The Oakland Athletics have threatened to leave the Bay Area before, and often; there are still T-shirts around from when Charlie Finley was trying to either move to Denver or sell the team and let it be relocated to Denver, and that was in 1978—a scant 10 years after they arrived in California.
Thus, their latest threat, with not-so-subtle blackmail attachment, comes off as the standard arm-twist from team owner John Fisher to find a place that will love his wallet unconditionally, including real estate and construction costs. The difference this time, though, is that the team claims to have been granted permission by Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred, who has in the past made it clear that he thinks Oakland is the best place for the A’s.
So what changed? Well, the price tag for the suggested ballpark and associated mixed-use projects at Howard Terminal, about five miles west of the Coliseum, is listed at roughly 12 billion dollars when you include all the bells, whistles, noisemakers and tuba solos. The public’s share of this grand plan would be roughly $2.26 billion, which given its economic limitations and the ongoing financial costs of COVID may as well eleventy-gazillion gold ingots.
In other words, Fisher, who was quoted in a team statement as saying, “The future success of the A’s depends on a new ballpark. Oakland is a great baseball town, and we will continue to pursue our waterfront ballpark project. We will also follow MLB’s direction to explore other markets,” is actually saying, “We can leave once we play out the PR string awhile longer, and if we can leave, why on Earth would we waste any more effort on a new park here?”
Fisher has been the money behind attempted plans to move to Fremont, a suburb closer to San Jose than to Oakland, and then San Jose itself. He was also in charge when the team declared plans to build a ballpark in Oakland on land that was actually owned by a community college, so politeness and commitment to Oakland has essentially been Job No. 12 for him. The problem the team has always had is its own bumbling arrogance, except the times when it has been more committed to arrogant bumbling. But now, add some healthy bad faith and you’ve got the gist here. History comes alive, in that dead-ish repetitive kind of way.
MLB’s contribution was to repeat what we all have known for years: “The Oakland Coliseum site is not a viable option for the future vision of baseball.” But in telling the A’s to force the issue, Manfred and his happy little wizards are saying that they have wearied of waiting for the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays to figure out how to blackjack their respective communities into undeserved submission, and want them to find new suckers even if it means another city.
Amazingly, though, it comes at a time when civic governments are even more stretched than ever and when people are wiser to the stadium scam. Baseball’s timing on this is, as it usually is, god-awful. Then again, baseball’s timing on this is, as it always is, perfectly baseball. The MLB statement reads, “We have instructed the Athletics to begin to explore other markets while they continue to pursue a waterfront ballpark in Oakland. The Athletics need a new ballpark to remain competitive, so it is now in our best interest to also consider other markets,” but those markets are just as strapped as Oakland. Fisher would have a better chance in the Dallas Metroplex or Atlanta, which, like the Bay already have pro baseball, but which unlike the Bay also possess a weird penchant for funding stadiums their teams didn’t actually need.
The one thing Oakland has is a mayor in Libby Schaaf who has a history of flipping a middle finger at the powerful, as she did when the NFL tried to squeeze her into building the Raiders a new stadium, or in the alternative asking the city to give the league the land to build their own. She passed, laughing all the way, on both suggestions. This may be part of what Fisher is planning if what he really wants is to leave. He’ll take $2.6 billion as a consolation prize, sure, but he may simply prefer to move, or better still, to sell at a massively inflated price to someone who will move the team for him.
Either way, this is an odd time to threaten a city with anything, which is why this is the baseballiest thing for baseball to do, and the A’s-iest thing to say about it. Let’s all agree in lieu of wasting more talk about this tired old subject to return in a couple of years when Fisher threatens to move to Narnia.