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‘Like a death in the family:’ The Oakland A’s and their slow-motion tragedy of a year

Sports'Like a death in the family:' The Oakland A's and their slow-motion tragedy of a year


Rooted in Oakland.

That was the slogan, the motto that was supposed to define the ethos of the Oakland Athletics under the leadership of John Fisher and Dave Kaval. They hung signs from the stadium facade and plastered the hashtag on social media. The A’s were about history and community. Their decrepit stadium and its concrete masses could be an eyesore, but the old place had its charm. Oakland’s small attendance numbers could be trumped by the right-field drums and the die-hard loyalties of the people who showed up every single night.

People like Bryan Johansen, whose fandom took on a life of its own when team social media accounts posted his candid reaction — “what the f—?” — after outfielder Ramon Laureano was hit by a pitch for the 11th time in 2019. Johansen is an Oakland lifer with the team’s script logo tattooed on his forearm. His Laureano post spawned memes, which morphed into a cottage industry featuring shirts, mugs, hats, banners, all saluting the audacious nature of Oakland fandom. While team executives explored options for a glitzy new ballpark complete with gondolas transporting fans from BART Stations to the ballpark, a New York Times article celebrated the Oakland Coliseum’s debaucherous depravity. The article called the Coliseum baseball’s last dive bar, and Johansen thought, “Man, that’s the most beautiful line I’ve ever heard talking about this stadium.”

Under the new moniker “The Last Dive Bar,” a fan effort led by Johansen and cofounder Paul Bailey grew. Managing products and events turned into a sort of second job for Johansen, who works for Tesla in process engineering by day. Last Dive Bar formed a partnership with the A’s. Players wore their shirts; they had an official deal with Starling Marte. It was the kind of grassroots fan-led effort most franchises dream of cultivating.

Which made it all the more tragic when its founders evolved into unwitting ringleaders of an anti-ownership movement. Last season, the group partnered with another fan group, the Oakland 68s, to help organize a reverse boycott, in which supporters donned green shirts with the word SELL plastered on the front and coordinated chants echoed throughout the stadium from start to finish. In a season with an average attendance of 10,276, the game drew 27,759 fans. It was a rebellious moment that focused the attention of the sports world on Oakland, and it was a success. But it was also a last resort, a desperate measure by a group that felt it had little choice left.

“I don’t want people to just focus on the boycott,” Johansen said, “because that’s not what we are. We’re forced to be that because of this ownership group.”

It’s always a painful thing, a civic institution severing ties to a city. The Colts first left Baltimore under the cover of night, there one day and gone the next. The people of Seattle felt the SuperSonics were swindled from under their feet. The A’s are leaving Oakland under a different set of circumstances: a long, slow, tragic burn.

One year ago, in April of 2023, the franchise announced an agreement to purchase land for a new ballpark on the Las Vegas Strip, one of baseball’s proudest franchises seduced by the temptations of Sin City. The announcement featured few certain details about the stadium and its financing plan. It also did not specify where the A’s would play in the interim. Hope remained the A’s might stay in Oakland, at least for a few more years.

Now — after a year of total uncertainty, many unanswered questions and more public relations gaffes — the A’s are scheduled to play in Sacramento for at least 2025-27. They will take over a Triple-A ballpark that currently accommodates 14,014 fans and has clubhouses located near the outfield, spending a mininum of three seasons in a limbo so total that they will not even take on the name of the city they’re using as a stopover. No longer the Oakland Athletics, not yet the Vegas Athletics, and unwilling to become the Sacramento Athletics, they will simply be the Athletics — generic, nomadic, unremarkable.

Rootless.

“It’s like a death in the family, and your own family member murdered the person,” Johansen said. “It’s horrible. There’s no words to describe it. There’s teams that have relocated before and it hurts and it’s painful. … But this is the most long, drawn out relocation process in probably the history of sports. And the ugliest, too.”


The morning after A’s players learned they will spend the next three seasons in Sacramento, the mood in the team’s young, largely anonymous clubhouse was business as usual. In some ways, they’re used to the turmoil; it’s the only major league life many of them have ever known.

