Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nowhere Else To Go

The Oakland A’s were looking forward to construction of a new ballpark in Fremont, CA. However, squabbling with the locals over various factors led to delays that motivated the team to scrap the plan. Oakland returns to cavernously deserted McAfee Coliseum and goes back to the drawing board.

A’s GM Billy Beane had done a fine job of patching together competitive teams despite a lack of cash flow from the half-empty, outdated Coliseum that the team shares with the Oakland Raiders, and Beane was hoping for a new home that would kick-start the team’s revenue and allow him to acquire or retain the talent that would allow him to contend for the World Series. Alas, those plans have gone awry and the Mariners and Angels breathe a sigh of relief*, because Billy Beane with money would spell the end of the AL West as a competitive division.

* The Texas Rangers were too busy auditioning AA pitchers for their bullpen and gluing Michael Young back together to notice.

So, back at square one, speculation comes forth that the A’s will consider relocation, because relocation in professional sports is all the rage: Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Houston Oilers to Tennessee, Vancouver Grizzles to Memphis, half of the NHL’s Canadian teams out of Canada, Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans, Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City and the Montreal Expos to Washington DC. The Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins damn near hauled away before their cities cut them deals on new stadiums.

The A’s aren’t making a ton of money at McAfee Coliseum because it’s located in a crappy part of Oakland, which given it’s Oakland is like saying, “The herpes blister that’s leaking blood.” It’s also a football-first stadium, where the converted dimensions make for crappy baseball seating, most fans ending up far from the action, and the tarped off outfield seats give the place a more abandoned feel than the humid air and uniformly deep outfield and foul dimensions do. Also, as a result, there are no acoustics, and even when fans cheer loudly or the diehard fans bang on their trademark drums, the conditions seem to suck the sound away, which makes the crowd seem deader than a cricket match.

But at the same time, don’t let the Expos’ move to D.C. fool you: D.C. was probably the only potential move location that could have immediately welcomed a transplanted team. They had a baseball-ready stadium in RFK Stadium that, while not the prettiest of venues, it had enough seating to allow the newly-redubbed Nationals to sell some tickets in biding their time until Nationals Park opened. Other potential cities cannot say the same.

In light of the other moves in other sports, this may not seem like a big deal to you until you consider the logistic differences. All a transplanted basketball team needs in the short term is an arena with about 15,000 seats, and most big cities have one. If a football team wants to move, most cities have a college with a football stadium containing plenty of seats, at least 30,000 or so, if not a municipal stadium of similar capacity. In either case, a team can just inflate ticket prices and eat marginal losses until a new stadium is built.

But baseball is played on a specially designed field with specific dimensions. One side must be wider than the other to accommodate the outfield, and you need at least 320 feet of space between home plate and the foul poles (which themselves are about 452 feet apart), with another 50-60 feet behind home plate. You need dugouts in the right locations. You either need a baseball stadium or a stadium that can be converted into one, and most football stadiums cannot: they only have a narrow square field to accommodate football and soccer.

That said, the potential sites many have listed have baseball stadiums. However, these are minor league facilities with woefully inadequate features.

Las Vegas: Never minding that the hit of the recent recession has sucker punched their economy… Cashman Field, the current home of the AAA Las Vegas 51’s, is about as small time as you can get: It seats about 9,000 fans, with no seats beyond the outfield and no real place to install any, since the area behind the tall, ad-laden walls features trees and rolling hills. Also, the seats are mostly uncovered and made of cheap metal benches. Temperatures in Las Vegas can reach 110-120 degrees in the summer and stay there until the sun goes down, well after a 7:05 pm first pitch. Even if you pay to put a cover over the seats, you’ve only got 9,000 seats, and people still don’t want to go outside in that heat. Plus, there are no restaurants or amenities near the ballpark. Even with an MLB ballclub, you’d be lucky to get 3,000 fans a night to show up. Though I’m sure some investor would be very willing to build a park for a club, a team could die, either from treacherous attendance or from the heat, while waiting for a new park.

Portland: Historic PGE Park has been redone, but even then it’s got wonky, old school dimensions and only about 13,500 seats. The left field wall, only 315 feet from the plate, is right up against an elevated street (you can even see cars passing above during games), so there’s no potential for adding extra seats. Portland may have a few more amenities near the park, but the capacity is very low and probably couldn’t sustain a team long enough to build a new park… if you could get Portland to build one in the first place.

“Northern Virginia”: It’s never specified in speculation whether “Northern Virginia” means Richmond, the D.C. Suburbs or maybe even Virginia Beach even though they're a little "South". I guess it depends on who you ask. But in any case, any of the above locales that do have parks… have AA parks that might seat 15,000, with no nearby amenities. Richmond may tear down The Diamond but any replacement park probably wouldn’t include much more in seating or amenities.

As a result, now that D.C. has someone else’s team, it’s highly unlikely we see any other teams re-locate. No one else with significant baseball market has an MLB-ready park that could immediately take on a club. This likely was the reason the Marlins and Rays balked on a quick relocation and instead worked to negotiate with their respective municipalities. And given the situation, it's highly unlikely we see a baseball team leave its home city anytime soon.

Expect the A's to make a deal to build something somewhere in the Bay Area. They're certainly a lot of land to choose from.

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