”it is perhaps America’s most hated sports stadium. Players and coaches deride it. The Oakland Raiders are fleeing it. The lights are breaking, mice are dying in the soda machines, and the sewage that sometimes floods the dugouts has its own Twitter account.”Jack Nicas, “The Beauty of America’s Ugliest Ballpark”1
Over the weekend (September 14 and 15) I visited San Francisco’s Oracle Park. For those two days, I sat in awe of all that the ballpark had to offer. I enjoyed the view of the Bay Bridge, the bay, and the marina that sat behind a ballpark that celebrates all of baseball’s glory.
However, all good things must come to an end. On Monday afternoon, I walked to the Powell Street Bart Station and left San Francisco for places unknown. The train passed graffiti marred neighborhoods, run-down industrial areas, and troubled city streets. Of course, these sights are not unique to California’s Bay Area. I saw similar sights from the elevated trains passing through Queens on the way to Citi Field and through the Bronx to Yankee Stadium. The difference is that, on those trips, there was a baseball oasis at the end of the ride. In contrast, this ride ended at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.
The Monochromatic Abyss
The exterior of the stadium is all grey cement and chain link fencing. There is little to suggest that there are other colors in the world. The Coliseum is a monochrome abyss.
While it is depressing to look at and has a bad reputation for its inferior amenities, the Oakland fans give the place a certain sense of wonder. It’s like they are the survivors of a baseball apocalypse. In Oakland, the game has been reduced to its essential self, all else has been stripped away. The fans that remain, glory in the primitive experience. They are there because they want to watch baseball, little else is necessary.
“And when the sand was gone and the time arrivedJackson Brown “Before The Deluge” 2
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge
A chain link covered bridge separates the train station and stadium. The bridge spans railroad tracks, graffiti-covered train cars, and storage shacks. As I cross the bridge, I pass a few locals who have randomly set up portable grills and are selling food. Approaching the stadium, I see two vertical banners on either side of an entrance. One of them represents the A’s, the other the Raiders, Oakland’s football team that is leaving for Las Vegas. The banners are the first colorful things I see.
More chain-link fencing and large “No Reentry” signs surround the entrance I am supposed to use. I’m confused, is there a place to enter? As I walk closer, I see ticket takers and go in.
Once inside, I enter a dark and almost empty passageway, with puddles scattered along the way. A worker is sweeping the water to the side of the walkway as I pass.
The tunnel ends at the top of the stadium near “The Treehouse,” the newest stadium attraction. My plan is to go there later, so I walk past it and the small souvenir stand and start my search for the Team Store. Faithful readers know that I mark my visit to each ballpark with a selfie wearing the home team’s cap. Finding the cap is usually my first stop. However, I like to buy caps at the Team Store because I want to see as much merchandise as possible and I pass this more convenient outpost.
Down, Down, Down
I take a series of ramps down to the ground level. People who drive to the stadium enter at that level, and most of the concession stands and my seat are there.
In contrast to the relatively crowded first level, the middle levels are dark and mostly empty. As I continue down the ramps, I pass the Statue of Liberty and Mickey Mouse statues that I’ve seen in many ballparks. These, of course, are decorated in Oakland A’s colors. There are also banners that celebrate memorable achievements in A’s history. However, although these artifacts provide some color against the concrete, grey background, the walkways are still depressing and dark. These additions seem to highlight the depressing nature of the environment rather than improving the situation.
The lowest level has many concession stands, but there is no team store similar to those at other stadiums. Instead, there is a large stand that is run by two men. The transactions are very matter of fact. I asked for a hat in my size, and a man gave me one to try on. I did so, but asked for another, since I like to compare how different caps feel because they all fit different. It’s not that the men aren’t friendly, but I sense that they will tolerate my need to try on different caps only for so long. Luckily the second one fits fine.
My seats are on the first level, and I’ve walked a lot. I’m hungry and need a beer. Of course, nobody needs a beer, but I want a beer, badly. I’m also hungry and am ready for a hot dog.
Smoked Bratwurst and Bertman Ballpark Mustard
I find a kiosk selling bratwurst and hot dogs. My smoked bratwurst is nicely charred, the little bit of burn enhances the already good bratwurst taste. It comes with some tasty grilled onions and peppers. More importantly, somehow, they have Bertman Original Ballpark Mustard. Bertman is the holy grail of baseball mustard. It’s nicely brown and spicy, and I previously understood that it’s exclusive to Cleveland, but here it is in Oakland.