On the field, this year’s young A’s feature few recognizable faces. The team’s $61 million payroll, per Spotrac, ranks last in the league. Its farm system ranks 30th out of 30. Among the most famous draft picks in an era of struggles is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, whom the organization drafted No. 9 overall but was unable to lure away from the NFL.

Anonymous as this current group is, these are the players who will go down as the faces of the A’s final year in Oakland.

“We’re kind of caught in the middle,” outfielder Brent Rooker said, “and it’s a tough place to be at times.”

Multiple members of the team said their concerns over the franchise’s future centered mostly on where they and their families may be living next year. It’s a strange situation, one where most of the players have been here only a couple of years. The fans feel the pain of a much longer timeline.

“I think the loyalty from the fan base is what stands out,” Rooker said of playing for the A’s. “The people who show up to the games you get to know on a personal level because they’re there every day. They show up day in, day out. You get to talk to them, you hang out with them at times when you’re playing and develop relationships with them.”

In Oakland, only one player has been on the roster more than six years. That is starting pitcher Paul Blackburn, who grew up in the East Bay and attended games at the Coliseum as a boy. More than any other player, he understands the wrinkled emotions that have led fans to hoist SELL THE TEAM banners, to stage elaborate reverse boycotts, to lead chants and sell wristbands and engage in a most quixotic effort to have their opinions matter.

“It’s a very interesting situation,” Blackburn said. “Especially being from there and just having a lot of memories going to games there as a kid … Honestly I kind of just feel bad for the community, the fans in general.”


Paul Blackburn is the longest-tenured player on the A’s roster. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

The emotions were more palpable across the hall, where one of the players in the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse was outfielder Mark Canha, a San Jose native who rooted for the San Francisco Giants growing up. Canha matured into a Rule 5 pick and a member of the A’s from 2015-21. He posted an emotional farewell after leaving the organization in 2021. He spoke of returning to Oakland as a member of the New York Mets and still getting greeted by the smiling faces of team employees.

“It’s hard not to be nostalgic about the stadium you made your debut in that’s 40 miles from the house you grew up in,” Canha said. “I’ll never shame the Coliseum for what it is. It’s a beautiful place for me. Other people might say some things about it, but I love it.”

Detroit manager A.J. Hinch was drafted by the A’s and played for the organization from 1997-2000. He spoke for many in the sport when a reporter asked for his take on the A’s going to Sacramento.

“The decisions and all that stuff to leave is way above my pay grade, but I know what the fans bring to Oakland, I know wearing the green and gold matters to that group that’s there,” Hinch said. “And it’s just kind of sad. … There will be a hole in the league because Oakland doesn’t have a team.”

As A’s players focus on staying in the major leagues, proving themselves, trying to play well and tread water, they do so against a low, steady hum of controversy. Earlier in April, social media was set ablaze when Johansen reacted to news the A’s had demoted outfielder Esteury Ruiz, a negative-WAR player who nonetheless stole 67 bases in 2023. Ruiz was among players who was known to wear one of the yellow rubber “I Stand With Oakland” bracelets produced by Last Dive Bar. That same day, Rooker was not in the starting lineup. Johansen posted from the Last Dive Bar X account, showing photos of Ruiz and Rooker wearing the bracelets. “Rooker benched, Ruiz sent down,” the post read. “One has to wonder why …”

Soon the Last Dive Bar account, on April Fool’s Day nonetheless, was feeding into the melodrama, posting photoshopped “evidence” of the wristbands on John F. Kennedy, Bigfoot, Jimmy Hoffa and Jesus Christ. The whole thing was ludicrous. But because this is Oakland, Rooker was soon having to dispel rumors of a WristbandGate conspiracy to the media.

“In any other organization, it wouldn’t have grown legs,” Johansen said. “It would have just been like something silly, no way that’s even possible. But in this instance, it’s feasible. And that just speaks volumes to how this front office is run, this organization and how people view this organization.”


