In Oakland, no change of ownership/no new stadium means no PSLs. No $18 sandwich at Crazy Crab’z. No weighty free-agent contracts. And a family of four can attend, eat (hot dog AND peanuts!) and drink for $60. Plus Barry Zito is on Alert-5 Aircraft in AAA Nashville. So who needs a goddamn trophy?
When I was 12, the golden age of Bay Area baseball was represented on the wall above my bed by a pair of adjacent Nike posters. The poster on the left, Will Clark’s compact left-handed stroke frozen over a stanchion of the Golden Gate Bridge. On the right, Mark McGwire’s rhinoceros-horn-sized forearms stretching halfway over the span.
While I knew it was the much-less-scenic Bay Bridge that connected the two teams, the message was simple and direct: The strong- and sweet-swinging duo was the only thing bigger than the region’s most notable landmark.
The bridge as backdrop was also a statement about where the nascent Bay Area was on the rest of the nation’s sports and pop-culture radar. We weren’t New York or Chicago. We weren’t St. Louis or Minnesota. Hell, we weren’t even Los Angeles or Anaheim. To get the Giants and A’s on the map, Nike had to show the rest of the world just where the Giants and A’s were on the map.
The San Francisco of the early ‘90s was a decidedly left-leaning giant homeless shelter disguised as a banking, tourism and textile town. And Oakland, a crime-riddled port of the disappearing wage-earning class.
It was a time before the jargon of possibility took over and the drudgery of today’s hand-held solipsism defined San Francisco.
It was a time before hipster victory gardens and a shakily revitalized downtown “brought back” Oakland—if only for those who can afford to pay more for less food and drink $14 cocktails served unapologetically in Mason jars. The rest of the city simmers with real problems: crumbling infrastructure, capital crime and a school system adrift.
The A’s and Giants last meaningfully squared off in the 1989 World Series, bringing my poster to life. The planet, as it turns out, couldn’t take such gloriousness and at 5:04 p.m. October 17, 1989, just a half hour before the first pitch of game three, the earth opened up to swallow both franchises whole as the Loma Prieta quake struck.
The series closed out with a four-game sweep in the A’s favor. And the mitosis of the two teams, then equal in forgotten West Coast underdog stature, began.
The Giants would go on to never fully repair that version of the team or its home turf. Two years later, the franchise was packed up for Florida—till the mayor intervened and ginned up a reluctant if not innovative local ownership group.
Instead of moving one of baseball’s oldest franchises to the swamplands of St. Petersburg, the savvy businessmen wanted to build a ballpark for their new toy—Willie Mays’ godson and the most expensive free agent to date, Barry Bonds—to hit parabolic blasts into the chilled-to-black bay waters of China Basin. Where once there was an industrial landfill site rose a new, privately funded brick bandbox featuring lovable Rusty the Old Navy Robot.
The Giants rang in a new century with the new digs. Bonds got the single-season and all-time home run record and came within six outs of bringing San Francisco its first title in 2002. But it was homegrown pitchers and position players who eventually landed the franchise an unlikely trio of World Series rings during the last half-decade.
In 2015, the Giants joined the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox in baseball’s $2 billion valuation club. Success in excess has bred a new generation of douchebag around San Francisco and their epicenter on any given home stand seems to be AT&T. A willfully ignorant fanbase more likely to turn their backs to the field in-game, extend their arm and take a picture of the action they’re missing is the mark of today’s Giants fan.
In Oakland, things couldn’t have played out more differently. The current ownership group of Lew Wolff, a real estate mogul, and John Fisher, heir to the fading GAP empire, are baseball’s twin Ebenezers. Professional sports’ slumlords. Raking in profit-sharing dollars and giving fewer than two shits whether any of the remaining dozenish chest-painted Oakland faithful bang through the turnstiles like cattle to the slaughter. The A’s are ranked 27th out of 30 MLB teams in valuation ($725 million) and attendance (just over 1.1 million/season).
The team draws fewer than 20,000 per game among OAK International discount parking lots on the exhaust-lined concrete shores of the 880. Renovations in the quarter century since the team’s last title include building a new stadium on top of the existing old one called Mount Davis—a concrete-and-rebar homage to their current roommates’ deceased owner.
There’s no recent hardware to impede the tumbleweed roll of dust bunnies in Oakland’s trophy display. And there’s no such thing as a long-term contract for homegrown players as much as there is a promise of a future windfall elsewhere. Fans have come to think of A’s prospects as interns. They’re young, eager and fun to have around—but eventually learn they’re not making enough for Friday drinks and go get a real job, preferably somewhere where the offices aren’t in the direct flightpath of Southwest’s 12x/daily commuter to Ontario.
A’s GM Billy Beane, though being portrayed as boy-genius by Brad Pitt bought him a lot—maybe too much—leeway from A’s apologists, has spent the last decade or so outmaneuvering himself into this kind of fugue state of a chess master whose pieces are stolen. Beane these days is like the Subway owner who swapped for a Quiznos and then switched back. He routinely makes a mockery of the good work he once did by undoing it and then for good measure, undoing that. Sabermetrics is no longer black arts or exclusive to Oakland. The Athletics plus 29 other MLB teams use analytics and analytics alone to extract value from every draft pick, contract extension and free-agent acquisition.