The brat was delicious, and the mustard was a significant plus. I’d like to rank it near the top of my list, but the damn bun broke!! So, I’ve listed it further down than it should otherwise be. If the bun doesn’t break, Oakland’s smoked bratwurst with Bertman mustard is an unparalleled treat.
My seat is in the “Field Infield” section behind home plate. It is behind a walkway that separates it from the lower boxes. As is my usual practice, I take a few selfies in my new cap. I like my new cap’s classic green and yellow combination. I also like how the motif works with the white home uniforms that the players wear.
I’m not surprised that Monday night’s crowd is relatively sparse, even though the A’s are in the playoff hunt. The A’s do not draw well, regardless of their success. However, I’m surprised that the crowd is so sparse that I can easily order a beer from a vendor two sections away. Since there were few fans to command his attention, I waved, and he waved back. Then, he walked over, and I bought my “805 Beer.”
The crowd is also pretty laid back. The game has a friendly, relaxed vibe. No one seems to know or care that its Mexican Heritage night. I don’t think it’s an ethnic bias; the fans are just laid back. Mexican dancers frolic in the outfield while ballplayers go about their pre-game business.
Throughout the game, drummers in the right-field stands keep drumming. They supposedly play a different rhythm for each player at-bat. I love the accompaniment to the game. It reminds me of a Grateful Dead concert, which I consider a good thing as I am a long-time fan.
Wild Card Chase
Tonight’s game between the A’s and visiting Kansas City Royals is one my most enjoyable of this long trip. The fourth inning was the epitome of what I consider compelling baseball.
It doesn’t hurt that this game matters. With just a few weeks left in the season, the A’s are barely ahead of the Tampa Bay Ray’s in the Wild Card race. The A’s can’t afford to lose any games. They especially can’t afford to lose games to the lowly Royals who are far out of contention and one of the worst teams in the league.
Tanner Roark’s Fourth
When the fourth inning started, the A’s were ahead by the score of 4 to 1and Oakland’s Tanner Roark was pitching fairly well. However, Jorge Soler, led off by hitting a Roark four-seam fastball over the centerfield wall. Then, in quick succession, Hunter Dozier doubled, Roark hit Alex Gordon and walked Bubba Starling. The bases were loaded, and the game was about to get out of hand.
After a visit from A’s Pitching Coach, Scott Emerson, Roark promptly runs the count full to Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn swings at a two-seam fastball to strike out.
Meibrys Viloria comes to the plate and works another full count. He also swings at a Roark two-seam fastball and misses. There are two out. Can Roark get out of the inning?
Brett Phillips is up next & promptly works another 3 – 2 count.
Roark has thrown 38 pitches in the inning, and his back is to the wall. If he walks Phillips, another run will score and Roark will likely be out of the game. Moreover, if Roark tosses one down the middle to get the third strike, Phillips will likely double against the wall, a few runs will score and jeopardize the game.
Roark tries his two-seam fastball, one more time. Phillips assumes its a ball and doesn’t swing. The umpire calls it a strike, and Roark is out of the inning.
To me, this is what it’s all about. Roark was in trouble with the game and possibly the season on the line. Three Royals challenged him, and Roark struck each of them out. The action, especially in the context of the pennant race had me at the edge of my seat.
Up to The Treehouse
The Treehouse opened in 2018 to “enhance the viewing experience.”3 In real person speak, it is an attempt to add some modern amenities, to a ridiculously antiquated stadium. It consists of a couple of bars, seating areas, and a view of the game from above left field.
Even though the game was tied and it was only the seventh inning, I decided to check it out. Typically, I would remain in my seat and focus on the game.
As I headed up a near-empty ramp, I noticed two kids smoking a joint. Oh, to be young again.
When I got up to the Treehouse, I decided to have a glass of bourbon to celebrate my latest achievement. My trip to the Coliseum meant that I had been to every active MLB ballpark at some point in my life. It was also this season’s 27th ballpark. I ordered a double Makers Mark, neat and walked over to the railing to celebrate and watch the game. The whiskey helped me stay warm as the night grew colder and colder.
Standing next to me were a couple of guys that I started talking to. I broke the ice by mentioning that the Kansas City hitter, named “McBroom,” sounded like “a failed McDonalds giveaway.” They laughed, the ice was broken and we discussed the ballpark and my travels.