They envisioned the site from the sky. It was 2016 when Fisher and his associates climbed high atop a crane to overlook the site at Howard Terminal on the Oakland Estuary, the area in the Port of Oakland where they devised an ambitious plan to bring $11 billion worth of development and a $1.2 billion ballpark. The glittering Bay Area views symbolized lofty promise. But not all the settlers who first came to the Bay struck gold.

As the Howard Terminal plan unfolded, officials from the City of Oakland were eager to keep the A’s in The Town. The Warriors were already leaving for San Francisco, the Raiders already headed to Vegas. Here Fisher and the city were negotiating on what could have been a mutually beneficial plan, even if it always had obvious pitfalls. The Howard Terminal site, for instance, lacked built-in public transit infrastructure — hence unusual ideas like the plan’s proposed gondolas. Fisher spent more than $100 million on permits and other clearances for the site, and the City of Oakland narrowed the gap in funding for the $12 billion project to less than $100 million. But as deliberations grew more serious, with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in the midst of planning, progress slowed. The A’s pointed to opposition from the Oakland City Council and local interest groups as a detriment. By May of 2021, MLB directed the A’s to explore the idea of a ballpark in Las Vegas. Kaval soon said the A’s were on a “parallel path” regarding possible ballparks in either Oakland or Las Vegas.

“John Fisher has proven one thing: He’s never been able to put a shovel in the ground anywhere,” Johansen said. “There’s always been doubt in John Fisher himself to get anything done, but the Howard Terminal plan was just completely over the top, just outlandish.”

Meanwhile, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum fell into disrepair. Possums in the broadcast booth, mice in the vending machines, sewage in the visiting dugout. As the organization set its sights on other horizons, the franchise that first sparked baseball’s analytics revolution fielded gutted rosters, including a 2023 team that lost 112 games. As attendance dwindled and the team plunged to the bottom of the league standings, the organization made its intentions crystal clear. Before the 2022 season, the prices of season tickets doubled.

By the spring of 2023, it was apparent Fisher had set his sights elsewhere. Disputes between the team and city over off-site infrastructure and environmental impact complicated the Howard Terminal process, and the plan broke down, just like a previous proposal of a stadium near Lake Merritt did a few years earlier. 

“I’ll be very honest. I was obviously upset. This felt really unfair,” Oakland mayor Sheng Thao told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal last year. “But there are no shovels in the ground (in Las Vegas). And until there is a shovel in the ground and it’s starting to be built, it’s still reality that the Oakland A’s can still be in Oakland.”

Oakland A's Las Vegas


The planned site of the new A’s stadium in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Even the deal intended to take the A’s to Vegas came with controversy. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred agreed to waive a relocation fee estimated at $300 million, reportedly because the plan would not have been financially feasible for Fisher otherwise. Leading up to 2024, the A’s were operating under a Jan. 15 deadline imposed by MLB to reach a binding agreement for a new stadium — necessary for the team to remain a recipient of the league’s revenue sharing.

And still the question loomed: If a new ballpark would not be ready until at least 2028, where exactly would the A’s play until then? The Coliseum lurked as one option, a phantom vessel still equipped to house the team. The city and the A’s had meetings as late as April 2 of this year regarding extending the team’s lease at the Coliseum, but negotiations between Fisher and the city long ago grew contentious. The fans who followed the saga and partook in some of the conversations grew weary. “It feels like the fight isn’t over,” said Jorge Leon, founder of the Oakland 68s fan group. “But at the same time, it’s like, ‘Leave already if you want to leave. We’re done with you. We want to move on.’”

In November, Leon was among a group of fans who traveled to MLB’s owners meetings in Texas. The group had a brief conversation with Fisher, in which the owner reportedly told them, “It’s been a lot worse for me than you.”

By April 5, the A’s announced their agreement to spend the next three seasons playing in Sacramento’s Sutter Health Park. The players who had been wondering what their futures held found out like the rest of the public.

“In baseball, you find out stuff on Twitter,” pitcher JP Sears said. “That’s just how it is.”

Concerns about the viability of a major-league team playing in a Triple-A park soon came flooding in from across the league. Fisher’s quotes from a press conference in Sacramento did not help the public perception. He named no Oakland players but touted the idea of watching “Athletics players or Aaron Judge” hit home runs in “the most intimate ballpark in all of Major League Baseball.”


