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Typically, what baseball fans want most out of their preseason analysis is insight into whether and by what means their favorite team might find success on the field in the coming year. In Oakland heading into 2023, what fans will care most about regards business that’ll transpire almost entirely off the field—that is, in the A’s corporate headquarters and in dimly lit boardrooms cloistered deep within Oakland’s City Hall. How the A’s actually play feels inconsequential in comparison.
There are two reasons for this focus. Both evince something elemental about the state of baseball in Oakland today.
The first has to do with hope. For 25 years now, rooting for the A’s has felt a lot like being caught in a toxic relationship—beguiling when it’s good, belittling the rest of the time. This is, on the one hand, a product of owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval’s peculiar approach to fan-service, which revolves around taunting fans online, gaslighting them in the news and repelling them in person; ahead of the 2022 A’s home opener, Fisher purged the Oakland Coliseum of most of its concessions and many of its contractors, which had the maximally insulting effect of guaranteeing that at a game attended by fewer than 18,000 people, what fans had shown up would nevertheless have to wait 30 minutes anytime they wanted a hot dog or a beer. Though in truth A’s fans have become inured to this kind of neglect. We could live with it, if we had to. We don’t need nice things—we in fact quite like the Coliseum, along with the feral cats who’ve colonized it—and we don’t need to be coddled. What’s far more draining, I think, is how Fisher approaches the actual baseball part of the fan-franchise relationship. It’s an operating strategy by now so infamous it boasts its own sobriquet: “Moneyball.”
Now, if you live somewhere other than Oakland, you might understand “Moneyball” in anodyne scientific terms—as shorthand, perhaps, for a once-prescient approach to scouting and analytics popularized by Brad Pitt. A’s fans, however, know that “Moneyball” was never about analytics or scouting so much as it was about compensating for our owners’ conspicuous frugality. The strategy is simple, on paper—it’s a recipe for prying open windows of contention without ever having to pay good players market-rate contracts—and in the years since former A’s GM Billy Beane pioneered it, in the early 2000’s, it has been co-opted by all manner of economically conservative team owners in cities all around the league. But nowhere has “Moneyball” been embraced so militantly. In Oakland, we do not rebuild only with chagrin, nor stretch to re-sign marquee players in special, okay-we’re-really-going-for-it scenarios. We rebuild relentlessly—with industry—and we never re-sign good players, no matter the dynastic potential of doing so. It’s fundamental, by this point, to our organizational ethos. It feels like a curse.
Don’t get me wrong. Rebuilding with purpose is better than never rebuilding at all—see: Rockies, Colorado—and rebuilding the “Moneyball” way has been proven to work, to an extent. The A’s haven’t won a World Series since 1989, but over Beane’s tenure with the team (he took over as GM in 1998, and is now a “senior advisor” to Fisher), the A’s have won seven AL West division titles and four Wild Card spots. The 2002 team that author Michael Lewis dramatized in his 2003 book still stands as one of the most exciting teams in baseball history.
But “Moneyball” is also punishingly taxing. With each rebuild, the A’s not only consign themselves to several years of non-competitive play—last season was the second-worst season in the history of the A’s tenure in Oakland—they sever fans brutally from whole, fresh crops of young and exciting players with whom they’d only recently started forming bonds. This most recent rendition, initiated in the fall of 2021, has seen the A’s trade away or let go of Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Starling Marte, Chris Bassitt, Sean Murphy, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino: every member of the 2021 starting lineup, basically.
This works on fans like cancer treatment. You see it in the stands. (Last season, by a Bash-Brother sized margin, the A’s ranked dead last in attendance.) You see it on social media. (Last spring, after the A’s traded Matt Olson, one fan memorably tweeted, “The good news about being an Oakland A’s fan is someday I’ll die.”) And you can just sort of feel it, in the air. When I run into Giants fans at the grocery store these days, most spare me the limp, sympathetic nod more typically offered the visibly ill. In the eyes of Major League Baseball, “Moneyball” has reduced A’s fans—who rank among the most vociferous and charismatic in baseball—to the diminutive status of the game’s soot-dusted Tiny Tims.
