Jock O’Connell’s Commentary: An Oblique Ode to Baseball

Let’s start this month’s commentary on a sporting note.

I love baseball. I love the memory of my first major league game and seeing a guy named Mantle hit a tenth inning home run over Fenway Park’s Green Monster…and over the head of a guy named Williams, Boston’s about-to-retire left-fielder, that cloudy September afternoon back in 1960. I love the slow pace of a game that affords fans ample time to converse and comment and analyze each move before every pitch. I love the rituals and terminology, both ancient and new that place the game in a broader context of American life. I love the old war movies where suspicious GIs challenge possible German infiltrators by demanding they describe a Texas-leaguer. I love knowing the players on the field will likely retire without brains scrambled by repeated concussions. And now I love watching the Red Sox live in HD so clear I think I can recognize old college classmates several rows up in the stands in Fenway.

What I don’t love is the unseemly haste with which various parties seem bent, whether intentionally or not, on putting the Port of Oakland out of business. For as much as I love baseball, I ...okay, I don’t love the Port of Oakland. But I do love the role it plays in Northern California’s economy. I love the diverse wares it brings from abroad to the stores I frequent and, if I were a regional importer or exporter, I would love knowing I have a major maritime gateway so close at hand. And if I drove a truck or a train, or if I worked on the dock or in a warehouse, I would absolutely love how much the port matters to me, my family, and the communities in which we all reside.

The Port will very soon release a new economic impact report that will likely underscore the Port’s steadily expanding contribution to the regional economy since the last such report was delivered in 2011. That report revealed that, in the preceding year, the Port’s maritime operations supported nearly 29,000 jobs and accounted for $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, $2.1 billion business revenues, and $233.3 million in state and local taxes.

By comparison, a study by the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute found that “a new downtown stadium could provide $3 billion of economic benefit to the city over 10 years.”

So I’m puzzled by why anyone would offer to build an amusement park on a toxic waste site in close proximity to such a vital economic asset. I’m also dubious of how proponents hope to fill the park’s 35,000 without resorting to specious contrivances such as gondolas, ferries, funiculars, drones, kites, FedEx delivery vans, or hot air balloons. (The proposed gondola would link the stadium with the 12th Street BART station and could, according to ballpark planners, transport as many as 6,000 people per hour…to a stadium that would seat nearly six times that number.)

Fortunately, I’m not a solitary voice in the right-field bleachers fearing the gentrification of an industrial neighborhood. Among the organizations that have weighed in with their reservations about the project or the accelerated process for gaining its regulatory approval are:

  • Sierra Club of California
  • Save the Bay
  • Golden Gate Audubon Society
  • Sierra Club of San Francisco Bay
  • International Longshore and Warehouse Union (Locals 6, 10, 34, and 91)
  • California Trucking Association
  • Harbor Trucking Association
  • The American Waterway Operators
  • U.S. Merchant Marine (Pacific)
  • Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association
  • Marine Firemen’s Union
  • Inland Boatmen’s Union 
  • Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. 
  • Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of Northern California
  • Sailors’ Union of the Pacific
  • Transportation Institute
  • Agriculture Transportation Coalition
  • Pacific Merchant Shipping Association

Why does this proposal present an existential danger for the Port and all who derive their livelihoods from its continued operation? The latest iteration of the Howard Terminal Stadium proposal includes provisions for 3,000-4,000 housing units to be built next to the new ballpark. While there is no question the City of Oakland, along with the rest of California, desperately needs more housing, the scheme would create a new constituency that will certainly come to have predictable grievances about living next to an active port with loud and frequent ship, truck, and rail movements. At present, it’s a set of grievances heard mainly from residents of nearby lower-income neighborhoods and framed largely in environmental justice terms. But, if you truly desire to hamstring the port’s future, building upscale housing next door is a sure-fire formula. The well-heeled denizens of the skybox penthouse condos the A’s propose to build next to the ballpark should have infinitely more clout at city hall than those currently aggrieved by port activities. Perhaps that’s why social justice groups that have long lamented the port’s presence have shown themselves so eager to work with Oakland A’s officials on the new ballpark proposal.

Cleaning up the toxic materials that have for decades leached into the soil should not be written off as a mere technical hurdle. Anyone following the travails of the redevelopment of the Hunters Point naval shipyard across the Bay should appreciate how difficult and controversial clean-ups of contaminated soil can be. “They’re very nasty materials,” Dan Hirsch, retired director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy Program at UC Santa Cruz recently told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. “People are scared of radiation. They should be just as scared of these chemicals.”

As the Chronicle recently observed, the politically powerful organization Save the Bay is raising questions about the environmental impacts of the project, and the bar pilots’ association, whose members steer container ships into the Port, warn they may be blinded by the ballpark’s lights and might even run over kayakers vying for home run balls. Then there are the port’s existing business tenants, who are worried about the impact of the traffic a new stadium would generate.

“This is not a transit-accessible area, so more people will be traveling there in cars, and the more people traveling in cars, the more we contribute to climate change,” Save the Bay Executive Director David Lewis told Chronicle columnist Phil Matier last month.

The opposition is mobilizing because of a concern about a behind-the-scenes effort to persuade state lawmakers in Sacramento to enact a bill to fast-track the permitting process for the stadium.

Interestingly, just two years ago when the A’s floated a scheme to build a new downtown stadium next to Laney College, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she worried that that ballpark might disrupt a neighborhood and displace residents. Evidently, she’s now much less worried that the proposed Howard Terminal field would disrupt operations at a port that contributes mightily to Oakland’s economy.

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