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A’s Display the Ugly Side of Moneyball, On and Off the Field

If bad baseball teams are like unhappy families in that each is bad in its own way, they can at least be sorted into two general, overarching categories. There are teams who stumble into a bad record accidentally. And there are teams who are purposefully built to be bad.

There has been no more distressing example of the latter in recent memory than the A’s. Their record speaks for itself: 3–16 entering Friday, the worst run differential in baseball, a pitching staff whose performance has been so miserable and disjointed as to stretch the definition of both “pitching” and “staff”. Since the team’s last playoff appearance three years ago, the front office has dismantled the roster with clinical precision, trading every player who might conceivably attract the interest of a competitor. That’s left them with the smallest payroll in the game. And it’s now accompanied by more existentially distressing news off the field: The A’s are not long for Oakland, their home of 55 years, in favor of a long discussed move to Las Vegas.

The franchise has signed a binding agreement to purchase 49 acres of land (with the option to add more) near the Las Vegas Strip. (The news was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.) The team says it hopes to have a 35,000-capacity, billion-dollar stadium with a retractable roof built by 2027. That could include up to $500 million in public financing, per the Nevada Independent. (The team’s lease in Oakland expires after the 2024 season; it’s unclear just where the team might play in ‘25 and ‘26, but according to comments by team president Dave Kaval, they are considering using the current ballpark of the Triple A Las Vegas Aviators.) Under majority owner John Fisher, the club has been threatening to relocate for years amid fraught negotiations for a new ballpark in the Bay Area. It now looks ready to follow through.

A’s owner John Fisher has had wandering eyes for years now, and it seems he’s set to uproot his team from Oakland after drawn-out and ultimately fruitless negotiations with the city for a new stadium.

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

The team has maintained its on-field product is separate from its off-the-field woes. But it’s hard not to see them of a piece with one another, if not explicitly, directly linked. They’re united by a lack of investment in the product: This roster is sadly at home in a stadium that has been starved of necessary improvements for years. But they’re linked by something else, too. That’s a lack of interest in institutional culture—in the idea that there can be meaning in shared experiences, that there is a point to preserving history, that there can ever be something worth chasing other than profit.

The A’s situation is unfair to their players. The front office would never say this group has been assembled to lose, certainly, but it defies belief to think they have been assembled to win. All they can do is their best—with the knowledge that even that will be unappreciated by the people who put them here. The A’s have a long tradition of winning on a low payroll. Yet baseball is now besides the point to the powers that be. It’s simply a means to a lucrative end. And it’s deeply unfair to fans. For years, they have been faced with the conundrum of either supporting ownership that has been outright hostile to them or not supporting the team at all. What use is a boycott when that only plays directly into ownership’s hands? What use is a reverse boycott when it puts money in their pockets? What power do fans have against an ownership class that lacks capacity for shame?

This process is not new: The history of professional sports is full of teams relocating in search of greener pastures and publicly funded stadiums. (The A’s themselves moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955 before moving to Oakland in ‘68.) But there is something especially craven about how everything has unfolded here. The team raised ticket prices as the roster decayed and negotiations for a new ballpark grew more toxic. There was no attempt to make any of this look more polite or more palatable. It was simply brutal from start to finish.

The same arguments apply here as in any relocation case. What about history, about culture, about tradition, the fans might say? What about a club that claimed to be Rooted in Oakland? What about belief in the power of institutions? What about community? In other cases, however, you might be able to imagine leadership making excuses, or trying to explain, or reaching for some kind of hamfisted rationalization. Here? No.

You can only imagine the ownership group turning to say: What about it? 

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