The visiting team came from 1,275 miles away; the “home” team was 1,000 miles closer. I speak of the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers, who played a pair of exhibition games during “Big League Weekend” in San Antonio on March 29 and 30.
In a strict geographical sense, the closest major league market area is Houston, less than 200 miles to the east, where the Astros are engaged in a couple of exhibition games against the Cubs at Minute Maid Park. Houston had first dibs on San Antonio fans, as it had big league ball 10 years before Dallas-Fort Worth. But in recent years, that advantage has eroded.
Local radio stations carry Rangers and Astros games, but the Rangers have far more local TV exposure on cable. Given the contrast in the teams’ records the past few seasons, it is no surprise that the Rangers have overtaken the Astros, and the latter have no immediate prospects of achieving parity, much less returning to dominance.
Given its long history of baseball (first pro game in 1888) and its status as the seventh largest city (population: 1,144,646) in the United States, San Antonio should have at least a Triple-A team. But the city has a long, enduring relationship with the Double-A Texas League, and it has never sought to go up another notch. Actually, the visiting Padres have a vested interest in San Antonio, as it is currently the home of their Double-A affiliate.
In a serendipitous harmonizing of team nicknames, the San Antonio Padres’ minor league team is called the Missions. South Texas, like Southern California, has a heritage of Spanish missions. The Padres’ mascot, the swinging friar, would be just as much at home in San Antonio as in San Diego.
Unfortunately, he did not make the trip, but Ballapeño and Puffy the Taco, longtime Mission foodstuffs mascots, are here. So is Captain, the Rangers’ palomino mascot. He looks a lot like Mr. Ed but unlike that equine icon, Captain must hold his tongue. That’s tough to do when you have a hoof instead of a hand—but it comes with the mascot territory.
The Easter weekend games are certainly not the first major league exhibition games played in San Antonio. During the first four decades of the 20th century, San Antonio hosted 29 seasons of spring training involving 11 major league teams. The St. Louis Browns were the city’s best customer with seven spring seasons. Also, barnstorming teams have often included San Antonio on their exhibition schedules. What makes this particular exhibition series unusual is the venue, namely, the Alamodome.
These days, baseball and football are rarely played in the same stadium. A generation ago strange bedfellows were common in big league stadiums. Today Oakland is the only American city where the local MLB and NFL franchises share a stadium; in Toronto the Rogers Centre houses both the Blue Jays and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Occasionally, one hears about a football game, a soccer game, a hockey game, or some other sporting event being staged at a baseball park. One rarely hears about a baseball game being staged in a park that was not designed for it, but that is the case here in San Antonio.
When it opened 20 years ago, the Alamodome (estimated cost: $186 million) put San Antonio on the map, stadium-wise. It seats 65,000 for football even though it doesn’t have a pro tenant, unless you count arena football. Believe it or not, San Antonio—a mere 142 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border—actually had a team in the Canadian Football League for three seasons (1993-1995). The Dallas Cowboys, who have a big local following, have used it for training camp and exhibition games in years past.
Courtesy of Hurricane Katrina, a few New Orleans Saints “home” games were played here in 2005. Also, the stadium has served as a neutral site for a number of college football games, including the annual Alamo Bowl, and now serves as the home for the University of Texas at San Antonio, which revived its football program in 2011.
After two decades without gaining a hometown NFL team, the Alamodome is something of an enigma with a stigma. In fact, a souvenir post card puts it plainly: “Those who opposed its construction now refer to it as the ‘Dead Armadillo.’ Because of its failure to maintain a sports team, along with the 4 external pillars resembling the 4 legs of a dead critter laying on its back, it was given this comical nickname.”
That’s a colorful turn of phrase but perhaps an overstatement. I think it’s more accurate to say the Alamodome has been a disappointment but not a disaster. In addition to football, the stadium has hosted NBA Spurs and Final Four basketball, monster trucks, ice hockey, concerts, conventions, and high school graduations too numerous to mention—but never baseball at any level, much less of the major league variety.
In fact, the only baseball connection, albeit indirect, is the presence of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame on the main concourse. A number of baseball people with local ties can be found here: Gary Bell, Norm Charlton, Cito Gaston, Jerry Grote, Joel Horlen, Cliff Johnson, Davey Johnson, Nelson Wolff (a county judge for whom the local minor league ballpark is named), and Ross Youngs, who also has a plaque in Cooperstown. Youngs died of kidney disease in a San Antonio hospital in 1927, but the others are all still alive and doubtless were amazed to find out that baseball was to be played in the Alamodome in the spring of 2013.
The two exhibition games have been sponsored by the HEB supermarket chain and Ryan Sanders Baseball (the Ryan half of that enterprise refers to the Nolan Ryan family, owners of the minor league Round Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks). Two million dollars, half of that for new turf, have been spent on readying the dome for this weekend.
