A’s ownership may be one step closer to their goal of relocating the team to Las Vegas after MLB owners unanimously approved the move on Thursday, but Oakland fans who spent the summer protesting that move are determined not to give up the fight.
“It’s not gonna stop us,” said Jorge Leon, president of fan group the Oakland 68s and a key organizer of the fan-led protest movement. “I tell people, like, if you think this was a crazy year, wait until next year. We’re gonna go even harder.”
Though the vote means the team can officially begin the move to Las Vegas, those who have followed the organization — and this A’s ownership group, in particular — say that until there are shovels in the ground, they will hold onto hope.
“It doesn’t look great for Oakland. But there are still many, many steps left in Vegas before this thing’s locked,” said Casey Pratt, sportscaster for the Bay Area’s ABC affiliate who has been covering the A’s stadium negotiations in both Oakland and Las Vegas extensively.
While the vote clears a hurdle for A’s owner John Fisher in his efforts to move the team, Bryan Johnson of the fan group Last Dive Bar points to Fisher’s 18-year track record of failing to close on stadium deals, which leaves the door open as to whether this move will actually reach the finish line.
“What’s to say this Vegas one is going to be this glaring success?” Johnson said. “They have what they didn’t have all those times in that they have the support of the commissioner to move and they have a city that just says, yeah, do whatever you want here.
“But it’s still Fisher and he still has to do that work, and he still has to put a shovel in the ground. And to today, he hasn’t been able to accomplish that, so there’s still a glimmer of hope that he’s not going to be successful and will be forced to either sell or work something out in Oakland.”
“I’m old enough to remember when the Sacramento Kings were moving,” said longtime A’s fan Stu Clary, whose idea in April sparked the original reverse boycott, “so I don’t know that (the vote) is a death knell.”
So, how did we get here?
Less than three years ago, the A’s stadium project at Howard Terminal in Oakland appeared headed toward a successful conclusion. The team was #RootedinOakland, the last one standing for a city that had seen the Warriors and Raiders leave town. The A’s had the full support of the Mayor’s Office in building a stadium and the team and the city were working to clear the many legislative and funding hurdles for developing the stadium.
Despite the pandemic, the project continued to move forward, and even when the A’s announced in 2021 that they were pursuing “parallel paths” towards a new stadium in both Oakland and Las Vegas, Oakland seemed favored to keep the team. Then the A’s changed their tune, announcing late in the evening on April 19 of this year that they were moving forward with the Las Vegas path.
For the past several years, Pratt has kept A’s fans informed on the progress of both projects on his YouTube channel and social media feeds. He notes that the city of Oakland has been transparent with the work they did and the funding they had secured for the development project (funding that totaled nearly $1 billion, according to Pratt, for infrastructure and other development surrounding the ballpark), while the A’s have revealed little about their path to Las Vegas beyond the $380 million in public funding they secured from the Nevada State Legislature and the agreement to build on a nine-acre parcel of land on The Strip currently occupied by the Tropicana Casino. The stadium renderings that have been released have already been termed outdated, but no new drawings were put forth — at least publicly — before the vote.
“I think it’s a simple story of right and wrong, and it just really boils down to that,” Pratt said. “If the A’s had a defensible position here in what they were doing, I would love to present that information.” He says he’s asked the A’s on numerous occasions to tell their side of the decision to move to Las Vegas.
“And their response is, yeah, no, thanks,” Pratt said. “So to me, it’s as simple as right and wrong. Oakland raised almost a billion dollars of funds. They had to show their work this entire time. But the owner (Fisher) doesn’t want to deal with them. He wants to be somewhere else. And that’s it. And the problem with that is, if this was all above board, if they weren’t trying to hide every bit of information, it would be a whole different story.”
Meanwhile, as the A’s have moved forward with their plans in Las Vegas, they’ve raised season ticket prices and parking costs, closed concession stands on game days and tore down a roster that has gone from playoff contender to worst in the league in two years.
Johnson says if the A’s do move from Oakland, he will be done with Major League Baseball.
“Not just because the A’s have left but because of how they would have left,” he added. “It’s infuriating.”
Mike Davie, who has been a regular in the Coliseum bleachers for decades, says the vote makes him angry and “kind of depressed because there’s no real plan.”
“It’s a smaller market. It just seems like a blatant cash grab,” Davie said minutes after the vote results were announced. “I don’t even think Fisher is in this for the long haul.