So fans hate “Moneyball,” is the point. Yet that hatred is precisely why many in Oakland have invested so much hope into the A’s off-field business this year: it presents as a chance at liberation—at the end of “Moneyball.”
This is not conjecture; rather, it comes straight from Fisher and Kaval.
The business in question pertains to negotiations that are ongoing between Fisher and the Oakland City Council over whether, and with what amount of public financing, the A’s should be allowed to construct a new stadium on Oakland’s waterfront, a mile south of downtown. The proposed stadium is massive, is in fact not just a stadium but a $12 billion stadium “district”—the sort every team owner wants to build these days, all the better for capturing auxiliary revenues—complete with condos, hotels, parks and apartment buildings. It also remains far from certain whether they will ever be allowed to build it. One complication is funding. Though Fisher and Kaval have touted the stadium project as totally “privately funded,” the project is in fact not viable without many seismic infrastructural improvements to the area around the stadium, which the A’s are asking the city to fund, to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars. Which is a problem for several reasons, chief among them that political appetite in Oakland for subsidizing pro sports is, shall we say, less than voracious; the city is still paying off the $223 million in municipal bonds it issued Al Davis in 1995. And yet, the parties continue to haggle—a vote over a final developer agreement is expected sometime this year. Central to the pitch: that a new stadium will be the thing that finally allows Fisher a less crushingly frugal way of doing business.
“This is why we need a new stadium,” Kaval recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “In order for us to retain our talent, to have a much higher payroll, we need higher revenues. That comes with a new fan-friendly facility.”
Now, fans should parse such comments with several souvenir cups’ worth of high-quality salt. It is dubious that a new stadium will magically turn Fisher into some kind of beneficent spender—a beautiful new stadium had no such effect on Robert Nutting, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates—and Fisher himself hardly inspires faith. The man, it merits noting, is heir to the Gap Inc. fortune, and has a personal net worth north of $2 billion; he’s never been wanting for money to spend. But it’s understandable why fans might be willing to buy into the dream he’s selling. Fisher is perhaps the least subtle of the unsubtle coterie of MLB owners who don’t even try to compete, and he’s conditioned fans to believe that perpetually shortchanged is how this team simply has to operate. That’s never been true, as fans know damn well, but for a long-suffering fanbase adept at finding creative things to root for, the prospect of things actually changing is nevertheless tantalizing.
Unfortunately, hope for the end of “Moneyball” is not the only reason A’s fans care so much about this blasted stadium business.
A far more transfixing—not to mention representative—reason is fear. Flashback to May 2021, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement bemoaning “the rate of progress of the A’s ballpark effort” in Oakland. Fisher and Kaval had been working for several years by that point to advance their real estate ambitions. But in part because the A’s flatly refuse to build their new stadium at the Coliseum site, in East Oakland, progress had been slow. Manfred’s statement parroted Fisher and Kaval’s party line that the Coliseum site was “not a viable option for the future vision of baseball,” but, more importantly, it also instructed Fisher and Kaval to begin to “explore other markets while they continue to pursue a waterfront ballpark in Oakland.” The “other markets” were in fact one, Las Vegas, and promptly thereafter, Fisher and Kaval announced that they’d placed offers on stadium sites all around Sin City. Reporting in Oakland—though still imbued with hints of hope—has been tinged by anxiety ever since. Fisher and Kaval’s commentary, meanwhile, has grown reliably darker and more foreboding. As Kaval also put it to the San Francisco Chronicle, “I just cannot stress enough…our future completely is dependent on what happens with the stadium. It’s kind of everything.”
Once again, one counsels salt. It’s not unusual for team owners keen on extorting their host city to make these kinds of threats. And though the stadium project still faces a sizable financial shortfall—and though Fisher has insisted it’s on Oakland to find a way to plug the gap—given how much time and money the A’s have invested into the effort so far, it’s hard to believe that Fisher would allow the deal to fail on account of a few hundred million dollars he’d likely recoup. (Plus, politicians in Nevada have insisted there’s no more appetite in Las Vegas for subsidizing Fisher than there is in Oakland—which makes the Vegas threat look slightly more like a bluff than Fisher and Kaval might prefer.)