Despite the expenditure, the dome is a long way from baseball-ready. They’ve done about all they can for a two-game series, and they have dutifully posted signs about watching out for bats, balls, and other things flying into the stands. But the Alamodome makes the old Minneapolis Metrodome look like Wrigley Field. Consider the following:
The scoreboard just isn’t up to the task (among other shortcomings, it doesn’t have an “at bat” slot for the batter’s number), the “dugouts” are little more than aluminum benches, the press box is down the left field line, and the foul “poles” look like gigantic pest strips hanging from the ceiling. The nets shielding the seats down the first and third base lines are definitely bush league. And the bullpens? They’re somewhere under the left field stands. Who’s warming up for the Rangers? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
The most noticeable feature of the field layout is the 285-foot distance (the wall is 16 feet high) down the right field line. Obviously, the lower deck in right field is the place to be if you want to snag a “long” ball during batting practice, and the fans rapidly clog the area after the gates open. In fact, it looks like the right-handed batters are working overtime on going to the opposite field. That’s a rare sight during BP.
The other dimensions (354 down the left field line, 387 in the power alleys, and 410 to center) are much more presentable. And if you’re wondering about dome height, fret not. The fixed roof varies from 165 to 190 feet from the playing surface, and presented no problems during the two games.
The baseball capacity has been set at 52,295, but you really wouldn’t want to see a baseball game here as part of a capacity crowd. On Friday night when I take my seat in the upper deck behind home plate, I immediately discover a minor flaw and a major flaw: the minor flaw is third base is not within my sight line; the major flaw is that the batters box is not within my sight line. So I abscond for the left field upper deck, a long way from home plate but completely unobstructed.
The Friday night crowd is 34,641, the largest crowd to ever witness a baseball game in San Antonio. The record lasts all of one day, as the Saturday afternoon crowd is announced at 40,569. A good thing there are lots of other seats to move to, and the clusters of empty seats show you where not to sit.
Of the six home runs hit during the two games (and if you really care, the Rangers won both games, 5-4 and 5-2), three (Max Venable, Jonathan Galvez, Chris Denorfia) were legit, one was marginal (Jedd Gyorko), and two definitely took advantage of the right-field dimensions. In the Saturday game, Rangers rookie Leury Garcia hit a line drive that barely cleared the wall, and Padres outfielder Denorfia lofted one just over the fence for his second home run of the day (and of the spring).
Otherwise, the two games were uneventful. After their two-game sweep, the Rangers made the short trip to Houston for the season opener and the Padres moved on to Gotham to meet the Mets. After a four-day furlough, baseball returns to San Antonio, with the Missions’ home opener on April 4. This game was duly promoted throughout the weekend, but even though a number of former Missions were on the Padres’ roster, there was never any doubt that the Rangers were the home team.
In truth, the two games at the Alamodome felt like Rangers home games. The public address system featured the voice of Chuck Morgan, the Rangers’ regular PA announcer. Rangers souvenirs were abundant and Rangers highlights were shown on the scoreboard.
Appropriately, the Rangers’ racing Texas Legends made an appearance on Saturday. The racers include Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, both of whom perished at the Alamo in San Antonio in 1836, immediately achieving legendary status. (Sam Houston, who lived to fight another day, is also among the racing Texas Legends, as is, somewhat anachronistically, Nolan Ryan).
There will be no more baseball at the Alamodome this season, but the Rangers will be on TV in homes throughout the city for the next six months, and I’m sure the two games played there helped to market the Rangers and create a lot of good will. But is that all there is?
The San Antonio Easter weekend experiment is worth keeping in mind should MLB relocation become a possibility. Now no one expects the Alamodome to be the permanent home for a major league franchise, but if a team wanted to re-locate on short notice and needed a place to go…well, the Alamodome has already auditioned for that. Now to be sure, a lot more money would have to be spent to ready the Alamodome for regular season ball, but the seating capacity assures a decent revenue stream from day one.
In days of yore, a new or transferred franchise would take up residence in a less-than-ideal home while waiting till its new home was built. The City of Los Angeles offers two distinct examples. During the first round of major league expansion, the Angels played in cozy Wrigley Field, a former Pacific Coast League ballpark south of downtown Los Angeles. In contrast, the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles just three years before, had taken up residence at the L.A. Coliseum. Neither was suitable for a permanent home, but the Coliseum offered roughly four times the seating capacity of Wrigley Field. When it comes to revenue streams, that’s the difference between a trickle and a torrent.
By and large, subsequent franchise shifts and expansions reflected the two Los Angeles patterns: the bandbox (whether left over or hurriedly built) or the behemoth. A year later, for example, the Mets had the Polo Grounds, a relic, albeit one with a large capacity, while the Colt .45s were stuck in tiny, jerry-built Colt Stadium waiting for the adjacent Astrodome to be completed.
During the next round of expansion, the Expos opened in tiny Jarry Park, and the Kansas City Royals spent four years at Municipal Stadium, the A’s old home, waiting for their new home to be built. The Seattle Pilots also went old school. In 1969 they opened for business at historic but tiny (25,420 ) Sicks Stadium. After just one year, they were off to Milwaukee, where County Stadium (with roughly 20,000 more seats) was ready and waiting for them.
