in Mesa. I’m practically down the road from Phoenix Muni, where the A’s used to play and ASU’s baseball program now plays its home games after the A’s left for Mesa. I can see baseball for cheap or free nine months a year, without having to pay escalating MLB prices. That is a tremendous gift to me, and an enormous convenience for the 15 teams that have Cactus League facilities. They can do regular spring training, extended spring training, summer league, fall league, and rehab all in one place. Bus rides are mercifully short. Living costs are manageable. That doesn’t mean that minor league ball is obsolete. In fact, MiLB drew over 41 million fans last season, and there continue to be new venues popping up all over the country. Prospects still need to prove themselves at different levels. Yet there is an argument for some sort of consolidation.

That said, looming over all of this is potential backlash. If MLB chooses to cut ties with dozens of cities, good luck trying to get the next smallish municipality to buy into the baseball-as-boon concept. There’s talk of lawsuits. Surely there would be many of those, though MLB’s antitrust protection only extends to major league games and the cities that host MLB teams. It’s not surprising that the idea may have originated with the already-on-the-hot-seat Houston Astros organization. Whether this is merely a trial balloon or the start of a major reform effort, minor league baseball has major issues to address, such as paying a living wage.

As much as I am a fan of an analytically driven approach to baseball, there are limits. Baseball is still a game played by human beings, in communities, not entirely on spreadsheets. Not everything about the sport should be boiled down to being a revenue or cost center, or an investment with an ROI. As we saw during the World Series, there has to be room for drama and feeling. That’s what loving baseball – or any spectator sport – is about. If you suffocate the communities, you kill the game. I hope that the Lodge, in its infinite wisdom, doesn’t forget how important that is.

*BLINK*

 

It figures that right before a hearing, hours after I mention the latest lawsuit in a post, that one of the parties chooses to drop the lawsuit.

That’s what happened tonight, as the Oakland City Council ordered the City Attorney to drop the lawsuit over the Coliseum land. Per the Chronicle’s Sarah Ravani:

That was followed by the A’s own release:

Okay, now what? Well, don’t break out the shovels just yet. Why? Because the key sentence in the City’s statement is this:

Additionally, the Council directed the issuance of a surplus land notice on the Coliseum site, a legally required precursor to selling public land.

According to the checklist (PDF) put together by nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, that’s gonna add at least 60 days to the land sale process. I expect the City to continue to negotiate concessions from the A’s in the interim. As affordable housing is not a huge moneymaker without some sort of subsidization effort, I wouldn’t expect a ton of better offers than what the A’s can provide. The important thing, though, is that the process is being followed properly, and codified in the Surplus Land Act is a desire to approve bidders that can provide 25% of the constructed units as affordable or below market-rate.

There’s also a provision to approve park uses for surplus land, which may require a small zoning change if it’s what the A’s have on the drawing board – converting the Coliseum into a park/amphitheater.

Throughout all of the legal and political wrangling during the fall, both City and County had rather different takes on who was following the right procedures with the Surplus Land Act. Both the park and affordable housing are in the A’s plans, which has me wondering why the City and County couldn’t get on the same page in September when this mess started. Similarly, why would the A’s go along with a plan so likely to face political friction? Perhaps they wanted to take the procedural express lane to Howard Terminal. So much for that. Over at Beyond the Box Score, Sheryl Ring provided greater insight into the specifics of the law.

For this whole concept – ballpark at Howard Terminal, redevelopment of the Coliseum – there’s a great deal of work to flesh out the details. If the A’s end up putting no affordable housing at Howard Terminal and try to place all of the affordable units at the Coliseum, that’s likely to go over like a lead balloon. Then again, it’s unclear if Howard Terminal itself is subject to the Surplus Land Act, which would really throw a wrench into the A’s projections.

I was surprised when Rob Manfred used the move threat card at what I considered a very early juncture. Then I remembered that the commissioner can use it whenever he likes without fear of reprisal. Antitrust exemption, you know. Exhale, everyone.

A’s and Cubs to host 2020 Cactus League weekends in Vegas

Yesterday the Las Vegas Aviators announced two Big League weekends during spring training next year. The first, on February 29 & March 1, will feature the A’s hosting the Cleveland Indians. The following weekend, March 7-8, will have the Chicago Cubs hosting the Cincinnati Reds. The games will be played at Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin (see gallery below).

The newly scheduled games are in addition to the existing Cactus League slate, which makes the new games all split-squad affairs. That’s good to know for those planning to attend while expecting to see certain stars. Your chances are 50/50 on that count.

Last May I visited Las Vegas Ballpark, which is located in the suburb of Summerlin, at the west edge of the valley. It’s 10 miles from the Strip, located down the street from Red Rock, one of the many locals casinos in the area. It is by far the best, swankiest AAA ballpark I’ve ever attended, though that compliment comes with one major caveat. If you remember the history of Raley Field, when it was developed there was discussion about how it could be built for easy future expansion to a MLB-sized facility. A huge rainstorm during the winter of construction nixed those plans and delayed the eventual opening of the ballpark. Raley Field is still nice, yet decidedly a AAA ballpark. The same goes for Las Vegas Ballpark and First Tennessee Park in Nashville.

