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November 15, 2006

Hail, Hail, Fremontia

The A's Look Southward

by Neil deMause

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"I can feel the excitement." That was Northern California native Christina Kahrl, upon being told that Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff had scheduled a news conference for yesterday afternoon to announce his plans to move the team 25 miles south to a new stadium in the city of Fremont. There are many things that are exciting--or enraging, depending on your perspective--about new stadium announcements, but watching three guys in suits sitting in front of a backdrop talking about a plan that's been an open rumor for five months is not one of them.

That said, yesterday's press event kicked off what's sure to be a years-long public battle over the future of the A's. The bare bones of the plan to cart the A's down I-880 to Fremont (as far south as you can go in the East Bay without rounding the corner and finding yourself in the South Bay, aka "Giants territory") had been public knowledge for a while now: the team would lease a plot of land currently controlled by networking giant Cisco Systems, and plunk down a stadium seating between 30,000 and 34,000 fans, accompanied by a hundred acres or so of condos. As for everything else--who would pay for it, how fans would get there, and so on--those details would be provided on another day.

That day was not yesterday. Between Wolff ("We are customer-oriented!") and Bud Selig ("This stadium will not only reflect the latest in everything, but it will reflect a unique sensitivity to fans"), there was enough empty rhetoric to fuel the 2008 presidential campaign. Cisco execs, meanwhile, showed off their latest technological gimcrackery, demonstrating how the company's interlocking land-and-naming-rights-and-fancy-shmancy-electronic-gear deal would provide fans who were running late to the game with the ability to watch live game footage on their PDAs--apparently unaware that unless current MLB blackout rules are lifted, they'll have to settle for video of the Padres-Rockies game. It was at about this point that a techie friend IM'd me with the message: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo."

Some more significant questions were asked in the press Q&A that followed, but the answers weren't exactly forthcoming. Some of the high points:

What will the stadium look like? Wolff briefly flashed a few renderings on the screen, displaying a park that looks cut from the same HOK mold as everything built in the last decade or so: a few quirky angles, some buildings beyond the outfield wall, a big honking scoreboard in dead center. (In one original twist, Cisco plans to make this the world's first two-sided scoreboard, so that neighbors in the public park next door can view game footage and Budweiser ads.) What we do know is the size: at a mere 30,000 to 34,000 seats, Cisco Field would be the smallest stadium in the majors, and the lowest-capacity park to open since before World War II.

Wolff called that "intimate," but the more relevant term is "ticket scarcity." A's ownership has long griped that the spacious Oakland Coliseum, especially in its Mount Davis incarnation, has made it too easy for fans to put off the decision on whether to attend games until the last minute; Oakland annually leads the league in walk-up ticket sales. For you and me, that might sound great--no having to buy tickets in January when you don't know if the weather will be nasty or some Triple-A fill-in will be on the mound, like fans in Boston must--but for Wolff and Co., it's a costly annoyance not to know how many scorecard vendors to hire until the last minute.

More important, as any first-year economics student will tell you, reduce supply and prices go up. This is a lesson that many teams are taking to heart, as baseball as an industry decides that it's better business to sell fewer tickets for more money than more tickets for less. It's actually arguable that the new Mets stadium, at 42,500 seats plus 1,500 standing room, is a tighter fit in the New York market than a 34,000-seater is in the East Bay, not that that is likely to be much solace to A's fans.

How will fans get there? Like the current A's home, the proposed new stadium is right alongside I-880; unlike the Coliseum, it's nowhere near any public transit. When the idea of an A's ballpark on the Cisco land was first raised a few years back, former Fremont mayor Gus Morrison gasped, "Gee whiz, if you're going to have a full house, you'll have 25,000 cars dumping out onto one freeway access."

The obvious solution is to extend the BART mass transit rail line, which currently ends five miles away in north Fremont. But no one has calculated a budget for this, and in any case previously proposed BART extensions wouldn't come within two miles of the proposed ballpark site.

