New Stadia: Houston and San Francisco

The wave of stadium construction rolls on, with three new parks making their debut at the start of the 2000 season. This installment examines Houston's Enron Field and San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park; next month I'll look at Detroit's Comerica Park and Milwaukee's Miller Park, which was scheduled to open this year before a construction accident forced a lengthy delay.

When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it was heralded as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Houston's newest tourist attraction offered not only the spectacle of baseball inside an air-conditioned dome, but also prime entertainment facilities for the city's oil millionaires. For that opening season, the Astrodome's 53 luxury boxes cost between $15,000 and $34,000/year -- roughly $75,000-$175,000 in 2000 dollars.

But by the summer of 1996, Astros owner Drayton McLane was calling the Astrodome economically obsolete. McLane seized the opportunity which arose when his co-tenants, the NFL Oilers, announced they were moving to greener pastures in Nashville. He suggested that unless Houstonians built a new home for the Astros, he'd sell the team to a group that planned to move the club to Virginia.

That November, Harris County residents voted 51-49 to approve plans for $465 million in sports-related construction: $200 million to renovate the Astrodome for football and other sports, and $265 million for a new downtown baseball stadium. (Despite the renovations, Houston would not receive a new NFL team until the city agreed to build an entirely new stadium.) Taxpayers would contribute $180 million toward the ballpark, financing their share through a 2% hotel tax and a 5% rental-car tax. Meanwhile, the Astros agreed to pay $52 million -- $37 million directly, $15 million through the sale of personal seat licenses --and to execute an ironclad lease binding the team to the new park for thirty years.

The deal also gave the Astros full control of the new park. In return for an annual payment of $7.1 million to the county ($4.6 million for rent, $2.5 million for capital expenses) and the assumption of all operating expenses, the club receives all revenues, including naming rights, concessions, parking and rental of the park for non-baseball events. When Enron Corp. paid $100 million over 30 years to call the park Enron Field, nearly half the Astros' payments were covered.

Typical of modern parks, 42,000-seat Enron Field has about 20% fewer seats than the park it replaced. Where the Astrodome was a symmetrical, high-tech Sixties celebration of the space program, Enron is a postmodern adaptation of the retro theme pioneered by Camden Yards, with odd angles and uneven fences everywhere. For no good reason, MLB allowed the Astros to violate its minimum-distance rule by erecting a left-field fence only 315' from the plate. Meanwhile, straightaway center field is the NL's deepest at 435', with a 30' hill topped by an on-field flagpole to terrorize unwary outfielders.

Behind the left-field wall, a larger-than-life replica steam engine chugs and whistles along 800' of track, a tribute to neighboring Union Station. The three-panel retractable roof (which alone cost more than the entire Astrodome) can be opened in 12 minutes while the game continues, folding behind the rightr-field stands. When the roof retracts, so does a huge glass panel in left field through which the downtown skyline is visible.

Enron's retractable dome solves the problem which led to the Astrodome's most notorious legacy, its green plastic carpet. As originally constructed, the Astrodome had a translucent roof and natural grass. The roof panels created so much glare that they had to be painted over, which in turn caused the grass to die. Despite frequent infusions of new sod, the Astros played most of their first season on dirt before scientists came to their rescue.

If only those scientists had taught the Astros about park effects. The Astrodome was an extreme pitcher's park, especially rewarding to strikeout/flyball pitchers -- but on the eve of the move, the Astros traded Mike Hampton, an extreme groundball pitcher, to the Mets for Octavio Dotel, an extreme flyball pitcher, while keeping flyballer Jose Lima. Predictably, Dotel and Lima have been ineffective, while Hampton continues to pitch well.

The Dotel trade and other offseason moves alienated Astros fans for another reason. After winning three straight division titles, owner Drayton McLane dumped three high-salaried players just before moving into a park he had said would increase club revenues by $20 million/year. With Hampton and Derek Bell now on the Mets, and Carl Everett an immediate fixture in the Sox outfield, the Astros collapsed all the way to the cellar. Unless the team recovers soon, McLane could be as popular in Houston as Wayne Huizenga is among Marlins fans.

San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park is the clear winner among this year's three new stadia. Stubborn residents and a committed ownership combined to achieve the near-impossible: a privately financed park that already looks and feels like a downtown landmark.

No one ever described its predecessor in such terms. Candlestick Park was a disaster. Its site was reputedly chosen after a series of inspections in the morning and early afternoon, before the notorious wind, cold and fog kicked in. Its reputation was cemented the year after it opened, when Stu Miller was blown off the mound during the 1961 All-Star Game; eventually, the Giants presented "Croix de Candlestick" medals to hardy fans who sat through extra-inning night games. When the Giants said they needed a new park, no one argued the point.

