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MLB

The Oakland Athletics Take Trolling Back Twenty Years

Oakland Athletics team president Dave Kaval waving his team's flag during the 2020 playoffs.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Dave Kaval, the purposefully chirpy president of the Oakland Athletics and the public face of its customer service department, tweeted a brief video from his evening at the Minnesota Wild-Vegas Golden Knights Stanley Cup playoff game last night. Whether he did this as a fan or as part of the franchise’s new corporate strategy of showing Oakland all the places it could take the baseball team depends on how paranoid you’re feeling. No one would blame you if the answer was “decently to very,” given that owner and power recluse John Fisher was also visiting Vegas and Portland, and for the same reason. He, too, was not ashamed of making sure that was known, as Oregonian columnist John Canzano and others were on that story with both feet.

It is the latest in the club’s first-generation trolling strategy for the City of Oakland—look at where we could go if you don’t give us what we want, now and every other time we ask, forever. Which is fine enough as these things go, except for the pure oven-mitt artlessness of it all. If Fisher just wants the money to leave the team in Oakland, these threats are unsubtle and easily dismissed, especially in a town that told Mark Davis and the NFL that it wasn’t going to be extorted into bankruptcy only three years ago. And if they want to go, there is no reason to telegraph the move. Just set a date to rent the trucks and do it without saying a word. It’s clumsy, sure, but it gets the message across.

But it is part of this franchise’s overarching strategic fork since Walter Haas Jr. sold the team on his deathbed in 1995. One prong: Threaten a city that doesn’t take kindly to threats. The second is to assume that other people will carry your water for you at some point, which is why the A’s are not in Fremont, San Jose, or the west side of Oakland already. The third: Seek leverage in pursuit of real estate. The team’s owners have never understood how to do that, either, or for that matter bothered to learn. This is why they’re still stabbing away at it.

It’s also why Kaval, who authored (or at the very least supervised) the slogan “Rooted In Oakland” in 2019, is taking pictures of the Golden Knights the way a teenager would shoot a concert vid of Kendrick Lamar—to show his friends where he got to go. Interestingly, though, Kaval did that A’s Corporate Weirdo thing where he wound up undermining his case by highlighting an entertainment vehicle that will always be more popular than the one he’s shilling.

The other thing Kaval is doing is advertising that the A’s are apparently interested in being reunited geographically with the franchise they always claimed was the source of all their difficulties in Oakland. The Raiders were always a bigger deal in Oakland than the A’s and it was true the moment the Athletics first left Kansas City, led by the noted jackass Charlie Finley and his jackass Charlie O (see? The marketing ideas have always been there at the forefront). It remained true right through to the time their functional but never state-of-the-art ballpark deteriorated into an eyesore with occasionally functioning plumbing. It may be true today. Interestingly, nobody thought the view of the Oakland Hills was all that spectacular until it was replaced by concrete and chairs for Al Davis. That the team now insists upon it as a dealbreaker suggests they’re still hung up on that stepchild status even though the big brother has blown town.

Amazingly, though, that relationship is exactly the Oakland citizenry’s take on San Francisco, and they have done a better job molding it into a civic culture than the A’s ever have. This is because the A’s have spent the last 25 years moaning about all the things they don’t have but deserve just by existing, whereas Oakland just went ahead and kept on being itself. This is an organization that just wants to be loved, and also admired, and additionally lavished with cost-free real estate just like all their friends, but they’ve never had the slightest clue how to attain any of that. And now they’re using brutishly ineffective and very old-timey tactics to make people who aren’t moved by their self-inflicted plight see the financial error or their ways. It is a strange thing—a threat delivered in the exact same pitch as a whine.

Understand here that none of this has anything to do with baseball at all. The A’s have been successful enough, even with the 22-year drought since their last World Series, and they are all right now. This isn’t even about a stadium, except insofar as the stadium is the bait for all the other stuff that can be put around it. What this executive whirlwind tour is really about isn’t anything more than finding a city that will give them everything they want, including unconditional love expressed in the language of money, at a time when cities are still reeling from the economic ravages of COVID. That’s not saying some cynical politiwhore somewhere won’t see some angle in bringing in a ball team at the cost of wrecking the local economy, but all that does is remind us all that the only people who run for public office are generally the ones who should never be permitted to hold public office.

But this is not a treatise on end-stage politics, or even on baseball. It’s more about the ancillary premise that people who would try to move a sports franchise by doing it this gormlessly shouldn’t be allowed to move the team, or really even have it at all. At this point, John Fisher and his faithful elf Dave Kaval are doomed to be remembered solely for their lack of ideas, even in service to their own needs. When your best play for public popularity is to sell, you have already done your job irretrievably poorly; when your lasting impact is convincing people not to care about you rather than go to the effort of actually hating you, you’ve guaranteed that you can never get back to even.

But at least Dave will have that lasting memory of his night watching the Knights lose to the Wild by the score of … well, who’s to say that, out of civic solidarity for his boss’s potential new home, he even stayed for the end of the game? An early exit would have fit perfectly with the broader shabbiness of this gambit, and the long-term organizational strategy of doing the minimum, minus 20 percent.