I feel bad penning a requiem for the Oakland Athletics in any of the other hypothetical scenarios. There are hundreds of California-based jobs on the line. At this point, with the NBA's Warriors and the NFL's Raiders already outta there, there's an entire community's livelihood at stake. The acreage around RingCentral Coliseum and Oracle Arena will begin to look like one of America's ghostly abandoned amusement parks. Even if the Warriors' move was only 17 miles away, the two organizations left the A's holding the bag. Sure, their owners faced backlash — internally as loud as the outside noise. Then again, they also weren't the last to leave; the ones "responsible" for Oakland having nothing.
Any relocation fallout should not fall on the A's brass, though. They have been playing catch-up on a series of mismanaged events — some of the worst financial decisions made in Major League Baseball history — since Hall of Famer Connie Mack's death in 1956.
It is almost unfathomable today, but the A's are an O.G. of the American League. We're talking 1901 when Cleveland was the Bluebirds and the Yankees were the Baltimore Orioles (no relation to present-day). We're talking all the way back. The Athletics were the pride of Philadelphia up until 1954; Hall of Famer Connie Mack managed them for 50(!) of those years, winning the World Series five times (1910, 1911, 1913, 1929, 1930).
The 1902 club embraced an insulting comment made by legendary manager John McGraw as he exited the "loser" American League forever. On his way out, he told Athletics owner Ben Shibe he "had nothing more than a white elephant on his hands." And thus, an iconic mascot was born. The franchise proved to be anything but. Shibe Park was a cathedral, built specifically for them, and the A's were the darlings of a Golden Age in Baseball — in navy and white uniforms, I might add.
When they got sold to a grifter and moved to Kansas City, however, much of what made the original Athletics great evaporated. So the aura that many think they are trying to preserve in Oakland is about six decades too late.
In 1954, stock broker/industrialist Arnold Johnson desired to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. The club he bought and moved was callously irrelevant; first to seize riches on the West Coast was the primary goal. The issue was getting their directly. Due to business ties in Kansas City, however, Johnson found a landing spot with an escape clause after only three years. And that was the first of many disrespectful moves on the chess board — to both the good nature of the Athletics and the city of Kansas City. Both were pawns in an elaborate layover scheme.
For much of the early 1950s, Johnson targeted all the "second" teams in two-franchise cities. He struck out in his hometown of Chicago, as well as St. Louis. In Philadelphia he found an interesting situation: The A's were the darlings for decades — actual winners and favorite of a vast majority of the city's residents. They were hardly second fiddle to the lowly Phillies and their decades of futility. However, the Athletics were the one without a solid long-term plan for the future (creation of a farm team, appointing a general manager, funding for a new ballpark, etc.). They had somehow deteriorated into the most vulnerable sports team in Pennsylvania. Johnson pounced and convinced a near-bankrupt Mack family to sell in the eleventh hour.
Ultimately, Johnson failed to win the race to California; much like he failed at else he touched with the club. The former landlord of Yankee Stadium spent most of his time as owner sending talented young A's players to his Bronx buddies. John McGraw's "nothing more" insult evolved to now read: "The A's are nothing more than a loosely-controlled Yankees farm club." — Bill Veeck
Empathetically, Johnson had a massive brain hemorrhage in March of 1960 and died down in West Palm Beach, Florida — where the club played its Spring Training games (Connie Mack Field).
As soon as Charlie Finley took over Kansas City Athletics control, they were already being shopped around. Too late to be first in Los Angeles and too late to turn back for Philadelphia, it was an inherited mess and not one he brought upon himself. Finley's best remedy was to cut ties and start fresh. Doesn't that sound an awful lot like the A's current state of affairs — half in and half out?
First it was a proposal to Dallas-Fort Worth in '61 and '62. In 1964, Louisville and Oakland both had relocation agreements get treated seriously enough to go to an internal vote for approval. In between all that nonsense, the team colors radically shifted to Kelly Green and Fort Knox Gold. They even had "Kentucky Colonels" mock-ups made to maintain the new interlocking "KC" on the caps. The spirit of the Philadelphia Athletics was ostensibly erased. So what are we trying to preserve again?
By 1967 — after deals in Atlanta, Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Diego, and "a cow pasture in Peculiar, Missouri" all fell through — the relocation list was whittled down to Seattle and a second attempt at Oakland. The latter was approved by the other American League owners on October 18, 1967.
