Sixteen games into the Oakland A’s historic 20-game win streak back in 2002, Mike Davie realized how cheap team ownership truly was.
Weeks prior, the MLB Players Association had voted to set August 30 as the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement. Another in-season strike loomed, MLB’s first since 1994, and owners prepared for the possibility of a month of empty stadiums and flatlined revenues. For the A’s, that meant trimming every cost they could. “They didn’t even order more ticket stock,” Davie, a longtime A’s fan who worked ticket sales back then, remembered. And so it was that, after the union and league worked out a last-minute deal, the A’s had to reuse old stock “from like 1997,” Davie says. “And A’s merchandise was out of stock for weeks!”
Last month, the A’s celebrated that 20-game streak with a T-shirt giveaway for the first 15,000 fans into the Coliseum. Generally, that amount would mean leftovers, but on that particular day, an estimated 32,304 fans watched the A’s climb into a tie for first place with a 7-1 win over the defending World Series champion Houston Astros. Houston is baseball’s model organization of the moment; the A’s are still an organization that would roll out Terrence Long-branded ticket stock without batting an eye. Right now, somehow, the two are rivals.
Despite the team’s success this year, an attendance figure like that is rare for Oakland. The previous Monday night against the Seattle Mariners—their competition for the second AL Wild Card spot—attendance barely crept over 10,000. In what has become something of a tradition around these parts, that led local beat writers and radio provocateurs to question the gumption of A’s fans, forcing players to plead for asses in seats. That gambit worked for the Astros, but didn’t last. The Monday after, attendance dropped below 10,000 again. Tens days later, in another Wild Card-seeking tilt against the Mariners, it didn’t even hit 11,000.
So, where are all the A’s fans? To find out, I spent a few games in the organized chaos of the right field bleachers, a cacophony of loud drums, “Oakland, we love you” chants, and mass telepathic wishes for a walk whenever an A’s player worked a three-ball count. The story the fans told was profane and individuated, but was mostly about the downside of Moneyball—how the drive for analytical efficiency on the field took an emotional toll away from it, and how ownership’s search for a new home ostracized the fan base it had in Oakland all along, maybe for good.
Before the 2017 season began, the team introduced the slogan “Rooted in Oakland.” It appeared on T-shirts, posters, and billboards throughout town. That Opening Day, they dedicated the playing surface—notably, not the stadium itself, which can still be claimed by corporate sponsorship—“Rickey Henderson Field,” after the franchise’s most beloved player. Then they took the tarps off the seats. If anything was symbolic of the team’s strained relationship with its fans, it was those damn tarps.
They were introduced in 2006 to, according to then-team president Mike Crowley, “create an environment that’s fun, easily accessible, and brings you closer to the field.” A’s fans saw them as an attempt to trim costs and/or use market dynamics to bring in a richer fan base. “Can’t have cheap fans if there aren’t any cheap seats,” was the gist. That argument was solidified in 2012, when the team experienced sellouts during its stretch run to first, and ownership still infamously refused to remove the tarps and pack the house. It was hard not to read it as a “fuck you” to new fans, and a “this is as good as it’ll get” to old ones.
Removing the tarps, then, felt like the first important move under new team president Dave Kaval, who began his role with the A’s in November of 2016. “Have you fallen in love with [Kaval] yet,” Athletics Nation wrote at the time, “and the ways in which he’s recommitting the team to both the city and the fan base?”
This recommitment has continued in 2018. To celebrate the team’s 50th season in Oakland, the team commissioned local artists to paint 50 statues of the mascot, Stomper, that were scattered through the city. They opened up The Treehouse, an in-stadium outfield sports bar that fans can access for $29.99 a month, and gave fans a “free game” on April 17 against the White Sox. For 2019, the team will replace its season-ticket model with an “All Access Pass” for $240 a season.
Before taking over with the A’s, Kaval was president of Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes, where he woke that slumbering fan base into a monster and turned their home pitch into a reliably sold-out menace for visiting teams. He’s now trying to repeat that feat at the Coliseum, and at an ideal time: this may be the final year that the Raiders’ ghostly yardage markers will linger in the A’s late season outfield, and while the Warriors’ coming move is in-market, the team’s decision to swap Oakland for San Francisco may hurt even more than the Raiders blowing town altogether. But for his attempts to land, Kaval and the A’s will have to contend with and defeat an opponent even more formidable than the Astros—their own past.
