Sellout Crowds: The Transformation of Our Ballparks Mirrors the Transformation of Our City

In 1992, Tony Buhner became an honest man. And it was almost a shame, really. Before he broke down and bought San Francisco Giants season tickets, he'd enjoyed a three-decade run of attending baseball games for little or no money. It was a streak as impressive as it was lengthy.

Like so many miscreants, he started young. San Franciscans of a certain age may recall purchasing half-gallons of Christopher Milk with the ticket to a special kids' section in the far reaches of the upper deck of Candlestick Park emblazoned right on the carton. From these lofty heights, the game was a mere rumor — an experience akin to observing live-action Strat-O-Matic baseball. And so Buhner mastered the art of the none-too-discreet escape from the nosebleeds: “You tell the guard, 'I'm waiting for my friend; he's right behind me.' And then you run like hell. You go to the bathroom and stand on the toilet. And they don't find you.”

When he aged out of the children's section, he put away childish methods of sneaking into the ballpark. A tantalizingly placed electrical cord along the third-base side of the stadium offered the opportunity to shimmy into games for free (or plunge 15 feet onto concrete, or defibrillate oneself — but that never happened). During major construction in 1971, you could sneak right through the work zone and watch the National League Championship Series for free amid the rubble.

After losing that series, the Giants stumbled into a bleak period of extended mediocrity. But Buhner only grew more sublime. He came into possession of a forged re-entry stamp and was able to smuggle entire youth baseball teams into the ballpark. He took a job as a stadium vendor and quit immediately, but kept showing up in uniform to wander into the hallowed grounds. When the team started doling out free tickets to youth baseball coaches, lo, he miraculously scooped up a side gig as a high school assistant (it helps when the coach is your brother-in-law).

“This is why the Giants had such poor years,” he opines. “We denied them so much revenue.”

The tickets-for-coaches offer concluded 22 years ago. And so did Buhner's run of larceny. He settled down, bought tickets, and now works for the city in a field he describes as “public service.” (“Tony Buhner” is a pseudonym.)

He's an elder statesman of the ballpark now. The former toilet-lurking, cord-ascending, stamp-forging pseudo-vendor takes a long look at the fans milling around him at what is, invariably, reported as yet another AT&T Park sellout. And he can't help but wonder: Who are these people?

Buhner gesticulates with one hand and sips coffee with the other in a cafe that every longtime San Franciscan sees fit to tell your humble narrator used to house a different cafe and, before that, yet another different cafe.

As he bemoans the changing atmosphere within the ballpark, it soon becomes evident that his complaints mirror those made by longtime San Franciscans bemoaning the changing atmosphere outside the ballpark.

Over the course of many years, Buhner got to know the people holding the tickets to seats adjacent to his. Each section of the ballpark was like a neighborhood, and it behooved you to be a friendly neighbor. In a pre-internet age, there was no quick and easy way to unload your season tickets for games you couldn't attend. So you needed to establish and maintain a network of fellow ticket-holders if you wanted to sell or trade.

You had to interact with fellow human beings. There was no app for that.

In the days when Darrell Evans, Derrel Thomas, and Jack Clark patrolled Candlestick Park's astroturfed outfield, box seats cost $4.50 a pop. The present-day equivalent at AT&T Park will set you back around $90. That's a 20-fold increase, and, in that four-decade span, the average San Franciscan's income hasn't grown by anywhere near a factor of 20. But anyone hoping to buy or rent here now is going to shell out 20 times what he would have back when George Moscone was mayor.

And that's why Tony Buhner can't recognize anybody in his neighborhood inside the ballpark. Or the one outside of it, either.

The great promise of our ongoing tech revolution is that entrenched cronyism will be supplanted by a meritocracy. And, if wealthy newcomers being able to buy their way into anything constitutes a meritocracy, that promise has been met.

At AT&T Park, as in San Francisco writ large, you can buy anything. You can buy respect. You can even price it.

In 2010, tired of third-party sellers taking the cream, the Giants adopted “dynamic pricing.” Based upon demand and factoring in weather, on what day the game is played, and the opponents' quality — there's an algorithm or two in there, somewhere — prices fluctuate right up to first pitch. In the days of yore, tickets for the Dodgers game on Saturday afternoon and tickets for the Padres game on a moist Wednesday night cost the same.

No more. Now everyone knows what a ticket will fetch. And now there's Craigslist or, far more potently, StubHub tethered to a computer in your pocket, allowing you to hawk tickets for top dollar.

The tight-knit group of stalwarts who froze their asses off at The 'Stick during the Marvin Benard era has given way to an influx of wealthy, tech-savvy strangers. One of the guys in Buhner's row moved to New York City, but still peddles his tickets on the internet for every game. The season ticket-holders, seduced by an influx of cash and the technology to cash in, have taken on the role of absentee landlords.

Transforming a rent-controlled apartment into an Airbnb timeshare allows a greater array of people to enjoy a taste of our city. But only people willing to overpay for a temporary experience. People hoping to put down roots — which you could do when box seats cost $4.50 and houses cost $50,000 — have been hopelessly priced out of the market. AT&T Park has, in large part, become a haunt for tourists and affluent transients. As has San Francisco, of course.

There goes the neighborhood.

On a recent tour of Candlestick Park, your humble narrator had the opportunity to stroll through the team locker room, down the tunnel, and onto the field. Ballplayers are a superstitious lot and, stretching back further than even the Evans-Thomas-Clark years, the carpeting has never been changed. A half-century of sweaty athletes' feet trod upon its surface; it smells of YMCA shower togs and E. coli and Gorgonzola and sweaty athletes' feet.

They can't blow this place up soon enough.

Just as the demographics within AT&T Park mirror the city's own, the abandonment of The 'Stick in favor of a gorgeous, privately funded gem marks some manner of progress. A frigid, windswept, misbegotten stadium has given way to a transit-friendly destination in the heart of a thriving retail and residential community it begat. San Francisco may never have been more beautiful than it is right now.

But that beauty comes at a price. The cost of remaining here is growing ever more untenable. We have become a city of strangers. We are all alone, together.

Buhner, meanwhile, isn't going anywhere. The Giants' play of late has been painful, but the team is his passion. Pain is the price of passion and a down payment on joy.

Giants fans know this to be true. They also know his solution for surviving the real estate crunch both inside and outside the ballpark: Wait till next year.

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