And yet, none of this will be much consolation for fans. For all of Fisher’s neglect, the prospect of losing the A’s hangs heavy over fans. And whether it’s fear or hope that’s captured their attention, the end result is the same. As long as the A’s future in Oakland remains uncertain, held hostage by our owners, the experience of rooting for them will remain unpleasant and deadening, like a kind of purgatory. What A’s baseball has become known for—empty seats, feral cats, “Moneyball” working for Fisher like a crutch and on fans like a cudgel—it will remain.
This is the truly unfortunate part. Baseball is a business, yes. But it is also undeniably more than that, and it remains most fulfilling and transportive when one can believe—for a strike, a series, a summer, a season—that it’s more of that ineffable “other” thing. It’s categorically less fulfilling when maintaining such faith is impossible. So it has been in Oakland for a while. Occasionally, of course, fans catch the upswing of a rebuild, and reasons for excitement emerge. This season, it’s technically possible that the prospects the A’s have acquired over the last few years—Ken Waldichuk and JP Sears, picked up in the Montas trade; reliever A.J. Puk, the sixth overall pick from 2016; Shea Langeliers, former ninth overall pick scooped up in the Olson trade; most recently, Esteury Ruiz, a speedster acquired in the widely panned Murphy deal—bloom earlier than expected, and lead a march toward the postseason. Crazier things have happened. The A’s were not really expected to be competitive in 2002, either.
More than likely, however, the A’s will turn out to be very bad—worse, even, than last year—and unless Fisher announces he’s had some Dickensian change of heart, all summer fans will find their attention drawn away from the diamond and up toward sternly closed doors. Again. The story of baseball in Oakland will continue to revolve—necessarily—around term sheets and tax dollars, instead of box scores and batting averages.
This is, objectively, I think, a suboptimal way to experience what Roger Angell once called “the sunshine game.” Personally, that A’s fans are once again being subjected to such a sunless version of the sport we love fills me with something like shame. I wish I could write this team off almost as much as I wish I was writing a different kind of preseason analysis, at least until Fisher sells to someone who gives a damn. But I can’t. I hold onto the hope of a better tomorrow—of a return to something like the late 1980s, a dynasty that shines like an Atlantis in my mind—and I remain in thrall to the fear that that tomorrow will never come.
Most A’s fans I know are in the same boat. The question before us, then, is what to do with our energy and interest? Hold onto the hope, or give in to the fear? The only rational answer, I think, is to try for the former. It’s a matter, ultimately, of self-preservation. The 2023 campaign might simultaneously be the least competitive yet most consequential season in the history of Oakland A’s baseball. It could be strange and stressful. Hope—for this chapter of A’s history to end; for the A’s to remain in Oakland; for the team to start burnishing a different kind of reputation, one more in line with the colorful audacity of our abundant past, as opposed to the pitiable poverty of our protracted present—will sustain us. Picture it, and go nuts. It’s Opening Day, 2033. Fisher, in a final fit of pique, has sold the A’s to Joe Lacob. Ruiz, whom Lacob has recently re-signed to another multi-year extension, is still batting leadoff. The stands are full. And everyone in them is happy, in part because we’ve forgotten what it was like to root for the A’s back when we had to spend each offseason sour and fearful. By this point in time, we may have even forgotten that we ever had to play “Moneyball,” instead of baseball, at all.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Right. Now hold onto it in your mind. Or keep it somewhere you can find it. In the months ahead, it might be all we have.
Thank you for reading
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But this is a sad commentary. It has never crossed my mind to think of those teams from their fan's perspective. Depressing start to the day, but somehow beautifully written.
In the end, that nerdery has been wielded to be competitive, not on the field, but on the balance sheet.
Likening Moneyball to cancer treatment is a bit gauche, though.