About an hour after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred began speaking to reporters about what he saw as the unfortunate future of baseball in Oakland—or, rather, the lack thereof—a baseball game started in Oakland Coliseum.
This has been the miserable tension at the core of the A’s for months. The franchise has been starved of hope by a seemingly indifferent owner in retail magnate John Fisher. The threat of relocation has been hanging over the team’s head for years; now, it seems closer than ever, with the Nevada legislature voting Wednesday to approve public funding that would help pay for a stadium in Las Vegas. This roster was not built to win. The stadium is unfit for regular play; the fans have been scapegoated and frustrated; the future is generally bleak. Yet, in the meantime, baseball must go on in Oakland.
It’s an awkward dynamic. This season has invited considerable talk of the Athletics’ storied past in Oakland, decades rooted in place, and just as much talk about their uncertain future, whether in the Bay Area or Las Vegas. But the present? Easier just to ignore. Better not to look directly at this roster, methodically stripped for parts over the past few years, designed to fit only in some kind of hypothetical purgatory of Quad-A.
For weeks at the start of the season, Oakland looked as if it might genuinely be able to challenge some of the worst teams in professional baseball history. But even that claim to being interesting soon faded. The A’s have instead looked simply bad—unexceptionally, typically, miserably so.
But even bad teams have good stretches, and the A’s just had a great one. They rattled off a seven-game winning streak—their longest of the season by far, and against tough opponents like the Pirates, Brewers and Rays, no less. The streak ended Wednesday, but it showed a flash of spirit that had previously been unfamiliar to this group. It forced the larger world of the sport to reckon with them, however briefly, as an actual baseball team, rather than as an unwieldy metaphor for shamelessness or a statement of future economic potential. They even pulled out of last place. (The Royals replaced them.)
This was clearest Tuesday, when fans staged a “reverse boycott,” encouraging people to come out to the stadium and show their love for the team. The implicit message was that the fans were not the problem. The ownership, the lack of investment, the disregard for the institution was the problem, they said. With attendance of 27,759—close to triple what the team has been averaging thus far this season—they made their point clear. And the team lived up to it on the field. When A’s reliever Trevor May closed out a 2–1 victory against the best-in-baseball Rays—finishing up with a swinging strikeout with a runner on—it felt electric.
THE OAKLAND A'S HAVE WON THEIR SEVENTH-STRAIGHT GAME
IN FRONT OF 27,000+ FANS AT THE COLISEUM pic.twitter.com/i2vT09FlLx
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) June 14, 2023
Manfred was asked about the reverse boycott by reporters at the MLB owners’ meetings Thursday, and his response was tinged with sarcasm.
“It was great,” Manfred said. “It’s great to see what is, this year, almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night. That’s a great thing.”
The commissioner made relocation sound like a foregone conclusion.
“I feel sorry for the fans in Oakland,” Manfred said. “I do not like this outcome, I understand why they feel the way they do. I think that the real question is, what is it that Oakland was prepared to do? There is no Oakland offer, OK? They never got to a point where they had a plan to build a stadium at any site. And it’s not just [A’s owner] John Fisher. You don’t build a stadium based on the club activity alone. The community has to provide support and, at some point, you come to the realization, it’s just not going to happen.”
Oakland mayor Sheng Tao quickly released a statement through a spokesperson calling this idea “just totally false.”
The Oakland's Mayor's office released a statement pushing back against Manfred's assertion that there was no offer from Oakland pic.twitter.com/nZuTELlvAL
— Joon Lee (@joonlee) June 15, 2023
Then, in the middle of the afternoon, the A’s started the final game of their series against the Rays.
Down 3–0 with one out in the top of the fifth, Oakland manager Mark Kotsay challenged a call at first base. Rays baserunner Luke Raley had originally been declared safe on a grounder to second; upon further review, the umpire reversed the call, deciding he was out. It would have been an easy play not to challenge—halfway through the game, losing by three to a much better team, just a runner at first with the bases otherwise empty. It would have been easy not to care, and yet they did all the same.
In the bottom of the inning, Oakland scored three runs to tie it up, successfully chasing Tampa Bay starter Taj Bradley, who had struck out 11. (He was ultimately pulled after giving up back-to-back singles with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the fifth.) The 7,133 in attendance cheered with the energy of a much larger crowd. It felt like a rare, glimmering reminder of how it could feel to hope.
In the end, Oakland lost, 4–3. Which—of course. But for about an hour, amid the bad faith and misery and finger-pointing, they flashed a suggestion of all they could be, and of what all their community stands to lose.