Sutter Health Park will be the home of the A’s for the next few years. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The A’s will make this “intimate” park their home for the next three seasons, and they will be known simply as the Athletics, with no city attached. Last Dive Bar, too, stirred up more controversy when it filed to trademark the name “Las Vegas Athletics.” This was the latest symbol of vitriol between fan group and team. The relationship between Last Dive Bar and the A’s first soured over a back-and-forth regarding potential trademark violations. Johansen says his group complied with everything the A’s and MLB asked.

In a statement provided to The Athletic, the A’s organization said in part: “MLB’s engagement with the Last Dive Bar regarding trademark infringement was consistent with other enforcement activities taken by MLB. Any suggestion that the A’s attempted to shut down or exclude the Last Dive Bar is unfounded.”

Now fans of the team are witnessing the last year of Major League Baseball in Oakland. And beyond these coming seasons in Sacramento? Nothing is quite across the finish line. The first set of renderings for the Las Vegas stadium were more dream than reality. The 9-acre stadium site was likely too small to accommodate the proposed retractable-roof stadium. The latest set of renderings describe a 33,000-seat ballpark with a fixed roof on the site of the former Tropicana Resort and Casino. Construction is scheduled to begin in April 2025. Although Vegas has obvious appeal as the home for an MLB franchise, some of the underlying factors are puzzling. Oakland’s television market ranks 10th in the country. Las Vegas ranks 40th.

“Low attendance is just the product of the ownership and what the ownership has done,” Johansen said. “Nowhere else in business, if a CEO of a company says, ‘The reason my stuff isn’t selling is because of the consumer,’ it’s like, ‘No, it’s you.’”

Meanwhile, the political action group Schools over Stadiums is gathering signatures and going to court in effort to put the $380 million in public funding on a ballot referendum, which would allow Nevada taxpayers to vote on whether they want to allocate public funds to a new stadium.


A rendering of the A’s planned Las Vegas stadium. (Rendering by Negativ)

Last Dive Bar recently donated $10,000 to Schools over Stadiums and said an independent donor planned to match that amount. In the event a call for public funding were to be rejected — like what recently happened with a stadium measure in Kansas City — the calculus for Fisher’s contributions to a new stadium would be altered significantly. One recent Emerson College poll estimated 52 percent of local voters opposed using public money to finance the stadium.

“As much as Vegas deserves and wants an MLB team, they’re not gonna sit here and just be used by a billionaire to get it,” Johansen said. “It will go to vote and it won’t pass, and then Vegas is off the table, at least for John Fisher. The question is then, where do they play? Where do they play? Oakland?”


Since coming to Oakland from Kansas City in 1968, the A’s cultivated a rich history. Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, Dave Stewart and Vida Blue. There were the white cleats and the curly mustaches. Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire and José Canseco. Moneyball and 20 straight wins, Barry Zito and Miguel Tejada.

That was then, and this is now. The final season of the A’s in Oakland will feature a roster projected to finish with the fewest wins in MLB, playing in a rotting stadium, in front of the few fans who still have the heart to come to games.

“Nothing lasts, you know?” Canha said. “It’s unfortunate, but we have the memories.”

For those who have lived all these years and all the different chapters, it is still difficult to imagine exactly what it will be like when the A’s leave Oakland. Eventually some of the unsolved questions will get their answers. The franchise will move on from this prolonged mess, and the people of Oakland will be left picking up the pieces.

People like Bryan Johansen, who says he is no longer a baseball fan. After the A’s leave Oakland, he says he will never be a fan of the game again.

“No, man,” he said. “No. No. Because what they’ve shown with this move is that they do not care about the fans. All that stuff you see on TV about how they try to promote the game, it’s built on a house of lies. If it were the case that MLB had the best interests of the fans and had the fans first in mind, they wouldn’t be doing everything they’re doing with the Oakland A’s.”

— Additional reporting by The Athletic’s Zack Meisel.

(Top photo of fans during the reverse boycott: Brandon Vallance / Getty Images)





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