Menlo Park resident brings innovations to baseball | September 7, 2018 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - September 7, 2018

Menlo Park resident brings innovations to baseball

Stanford grad becoming a fan favorite in Oakland

by Yoshi Kato

Arrive at an A's home game before first pitch, and there's a good chance you'll find Menlo Park resident Dave Kaval mingling in Championship Plaza, the two-season-old new social gathering spot between Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena.

As President of the Oakland Athletics and arguably the new public face — or at least Twitter voice — of the Major League Baseball team, he interacts with fans like a public servant taking the pulse of his constituents.

"I have office hours on Tuesdays where fans just come in, and we talk," he says.

Kaval is also famous for promptly responding to suggestions and complaints from fans on Twitter and even adopting and implementing some of the former.

Kaval's friendly "Hey, guys!" greeting is starting to become as much of the ballpark experience as seeing Stomper, the team's elephant mascot. And on a recent Friday evening, a fan runs up to the Stanford alumnus to thank him for this year's inaugural African-American Heritage Night, which featured appearances by the likes of A's greats Rickey Henderson, Vida Blue and Joe Morgan, Oakland natives Tony! Toni! Toné! and MC Hammer, who was once an Athletics batboy.

The A's have made news on the field for its improbable post-season run: After finishing last in the American League West for the past three seasons, the team is alive in both the Divisional and Wild Card races. But innovations at the 50-year-old ballpark, as championed by Kaval, have been the topic of discussion on social media.

Since coming to the Athletics in May 2017, the Cleveland native has championed initiatives such as The Treehouse sports bar and general admission standing area above the left field bleachers and The Farm garden behind right field.

The team also hosted what's thought to be the first-ever free MLB game on April 17 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first regular city game at the Coliseum and introduced in late July a new A's Access membership program that replaces the traditional season ticket model.

Many of these concepts have roots in Kaval's time as San José Earthquakes president from 2010 through 2017. Speaking in his ballpark suite prior to a recent Friday night game, he shared his thoughts on working in Major League Soccer and living on The Peninsula as well as his views on the present and future of the Athletics.

"Running the Earthquakes, promoting and building soccer in America and also designing and developing and actually building a brand new soccer stadium (Avaya Stadium, which opened in 2015) was incredible," Kaval said, as a Cleveland Browns preseason game was being shown in the background.

He's imported some ideas developed in San Jose, including having rotating food trucks at most games and creating a bar as a hangout space, to the Coliseum and plans to build some of those spaces and features into the team's new baseball-only ballpark, which is anticipated to open in 2023.

"We were able to do a lot of things keep (Avaya) smaller and make it an intimate stadium that's really appealed to the younger Millennial fans," he added. "And I think that's something that sports is looking for and is needed especially in baseball, where we have more of an aging demographic of fans."

The newly launched A's Access plan works on a 21st Century "all you can eat" subscription versus a limited season ticket model. "Members," as opposed to "season ticketholders," sign up for a certain number of reserved seats and then have access to every other regular season home game along with other benefits including half off concessions.

"It's kind of like Amazon Prime or something like that," Kaval said, discussing A's Access. "And I think at first people didn't understand: They just thought that was free shipping.

"All of the sudden people realize that it's an amazing way to access all these products and services that Amazon provides," he continued.

A's Access, which supplements the Treehouse Pass program that allows unlimited admissions to that area on a monthly or seasonal basis, "is the same thing for the A's. I think that type of disruption of the traditional sports model is exciting to think about. And it's exciting for an organization like the A's, which has always been on the forefront of innovation, to be driving that forward."

Kaval's experience at Stanford Business School makes him the perfect player to help disrupt the 149-year-old league. And his history on The Farm has come full circle, with him teaching during the winter (a.k.a. the baseball offseason).

"I teach a class there now at the business school," he said. "It's about sports management, and I teach with Professor George Foster, who was actually my professor when I was in school.

"One thing I really like about teaching at the business school is that I'm learning myself," he went on to note. "I'm learning from the students and their lives and am thinking about new ways to create a better fan experience and have a better media model and all these different aspects of sports."

He points out that he's actually been a local since 1994, when he first started attending Stanford as an undergraduate and met his wife, Maria, who's now a Vice President of UI Technologies at Oracle. They bought a home in Menlo Park's The Willows neighborhood when he returned to attend Business School in 2001 and have gone on to raise a family there.

The Bay Area is also part of the current A's roster's DNA. Second baseman Jed Lowrie and right fielder Stephen Piscotty are former Cardinal players, while shortstop Marcus Semien and outfielder/first baseman Mark Canha are Cal Bears. (And all but Lowrie are Bay Area natives, as well, hailing from Pleasanton, San Francisco and San José, respectively.)

"I think that's one thing about the team this year that is resonating with fans and with the community is that there is that local connection," he pointed out. "And I think in pro sports these days, that's rare." (The visiting Rangers, for example, only have one player from Arlington and no other native Texans on their 25-man roster.)

The ultimate two-way allegiance can be found in the dugout. Manager Bob Melvin grew up on The Peninsula but attended U.C. Berkeley.

"He's one of the greatest athletes in the history of Menlo-Atherton, where my daughter now goes to school," Kaval said. "So we have a lot of connections, me and him.

"I really feel like baseball is the greatest sport out there," Kaval concluded. "We just have to make sure we educate and get fans exposed to it at young age. And I think we can do that in a lot of fun ways."

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