- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
THE OAKLAND ATHLETICS and Seattle Mariners are playing a baseball game on a Tuesday night in Oakland, and it’s difficult to describe the silence. There are maybe 1,000 people in the stands at first pitch, and few of them have the energy or the inclination to make any noise. The team is the worst in baseball and the stadium is the worst facility in professional sports and the owner is two weeks removed from signing a land deal — one he will cancel before signing another — that he hopes will take the team to Las Vegas. It’s raining, and the Warriors are playing the Lakers across the Bay. The silence is its own crushing roar.
The slogan “Rooted in Oakland” is still splashed inside and outside the ballpark, and at this point it can be read only as sarcasm or a cruel joke. The team has spent the past several years doing nothing to encourage fans to attend games only to wield the team’s lack of attendance as a weapon in its relocation efforts. Ticket prices have gone up while the team’s payroll, by far the lowest in baseball, has been reduced to beaks and claws.
John Fisher, A’s owner and Gap heir, has agreed to purchase the land in Las Vegas for what is termed a privately funded $1.5 billion retractable-roof ballpark. But the team is requesting nearly $400 million in tax money — for a team and an ownership group the city never requested and isn’t sure it wants — before it finalizes the second land deal on the Strip, which will require the demolition of the Tropicana Las Vegas. With Rob Manfred giving Major League Baseball’s imprimatur, the A’s no longer seem interested in the Oakland option: a fantastical $12 billion waterfront real estate venture (housing/retail/hotel/ballpark) that would have included hundreds of millions in public funding to facilitate the privately funded — that term again — $1 billion-plus ballpark. It’s an ongoing saga that calls for its own chapter in a textbook on late-stage capitalism.
A poll conducted by the Nevada Independent online news site showed 41% of those questioned supported public assistance for the project, and 38% were opposed. The land purchase from Bally’s Corp. was announced Monday, but Fisher and team president/pitchman Dave Kaval face a tight deadline to get the legislation on the proposed public funding before the Nevada state legislature before its session ends on June 5.
Jorge Leon, a lifelong Oakland resident and president of the Oakland 68s, a fan group that champions everything Oakland, says, “The rich history of baseball in Oakland hangs on some selfish trust fund man who has no idea how this community works.” (Kaval, the spokesman for team ownership, declined to comment.)
The RingCentral Coliseum is a massive bowl of concrete and the last of the multipurpose stadiums built in the 1960s and ’70s, can be charitably described as a throwback or realistically as a relic. After a flurry of renovations coinciding with Kaval becoming team president in 2016, the A’s have done little to improve the fan experience. They installed tabletops in a few sections and rebranded them as suites, but on rainy nights the concession-stand employees that work underneath the Diamond Level seats directly behind home plate are forced to dance around a steady stream of rainwater — and whatever else is along for the ride — cascading into their workplace. The road to Vegas, it appears, is paved with filth.
The ongoing decay works to ownership’s advantage. Remember the raw sewage that flooded the home dugout 10 years ago? Well, this year’s version is the possum that lives in the visiting team’s television booth, a fixable problem that plays better if it remains unfixed. Get a load of this mess. Who wouldn’t want to leave?
There have been so many name changes that the California Department of Transportation appears to have given up. It’s been McAfee and Overstock and O.co and now RingCentral, but the exit signs on Interstate 880 still call it O.co and every single human other than contractually bound announcers calls it the Coliseum.
The signal for the team’s flagship radio station, a Bloomberg affiliate, drifts into static about 35 miles from the ballpark on a clear night, closer during the day. Just one beat writer, an MLB.com correspondent, travels with the team, and he makes about half the trips. The team’s television broadcast recently made news when the play-by-play announcer, Glen Kuiper, was suspended for turning the Negro League Baseball Museum into a racial slur.
