Be Careful What You Wish For, Las Vegas

Would I like to see a major league baseball team in Las Vegas, where I've lived since 2007? You might as well ask me if I'd like to play my guitar at the Village Vanguard. But something smells not quite right about the Athletics saying they really weren't kidding about getting the hell out of Oakland. Apparently, they're buying 49 acres of Las Vegas Strip-adjacent land to prove it.

Talk to any A's fan who hasn't been alienated completely by their team in the past decade. Two themes seem to emerge above others: 1) The Oakland Coliseum — oops, RingCentral Coliseum — is a toxic waste dump disguised as a ballpark. 2) The A's are owned and operated by a Gap heir and board member who'd move heaven, earth, and two adjacent planets to see issues solved at those stores but barely a pebble to see issues solved with his baseball team.

Sewage backups, feral cats, and now possums and their poopings in a Gap store? The sanitation, hazmat, animal control, and exterminator teams would arrive faster than a Nolan Ryan heater. Sewage backups, feral cats, and possums and their poopings in the Coliseum? Nine months might be a conservative time estimate. And that's just the stadium.

The A's themselves need work above and beyond containing waste and pests. You think you know the teams that have turned tanking into a refined dark art? You haven't had as good a look at the A's as you should have. John Fisher's ownership group bought the A's in 2005. The price: $180 million. Today, the A's are worth a reported $1.18 billion. That value, writes Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein, is six parts Fisher's refusal to spend on the Coliseum and half a dozen parts his refusal to spend on his team or its brains.

Once upon a time the A's under the command of Billy Beane were masters of living frugally without living in the dumps. Beane and his discovered players of low expense but high performance prospects and built a once-consistent American League West threat. That was then, this is now. From Moneyball to Funnyball. Except the A's are as funny as a pickpocket in a nudist colony.

Apstein reminds us the entire A's roster will earn $56.8 million. It's MLB's lowest 2023 player payroll. They also have only two players locked down for 2024. To most baseball fans, the offseason can be just as vigorous as the playing season. To A's fans, the offseason can be, and usually is, the winter of their malcontent. A day without yet another Athletic swapping his green and gold for less toxic colors is considered a holiday.

Be careful what you wish for, Las Vegas.

Ancient history tells us that ancient Philadelphia Athletics owner Ben Shibe — observed by New York Giants legend John McGraw as being so in debt he had a white elephant on his hands — decided the A's symbol would be a white elephant on its hind legs, as if climbing a ladder, defiant and determined. There would be periods when the A's were a herd of elephants plowing the American League when the Yankees didn't.

Three cities and eleven decades later, the A's — who trampled the league in the early to mid 1970s, the late 1980s, and the West for much of the Aughts — are a white elephant once more. No matter what the pachyderm's greenery shows on their uniform sleeves. A few years ago, the A's put a strolling white elephant on the crown of their spring training caps. Their ownership now makes it a symbol not of defiant pride, but defiant deviation down.

How far down? Can you think of another fan base willing to boycott a baseball game at which fewer people are expected to show than at a retro car show in a fast-food parking lot featuring Pontiak Azteks? A's fans plan to turn up for a June 13 game with the Rays — they who opened the season 13-0, a winning streak that included three whacks and two consecutive bushwhacks (11-0 scores, back to back) on the Elephant — to show there remain A's fans aplenty in the Bay Area.

They just don't feel like being fleeced by an ownership unwilling to build them even an AAAA level team and unable to find ways to build a ballpark without further fleecing or, at least, having the incumbent dump upgraded to merely passable.

"We created this reverse boycott," says the organizing group, Rooted in Oakland, "to put a halt to the narrative that the A's must leave Oakland and move to Las Vegas because there are no fans left in Oakland. This is simply untrue, given the A's have the lowest payroll in MLB, the organization raised ticket prices after a losing season, and the ownership group has abandoned the current fans while focusing all attention on Las Vegas."