As baseball’s second-longest tenured GM, (Beane started in 1997, the Giants’ Brian Sabean was hired in 1996) Beane not only hasn’t won a World Series, but has managed to advance past the AL Division Series only once (2006). Though A’s evangelists will note the franchise has made a respectable eight playoff appearances in Beane’s 18 seasons as a small-market/small-payroll team—the consistent effort to keep payroll in the eight-figure range has yielded mixed and sometimes stupefying results.
Take 2008, when Beane dealt closer Huston Street and Carlos Gonzalez to get Matt Holliday in an A’s jersey. The A’s finished 24.5 back and Holliday went on to star for the Cardinals the next season.
Or last off-season…After giving up a four-run lead in the 8th inning of the American League Wild Card Game to eventual pennant winners Kansas City, Beane failed to re-sign his trade deadline acquisitions Jason Hammel and Jon Lester. He moved Josh Donaldson, the game’s premiere third baseman, after months earlier giving up the league’s top shortstop prospect in Addison Russell to acquire four months of service from Jeff Samardzija. Beane also sent Samardzija back to Chicago (this time the South Side) for Berkeley product Marcus Semien, who plays the league’s worst middle-infield defense while batting .251.
The A’s sent a franchise-tying record (1975) seven All Stars to the midsummer night’s classic in 2014. Only one (Sean Doolittle) still wears an elephant on his sleeve.
Here’s how the rest are doing: Yoenis Céspedes (Tigers .287, 15 HR, 55 RBI), Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays 289, 23 HR, 66 RBI), Scott Kazmir (Astros 104 SO, 2.99 ERA), Brandon Moss (Indians 15 HR, 48 RBI), Derek Norris (Padres 11 HR, 45 RBI).
The latest trade, Kazmir to the Astros last Thursday, netted—as most of Beane’s trades do—a pair of AA prospects who may or may not make the club in future years and certainly will do nothing to bolster the team’s playoff chances (still only 11 games out at 44-55) this year.
On the plus side, the A’s are keeping it interesting with the start of a dominant rotation. Ace Sonny Gray is 10-4 with an ERA under 2.40 and though unnamed scouts and analysts like to think that he’ll be part of this season’s fire sale, A’s Assistant GM David Forst said this week Gray’s “not going anywhere” (which means the right-hander could be in pinstripes by week’s end). Kendall Graveman, another righty, is to date the only worthwhile acquisition in the offseason (he came over from Toronto in the Donaldson deal) seems to be getting his footing with a 3.40 ERA and 55 Ks.
The A’s also have a bit of recent history on their side that they’ll rise to respectability again in 2016. In 2011, they dumped a handful of AL representatives from the previous midsummer classic (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey) and went on to win the AL West.
A’s fans can also exhale about the team relocating any time soon. Wolff, just prior to the start of the season when discussing the current long-term lease stalemate at O.co as it relates to a potential move: “We’d rather stay in the Bay Area than move to Timbuktu.”
That’s right, an on-paper billionaire who refers to San Antonio and Montreal—two cities that regularly make all those liveable/affordable slideshows—as the middle of BFE. It’s not that Fisher (San Francisco) or Wolff (Westwood) have any physical or sentimental ties to the East Bay. It’s just they don’t want shell out the cost of a U-Haul or any of those PODS storage things, even though those seem like a pretty good idea. I’ve never tried one, though I probably would. Next move maybe.
…Unfortunately, there are no suitors to take ownership in Oakland unless for whatever reason the MLB decides it’s OK for a team to be a co-op and hops and heirloom tomatoes can be grown in the outfield. Maybe goats instead of a grounds crew with plenty of chickens scratching at the infield. A circuit court judge won’t allow the A’s to move to San Jose, which is also good because the South Bay already got a publicly funded stadium-sized homage to bland and will be paying back the government-funded thieves at Goldman Sachs for the next four decades or approximately till the 49ers’ next Super Bowl appearance.
Until the MLB finds some McCourt-sized loophole to force them out (and it will) Wolff and Fisher will act like your college landlord and take the security deposit either way—whether they know about the goat and that party in May where the roof of his garden shed was collapsed by people dancing on it or not.
Every Major League Baseball team’s ownership group does what it do, win or lose, for the profit. And since fandom directly belies responsible decision making with the pocketbook, the ownership will always win.
Yet Wolff’s and Fisher’s refusal to improve rosters and infrastructure has introduced a strange concept to most in the Bay Area: affordability.
O.co is held together by Big League Chew and chicken wire. The entire 2015 team payroll is south of what the Dodgers shell out for the services of Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke (about $56 million). A’s fans don’t pay PSL fees for the rights to their seats. Because of this, actual families can attend actual baseball games. This season, a Friday Family Pack includes four tickets, four drinks, four hot dogs and four bags of peanuts…for $60. A single Club Level seat for the Friday, Aug. 14 Giants game vs. the Nationals is $65. A beer in Oakland is $2 cheaper than across the bay and pretty much anywhere else in baseball. It’s $20 less to park at the Coliseum than in China Basin and there’s no farmers’ market or dickhead playing cornhole in front of the new North Face Store looking for Instagram attention either. And BART stops at the Will Call window.
Any change in ownership would signal a potential move from the area and/or a new stadium build-renovation that would signal a Giants-inspired fleecing. No #socialmedianight and trio of trophies can hide that there’s only one baseball choice in the Bay Area that’s feasible for the ever-dwindling ranks of the working-class fan.
Maybe put that on a poster.