30 January 2009

Going out of pocket

If you've ever had the pleasure of heading out to spring training in Arizona, you've probably come away from it feeling it was a great fan experience. Compared to the regular season, the Cactus League is more relaxed and the players more accessible. Unlike Florida's Grapefruit League, most of the teams in the Cactus League are based in towns in and around the Phoenix area, making it easy to catch multiple games in a short timeframe (including doubleheaders). You might even be able to get a round of golf (or at least 9 holes) in before the customary noon tilt.

The ballparks may be the best part of spring training. They have around 10,000 seats, roughly the size of a AA or AAA park. Often, there is a small amount of chairback seating, most of the rest bleachers. A grassy berm frequently surrounds the outfield. There are no club seats and fans are encouraged to roam all over the grounds.

That isn't to say there aren't creature comforts. The newest ballparks have a full deck of luxury suites. Most ballparks also have expansive team practice facilities right next door. This season finally brings the Dodgers to the desert, after spending nearly 60 years at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, FL.

Given the state of affairs at the Oakland Coliseum, it may seem congruous for the A's to have spent their last 30 springs at simple, ordinary Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Muni has been around since 1964, which makes it older than the Coli. Muni does not have a grassy berm. The last time I went in 2003, it didn't even have an enclosed press box. In fact, it was the only Cactus League ballpark that had an open air press box, which sounds great except on those exceedingly warm days, when it had all the ambience of an average bus shelter.

So it's not overly surprising that Lew Wolff's looking for upgrades to the old girl. The strange part comes from the financing of renovations. Wolff knows that the City of Phoenix is strapped for cash much like any municipality in the nation. Instead of the normal "ask city for money, city raises bonds" deal typical of all spring training ballpark deals, he's offering to pay for renovations upfront, and when the city gets back on its feet well enough to pay it back, it can do so. The A's are locked in until 2014, so there's no threat of them leaving immediately. Besides, where would they go? Tucson?

Wolff's already done this "paying for renovations" type of thing only two years ago, when the Quakes paid for a bunch of improvements to SCU's Buck Shaw Stadium in exchange for an interim lease while they figured out how/when to build their permanent stadium. So far, so good for all concerned.
In related news, Wolff reset the vision for the new Quakes home, which is expected to seat 15,000. Two architectural firms are bidding for the work, and construction giant Devcon is pricing the whole thing out.

While the A's and Quakes are working on two different facilities with completely different sizes, layouts, and site plans, I'm starting to think that Wolff is trying to time the future construction of both venues in a manner that is more efficient in terms of labor. For instance, if Devcon is bidding on both facilities, with the plan to work on the Quakes stadium first (because it'll take less time to build) and the A's ballpark immediately thereafter, many of the specific phases of construction work can be packaged together. Wolff has been talking with local labor unions from nearly the beginning. Packaging the work is a great potential buy-in point for them (interesting note on union financing from Jay Hipps' article).


The Cactus Leaguer said...

Hi ML,

I feel the need to comment just to live up to my screen name. :-)

I actually like Phoenix Municipal Stadium in a retro-chic sort of way, but it is certainly different from the other facilities in the lack of a berm, inability to walk the entire perimeter around the park, and the fact that there is nothing but an office park by the stadium.

One alternative I could see in the future would be for the A's to partner with another team for a new or remodeled SHARED facility. The total cost is cheaper than two separate stadiums, local businesses are much happier with the stadium being full every day, and sometimes they can use the park as an anchor of a year round community center asset. Here are the possibilities:

1. Diamondbacks - they are all alone now in Tucson Electric Park now the White Sox were able to leave for Glendale (in a shared facility with the Dodgers). That would be a tough sell though as it seems that the D'Backs are committed to playing in Tucson in order to broaden their fanbase. No chance.

2. Giants - they are fat and happy in Scottsdale, and there isn't enough room to expand into a multi-team facility. No chance.

3. Cubs - same deal as the Giants, but in Mesa. No chance.

4. Angels - they are fat and happy in Tempe. There may be room to expand but I'm skeptical. Highly unlikely.

5. Rockies - they are in decrepit Hi Corbett Field in Tucson where attendance is terrible. I would rate this possibility as high except for the stigma of Tucson losing another team. Possible.

6. Brewers - the park in Maryvale is a smaller, westside equivalent of Phoenix Municipal. Good possibility here.

The other seven (soon to be eight) teams are all happy in their shared facilities (Dodgers/White Sox in Glendale, Indians/Reds (in '10) in Goodyear, Padres/Mariners in Peoria, Rangers/Royals in Surprise).

Marine Layer said...

TCL - I had read somewhere that it wasn't worthwhile to have only one team in Tucson. To keep costs manageable at least three teams were required. It wasn't that long ago that there were teams in Yuma and Palm Springs. Those towns are no longer Cactus League in part because of the cost and convenience.

I'd prefer to see the Brewers stay in Maryvale. The park is only a decade old and while small is more than merely functional. That would leave the Rockies. As Tucson continues to become isolated, it's harder to convince tourists to take that long, boring drive down there. Bringing in another team would probably require further refurbishment/expansion of Papago Park. I think that's warranted.