This new A's iteration has been made better by its time in the Bay; it got a chance to shake the cobwebs and reinvent itself after a horrible era. But, let's not get this twisted. It's not like this team hasn't moved before. They aren't the Detroit Tigers. They aren't the Cincinnati Reds. The A's have not been operating in one synonymous location for over a century. Hell, they've not yet celebrated a 55th anniversary in any location. And worse, anywhere they go, their owners seem to grow tired of the situation quickly. That's the slippery slope of moving once; it tends to become easier to do habitually. The repercussions and fan fallout really rolls off the shoulders when you've built up a reputation of "It's just what they do."
In 1980, Finley (who still owned the team) wanted to move them yet again, this time to Denver. Thankfully, Oakland Ring of Honor member Walter A Haas, Jr. bought the team and kept them around. But that didn't change the fact that the A's were still vagabonds in their soul. They always seem be up for adoption and that changes the narrative surrounding this current relocation proposition. It just does. #SorryNotSorry
Ripping this Band-Aid would damage the people of Oakland less than it did Cleveland fans losing the Browns or Baltimore losing the Colts. The A's equivalent to those gut-wrenching stories played out already... 68 years ago. You can't "outhurt" that first heartbreak. Connie Mack's Athletics played in Kansas City in green and gold. That takes the cake. Seeing them in Vegas gold wouldn't hold a candle to that heel turn.
The Oakland Raiders were founded in that town. The Oakland A's don't have a comparable claim to pain. Origin matters. And I'd say the same thing to a fellow Cleveland baseball fan regarding their recent name change. They weren't originally the Indians. There were two versions of this franchise before they wound up on your doorstep. Were they ever really yours?
In is undeniable that every moment spent in Missouri bastardized this once-proud club. What is amazing, though, is how resilient the club became. The franchise showed a precursor of what could happen again — cleaving off the bad and bookending it with glory and titles (1972, 1973, 1974, 1989). Win a bunch, fall into a pit, get out of the pit, win a bunch again. The first time around it was Kansas City. This time it is the Oakland (Alameda County/McAfee/O.co/Ring Central) Coliseum. And don't get this twisted. In my eyes, their current "pit" is not Oakland itself. I wish them to stay in the area. But the ballpark needs trump all. And in this case, with all eggs in a basket that's falling apart, their best option looks to be in the dessert.
If any franchise in the sport could be best prepared to do this type of relocation/rebrand again, it is the Athletics. They have a track record of compartmentalizing eras of greatness as their own standalone identities. In one snapshot, they are four-time World Champions as the vest-and-polyester-V-neck-wearing-green-and-gold "Swingin' A's" and "Bash Brothers" of Oakland, California. That is diametrically opposite of their five-time World Champion buttoned-up, navy-and-white elephant Connie Mack A's of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
They are already the most successful chameleons in American sports history. Why would another leg in their journey not be easy to take in stride? To the right PR firm, with the right track record of moving around, relocation to Vegas is merely a new chapter in an epic about a worldly traveler.
So who knows? I still have hope Oakland can retain the Athletics. For no other reason than that Howard Terminal ballpark will be a Top 5 in Major League Baseball immediately — and for decades to come. Only the A's and the '98, '99, '00 Yankees have pulled off the "three peat" over the past 68 years. That's a sad thing to have slip out of the city where such history was made.
As a baseball fan, though, my paramount concern is what is best for the healthy and stability of the league in its entirety. Expansion cannot happen until the black sheep of the family — Oakland and Tampa Bay — are figured out. As far as the A's are concerned, that stability can be found in Sin City — words I never thought I'd pen ten years ago.
Should the A's leave California, I think the organization will persevere better than a vast majority would. Dave Kaval and Billy Beane may be the brightest executive tandem in Major League Baseball today. That, and the NFL's Raiders moving from Oakland to the very same city helps in the same way a transition to a new school is eased by having an older sibling with you.
Meanwhile, On Florida's Gulf Coast...
The unequivocal best-case scenario for the Rays is to stay. They've only known one home, so this is a very different situation than Oakland. Now, the flip side to that argument is that the organization has only existed for 25 years. The A's were still comfortably Philadelphia's at the same point in their timeline. Thus, things can obviously change (and change again). Nothing is set in stone, especially in Florida.
However, the other thing working in the Rays favor is Tampa Bay is really two municipalities (Tampa and St. Petersburg) — double the chances of finding a viable site, double the chances of finding a council to approve financing.
