The Orphan A’s, and Eppler on Ice

Somehow, some way, it wasn't feasible to believe we could approach spring training's opening (pitchers and catchers report on Valentine's Day, of all days) without assorted shenanigans greeting us. Two last week come to mind at once.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Orphan Athletics

I don't know which is the more profound thought: Athletics fans in Oakland desperate to see owner John Fisher sell the team to someone willing to keep them in Oakland, or baseball fans in Las Vegas who don't seem all that anxious to have them here.

Hear me out. Having their Triple-A team, the Aviators, playing in that lovely little ballpark up in the Summerlin area is one thing, and a very nice thing, too. But wanting major league baseball by Fisher's ways and means is something else entirely.

You couldn't ask for more proof of my suspicion that Las Vegas isn't in as big of a hurry to welcome the A's as first believed than its mayor's own publicly expressed ambivalence.

Early last week, Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she thought the A's should stay and work things out in Oakland. Until she didn't. On Tuesday morning, she said, "You have the fan base there. We already have the Raiders. Each city needs to have that spirit of sports . . . I love the people from Oakland. I think they deserve to have their team." On Tuesday afternoon, after the you-know-what hit the you-know-what, she said, whoops.

"I want to be clear that I am excited about the prospect of major league baseball in Las Vegas," she began her backpedal, "and it very well may be that the Las Vegas A's will be come a reality that we will welcome to our city."

. . . [I]t is my belief that in their perfect world the ownership of the A's would like to have a new ballpark on the water in Oakland and that the ownership and the government there should listen to their great fans and try to make that dream come true.

Should that fail, Las Vegas has shown that it is a spectacular market for major league sports franchises.

Translation, in part: Fisher should renew his oft-failed efforts to strong-arm Oakland into building him a new ballpark for which he'd have to pay little to nothing, but if he still can't by all means he should continue putting the bite on Las Vegas and on Nevada whole to do it. For a team his ten-thumbed, toeless touch has reduced to what was once just their official emblem — a white elephant.

"Goodman was not speaking with any real authority on this matter," writes The Athletic's chief of Bay Area coverage, Tim Kawakami. "But just take her skepticism — she literally said the A's should figure out how to build in Oakland — as a representation of the Las Vegas demographic that never seemed too excited about the A's relocating to Nevada."

Maybe Las Vegas won't get really excited about possibly being the new home of the A's until or unless Fisher sells the team. But Oakland's going to insist that, if he does, he sell the A's to Oakland interests who'd be more than happy to keep the A's there and maybe build a ballpark for which they, not the local or county or even state taxpayers, will pay.

And the rest of MLB's owners "don't want to force Fisher to sell the team," Kawakami writes. "But if anything's going to get them thinking about it, or at least to suggest quite strongly to Fisher that it's well past time to pass this team to someone else, it'll be if he blows this Las Vegas situation."

Don't bet against that, either.

The A's Oakland Coliseum lease expires after this season. Where will they go from there until, in theory, their intended Las Vegas ballpark gets built? In fact, there's still no plan other than just plopping one onto the property of the soon-to-be-history Tropicana Hotel. There's also no known, firm, secured plan coming from the Fisher camp to play A's home games anywhere else, though speculation includes Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and the Aviators' Las Vegas Ballpark. (And, the A's stand to lose millions in television money if they leave town before their deal with NBC Sports Oakland expires in 2033.)

Somehow, I just don't think turning the A's into what Kawakami describes as a barnstorming AAAA-level team is the best way to make friends, influence people, and turn Las Vegas ambivalence into Las Vegas popping champagne and partying hearty over the pending A's relocation.

Meanwhile, the Nevada State Education Association, one of the state's teachers' unions, has filed suit to challenge how legal was and is that $380 million in taxpayer money state lawmakers voted and Gov. Joseph Lombardo signed to hand the A's to build the ballpark that might never be. The suit argues the gift is illegal because it failed to undergo the required two-thirds majority vote in both state legislature houses, getting approved by simple majority instead.

Oakland fans continue their efforts to persuade someone, anyone to force Fisher to sell the A's. Fan groups Last Dive Bar, the Oakland 68s, and others have called for boycotting Opening Day against the Guardians. The A's answer is offering possibly-unprecedented buy one-get one tickets for the game. That's only slightly less absurd than the prospect of thinking about ballpark announcers hailing before first pitch time, "Ladies and gentlemen, your Orphan Athletics!"

Injury to Insult Dept.

Early last October, Mets general manager Billy Eppler resigned, the better to keep a baseball government probe into his use of the so-called invisible injury list from distracting from incoming president of baseball operations David Stearns beginning his new job.

Nobody has to think about Eppler's next job for a good while now. MLB suspended him on Friday for the 2024 season over that invisible injury list use. Essentially, MLB says don't even think about using the injured list to place underperforming players out of minor league options that you want to sit while you look at others on the field and at the plate. "Deliberate fabrication of injuries," MLB's formal statement said.

It wasn't bad enough that last year's Mets had enough problems without 28 players hitting the injured list with real issues? And they weren't the most badly-injured group in the Show: the Giants had 46, the Reds had 45, and the Angels (for whom Eppler once served as GM) had 42.

The peculiarities around this so-called invisible injury list include that some players seek to go onto it when they have injuries none too grave, but still enough to compel them to want a little time off to heal before they can make things worse. But teams faking injuries in order to take the underperformers out of action is something else again.

There's also speculation that someone in the Mets organization blew the whistle on Eppler anonymously. Some of the speculation centers around now-former manager Buck Showalter — who just so happened to be fired days before Eppler resigned. Why ponder Showalter? He was revealed to have fenced with Eppler last season over Daniel Vogelbach, a designated hitter who was a Met from July 2022 until he was granted free agency last November.

To put it politely, Vogelbach became a liability at the plate. He wasn't much of a hitter in 2023 despite thirteen home runs, but his on-base percentage fell over 20 points and Showalter became very reluctant to pencil him into the Met lineup. Eppler, the speculation continues, insisted on keeping Vogelbach in the lineup against right-handed pitching, perhaps to justify bringing the chunky left-handed hitter aboard at all.

In a word, Vogelback the physical specimen makes Hall of Famer Babe Ruth resemble Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Showalter liked using the DH slot as breathers for his position players, but also didn't like Vogelbach's skill set limits. None of which seemed to matter to Eppler, who continued insisting that the lefthand-swinging Vogelbach remain the DH against right-handed pitching.

Would the tussle between Eppler and Showalter have been enough to compel the manager to blow the whistle on Eppler's invisible injured list use, misuse, and abuse? And, if you presume the Mets weren't the only ones whose front offices saw the invisible injured list as a way out of keeping underperformers in the lineup, are there other managers, coaches, or even players who might blow the same whistle on their front office tricksters?

My suspicion: the issue of the invisible injured list is liable to become anything but invisible from now on. Stearns and whomever he finally chooses to become the next Mets general manager won't be the only ones in baseball having to beware that kind of chicanery.

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