18 October 2005

R.I.P. Bill King

I remember this routine I had as a child. As a typical latchkey kid, I'd come home with my twin brother to an empty house. During baseball season, my brother and I would have time to watch the dynamic duo of G.I. Joe and Transformers. After the cartoons ended, my brother would head to a neighbor's house. I'd stay home and go straight to the radio. If the A's were playing on the East Coast, the cartoons would lead up to an East Coast 4:35 start.

I'd move from the family room to the living room, where the old Sears console stereo sat in corner. The console was multi-functional, as it served as a real piece of furniture that happened to have speakers and an analog dial. I had long ago broken the record player after repeatedly playing an old floppy red Sweet Pickles record one too many times. As part of the routine, I pulled out my homework, math first, and laid it out on the console's table area. I didn't realize it then, but this was my first experience with multitasking, and it would serve me well in later years.

Bill and Lon often alternated responsibilities to keep things fresh. One would do the lineups and the first half-inning, the other would do the next two innings. Both did TV back then, so it wasn't uncommon to hear only one of them during the broadcast at times while the other did TV, but it was pure magic when both were in the radio booth trading barbs and stories. Bill's feisty nature was a perfect foil for Lon's laid-back, dry humor. Sometimes I felt as if I had this set of invisible grandfathers in the console, teaching me about the game, about the meaning of a word donnybrook (which they only used for high-scoring games). I remember:
  • John Shulock's enormous ego and hot temper
  • How Dave Kingman was virtually useless in the field but was still entertaining just because of his swing
  • The optimism in their voices about the 1986-87 teams, which were young and talent-rich
  • The explanation of TLR's "Village Idiot" comment
  • Exasperation at Luis Polonia's glove size and his Byrnes-like routes to the ball
  • Bill deferring to Lon in the 9th inning of Game 4
  • Not knowing about Bill's brilliance in working basketball play-by-play until I heard archived broadcasts some years later
  • How Bill cherished the challenge that broadcasting baseball brought. Not to belittle hoops, but the action on the court was plentiful enough to get a rhythm going and coast it all the way through. Baseball required a different skillset, one of frequent metaphors and similes and the occasional bit of alliteration. It's why he stopped doing TV.
  • Bill's complete dissatisfaction with interleague play, Bud Selig (who was sardonically coined "our brilliant leader" once, IIRC), and The Ballpark in Arlington
  • Bill's love of New York, Boston, and Seattle
  • How on more than one occasion, another broadcaster recounted (Lon, Ray, or Ken) picking Bill up from his hotel room, only to be greeted by either the smell of raw onions or thick cigar smoke.
  • Bill's recent attempts to inject his "street" knowledge, especially of hip-hop music, into some broadcasts.
  • Bill phoning into Gary Radnich's show a few weeks ago to tell a story about the first spike he saw in the NFL (the Raiders' Hewritt Dixon) and how Bill's trademark handlebar moustache was non-conformist, forcing the TV network to hire two schmos to do pre and postgame work while Bill, unseen, did the play-by-play telecast.
Wikipedia has already acknowledged Bill King's passing today.

I'll miss Bill more than anything. Three years ago, longtime colleague Chick Hearn passed away, ironically while recovering after hip surgery. Maybe they've already donned their headsets to work play-by-play in heaven. But not before Bill stopped to have a chat and a drink with Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Martin.

An attendance comparison

Below is a table showing seasonal attendance totals for the 2000-2005 seasons. By representing the data in this manner, certain conclusions can be drawn about the nature of baseball attendance. But before I get to that, here's the table:

First, I should point out the reasoning behind picking the selected five teams. All are California teams, which after looking at different demographic data from all 30 MLB teams, provide the best direct comparisons because of similar climate, economies, commute/travel issues, and similar availability of substitutes (other forms of entertainment).

The figures in red indicate a watershed event. For the 2000 Giants, it was their inaugural season at their new ballpark. The 2003 Angels had a huge attendance boost after they won World Series. The Padres opened their new venue in 2004. At first it may not seem like much in terms of commonality, but each instance provided a catalyst for substantial attendance growth.

The Dodgers have been almost guaranteed of 3 million each season over the last decade. Dodger Stadium has managed to retain much of its luster despite being 43 years old. Recent renovation has been done in steps, starting with the addition of club sections and more field level seats. The next phase involves redoing the bleacher pavilion sections and changes to concourse circulation. No change is expected to affect attendance much, except perhaps to retain fans instead of losing them to the Angels.

