Changes ahead as Bears prepare for a season at AT&T Park

Ayon Kabir/File

For 88 years, fans and students have been taking in Cal football home games at Memorial Stadium. They sit on the bleachers during a sunny-yet-chilly fall afternoon and can gaze at San Francisco from across the Bay.

They’ll be looking at the Bay from a different angle this coming season.

Memorial Stadium is currently undergoing extensive renovation and seismic retrofitting in order to make it a safer environment and improve the fan experience. Since the process takes a year and a half, the Cal football team’s five home games during the 2011 season will take place in San Francisco at AT&T Park, home of the Giants.

The majestic beauty of Strawberry Canyon at sunset will be replaced by an afternoon by the Bay. Pregame celebrations on campus and at fraternity houses could be relocated to tailgating in parking lots and pep rallies along the piers. And Cal running backs bursting through the middle for a long score will be, well, slowed by the infield dirt?

“It’s hard to adjust to it, but eventually we’re going to get used to it,” said Isi Sofele, the Bears’ starting running back. “We’re over here on this field and on the (baseball) field back home in Berkeley. It’s going to be hard to adjust to, but we’ll get there.”

Changes for the 2011 season are far-ranging for Cal football nation — the move to San Francisco will affect everyone from fans to linebackers, alumni to students.

The Gameday experience will be different, to say the least. For students, it will probably be rather inconvenient. But playing home games somewhere other than Memorial Stadium — for the first time since 1922, when the stadium was still being constructed — could be a positive, according to Matt Terwilliger, associate athletic director for business improvement.

“We look at it as a unique experience to experience Cal football in a new and unique setting,” Terwilliger said. “The idea was to provide fans with (the) best experience possible. AT&T Park provided the best amenities and fan experience, a top notch facility. We thought fans would be excited to play in San Francisco.”

Included with students’ season tickets are five BART vouchers, allowing for free transportation into the city for the games. The UC Berkeley Department of Intercollegiate Athletics sent out a survey to students with season tickets, asking them the most convenient mode of transportation. Terwilliger said that BART came out the winner, as it allows maximum flexibility for students. They can stay in the city after the game and are likely already familiar with the transit system.

Before the game, Cal athletics will host a pregame tailgate party. Located at Pier 48, it will begin three hours before the game and attempt to replicate the FunZone at Maxwell Family Field of previous years.

When fans actually enter the ballpark, they will notice a size difference. AT&T Park, at roughly 42,000 seats, has a significantly smaller capacity than Memorial Stadium, which had about 72,000 seats. Despite the disparity, student tickets have not sold out, though Terwilliger said that should change now that students are back on campus.

“I just hope the students are excited about it,” he said. “We’re pretty excited to have the students over there.”

With all the hullabaloo over student transportation and pregame, the games themselves shan’t be forgotten. Not all football fields are alike, especially ones that are primarily used for baseball, like AT&T, and therefore have infield dirt. The squad has held practices on fields with baseball diamonds, but it will take some getting used to.

“It’s kind of weird because (your) cleats don’t really sink in, so you have to really practice on that,” said freshman defensive lineman Viliami Moala. “You have to practice on keeping your gravity centered … It feels weird — that’s why we have to practice in it.”

Aside from the infield, AT&T Park is simply not the squad’s home. Players are likely more comfortable on their own field, in their own stadium, at their own campus. Many, especially the seniors, will miss playing games at Memorial Stadium.

“It is kind of weird, and it’s kind of sad, but I have a season to play, and I don’t have time to think about that,” said senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks of the location of his final season’s home games. “You gotta make the best out of what we have … It’s a positive thing. It’s a good thing. I’m excited. I’m playing at AT&T,”

He’s played there before. The last time the Bears played at AT&T Park was against Miami in the 2008 Emerald Bowl.
Cal won, 24-17 — an indication, perhaps, of how this season will fare for Bears of all shapes and sizes.

Jonathan Kuperberg is the sports editor.