As the A’s take batting practice and manager Mark Kotsay speaks to a small media contingent in the dugout, the hosts of the YouTube show “A’s Cast” are broadcasting live from a folding table in the vast acreage of foul ground near third base. The host, professionally upbeat, was cueing up replays of decisive moments in the A’s most recent win, which boosted the team’s record to 6-29. The A’s come into this Tuesday night game, the first of a three-game series with the Mariners, with a -117 run differential that — spoiler — will get worse by the end of the night. I call up “A’s Cast” 90 minutes before first pitch to run the viewership from 25 to 26.
Kotsay seems determined to defy his surroundings by infusing it with optimism, the way a fancy hotel has a signature scent. A reporter asks him how he spent his off day — anything but baseball seems to be the theme of these gatherings — and Kotsay talks about working in his yard, cleaning up his outdoor kitchen, washing his F-250 only to see it rain hours later. Symbolism wields a sledgehammer in these parts. Noting that Seattle rookie Bryce Miller is making his first big league start, against Mason Miller, making his third, Kotsay asks, “Think we could get Miller to sponsor this game?”
It’s not common to hear leaf blowers grinding away during batting practice in a big league stadium, but it happens here. Eighty minutes before first pitch, when most parks are filling up with fans clumping around the dugouts seeking autographs and baseballs, the stadium crew was blowing water out of the seating areas and into the concourses.
Twenty minutes before game time, there were seven people in Section 122, field level even with the third-base coach’s box. Six hundred and sixteen seats by my count, and seven humans. A group with pregame field access congregated behind home plate as one of them, a gray-haired guy wearing a personalized A’s jersey, lay on the grass with his head cupped in his hand to get a photo taken next to the Rickey Henderson Field logo.
So this is how it begins; the long, painful and quiet end. It’s obvious by now, if it wasn’t before, that the only proper way to capture the crushing bleakness of this scene is from a seat in the right-field bleachers.
The bedsheets are removed from their canvas tote and taped along the right-field wall starting about 15 minutes before first pitch. Different versions of the same message: #FisherOut/SELL SELL SELL/Kaval=Liar/the word Gap circled with a line through it.
The protest is led by Leon and the Oakland 68s, the group responsible for, among other things, the incessant drumming that pounded down from the right-field bleachers during every inning of every A’s home game. Leon, the leader of the 68s, says, “We’ve been a walking billboard for the A’s.”
The news of the Fisher group’s planned land purchase in Las Vegas is changing that. The most obvious change is the lack of drumming since the announcement, a silent protest Leon says is “our way of showing what it would be like without us in Vegas.” The A’s lease at the stadium runs through next season, and the earliest the proposed $1.5 billion retractable roof stadium in Las Vegas can be ready is 2027. That means this — decay, anger, and an announced crowd of just over 2,500 — could be the start of a nearly four-year goodbye. “If it turns out they’re leaving,” Leon says, “if there’s so much as a shovel in the ground in Vegas, they can pack their bags. No reason to have your ex-girlfriend hanging around.”
The only time the 68s heard from A’s management was when they exceeded size limits by hanging a giant STOP BLAMING US sign on the right-field scoreboard. They adapted, removing it from the wall but holding it up between innings.
(The signs received their moment of fame after they were digitally removed from a highlight on the MLB At Bat app when Oakland rookie Ryan Noda hit a home run that cleared the bedsheets and landed in the bleachers.)
“The way I protest is to show up and be a stick in their back,” says Leon, who works for an Oakland-based environmental consulting company. “I’m here to be annoying and point out the history. I want the ownership group to think, ‘Get this guy out of here; he’s bothering me.'”
Wearing a wool beanie and wire-rimmed glasses, Leon begins with the first pitch. “Fisher sucks!” is followed by chants of “Sell the team” and “Stay in Oakland.” Two batters in, perhaps sensing that his negativity was souring the mood, Leon yells, “We back the players!” and then begins a tour around the bases.
“Ryan Noda’s a legend,” he shouts, and Noda, a rookie first baseman, drops his head and kicks at the dirt, as if he doesn’t hear.