I feel the Rays are unfairly tethered to the A's in this whole situation. It is clear that there are 28 stable franchise/stadium situations on the table and they are the black sheep, but the two couldn't be more opposite.
Construction of Tropicana Field began in 1986... 12 whole years before the Rays existed. The "Florida Suncoast Dome" was finished in 1990 in hopes of getting the Chicago White Sox (of all teams) to relocate. It was a boondoggle from the start. St. Petersburg aimed to keep up with Tampa in an arms race of professional sports revenue coming to the Gulf side of Florida. But city officials shot first and asked questions later. There was no tenant agreement signed by anyone as the concrete monstrosity rose from the earth.
In 1993, the National Hockey League came to the rebranded ThunderDome, but that was a mere stop gap to pay some bills; the Lightning were never going to stay long term. The bigger push in that calendar year was MLB expansion, but St. Pete couldn't overcome the proposals put forth by Denver and fellow Floridian, Miami. So, there this stadium sat; the professional sports market clearly telling it that it was unwanted/unsatisfactory from the very start. And that isn't the fault of the current Tampa Bay Rays.
Now that they have established themselves as a legitimate Major League franchise (winning seasons talk; attendance figures be damned), the Rays simply need a chance to build a stadium meant for them. This is akin to a teenager that has to wear Dad's ill-fit, hand-me-down sport coat for every commensurate family function. It's a big day when Little Johnny gets his first tailored suit. If it's done right — and nestled in the proper neighborhood — those putrid ticket sales should begin to take care of themselves.
That's not the same scenario the A's are in. They moved into their current digs in 1968, two short years after their "futuristic," "state-of-the-art," "innovative," "cutting edge" facility opened. The Rays' home has never once been anything but a pejorative adjective. And the sub-standard asset had already depreciated a full decade by the time it hosted the franchise's inaugural season.
While the A's enjoyed a long service life in their Oakland — establishing the shared facility into a prideful landmark — the Rays have been tenants by force, not choice for their entire existence. True, in both current cases, it is inevitably time to move on. But that is where the similarities end. It's no fault to anyone out West that the most logical progression for the A's is in a different state. The next chapter of the Rays doesn't "have to be" a similar dash to somewhere else. Local options are on the table at a much more palatable price tag. The tax difference between California and Florida alone are enough to separate the A's and Rays from being judged as equal relocation candidates.
20 MLB stadiums were built between 1994 and 2012. Two from that list (Turner Field in Atlanta and the Ballpark in Arlington) aren't even their club's current home. And that's my key difference between A's and Rays: Tampa Bay was conceived in the middle of this new ballpark boon and didn't have a chance to participate — playing in a second-hand stadium too young to replace. Oakland had every ability to ride the wave and blew it.
I liken the "Due Up Next" list of MLB stadiums to the selection of All-Star Game hosts. With a building erected in 1990, Tampa/St. Pete is just now up in the rotation; Oakland, on the other hand, has been lapped (twice by a few). There's not much of an excuse, other than poor forethought, for Oakland not getting while the getting was good.
San Francisco's Candlestick Park opened in 1960. San Diego (Jack Murphy/Qualcomm) Stadium opened in 1967. It's not like the age of Oakland's stadium snuck up on anyone. Two others in the very same state had direct comps and successfully got out ahead of a new build. The Giants got their baseball-specific park in 2000; the Padres opened theirs four years later. Oakland — aiming to settle a stadium financing/location issue nearly two decades after others in the same boat proved it could have been done — makes me less sympathetic.
The architectural renaissance of our lifetime is clearly slowing/stalled, as only two have built since 2012. City officials and team ownership not getting a deal done prior to the window closing is enough of a reason to relocate the A's. After 55 years by the Bay, a message is being sent regarding what the local market will bear. Conversely, by virtue of their residency being both singular and not that long (relatively speaking), we must grant the Rays a chance to stay... for now.
Here's to hoping that if MLB relocation must take place, it is only Oakland to Las Vegas. Moving Tampa anywhere but into a baseball-specific, 21st century masterpiece would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Architecture is my life and I have to remain steadfast in the belief that it matters to the success (on and off the field) of professional sports teams. The exorcised Rays have won two American League pennants despite their awful environment. I imagine how a new stadium — stitched into the already-amazing fabric of Ybor City and catered to the latest trends of event goers — could turn attending a Rays game into the "it" attraction in the Bay, nay the entire league.