This is probably the single most pressing question on the minds of traffic-obsessed A's fans, and one of the questions posed to Wolff during the Q & A was how fans could possibly get to a weekday game when "880 is an unbearable commute already." Wolff replied, "Your question is a valid one," then mumbled something about needing to get "input from the community" before answering directly. Possible translation: "I'm going to let you people clamor for a mass transit link until the BART Commission caves and agrees to pay for one. Then I'll have a free transit upgrade, and my land will be even more valuable! Bwahahaha!"

Who will pay for it? Asked if he could say how much public money he'd be asking for, Wolff chuckled, "No, I can't," adding helpfully: "This is primarily a private activity, but we'll use both process and entitlements to come up with a financial plan to be presented to the city of Fremont [and] Alameda County."

This was a key point: for all of the dogs and ponies on display, yesterday's announcement was only of an agreement between the A's and Cisco, as neither the city nor county has been brought into the discussion yet. Even in the unlikely case that no public money is required, Wolff's project would almost certainly require zoning variances or other special development approvals from the city--something that should be far easier now that it's a major-league baseball team and not a faceless manufacturer of routers doing the asking.

What will this mean for the A's on the field? Wolff had GM Billy Beane on hand to talk about the bright new future on the horizon; Beane enthused that a new stadium should mean an end to the days of "rooting for laundry," noting that in recent years for Oakland fans, "the name on the front has been consistent, but the name on the back has changed. If a kid starts in first grade with a favorite player, he can follow that player all the way through, because this will give us that opportunity."

A new stadium should certainly boost Wolff's incentive to open his pockets to sign players--as I've noted before, the pricier the seats, the higher a player's value for putting fannies in them. But it's also worth noting that with nearly every team in the nation now sporting a new stadium, fresh digs aren't the instant ticket to glory they might once have seemed.

And, of course, there's the little matter that tickets to glory haven't been so much the A's problem in recent years as numbers on the bank statement. One of the more shameless moments during the press conference came when Selig declared: "If you want a team to be competitive, if you're playing in a stadium that can't produce the revenue streams that you need, you are really rendering that franchise uncompetitive." Given that since the 2000 season, the A's have the second-most number of wins in baseball (664), the mind boggles at what they'd be doing if they were actually competitive.

And speaking of the name on the jersey fronts...

What will the team be called? "Fremont A's" is by consensus a non-starter, leaving such possibilities as "California A's" and "Silicon Valley A's" as the front-runners by default. When Selig was asked about the team name by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter last week, he snapped: "Let's not get into controversies." Wolff similarly ducked the question, quipping--at least, I didn't think he was serious--that whatever the name it would include the words "of Fremont," and ultimately saying, "That's a decision that we're not going to make for at least two or three years." And asked point-blank if the team would be allowed to call itself the "San Jose A's of Fremont," given that San Jose is within the San Francisco Giants' alloted home territory, Selig grumped: "Everybody understands the situation, everybody understands my feelings, and there's nothing more that I have to say." Alrighty, then.

The upshot, then, is that we don't know much more today than we did yesterday morning, other than that Wolff expects the stadium-mulling process to take between three and five years, and that Cisco execs think it'd be really keen to be able to order cheese fries with your Treo. The Fremont A's plan could go down in history as an innovative way to fund a new stadium without draining the public purse; as an epic land dodge to increase the value of a piece of worthless property by using a ballclub as the bait; as a clever end run around territorial rights by slant drilling into the Giants' "San Jose fanbase"; or as a mere will o' the wisp, to end up a historical footnote alongside the Washington Padres and the Tampa Bay Giants.

Speaking of which, if you're wondering whether anyone dropped the M-bomb, the answer is yes. After nearly an hour of happy talk, Wolff came out with this:

"I just feel staying in Alameda County and not bothering my commissioner about other cities in the country--because that's our only option. Our only option after this is to move out of California."

Because nothing says "customer-oriented" like a little blackmail.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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