“Tony Kemp’s an amazing human being!” Kemp turns from his position at second base to perform a quick half-bow.
“Nick Allen, welcome back!”
Allen, called up from the minors the day before, tips his cap from shortstop.
It takes a moment for all 11 of us in sections 148, 149 and 150 to absorb what just happened: A man in the right-field bleachers, maybe 200 feet away and 50 feet above the infield, effectively communicated with players on the field in between pitches.
Leon, sensing he’s got an audience and eager to try out some new material, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “I’m caught up on ‘Ted Lasso!'” Someone nearby mutters, “Don’t ruin it.”
In the front row there’s a bearded guy in a Ryan Buchter jersey and a woman in an “I Believe in Stephen Vogt” sweatshirt. The Buchter jersey guy, looking at his phone, yells, “Fisher’s at the Warriors’ game!” Nina Thorsen, a producer for the local public radio station, is sitting in the third row wearing a SELL T-shirt and tapping on the seat in front of her with a set of drumsticks. She says the seat, $900 for a full-season ticket in 2019, cost $2,000 this season. Leon’s wife and two children, 2 and 4, are sitting a few seats to his left. Leon starts a “Sell the team” chant and Dennis Biles, whose booming voice and creativity complement Leon’s, helps carry it to the deepest regions of the stadium.
When the chant dies down, Leon yells, “Don’t shop at Gap … or Old Navy … or Banana Republic.” He expresses his displeasure with Manfred. Every word is like a howl in a cave, the sound waves pick up volume and intensity as they bounce around, filling all crevasses. Friends are texting that the television broadcast is picking up every word, loud and clear.
“Don’t forget Kaval,” Buchter jersey guy says of the team president, who coined “Rooted in Oakland” only to become the fans’ main target of anger. He uttered the famous — in these parts, anyway — words “parallel paths” in reference to the team’s alleged interest in both Oakland and Las Vegas. He once got into a Twitter war with a digital seagull and replied “OK boomer” on the same platform when San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins dared to question the team’s now-abandoned strategy of airing the team’s radio broadcasts exclusively online. And so, just to make sure the bile is distributed equally, Leon screams, “Dave Kaval’s a snake” before returning to his now-drumless chants:
Stay in Oakland
We hate Fisher
Sell the team
Vogt is in town, as a bullpen coach for the Mariners, and he’s as close to royalty as it gets in Section 149. “We believe in Stephen Vogt” was a mantra that started with the drumbeat of the right-field bleachers and traveled through the stadium during Vogt’s 4½ seasons as a catcher in Oakland. Before the game, Vogt was asked about what he thought of the growing possibility the team might leave. “It stirred up a lot of emotions,” he said. “I mean, they’re the Oakland A’s. It’s just a sad day.” Sitting in the Mariners’ bullpen, he’s probably 150 feet away and 50 feet below us, and Leon yells, “Hey Vogt, buy our team.” Vogt laughs and doffs his cap, and at this point it’s worth noting that a baseball game is taking place amid all of these separate long-distance conversations. Emboldened by Vogt’s response, Leon yells, “You and [former Athletic Josh] Reddick get together and make it happen.” By now the entire Mariners bullpen is engaged in this conversation. They’re laughing and jostling Vogt as he drops his head. Even from here, you can see his shoulders shaking.
Leon looks at the scoreboard and says, “Maybe we’ll win the 50-50 tonight and buy the team.” Thorsen laughs and says, “Hey, it’s up to $270 already.”
Of the 11 people sitting in the four sections of the right-field bleachers, three are not regulars: me and two guys sitting in the front row, three or four rows in front of Leon and directly behind a “Kaval=Liar” sign draped on the rail in front of them. Their clothing is neutral, and they don’t seem to know anyone, but they’re minding their own business, watching the game like all of this is perfectly normal. When Leon is quiet, you can hear the guys shelling their peanuts from three sections away.