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Maybe events like these are ways to showcase Vegas or Nashville for future expansion or relocation. Problem is that the venues’ relative size (10,000 seats) makes that showcase extremely limited. It’s a long way from 10,000 seats (the game I attended was sold out) to a 30,000+ domed stadium that will have to be placed much closer to downtown as opposed to a suburb in order to better capture the market’s population. Not to mention the financing part, which thanks to the Raiders’ stadium, shuts off a major public funding source. Beyond that, some compensation is due to the Aviators, who would themselves need relocation and whose ownership group owns the Summerlin ballpark. That’s the case whether a new Vegas ballpark is built near the Strip, in Summerlin, or in Henderson as was discussed a few months ago with the D-backs.

Allegiant Stadium, which is approaching $2 billion in construction cost, is clearly on the minds of East Bay fans who feel spurned by the Raiders. Despite that very recent pain, that’s no reason for Oakland to give up its bargaining position when it comes to the A’s. Last month I was rooting for the lawsuit to come to fruition as it could put the Coliseum land sale issue to rest. That reckoning begins tomorrow. Regardless of the outcome, MLB isn’t in the position to decide to open up Vegas to any team overnight. For Vegas to happen for the Raiders required some serious moving of mountains. For the A’s and A’s fans, this is gonna be a bumpy ride. The time for pearl-clutching is not here yet, not even close.

The Adult Conversation, Aborted

I never intended to create a series of posts titled “Adult Conversation,” yet here they are:

…plus there are other related posts that had to do with Coliseum City in 2015:

What happened since then? Besides the the Warriors leaving for SF and the Raiders’ announcement of their exodus to Vegas, not that much.

Now that the City and County are embroiled in a lawsuit over the sale of the County’s share of the Coliseum to the A’s, we’re stuck in a state of utter confusion. Quick recap: City sued County two weeks ago. Rob Manfred stepped in and threatened to move the A’s to Vegas if City doesn’t back down. This week, County threatens to stop negotiations on the Coliseum if City doesn’t back down.

Hold on a sec. Does anyone really know what the two sides are arguing about?

Remaining debt payments on the Coliseum after 2012 refinancing

According to the City of Oakland, Alameda County went and took the offer from the A’s without seeking a counteroffer from the City. The previous working plan was that the County would pay off the debt, and the City would pay back the County over time to regain control of the entire complex, allowing the County to exit the sports venue business. That was the essence of the adult conversation. The City didn’t (and reportedly still doesn’t) have the money to pay for their share and pay back the County, so that went nowhere.

However, the City is now revealing a different wrinkle to the A’s deal. According to City Council member Larry Reid, the County is allowing the A’s to pay off the County’s remaining debt installments, a pitch that the County didn’t in turn make to the City. That sounds a lot like what the City wanted, right? This is what doesn’t make sense to me. The City wasn’t able to take over the debt, yet they say the County didn’t give City the option to try? (As far as I know, neither City nor County have the option to accelerate the payments to pay off their share early.)

Either the City or County is interpreting the terms of the arrangement wrong. And that is what I find most disappointing about all of this. The two sides, after back and forth periods of acrimony and harmony, literally had years to iron out the details of the Coliseum’s dissolution. That is what was supposed to be the eventual product of the adult conversation. Perhaps they got distracted by the pipe dream that was Coliseum City. There were certainly other more pressing civic priorities over the years. But the important takeaway from all of this is that the Coliseum JPA is about to get out of all of this without going broke in the process, though they certainly got close. Whether the land is sold back to the City or is sold to the A’s, both City and County will be made whole, instead of incurring even more enormous debt via a new complex of stadia as they were ready to incur.

That all said, part of me is hoping for the November hearing to go as currently scheduled, as it could finally put the matter to rest. The two sides are having closed-door talks right now to settle out of court. Maybe that’ll finally result in something. They had a chance to settle for years. What should cause them to strike a deal now, after all this time? Sometimes, the only thing you know is litigation.

New Howard Terminal Renderings from the BCDC 10/7 Design Board Meeting

The BCDC held its first public meeting about the Howard Terminal project on Monday night. Download the report and the exhibits addendum with all the lovely renderings for more details. Among the details was the description of what the A’s are planning to build. There’s a lot to cover, so in this post I’ll focus only one a couple of items. I’ll cover the rest of the interesting stuff in the coming days.

Before we get started, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from the report.

Baseball Park Development (Exhibits 11-17, 22-34)

For the purposes of organization in this staff report, the Baseball Park Development section considers all development east of Market Street which includes the ballpark, Athletics Way promenade, the development parcels surrounding the ballpark, Stomper Plaza, and the waterfront parks adjacent to the stadium.