Some franchises, however, were in modern facilities from day one. When the A’s vacated Kansas City after the 1967 season, Oakland Coliseum (opened in 1966) was there for them. The San Diego Padres, one of the four 1969 expansion franchises, also had a big, modern ballpark (Qualcomm Stadium, then known as San Diego Stadium) ready for them on opening day.
The lesson was clear by the next round of expansion in 1977. You don’t need a showplace to start off, but if you want to put butts in the seats, be sure you have plenty of seats to sell.
Seattle got the message. When the Mariners came along, eight years after the Pilots debacle, the Kingdome was ready and waiting on Opening Day.
The Blue Jays played in Exhibition Stadium, designed for football and soccer, but it seated almost 40,000 in its original baseball configuration and topped out at 43,737 in 1989 before the Blue Jays moved to SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre).
Seating capacity was no problem in 1993 when the Marlins and Rockies were added to the major league mix. In fact, Denver’s Mile High Stadium was big enough to enable the Rockies to establish a major league attendance record. In 1998 when the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays got underway, they had indoor stadiums ready and waiting.
During the last franchise shift, the Montreal Expos pulled up stakes in 2005 and went to Washington, D.C. Now the Expos were on borrowed time in Montreal, so it was no surprise that they left. Washington, D.C. was the odds-on favorite, but would that have been so without RFK Stadium available as a short-term home? Sure, it was 43 years old, and it was one of those doughnut-shaped baseball/football monstrosities (actually, it was the first of its kind) but at least it offered major league seating capacity!
So the lesson from this long digression is that if a franchise is going to move, it needs a place to play immediately. It need not be state of the art, but it must be major league size. If a sufficiently large baseball-only park is not ready, then the stop-gap facility must be one with suitable capacity. No bandboxes need apply.
Expansion isn’t on the agenda any time soon. Now that MLB finally has six divisions with five teams each, adding a couple more teams would upset the balance (unless baseball wanted to go to eight divisions with four teams each). But should relocation be a possibility, San Antonio can say if you come, we will build it…just not right away. But, hey, we have a temporary home for you with plenty of seats, if you can be patient for a few years.
There’s no point in excess speculation at this point, so don’t roll out that name-the-team contest just yet (but when you do, put me down for the Vaqueros). Even so, I’m pretty sure MLB execs were watching those San Antonio exhibitions and making mental notes. After all, one day they might have to vote on a franchise transfer and they want to get it right.
So the two exhibition games in San Antonio might be an advertisement to major league baseball. If Tampa Bay and Oakland can’t get their ballpark situations resolved, they may look for alternatives further afield. The Alamodome beckons, saying, hey, we’re not your long-term solution, but we could be your short-term solution.
So should moving day ever come for an existing franchise, the Alamodome might give San Antonio the edge over the usual suspects… Portland, Orlando, Las Vegas, Charlotte, or wherever. The ultimate irony would be that the Alamodome, erected with the hopes of attracting an NFL team and having failed at same, would actually end up attracting a major league baseball franchise.
So who would be likely to lead this quest to bring major league baseball to the Alamo City? Well, how about the two men who threw out the first pitch for the Alamodome games?
On Friday night, the first pitch was delivered by the San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, one of those rising stars the political junkies and pundits like to crow about. It sure would look good on Castro’s resume if he could bring major league baseball to San Antonio, and if he were seeking statewide office, it would surely enhance his name recognition. As long as it happens on his watch, he doesn’t really have to do much heavy lifting.
Of course, as with major league prospects, political whiz kids fizzle out more often than they come through. There’s no better example than former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros. After he got the Alamodome for the city, both it and his career failed to meet expectations.
But far more important than politicians is the man who threw out the first ball for the Saturday afternoon game. I refer to Nolan Ryan.
Ryan, the native Texan, has loomed so large in the history of the Rangers and the Astros, one sometimes forgets that he was a 13-year major league veteran before he came home. His Ryan Sanders baseball company has been highly successful in Central Texas at Triple-A Round Rock, and in South Texas at Double-A Corpus Christi. He is well-connected throughout the state, and not just in baseball enterprises.
And as we know from recent weeks, his role with the Rangers appears to be up in the air. Now the Rangers would never fire Ryan. The PR fallout from that would be deadly. But suppose he resigned (in the time-honored phrase) “to seek other opportunities.” Wouldn’t obtaining a major league franchise for San Antonio be a great opportunity? After all, “There’s nothing quite like baseball in the Lone Star State!” Ryan’s words (from the Big League Weekend program), not mine.
Ryan is 66 years old and he may have room for one more notch in his belt before he hangs it up for good. To be sure, I don’t have any pipeline to inside information. In fact, I previously voiced my doubts about San Antonio as a potential major league city (see “American Top 40,” posted on Aug. 20, 2012), but that was before Nolan Ryan showed up at the Alamodome. I don’t know if that qualifies as a game-changer, but it does provide food for thought. I can’t think of anyone in baseball better positioned to legitimize an effort to bring major league ball to San Antonio.
Counting the Alamo, San Antonio already has five missions. Could the sixth San Antonio mission be Nolan Ryan seeking a major league baseball franchise for the city?