“It’s going to be a baseball stadium-themed casino (in Las Vegas). It’s not gonna be a ballpark.”
The rush to get this approved now, according to Pratt, is two-fold. First, he surmises that the team doesn’t want to lose revenue sharing, something that would happen if they didn’t have an agreement in place for a new stadium by the end of the year. Second, there was a Dec. 1 deadline in their agreement with land owner GLPI to have the approval in place to keep the site for the Las Vegas stadium.
“It feels like they’re just trying to get to point B and they don’t care how they do it,” said Paul Bailey of the Last Dive Bar.
Real questions remain as to how the A’s are going to pay for this project.
“At some point, they’re gonna have to provide some actual information. They’re gonna have to come up with a way they can actually pull this off financially,” Pratt said. “They’ve said they’re building a $1.5 billion ballpark. I’ve heard from people saying that that number has already exceeded $1.5 (billion) before construction’s even started, and anybody that’s done any construction project of any kind knows there will be overrun. This thing is not going to be ($)1.5 (billion).”
A’s fans meet with John Fisher
These lingering questions have left an opening for A’s fans to continue lobbying for the team to stay in Oakland. Though he knew the chances that owners would block Fisher’s bid to relocate were slim, Leon was one of three A’s fans to travel to Arlington, Texas this week to bring their case to the owners in person. Leon was joined by Gabriel Cullen and Jared Isham, who are producing a documentary on the fan-led protests. The group hired an airplane to send an aerial message to the owners.
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) November 14, 2023
They also sent custom-made boxes to 15 owners they hoped might be persuaded to vote no.
The MLB owners box designed by @LastDiveBar and 68’s includes: a letter from Mayor Thao, an LDB postcard, an @Oaklandish hat, a custom card by myself of the owner and relocation fact sheet, and STAY video on USB drive, DVD and QR by @gamer_athletics @vvarietyshow @summerofselldoc pic.twitter.com/XaLFyY2wie
— Steevow_custom_cards (@Steevow_CC) November 9, 2023
This week, Leon, Cullen and Isham booked a room at the hotel that hosted the MLB owners meetings and set up camp in the lobby, looking to shake hands and hand out green t-shirts with “StAy” printed on the front. The first person the trio encountered was longtime Giants team president Larry Baer; Leon introduced himself and handed him a shirt. He said Baer was hesitant to engage with the group but told them he was just glad they were baseball fans, took the shirt and stuffed it into his luggage. They spoke with Hal Steinbrenner, Bill DeWitt and several other owners and team presidents. Leon says someone from the Diamondbacks even joked that maybe Arizona should hire them to help raise their attendance. Leon says while their efforts may not have resulted in votes against the relocation, it seemed clear the owners were aware of them.
“It was kind of surreal,” Leon said of interacting with the owners in the lobby of the hotel. “We didn’t go out there with any expectations except that our goal was to be heard and seen and to have the airplane flying out there.”
Surreal veered into the absurd when the trio finally met with Fisher, who has rarely been heard from or seen since the April relocation announcement. The conversation was brief, and at one point, Leon said Fisher told the trio that he’d been working to find a new stadium location in the Bay Area for 18 years and that “it’s been a lot worse for me than it’s been for you.”
Leon said he was surprised Fisher would say that to them but kept that to himself. But he did tell Fisher that he personally had been working on keeping the A’s in Oakland longer than that — dating back to 1998, when Leon was in high school and wrote an essay about the topic. One of the other members of the group pointed out the irony that Fisher was taking this position with the A’s after being part of the group that saved the San Francisco Giants from moving to Tampa Bay in 1992.
Speaking with Leon on Wednesday night a few hours after returning from Arlington, he knew that, despite their efforts, the relocation would be approved.
“The vote won’t be a setback,” he said. “I think we’re very realistic-minded people that it’s gonna vote yes. And so we’ll just go and sit together and come up with other ideas and see what we can do to disrupt it.
“I always tell people I think it’s the Oakland in me,” Leon said. “We do come from a great city like Oakland that’s part of movements, whether it be in the music industry, whether it be social movements, you name it. We were the ones that started everything. And I think that’s what keeps me motivated. … I respect the history of this great town. Quitting is not in our DNA.”
The protests continue
Until the A’s have their vans packed for Las Vegas, the Oakland 68s and the Last Dive Bar will continue to lead protests in hopes that if something does fall through, it will be clear to another potential buyer that there is a viable market in Oakland.
