Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody!
This is the third installment in a five-part series on important off-field, non-baseball occurrences that helped to shape the current state of the Oakland Athletics organization. The series is a countdown from #5 to #1 — you can find number five here and number four here.
Today's piece discusses an event that, in my opinion, marked a complete turning point for the A's in their quest to remain among baseball's more successful franchises in terms of venue, revenue, attendance, and on-field product. I'm referring to the return of the National Football League's Oakland Raiders, who had spent the 1982-1994 seasons as the Los Angeles Raiders, playing their games at the LA Coliseum in Exposition Park.
But Raiders owner Al Davis faced many of the same issues he faced in Oakland, notably, a lack of premium seating, and a relatively old venue in a high-crime neighborhood that he was forced to share with another high-profile sports team (in this case, the USC Trojans).
After numerous attempts at building a new stadium for professional football in the Los Angeles area, Davis gave up. He negotiated in relative secrecy with Oakland officials as early as 1989, but it wasn't until March 11, 1991 that Davis publicly announced his desire to bring the Raiders back the Bay Area. But that plan fell through as well, leading Davis to once again pursue opportunities in Los Angeles.
It wasn't until June 23, 1995 that Davis made the Raiders' move back to Oakland official. On that day, the A'sdropped a 7-4 decision to the Texas Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington; Rickey Henderson went 2-for-4 with a run batted in. Dave Stewart got hit hard and lasted only three frames, giving up six earned runs on five walks and four hits.
But that midsummer day — only about 10 weeks removed from the Raiders' season opener against the San Diego Chargers at the Coliseum — is the day that city officials in Oakland made a clear statement prioritizing the Raiders over the A's, one that still affects both franchises today.
It also represents the day that the A's moved from playing in a venue widely regarded as acceptable (if nothing special) to playing in a venue widely deemed as subpar in the 1990s. The latter perception has only grown worse. Indeed, baseball's commissioner referred to the Coliseum as a "pit" in 2013. The fact that the A's change in status, at least ballpark-wise, came about so quickly is also largely a function of the fact that the Raiders' return happened in the midst of a ballpark renaissance sweeping the rest of the league. The Ballpark in Arlington had opened just a year earlier, Oriole Park at Camden Yards was in its sixth season, and other gems around the league — think San Francisco, Seattle, and Pittsburgh — were in various stages of conception.
But even ignoring the fact that more than half of MLB franchises would open new venues over the course of the next 15 years, the Raiders' return changed the future prospects of the A's franchise drastically for the worse any way you slice it.
The practical, real-time implications were vast. Save for a few weeks at the end of the 1995 season, 1996 was the first year since 1981 that the A's truly were forced to share the Coliseum. And construction of the roughly 10,000-seat monstrosity that we know today as Mt. Davis was supposed to have reached the point where it wouldn't inconvenience the A's in any way, but the construction crews had no such luck. Things were so far behind schedule that the A's were forced to play their first six games of the season at Cashman Field in Las Vegas, the current home of the AAA Las Vegas 51s, a week that underscored how the A's were now second fiddle to the Raiders at the Coliseum in almost every way.
Side note: when the Raiders first moved back in, they played with the gridiron end zones oriented east-west, or in baseball terms, from home plate to second base instead of its current first-to-third layout. You get a particularly good view at the 9:34 mark of this video. But construction on the Coliseum renovation that would lay out the football field in a more traditional north-south orientation began just weeks after the A's season ended, eventually causing the delays that kicked the A's out of their own ballpark for several weeks.
Attendance took a bit of a spill as well, dropping all the way down to an average of 14,178 in 1996, a figure that wouldn't reach 20,000 again until 2001. The beautiful views of the Oakland Hills and the large quarry near Mills College were gone, as was the general open-air vibe that most fans want in a baseball park. And as if to rub salt in the wound, the Raiders tarped off the third level of Mt. Davis — yeah, the one that seems to have a 60-degree incline and serves no evident purpose other than as a receptacle for seagull feces — for the 2013 season, rendering it useless aside from the revenue its four levels of premium football seating bring in.
But more important is the fact that Oakland city officials agreed to issue well over $220 million in bonds (that's more than $300 million in today's dollars, incidentally) to finance the renovation. The Coliseum Authority is still paying off that money today; there's about $110 million and a decade of debt service left. Even given the absurd nature of many public stadium financing deals made in recent years (read: Miami and the new Marlins Park), what Oakland did for the Raiders in 1995 is widely regarded as being among the best deals a professional team has ever gotten from local government. And from a city it spurned completely less than two decades before, to boot.
The result was twofold. Oakland officials and politicians are wary of any more public subsidies for sports teams, and the current generation of Oakland voters will almost certainly never approve tax increases that the A's would need to get public help building a stadium, especially given the city's much more pressing issues of public safety, blight, and education.
So, to recap, the NFL's return to Oakland killed the A's present venue and effectively handcuffed the city in providing the team any substantive sort of public assistance for a new ballpark within city limits. That's not to say that I wish the Raiders had never come back. Personally, while I'm not huge on the NFL in general, I consider myself a Raiders fan, as do many other A's fans. But the transition could've been handled better. It would've been nice if the foresight necessary when handing out $220 million in bonds had...well, existed. If the Raiders were still in Los Angeles, or if their return to Oakland had been handled a little more fairly, there's no telling where the A's might be venue-wise today.
And now that the post is over, a totally unrelated side note: yesterday my girlfriend found the link to the song that the A's play on the Coliseum PA during the nightly "dot race," and sent it to me. I haven't ever heard it anywhere other than the Coliseum and it's been bothering me. Yet it has a million views, so apparently it's a thing and I'm probably just clueless. But for all you younger A's fans, here's the link. Now I know.