And no one volunteered to build one, either. In both 1987 and 1989, San Francisco voters rejected stadium referenda, even though the Giants offered to pick up most of the tab for a new downtown park. By a wider margin, they rejected a plan to improve Candlestick Frustrated, Giants owner Robert Lurie looked south, toward Silicon Valley -- only to see San Jose and Santa Clara voters reject three more proposals to build a ballpark for the Giants.
Two months after the last vote, Lurie agreed to sell the Giants for $115 million to a group which planned to move the club to St. Petersburg, Florida. (The group was headed by one Vincent Piazza, whose son Mike would soon break the hearts of Giants fans in a different way.) The National League nixed the deal, pressuring Lurie to sell the club to Bay Area investors. Finally a group of local investors headed by Peter Magowan, chairman of Safeway, offered $100 million for the Giants. Lurie had no choice but to kiss the other $15 million goodbye.

Magowan burst upon the baseball scene with a bang, stunning Bay Area fans by signing free agent Barry Bonds to the largest contract in major league history. If that wasn't enough to alienate his fellow owners, Magowan insisted the Giants didn't need taxpayer subsidies for their new ballpark, but could finance it themselves. Campaigning for the referendum, he proclaimed, "If the Giants are successful here, the days of putting a gun to the heads of a city and saying 'Build a stadium or I'll move' are over," advising San Franciscans that other owners who "conned money out of the cities that they're in ... and those who are planning to con money" would criticize the deal.

As if on cue, Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox sneered, "The best they will be able to do is cover their debt service. So what's the point of building it?"

With enemies like Reinsdorf, Magowan was bound to win friends, and votes. Many of the harshest local critics of public financing now backed the new deal, and on March 26, 1996, San Franciscans approved the Giants' proposal by a 2:1 margin.

That left the little matter of financing the park. Originally budgeted at $255 million, the new stadium eventually cost $319 million. San Francisco's redevelopment agency contributed $15 million in tax increment financing. Pacific Bell bought the naming rights for $50 million. Charter seat licenses brought in $40 million more, with permanent renewal rights to the park's 13,700 best seats selling for $1,500 to $7,500. Concession rights, pouring rights and sponsorships added another $44 million. That left $170 million, all of which was borrowed by the Giants.

While the Giants were assuming a significant risk, their plans started with an ideal site. Candlestick had been built in the extreme southeastern corner of the city, near the US 101 expressway but far from the population center and inconvenient to reach except by private car. By contrast, Pacific Bell Park sits in the China Basin district, a short walk from downtown and just south of the Bay Bridge. Buses, streetcars, BART trains, and even ferries run directly to the park.. Even the fabled winds have been tamed: sophisticated wind tunnel testing allowed the Giants to orient the park so the gusts would deflect off the exterior instead of swirling around the stands.

And while the asymmetrical construction of most modern parks is little more than a design gimmick, at Pacific Bell Park the asymmetry flows naturally from the site. In this sense, it's closer to a classic urban park than any other ballfield constructed in the past 75 years.

Because the park is wedged next to San Francisco Bay, the right-field wall is just 307 feet from home plate, though the fence retreats sharply to a 420' corner in right center. Behind it stands a 35' wide walkway, with portholes which allow fans to watch for free. Behind the walkway, the Bay offers a tempting target for left-handed power hitters. In short, Pacific Bell Park's right field is a mirror image of Fenway's Green Monster.

As a grocery store magnate, Magowan knows the importance of giving the public what it wants. In San Francisco, that means augmenting traditional ballpark cuisine with near-gourmet food, and providing fans in the best 5,200 seats with waiter service and access to a private club. Taking advantage of the park's central location, the Giants built shops, restaurants and a brew pub which will serve residents and visitors even in the offseason.

The downside of private financing, though, is the need to extract the maximum possible revenue from the park. During a recent ESPN telecast, Peter Magowan reported that the Giants were meeting their $20 million/year debt service from in-stadium advertising alone. In addition to the ubiquitous billboards and signs on the outfield wall, the park features a giant Coke bottle behind left field, marking the site of a children's area, and the area behind right field has been christened the Old Navy Splash Landing.

But this is a minor quibble -- especially to Bay Area taxpayers. A esthetic as as well as a financial success, Pacific Bell Park has been everything the Giants and their fans could have asked for. All 29,000 available season tickets were snapped up long before Opening Day, and the Giants joined the Cleveland Indians as the only teams ever to sell out an entire season in advance. Over the next decades, Pacific Bell Park seems destined to serve as Exhibit A in the fight against large-scale public subsidies for sports stadia.

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the August 2000 issue of Boston Baseball.

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