“They poisoned the well, and since they didn’t move, they now have to drink from it,” says David Peters, aka “Bleacher Dave,” who’s been going to games since 1970. “You get the attendance you deserve.”
You can feel that strain in the team’s outward assurance that they’re “rooted” here. In some sense, it’s surely just a marketing gambit—Oakland, roots, print it—but also teams usually don’t need to explicit say things like this to their fans. For a full generation, the scythe of The Move Away has hovered, and there’s still an awful lot of healing left to do. “The A’s have been trying to move since the 1970s,” Bleacher Dave says, and lists the cities that had been mentioned as destinations: Denver, Nashville, Portland, Fremont, San Jose. The last four have been rumored since 2005, after the millionaire real estate developer Lew Wolff—along with the money of John J. Fisher, heir to The Gap fortune—bought the A’s for $180 million. (According to Forbes, they are now valued at $1.02 billion.) Based on interviews with longtime fans, Wolff’s control of the team immediately eroded the stadium experience.
Concession stands were one of the first things to go. Only a few directly behind home plate were staffed and stocked, which made for long walks for those in the cheap seats and annoying lines when the stadium was crowded. Then came Wolff’s dynamic pricing model, which “can fluctuate based on factors affecting supply and demand,” and which badly hurt walk-up crowds. Those tweaks were often slight, but price uncertainty was a new variable to those making last-second decisions. There is a kind interpretation of this model in which it reflects an ownership that doesn’t get the ebbs and flows of its own product. There is another, less-charitable interpretation that interprets it as a form of redlining. “It’s still hard for the local community in East Oakland, and Deep East—where there are many who live paycheck-to-paycheck—to buy online or in advance,” says Jorge Leon, a right-field bleacher stalwart since 1992. “Once a check comes in, it’s like, ‘let’s go watch a game,’ so the walk-up crowd tends to be minority groups. So, to some degree, I think that Wolff was a racist. Or maybe just an old white man. But obviously, he’s going to have certain view of how life, and baseball, should be.”
Leon’s feelings about Wolff are well-known, both to other bleacher fans and to Wolff himself. Toward the start of the 2010 season, Leon used his front row bleacher platform to display a “Lew Wolff Hates Oakland” sign. Security made him take it down. Weeks later, he returned with a banner reading “Wolff lied, he never tried,” which called bullshit on Wolff’s reported attempts to keep the team in town. When Leon refused to take that one down, he was ejected from the stadium.
What lingering reluctance exists in terms of trusting the team’s message that they’re here for good can be traced back to the Wolff era. Fans felt the team was being thrifty-unto-cheap but also that there was an insidious, Major League-esque campaign being waged to convince MLB that the team had to move. Per the timeline that Leon and other fans have developed, listing ownership’s missteps and contradictions since 1995, the argument Wolff sought to make was something like, “we’re trying to draw fans, but our various attempts to make the stadium as shitty as possible aren’t working!”
There are other reasons for suspicion that come up in any conversation with bleacher fans. There’s Wolff owning land in San Jose, and presumably wanting to use his team to bump up its value. Or the stadium scoreboard listing “Athletics,” but not the more geographically committed “Oakland.” Or ticket sales associates asking for zip codes, which is seen as a way to show MLB how few fans actually lived in Oakland. Accurate or not, the constant threat of an impending exit begat a suspicious, and angry, fanbase. Some of or all of this may well be paranoid. None of it, in the context of the Wolff years, really seems excessive.
“If I could personally kick Wolff in the testicles, I would, for the damage he did for the Oakland fanbase,” says Will MacNeil, a bleacher regular since 2005.
“Every time I bought a shirsey, the player would get traded six months later,” says Justin Counts, an A’s fan since birth, about life under Moneyball. “And when any player establishes themself as a superstar, the feeling is, well, they’re not going to sign them.”
“I want a new Kelly Green jersey, and want to get a player name on it,” says Shirene Bell, season ticket holder since 2012. “But I don’t trust them not being there three seasons from now.” You still see the names of shipped-out stars around the park, on the backs of fans: Hudson. Mulder. Haren. Swisher. Donaldson. There’s the one that looms larger than the rest. “I was devastated when Cespedes was traded,” Bell says.