The ballpark, with capacity for approximately 35,000 people, is proposed as an open-air bowl-shaped design. The ballpark includes a rooftop park that would reach an approximate elevation of +127’ NAVD881 and slope down to meet Water Street, along which home plate and the scoreboard are aligned. The ballpark seats are arranged in a configuration that creates a compact urban stadium footprint, with additional seating available on the rooftop park. The current proposal sets the field at approximately elevation +10.8’, which is about 3 feet below the existing grade of Water Street.

Athletics Way

Athletics Way is a proposed approximately 60-foot-wide 4.7-acre raised promenade with at-grade connections at Water Street that wraps around the ballpark. The promenade would serve as a public pathway and retail street for neighboring residents and visitors to the waterfront. The promenade would rise to elevation +34.8’, allowing for ballpark operational facilities to be tucked underneath the grade of Athletics Way. On gamedays and event days, the promenade would function as the stadium concourse and would be limited to ticketholders only.

One of the big reveals is the location of free viewing area beyond the right field power alley. In the diagram below, it’s where the green and orange areas intersect.

Game-Day Security Zone (with upper right inset of view from right field free area)

The feature is much like the free promenade area open for Giants games, except it’s not hemmed in by the water. At Oracle Park the policy is to limit fans to three innings in order to rotate through lines. The ballpark at Howard Terminal is symmetrical, so there is a similar area in left field. I would expect that to be utilized as a group picnic area.

Okay, now the good stuff.  I’ll make some observations as we go (click on each picture for a larger version). Focus on the scoreboard in the rendering below. Stay focused on the scoreboard as the perspective and viewing distance changes in the following renderings. And note how high the roof deck is. According to the report, the roof’s elevation is 127 feet. The field sits at nearly 11 feet, making the difference from field to top 116 feet. That’s taller than any part of the original seating bowl, and would land somewhere on the upper deck of Mount Davis. Again, look at the scoreboard. Then look at the gap between the roof and the seating bowl beneath it.

Rickey Plaza

It’ll be a trek to get to the apex of this ballpark. Multiple portals will allow fans to enter and exit the roof deck to shorten the journey. The portals will not be open on non-event days, otherwise it becomes a free-for-all. That leads to the best rooftop perch in the house, right behind home plate. Note the scoreboard and the batter’s eye. Looks far away, doesn’t it?

View from the Homeplate Terraces

BIG previously said that rim of the roof deck facing the field would be terraced, though not to the extent that there will be a large seating tier. Unless you need a wheelchair space or companion seat, it looks like you’ll have to stand. Considering how high up it is, that’s just as well. At least you can see in the image above a rail. You know how when you go to the upper deck during a typical A’s game there are always ushers to keep fans from loitering too close to the edge? Thankfully, there will be clear glass to prevent the pictured munchkin from plummeting. Assuming that’s how future A’s Access fans will be accommodated, there will surely be numerous opportunities to upgrade (not for free) to the good seats, on whatever basis their wallets can handle.

Rooftop Park

Back to the scoreboard. It’s slightly more visible because the new view looks further down the third base line. One consistent thing you’ll notice in all these images is how low the scoreboard is. Even the very first rendering has the scoreboard just above the batter’s eye. That’s more for the benefit of the folks in the seats as opposed to those on the roof. The roof is conceived in a way that will push most fans to the rim. Some of those fans will be 116 feet up. Others towards the foul poles will be lower, and the roof terraces will be placed lower as the roof descends to the field. I worry, though, that fans on the roof who don’t camp out early for a nice spot at the edge will have pretty bad or practically no views of the game.

Homeplate Hill

Consider this image, on a hill behind home plate. Not only can you not see home plate, you can barely see the scoreboard. Yet it’s named Homeplate Hill, a rather ironic choice. That brings me to my chief misgiving about this ballpark concept. I get that incorporating a park into a roof can create some fantastic views. However, those views do very little for baseball fans. Baseball historically doesn’t have steeply terraced stands as is commonly done in hockey and soccer. Eyes tend to drift from the normal pitcher-batter confrontation to action elsewhere. But this might be a step too far. This works great as a park. It might curry enough favor from community and civic advocates to win the day. Yet it comes at a cost. According to the plan, a sold out ballpark will have 10,000 people on this roof, up to 116 feet above the action. When they scream and chant, the roar will extend out into the estuary and towards downtown, not at the players. Maybe the idea is to have the 27,000 in the seats create most of the noise. If so, they might want to consider piping in some crowd noise to make up the difference. Oakland has been home to numerous experiments in ticket pricing and marketing, many of them unsuccessful. A’s Access? Successful so far. PSL’s? A miserable failure. I’m afraid that this ballpark plan exemplifies the wealth gap… with an actual gap.