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).