“You guys all right?” Leon asks. They turn and nod. One of them gives a thumbs-up and Leon says, “Cuz I’ll be doing this all night.”
Imagine working for something your entire life, with one impossible goal of being among the best 780 people in the entire world at what you do, and then finally achieving it only to find it takes place here, where the voice of one disenchanted man in the far reaches of the stadium plays on repeat in your head.
“I miss the drummers out there,” Kemp says. “You can hear him everywhere, clear as day. I’ve never experienced that in a big league park, ever. … I’m not even mad at him. I just keep trying to reiterate to everybody that you’re in the big leagues and don’t let the outside circumstances affect your play. You’re still a big leaguer, even though the situation around you might not be how you expect the big leagues to be.”
When I begin to recount Leon’s interaction with Vogt, a former teammate, Kemp stops me and says, “Oh, I know. I heard every word of it.”
For most of the players, and they can’t say this, the best outcome is to play well enough to be worth something in a trade. Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Murphy — they all reached stardom with the A’s and were traded before the bill came due. “We had some good players, but that’s just the way it goes,” Chapman, Toronto’s third baseman, told SportsNet Canada. “All of us knew we weren’t going to be there long-term.”
Against this backdrop, Mason Miller pitched the game of his life, throwing seven no-hit innings before being removed because of his pitch count. After his last out, the 6-foot-5 Miller charged off the mound like a bear, pumping his arms and screaming to the heavens. For once, Leon wasn’t the loudest voice in the house.
“I won’t speak for everybody,” Miller says, “but I’ve played a lot of games in that environment, coming from D-III. We weren’t playing in front of a lot of crowds.”
Generally speaking, it’s not a good sign when your prized prospect harkens to his Waynesburg University days in the President’s Athletic Conference to find the right comparison for a big league environment.
When he took the mound in the second inning, Miller turned the PitchCom speaker in his cap down to its lowest volume level because he was afraid the hitters could hear what was coming. “I’m pretty sure they can’t,” Miller says, “but I turned it down to make sure.”
Miller left the game leading 1-0, and about 20 minutes later the Mariners were shaking hands after a 2-1 win. Sadly for the A’s, it was probably one of the season highlights. Oakland’s starting pitchers set a record for most games without a win to start a season, with 32. Through 43 games — and 34 losses — the pitching staff had an ERA of 7.21, 1.71 runs per game more than the second-worst White Sox. Their run differential through 43 games was a staggering -160. They’ve lost in a multitude of grisly ways, including one to the Reds when a slow grounder toward first in the ninth inning hit the base and morphed into a two-run double. And, now, this: a rookie making his third big-league start throws seven no-hit innings and the bullpen coughs it up.
The day after Miller’s stellar outing — and about a week before Miller would go on the injured list with the dreaded “forearm tightness” diagnosis — Kotsay was asked how he’s coping. The question was tinged with the understanding that losing games at a historic rate is about all anybody can expect of this roster and this payroll, and for once you could see the optimism fall from Kotsay’s face. If this look had a scent, it would have been foul. He thought for a moment and said, “I sat in my office a long time last night, with my uniform on. I’ve always said today’s a new day, and we’ve tried to stay positive amid a lot of distractions.”
They’re trying to stay positive in Section 149, too. “It’s not a done deal,” Thorsen says “We’ve seen this act before.” They’ve read the reports that Fisher is having trouble finding the funding for his Vegas venture, which sparked a debate over whether he should be described as “the brokest rich dude” or “the richest broke dude.” They hear rumblings that Warriors owner Joe Lacob might swoop in and buy the team. “It would be perfect,” Leon says. “He can say, ‘Sorry I moved the Warriors, but I kept the A’s.’ He’d be a legend.”
This moment, though, feels quite different, more like the beginning of a quiet, depressing march to an inevitable conclusion. If baseball has any role in the apocalypse, it’ll look something like this: maybe a thousand people scattered across a massive building, the rain coming down steadily, and one man screaming into the night, his words echoing off thousands of tons of concrete.
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