That other L.A. team did not experience a huge attendance boost when Anaheim Stadium was reborn as a baseball-only facility in 1996. The team had just come off a dismal 70-91 season, and fans weren't buying into a repackaged "Big A." The Angels turned it around to have a 84-78 record in 1997. Fans rewarded the Angels in the 1998 season, as the new bandwagon netted a whopping 42% seasonal gain. This was maintained until two straight 3rd place finishes kept them at the 2 million mark. The bandwagon was slow to get involved in 2002, resulting in a 15% rise to 2.3 million. After the World Championship, however, attendance has been steadily above 3 million and continues to rise as fans responded to investments in superstars such as Vladimir Guerrero, as well as a successful marketing campaign in the entire L.A. area. It's a credit to owner Arte Moreno that he hasn't chosen to rest on his laurels after buying the team in 2003. He used that inherited goodwill as capital to expand the fanbase. He may have alienated Orange County fans with the adoption of the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" moniker, but so far there hasn't been any visible backlash. Though the Angels are expected to be contenders next year and have plenty of young talent stashed away in the minors, they also face difficult payroll decisions in the next two years that could quickly escalate their payroll beyond tenable levels.

Near the border, Petco Park gave the Padres a 50% increase in attendance from 2003 to 2004. Seasonal attendance exhibited a gradual decline until the opening of the park, as if fans waited until the park opened to attend games. In 2005, the novelty effect of Petco wore off slightly, resulting in a 7% dip even though the team won the division - albeit while posting a worse record. The venue has shown itself to be a pitcher's park, which may make it difficult to sign a free agent slugger, which could then translate into lower fan interest and attendance. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next couple of years, as the Padres run into the upper limits of the revenue the ballpark provides towards payroll, the talented young core emerges from team-controlled and arbitration years into free agency, and the at times chilly Petco weather becomes a detractor. It is for these reasons that I think the Padres' situation most parallels the A's - if the A's were to get a new ballpark in the next few years.

SBC (soon to be AT&T?) Park has been an unquestionable success for the Giants. Over 3 million each year have gone through the turnstiles since the place opened, so it's hard to argue with the effect the ballpark has had on the team's fortunes and the city itself. It is important to point out the incremental effect other factors have had on the attendance mark. The Giants have remained in contention throughout throughout all six years and have a World Series appearance to go with it. Barry Bonds's home run theatrics have turned the ballpark into an almost transcendent setting with the heightened drama his at bats bring. The weather has at times been better, though the wind and fog has not been mitigated as well as hoped. Lastly, SBC Park's superior accessibility from multiple modes of public transit have not only brought fans more easily from the existing fanbase in the outer reaches of S.F., Marin County, and the Peninsula (via Caltrain), it has also pulled fans more easily from the East Bay, which happens to be the A's stronghold. It's difficult to say how big an effect SBC Park has had on the A's attendance. It's doubtful that it could translate into anything more than 1-2% of A's seasonal totals.

There has been talk that the A's may have reached an attendance ceiling given the circumstances. Let's look at the different factors (excuses?):
  • Second team in the smallest two-team market
  • Inferior venue with too many seats to restrict supply
  • No "nightlife" around Coliseum
  • Cold night games due to marine layer-influenced bay microclimate
  • Loss of identifiable stars to free agency (Giambi, Tejada, Damon) and trades (Mulder, Hudson)
  • Uncertainty regarding the team's future in Oakland
  • Promotions like bobblehead giveaways and "Double Play Wednesdays" ($2 tickets) drawing fans away from non-promotion games
  • The Giants and SBC Park "stealing" fans away from the A's
  • The reputation of the California or Bay Area sports fan - not as rabid or passionate as an East Coast fan
  • Competition among other teams and forms of entertainment
Winning a World Series could provide a sizable boost in season ticket sales, but if the next season the A's had one of their historically poor starts, the reduced walk-up sales and rising no-shows could quickly cancel them out. The Florida Marlins are a classic example of this. Sustained success with real improvements (AL pennant, World Series) are the only way to keep the fans. The Marlins are the extreme due to unusual circumstances. The Twins and Braves are more similar to the A's - since all three teams are perceived to be unable to advance past a certain point in the playoffs, fan interest has not improved beyond a certain ceiling level.

While a ballpark can help improve many of these areas, it isn't a total solution. Siting the ballpark at the Coliseum won't help with the weather, though it may be compelling enough that fans cease to use the weather as yet another excuse. An extra $20-40 million per year will help retain one or two stars, but Billy Beane's not going to start spending like Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein. It's clear that for the A's to add and subsequently retain fan interest, they'll have to:
  • Get the ballpark built
  • Maintain a modicum of success to ensure good walk-up crowds after the novelty wears off
  • Achieve either a pennant or World Series win to counter poor perception and create a "halo effect"
  • Market aggressively through multiple forms of media (TV, radio, print, net)
  • Sign or re-sign one or more marquee players
  • Create partnerships through long-term deals with the flagship radio affiliate
It's a tall order, and it doesn't all have to be done, nor does it all have to be done at once. It doesn't venture into an even more ideal situation, such as the creation of a regional sports network. But if those six steps above aren't attempted, the A's won't maximize the potential of the sophisticated and fickle Bay Area market.