It's Sunday, just hours prior to the final regular season game of the 2013 season. The A's are on the threshold of winning the American League West Division. The players are ready. The fans are amped. The champagne is already calling for Ray Fosse's scalp. So where am I?
I am swerving through the Coliseum parking lot in a golf cart.
My chauffeur (and parking lot tour guide) is Mark Torres, Senior Operations Manager for Ace Parking, the company the A's employ to handle their parking. The first thing I notice about Mark, besides his 1,000-watt smile, is his dexterity with a golf cart. He pilots his vehicle with the nimbleness of a NASCAR driver. Hard right at the barricade! Quick brake for the distracted A's fans! Power glide between the concrete barriers! With a flame-retardant jumpsuit and 57 sponsor patches, he could easily pass for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
In my never-ending quest to find the story few people take seriously, I am here to investigate the Coliseum parking lot. What the heck goes on out here, anyway? For many fans, the lots represent the beginning of the Athletics game day experience, including the financial hit at the entrance gate. The $17 fee is just a way to soften you up for the $11 Spaten Brau waiting on the Plaza Level.
Mark picks me up near C Gate and we swing through the South Lots (B and C) for an introduction. When I first started going to the Coliseum, the lot was simply a vast flatland surrounding the sporting rotundas.
Now it is sub-divided by a maze of poles, concrete barriers, bike-rack barricades, and cyclone fencing. What next, office cubicles?
Most of the partitioning represents set-asides for security and V.I.P. parking, but there is other stuff, too. We pass a fenced off area in B Lot. "That's the new ‘Raiderville,'" Mark explains. "It has two big screens for watching other games and jumpy houses for kids, that kind of stuff. For A's games, we just let people park there."
I ask Mark if Raiders fans really need to be fenced in. "Raiders' fans are great," he observes, "but they come from a whole different universe."
At the South entrance, the ingress is light so we circle around. Beyond the South lot is the "Malibu" lot, a dirt expanse that looks less like Malibu than anything I can imagine. The main lots of the Coliseum complex can hold up to 5,000 vehicles. There are another potential 1,000 spaces in "Malibu" and another 500 spaces in a lot across Coliseum Way that is sub-leased for overflow games. So far, in the A's tarp era (35,000 capacity), the parking lots have not sold out. But that could change in the playoffs.
"The A's have increased a sold-out game to 47,000 attendees, the first time since I've worked here," Mark says. "That's roughly a 33% increase in attendees. It's going to be wild!"
We are back near C gate where we discuss the newest additions to the parking lot obstacle course, the metal-detecting security pavilions. These have severely curtailed traffic flow around the buildings. Cars can no longer move between lots behind the Coliseum or travel the perimeter roadway. And there are even fewer openings in the barricades for foot traffic. Of course, it's great if you're a high-hurdler.
(My review of the new security pavilions: Annoying, but more forgiving and much faster than airport security. You get to keep your shoes on and your dignity intact.)
We pass by the bus corral, yet another sub-division of the B lot. There is a green-and-gold striped RV with "A's Mobile" emblazoned on it. Its inhabitants are busy setting up a tent, tables, and chairs. These people are obviously determined to get the most real estate possible for their parking fee.
I ask Mark how the $17 admission fee is split between the A's, the Coliseum, and Ace Parking. "We just collect the fees, then turn them over to the A's," Mark says. "The A's pay us on a contract basis. I have no idea how the A's split up the money."
Interestingly, how the parking money gets split will a big issue in the new Coliseum contract for the A's. The first 18.5% of the admission fees gets skimmed for Oakland city taxes. From there the financial hijinks get very complex, as Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle reported in May (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/johnson/article/Oakland-A-s-Coliseum-lease-hinges-on-tax-4484174.php). Since 2009, the A's have collected the tax, turned the dough over to the City of Oakland, then (get this!) deducted the amount of the taxes collected from their lease payments. The A's claim they are perfectly entitled to deduct new taxes from their rent by their current lease agreement which ends any moment now.
Over four years, the A's have deducted $3 million from their rent. Well, this pisses off the Coliseum Authority and the County of Alameda who take the hit on the rent but get none of the taxes collected by Oakland. So the parking lot could turn out to be a major factor in the A's new lease agreement. Just assume the A's are going to be paying a lot more for rent and some way, somehow, it's all going to come out of the parkers' wallets.
Who could have imagined the parking lot would have more intrigue than "House of Cards?"
On the north side of the Coliseum, we take a detour into the player's parking lot. I look for Coco Crisp's Rolls-Royce. I want to see if it has "A's Mobile" painted on the side. (It does not.) Incidentally, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick are the favorites of the parking crew. "Coco always takes time to say ‘Hi!' to everybody. He's very considerate," Mark says. "Reddick is cool, too."
The professional experience of the parking lot crew is generally benign. (One season ticket holder named Scott even gives the attendants fresh honey produced in his own backyard.) There are times, though, when the parking lot attendants take a surprising amount of abuse. These times tend to coincide with days the A's feature promotional giveaways. (Imagine that!) It's always the same routine: People fail to allow enough time for the traffic crunch. They get jammed up at the entrances. Then, of course, they are too late to become one of the chosen 10,000 to get the Josh Reddick souvenir beard trimmer. Somebody has to be abused for that transgression, and that's usually the parking lot crew.
"The biggest complaint we get is that we are short-staffed," Mark says. "That's not true. For a game like today's, we use between 65 and 110 people. But there is nothing we can do when everybody shows up at the same time."
Mark shows me where the circus settles itself while in town. The circus really screws up parking. They have to section off a huge space for circus cargo, trailers, cages, and props. They even have to kill parking spaces for an elephant jogging path. I wonder how they get the elephants to use the parking lot port-a-potties? Mark does not say.
Controlling the tailgating is one of the biggest management problems. Tailgating is a happy phenomenon of the Coliseum parking lot but it can get out of hand. No more the days of the simple ice chest on the tailgate of a station wagon. People erect elaborate tent cities out here. The parties spread out over dozens of parking spaces and traffic flow? Well, forget about it.
"Tailgating really isn't too much of a problem when attendance is under 22,000," Mark says. "We get a lot stricter when we anticipate more fans."
The official tailgating space allowed is a 6-foot square directly behind your car, hardly enough space for a decent-sized ice chest and two chairs. Mark says, "The best strategy is to get your friends to park side-by-side to expand the party area."
The Coliseum had double red lines painted on the asphalt to delineate the driving lanes. "The lines have really helped," Mark says. "Before, tailgaters would almost take up the whole drive lane and cars could not get through nor park."
At the end of our tour, I ask him about the red barrels placed by the light towers. These are a strange sight for a parking lot novice like me. "They are for disposal of hot charcoal briquettes," he explains. "People used to just dump the hot charcoal out in the parking lot."
"Does that melt the asphalt?" I ask.
"No, it melts the cars," he says. "I know of three cases of people who set their own cars on fire by doing that."
Perhaps insensitively, I laugh out loud at the thought of people burning up their own cars with their discarded briquettes!
There has to be a Darwin Award in there somewhere.