Though I’m from the Midwest, the Oakland Athletics were always a fascination for me. It started well before the Moneyball era. When I first became a baseball fan was the rise of the Mark McGwire-Jose Canseco A’s. Even beyond McGwire and Canseco, when the A’s would be on the national game…they just looked different. Yeah, we know why now, but to a kid they looked like something not of this planet. Even Carney Lansford or Dave Henderson or Dave Stewart…they were just monsters roaming the quiet countryside of baseball. How come they looked and played like that and I was left with these puny Chicago Cubs at home? Even then, the A’s had an air about them. Something you wanted to be a part of from a distance even if you didn’t know why.
Then came the Giambi era, at an age where my punk sensibilities still governed far too much of my life (still true). That team looked like they were all off to see Skid Row in some bar for $7 after the game (OK maybe not punk but just go with me here). How could you not love them?
As I got older, and became more aware of how the A’s had to fight against their own ownership, their own circumstances, and keep reinventing themselves to stay ahead of the pack, it was hard to not be smitten. It was also hard to miss that connection to Oakland itself, something of an underdog in California as a city. They made my own fandom seem so…square.
We all knew how the Raiders represented the rebellious nature of the East Bay, more in the 70s than in their second stint. How they spoke for the California you didn’t see on the brochure. The dirty, loud, counterculture to the glitz across the bay or to the south. The sneer in response to the tourists and fantasies.
What the A’s represented
The A’s were only slightly different, or at least that’s how it felt some 2,000 miles away. They were still rebellious, still not fitting into any scene but their own, but they added a weirdo quotient to it that’s also a big part of California. They had the white shoes, the unorthodox methods, the creatures in the bleachers, the drums, whatever else, the overall feeling that they knew they didn’t have much, and they didn’t want much, and they would make it work better than those who had more. It was only enhanced by getting the MLB package and watching a lot of their games, games that always seemed to take place in the dark and gruff air that night in the Bay tends to be. A time when only the true creatures of the night came out. It had a haunting, alluring mystery to it. You had to be crazy to want to be there, and yet if you were you knew you didn’t belong anywhere else. At least that’s how it looked. There was a passion, a goofiness, a winking at the camera but a deep love that I and I’m sure some others could only be jealous of from here.
It was unique, something you felt like you couldn’t see anywhere else, whereas most fandoms and atmospheres feel portable, duplicated.
A move to Vegas won’t be the same
Of course, these aren’t the things that people who run baseball, and all sports, care about. It is what makes sports sports, it’s what turns us into fans in the first place, but it’s not what shows up on the balance sheet. The A’s may be swept away to Vegas, where John Fisher can get not only his new ballpark but the rest of the land deal he wants so that it will never matter what actually goes on within that ballpark. The money will keep coming in. What the Cubs have, what the Braves have, what the Chicago Bears want, and a list of others too long to write out without getting way too depressed.
It won’t have what the A’s meant, what the fans were in the stands. Much like the Raiders, it’ll be some plastic facsimile pawing at the real thing, like the fake New York skyline or Eiffel Tower down the street. A glorified cardboard cutout that will try and assuage tourists and residents that they’re experiencing something they used to remember instead of just homogenized crap.
There are a ton of reasons a team in Vegas won’t work. We could start with the 137° temps in the summer. Visiting fans aren’t as likely to show up in the middle of the week for a three-game series in July as they are for one game on a weekend in the fall. Or that Vegas is already on the cusp of having to ration water in the summers.
Even if any of those come to pass and the A’s can’t get to Vegas, it feels like something is now broken in Oakland. A city that’s been in turmoil thanks to so many things going on in the area, longtime residents pushed out because of the cost, and those that pushed them out getting pushed out themselves due to the costs getting even more ridiculous. And all the layers that we don’t need to get into now.
In strictly sports terms, which really can’t be viewed without the social and political implications, it’s sad what’s happened to Oakland. They created and maintained their own feel and culture around their teams no matter what was going on in The Town, something unique and untouchable. And then they either watched them get co-opted as trendy and part of the scene that these arenas and stadiums stood in stark opposition to, laying the groundwork to move across the water for people who don’t really get it, or leave the area altogether for simply more money. Painful symbolism.
I don’t know that there will be a sports reckoning. They may have become too big to fail. The owners and commissioners long ago swatted away what made sports attractive in the first place, our love and dedication, and the communities we build around them. First, they shoved us farther and farther away from the field with their luxury suites and exorbitant ticket prices. Then they made us pay for stadiums and arenas we can’t even get into. And sometimes they just take the teams away.
It’s gotten to the point where these owners and commissioners don’t need that core it was once built on, and it won’t matter if those stadiums and arenas are consistently half empty. Maybe the RSN collapse is a harbinger, maybe the next TV deals won’t be as sweet, maybe they’ll need us back in the seats, making it a more vibrant place.
Or maybe that ship has sailed. Maybe we’re not coming back, not in the same way. Not creating that place full of weirdos and rebels on cool nights in a stadium too decrepit for use simply because it’s what we do. Not in a place that provided the most passionate support any team ever had and then watched that support used against them. Maybe the ultimate rebellion of Oakland was that it wouldn’t bow to the A’s or Raiders, that there came a point where they wouldn’t be used (though that’s not exactly how it worked, it just feels nice to say). Either way, baseball lost something late last night when Fisher and Dave Kaval released their statement like the cowards they are. It may not think it matters. Maybe it doesn’t. But one day, it just might.