“This whole thing started out because they were blaming the fans (for the team leaving), and we wanted to turn that on its head and be like, ‘It’s not us, it’s you,’” Bailey said. “We’ve just tried to continue to spread that message. I don’t think we could do anything to sway this ownership. So it’s more of just keeping it around, letting people know what’s happening here. And, you know, we’ve gotten a lot of attention.”
Moments after the vote results were released, the groups launched phase two of their protest movement, encouraging A’s fans to boycott spring training, cancel season ticket packages and unfollow the team’s social media accounts. They are also planning a tailgate in the parking lot of the Coliseum that fans can attend on Opening Day instead of attending the game. They are encouraging fans to donate the money they would have spent on tickets to Schools over Stadiums, a Nevada-based group looking to block the public funding promised to the A’s by the Nevada state legislature. It would be the first of several organized community boycott events throughout the season.
“We’ve got a whole ‘nother season to be obnoxious and do our thing,” Bailey said.
The protest movement has brought together A’s fans from all walks of life under a common cause.
“I think that galvanizes everybody together, and it really puts off something that’s just bigger than baseball, bigger than our fandom,” Johnson said. “It’s a powerful thing and I think it’s only going to get more amplified next season given the ramifications that could come out of this vote and the work that is going to come after that.”
Johnson believes that what has transpired in Oakland will have an impact on other markets.
“It’s pulling people from other fanbases that are in similar situations to support, as well,” Johnson said. “And you started to see other people from other teams use the hashtags that were created and other fan bases are starting to now view their teams in the same light the way we view our team.
“I think the one thing that will come out of all the fan contributions is that understanding that the fans created this. They took the veil off everybody’s eyes. One thing that these protests and the boycotts have done is give a voice to the fans that was far bigger and greater than it ever was before.”
Leon says allowing the A’s to move to Las Vegas would be a “black eye” for baseball, but he feels strongly that their efforts will leave a lasting impact on the sport regardless.
“We feel like we are leaving a blueprint for fans to sort of unionize in some sort of way, and second, for owners to see almost what not to do,” he said.
Could MLB expand to Oakland?
Should the A’s leave for Las Vegas, Oakland would hypothetically emerge as the largest available market for MLB expansion. Pratt can envision a scenario in which the A’s request to extend their lease at the Coliseum through 2027 and the city agrees to that, but only if the organization leaves the A’s brand in Oakland. But as of Thursday morning, the A’s have not approached the city of Oakland about extending the Coliseum lease beyond this year. There have been rumors that the A’s might play in Triple-A stadiums in either Sacramento or Las Vegas until the new stadium is built, or they could play some games across the Bay at Oracle Park in San Francisco. None of those scenarios seem particularly player-friendly and would be unlikely to set the team up for a contention window in the next five years.
“That alone demonstrates this is not for the love of baseball, right?” Pratt said. “This is for the love of money. They don’t care if they have the worst team in the league or the lowest payroll. What this is going to do to the players who have no idea where they are going to play in the future, to their employees who have no idea where they are going to live in the future, right down to the grounds crew, who have no idea if they are going to have jobs, they don’t care anything about that.”
Clary sees the A’s situation headed down a similar path to the one the Cleveland Browns took in the 1990s, when the franchise moved to Baltimore but the branding remained in Cleveland until an expansion franchise could revive the Browns a few years later. He thinks the fan support that has emerged would help build interest in an expansion franchise.
“I would 100 percent buy season tickets for that. I think a lot of people would support that,” he said. “It would suck that we wouldn’t have a Lawrence Butler or a Zack Gelof, but a new crop of players would come in and hopefully they’ll be better run (as an organization) should that come to pass.”
The damage of the A’s exit from the Oakland market could be difficult to mend, even with an expansion team.
“It really kills the marketing of the game, right? You’re trying to say that baseball is this and that and look how it touches lives. Everything that you’re trying to get people attracted to the sport for, this contradicts all of that,” Johnson said.
Davie, whose nickname is ‘the Mayor of Oakland’, says the A’s have always been a big part of his identity, but this vote will make it hard for him to maintain that relationship this season.
“I just can’t see myself being a fan next year,” he said.
Bailey expressed similar feelings. “If they move — or even if they’re building (somewhere else) but they say they’re gonna move — I don’t think I could watch baseball anymore. I don’t. It’d be over for me. I wouldn’t have the heart to do it,” he said.
(Top photo: Erick W. Rasco / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)