Those with carrot juice for brains ask, "Where are all those mourning and outraged A's fans now?" Those with brains for brains answer, "In which alternate universe do you expect fans to turn up at a sewage treatment plant to see a team that's been unbuilt long enough to the point where they might challenge the 1899 Cleveland Spiders for the worst single-season winning percentage in major league history?"

(That would be .130, if you're scoring at home. As of Monday morning's standings, the A's have a .181 winning percentage. They were 4-18. Look to your non-laurels, 1962 Mets.)

The Fisher group wanted to soak Alameda County taxpayers for a brand new ballpark at Howard Terminal. County and city officials who don't have carrot juice for brains said not so fast. Hence the A's — who once employed the Yankees' Hall of Fame legend Joe DiMaggio as a coach — turned their lonely eyes to Las Vegas, with the full faith and blessing of baseball's attention-deficit commissioner to whom the good of the game is either making money for it or making somebody else pay for it.

Beware when you see the stories reading that the A's plan to build a $1.5 billion retractable-roof, 35,000-seating capacity ballpark on the Vegas land they're buying from Red Rocks Resorts. If the A's and Commissioner ADD have their way, they'll probably build none of it. The new ballpark — oh, for funsie sake, let's call it the future Henderson Field (for Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, not for Las Vegas's growing suburb) — is likely to be financed by a hybrid of tax dollars, between Las Vegas's hotel room taxes and such other local sources as fund the Las Vegas Stadium Authority.

What's known for certain: the A's want Las Vegas to kick $500,000,000 million in. Just on paper, the ballpark land and plan is probably more valuable than the team. Fisher himself is said to be worth $2.5 billion. But indifference proves to be its own malignancy upon a baseball team. The A's are in dire need of radical chemotherapy.

It's not as though they have a consistently sterling Oakland legacy. For every season of triumph (the 1972-74 World Series winning streak; the late-1980s AL West, etc.) there've been seasons in hell. They only began with Charlie Finley treating his team like a father who delights in humiliating rather than guiding his children. They only continued with Billyball's blowing a young pitching staff out before their time.

But then their Philadelphia ancestors experienced repeated highs followed by repeated nadirs, too. En route Oakland, they stopped in Kansas City, first to become a virtual Yankee farm team (under Arnold Johnson's ownership); then, to become a plaything to be kicked, beaten, shredded, and embarrassed, and also rebuilt to be a winner in due course — after Finley could get them out of Kansas City as soon as feasible.

Las Vegas may plunge eyes wide shut into building something state-of-the-art for a team about whom the state of its art is as artful (with apologies to a long-deceased political scientist named Willmoore Kendall) as the assassination plot in which everyone in the room is killed except the intended victim.

Perhaps if Commissioner ADD is as hell-bent on getting the A's the hell out of Oakland as its blithely clumsy ownership and administration has been for nigh on a decade, he might think to impose a single but profound condition upon them: "Sell this team to someone who actually knows baseball and believes a major league team requires major league talent on and off the field. And at long enough last, if they want Vegas, let them damn well pay for it, because we've soaked various local tax bases long enough for our playpens."

Well, Las Vegas is a city of dreams, isn't it?

Comments and Conversation

April 25, 2023

Anthony Brancato:

Since everything relates to everything else, the expansion of interleague play that began this season strongly suggests that not only will Major League Baseball adding two teams soon, but also realigning, could be just around the corner.

The then 16 team leagues could be realigned into four 4-team divisions, with both expansion teams placed in the vastly underrepresented South. Charlotte is the obvious choice to get one of the new teams, and Tennessee (either Nashville or Memphis) the other - enough for a South Division in both leagues, same as in the NFL.

The schedule can consist of the same 13 meetings between division rivals that the owners just approved, with teams not in the same division but in the same league having six meetings each, and 51 interleague games for every team (the Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels etc. playing each other six times a year and all other interleague opponents three times a year).

Because the two expansion teams would be slotted into the new South divisions of each league, the Astros will have to switch back to the National League, whether they want to or not.

Call it their punishment for cheating.

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