To hear fans tell it, the 2014 deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester made for a particular heartbreak. In Cespedes, A’s fans had finally found a superstar talent who also seemed like he wanted to be in Oakland. Benjamin Christensen, a right field bleacher mainstay since 2012, mentions an interview that Cespedes—now a New York Met—gave in 2017 talking about his desire to finish his career in Oakland. “You don’t hear anyone say that,” Christensen says. “It’s kind of soul-crushing, because the guy didn’t want to leave. But he didn’t have a choice, because business is business.” Lester helped the A’s get into the postseason, where they dropped a Wild Card game to the Royals, and then signed with the Cubs; the next year, Oakland won 68 games.
Despite moving away from the GM role to become the team’s Executive Vice President in 2015, Billy Beane is still the dominant organizational figure for fans. This sort of thing tends to happen when you’re played by Brad Pitt in a movie, but it’s also because his signature method of personnel arbitrage is still how the A’s do business. And so, when fans opine about the downside of Moneyball—that great corporate scam that tricked fans into accepting low payrolls and pulling for players to be dealt away—they’re still mostly critiquing Billy Beane.
“It’s been Billy Beane’s long insistence that he could trade an MVP for three white guys named Ryan and just do as well,” Davie says.
“Why can’t we have a successful team on a consistent basis?” says Christensen. “Why all these small spurts of joy and happiness? No, it’s ‘we need to save on payroll, look into the future.’ Well, what about the present?”
“They trashed their brand,” Bleacher Dave says. “If you go around the country and say you’re an A’s fan, they laugh. Your park is sewage, your team is a joke. If they’re a Yankees fan, they’re like, ‘we’re gonna have Matt Chapman next year, ha-ha-ha.’”
“They just found a way to use cheap labor,” Leon says. “Why are we so happy the team has the lowest payroll? Why are we so worried about another person’s pockets? Why? It’s not coming out of your pocket! Sign ‘em!”
I asked the bleacher fans about the “Rooted in Oakland” campaign, and while they generally liked it, they saw it only as first step. “Show me how ‘rooted in Oakland’ you really are,” Bell says. To a person, fans stressed the need to sign quality favorites to long-term deals. Matts Olson and Chapman come up, although they each have years of pre-arbitration control left. Khris Davis, who came to the club as a big-swinging project and has emerged as one of the best power hitters in the game, has just one year of team control remaining, and is the obvious target for a team seeking show how deep their roots extend. “Retaining Davis gives them credibility, even if it might not be smart financially,” Bleacher Dave says. “They just need to sign someone to show potential to the fans.”
Of course, if Oakland really wanted to show off its roots, the most dramatic and enduring way would be finally settling the team’s still-murky stadium status. In 2017, the organization announced they’d chosen the “Peralta site” as the spot for a new stadium in Oakland, but that fell through after the community kiboshed the idea. The entire charade felt weird, a combination of good intentions and bad execution. It’s unclear what’s next—last month, news came out that the team had hired a “design-forward” architect to oversee ballpark construction—but physically breaking ground is the only way that A’s fans will finally accept that the team is here for good.
“It’s a little bit better now, but there’s still pessimism,” Leon says. “They’re saying everything right, but I’m still worried they might leave. I’m 90 percent sure they’re not going to, but ten percent isn’t.”
He’ll still be at games anyway, of course, with Justin, Will, Mike, Benjamin, Shirene, and the rest. Same as always, in right-field or otherwise, pounding drums, banging heads, chanting away. “I was born into this,” Bleacher Dave laughed when I asked him if there was anything that could make him desert his post in the right-field bleachers. “I don’t know what else to do!” He mentions the times in the past that his fandom has waned—the 1994 strike, the emotional fallout from the Moneyball trades. But he likes being out in the open air and the pace of the game. It allows for more interaction and bonding between fans against a common foe. During the game, it’s the opposing teams. Between innings, it’s still often team ownership.
The next day, Bleacher Dave called me while on his way to the Coliseum after work. He’ll only make it in time to catch a few innings of that day’s game, but as an A’s fan he knew that he had to take advantage of special years whenever they happen. “What these guys are doing now has got me fully back in,” he says. “Dang it.”
Rick Paulas is a writer based in Oakland, where he set a novel.