I pointed out that I had been to every ballpark in the country, and this was the only one that had football field markings on it. They agreed and said it would be nice to have a better baseball facility. But they still enjoy the Coliseum and are A’s fans. Interestingly, one of them worked for the Giants at Oracle Field.
They told me about the drummers in right field and agreed when I expressed how friendly everyone was. They also said to me that although the Coliseum was nicer in the old days before additions ruined the design. For example, the luxury suites above the outfield seats that everyone derisively calls “Mount Davis,” unfortunately, block the beautiful view of the Oakland Hills.
As we talked, the A’s went ahead in the bottom of the eighth, and the mood brightened as it looked like they would win. However, at the top of the ninth, the Royals scored two and won the game. We said our goodbyes and went home.
I headed for Denver, early the next morning.
New Stadium Blues
The obvious questions are, will the A’s get a new ballpark, and if so, when? The more difficult question is, can the A’s be successful in Oakland?
The A’s have been trying to build a new stadium for years:
“Since the middle of the last decade, the A’s have proposed building on the existing Coliseum site in East Oakland; in Fremont, Calif.; in San Jose; and at Oakland’s Laney College, a plan that was halted last December by the board of the Peralta Community College District.”Tyler Kepner – “Soon to Be Alone in Oakland, the A’s Inch Closer to a New Stadium” 4
Although there have been some hiccups and roadblocks, as of this post, it looks like the A’s will be in the new 35,000 seat, Jack London Square Ballpark in 2023. 5
Just last month (October 2019), Governor Gavin Newsom signed two bills to move the project forward. 6 However, who knows what issues will arise to stop the momentum.
If They Build It Will They Come?
But will fans go to the new stadium? The A’s have never been a good draw. In fact, their attendance has always been near the bottom of the American League. Their attendance has been in the bottom third of the league for 36 of their 52 years in Oakland. Moreover, they were in the bottom third for 10 of the 13 years they were in Kansas City and the last 22 years of their Philadelphia tenure.
So, will a new stadium draw sizable crowds and help the A’s become a popular attraction? Significantly, they drew a sell-out crowd of 58,000 to their wild-card playoff game in October so there seems to be interest.
Payroll, Attendance and The Problem With Moneyball
However, their personnel strategy could hurt their chances of attracting large crowds, even in the new stadium. The A’s have limited payroll flexibility, their payroll is relatively low. In an effort to compete with limited funds, the A’s revolutionized baseball by using analytics to find good, low priced talent to compete with the league leaders. The strategy was, of course, discussed in Michael Kelley’s book “Moneyball.”
Unfortunately, to maintain a low payroll, the A’s need to trade their best players before they get too expensive. Although they can stay competitive on a low budget, it’s challenging to remain popular managing this way. While winning teams tend to attract a large audience, it also helps to have popular, established stars. They need a so-called “face of the organization.”
For example, the A’s much more popular Bay Area rival, the Giants, market popular players like Buster Posey and Matt Baumgardner to remain popular. The A’s don’t keep good players long enough to be able to build a marketing campaign around and draw an audience.
Of course, the Giants also have won three championships in this decade and the A’s have not won one since 1989. However, the fact remains that the Giants have been a good draw since they moved into Oracle Park regardless of their success 7. The A’s are likely hoping the same will happen when they have a new waterfront ballpark.
Time will tell if the ballpark filled with cheering A’s fans becomes a reality.
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- Jack Nicas, “The Beauty of America’s Ugliest Ballpark,” New York Times, October 2, 2019
- JAckson Browne © Jackson Browne/Swallow Turn Music/Night Kitchen Music/Open Window Music
- “The Treehouse at the Coliseum to debut in ’18”, Rooted in Oakland, February 28, 2018
- Tyler Kepner, “Soon to Be Alone in Oakland, the A’s Inch Closer to a New Stadium“, New York Times, November 29, 2018
- “A’s get approval to pursue new stadium,” Reuters, May 14, 2019.
- Alexei Koseff, “Oakland A’s get help from Newsome for work on proposed new stadium” San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 2019
- See “San Francisco Giants Attendance Records” – Baseball Almanac. The Giants’ Historic Win-Loss Performance, as well as other tidbits, can be found in “San Francisco Giants Team History & Encyclopedia” – Baseball Reference. These sources also have the same information for the A’s.