At A Crossroads, Standing Still

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of a decade, Lew Wolff and John Fisher have been trying to pay their own way for a move 44 miles south. The closest they've come is a newly renovated vacation home, essentially free of charge, nine miles east of their old one.

Oakland's move from Phoenix Municipal Stadium to Hohokam Park in Mesa is noticeably out of step with other organizational goings-on. While the search for a new regular-season venue in the Bay Area is as stagnant and fruitless as ever, the A's somehow finagled what is for all intents and purposes a brand-new spring training venue for a measly $4 million. The City of Mesa is giving the organization the royal treatment, throwing down almost $18 million to completely overhaul the facility — the Chicago Cubs' Cactus League home from 1997 to 2013 — which will feature a 26-by-56 foot high-definition scoreboard, food courts, re-done concourses, and a brand-new clubhouse.

Let's not forget the newly rebuilt 55,000 square foot training facility just blocks away. Fitch Park will provide nearly twice as much room as Papago Park did for minor-league spring training camp, as well as a year-round home for A's players participating in the Arizona Fall League and instructional leagues. That facility features absurd amenities like hydrotherapy pools with built-in treadmills. If you give Wrigley Field a pass for being Wrigley Field, the A's seem to be the only team in the Cactus League with nicer facilities in Arizona than in their home city.

Phoenix Muni was renovated fairly extensively in 2003, and is widely considered one of the better Cactus League venues to take in a ballgame. But it won't be hosting professional baseball for at least 20 years, the length of the lease Arizona State University signed shortly after the A's announced their impending departure. While an adequate venue is a pipe dream in Oakland, it's somehow not good enough for the A's in the Valley of the Sun.

The transition from a well liked, conveniently located, perfectly passable venue to a brand-new one adorned with all the bells and whistles Lew Wolff could ever want isn't one most would expect from a low-budget, small-market club like the A's. Actually, it's a lot like the one the Atlanta Braves are planning for their regular-season venue.

Turner Field is just 18 years old, isn't far from Downtown Atlanta, and is a perfectly fine baseball venue that has no trouble drawing big crowds, even though it was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics and not for the Braves specifically. But the Braves wanted to move deeper into the suburbs, into a state-of-the-art venue built specifically for them, and they've figured out a way to do it without breaking the bank; Cobb County is footing the vast majority of the bill. On a much smaller scale, the A's have managed the same thing.

***

In Oakland, the city's Port Commission is expected to sign off today on an exclusive negotiating agreement with a group of prominent East Bay business figures for the development rights to Howard Terminal. Among that group are Clorox CEO Don Knauss and prominent developer Michael Ghielmetti. Knauss claims to be an Oakland advocate, despite having moved hundreds of his employees from Downtown Oakland to Pleasanton in 2010. Ghielmetti has slightly more credibility, having spearheaded the ongoing Brooklyn Basin development project, which will revitalize a key stretch of Oakland's waterfront by replacing previously vacant industrial blight with thousands of housing apartments, retail spaces, and 30 acres of parks and open space just south of Jack London Square.

There's no indication, though, that the Howard Terminal project is going anywhere. Lew Wolff has repeatedly expressed a total lack of interest in the site based on its distance from BART, cleanup costs associated with building on a site with residual soil contamination (the site was a manufactured gas plant from 1902 to 1960) and the simple fact that it's in Oakland.

The current ownership has no intention of selling the team. The public won't foot the bill for the project. Wolff and Fisher still claim to be dead-set on San Jose, even though there's been no movement in the territorial rights debacle, and claim to want a long-term lease — five or 10 years — at the Coliseum so the team's immediate future in Oakland is secure. But even that isn't easy; Oakland can't promise the A's the Coliseum for the next 10 years without alienating the Raiders, who have expressed interest in building a new, football-only venue on the footprint of today's Coliseum. While the Raiders could easily shack up in Santa Clara for a few years during construction, the A's would have a much tougher time sharing AT&T Park.

Strangely, every involved party's most realistic option is probably the Coliseum City development — a plan for a massive new development at the current Coliseum site — which hinges on mystery investors from the Middle East and a "second downtown" in the heart of East Oakland that features new venues for baseball, football, and potentially even basketball. And when your best bet is a $2 billion dollar pipe dream advocated for most loudly by Jean Quan, you should probably leave the casino.

So for now, the A's are going nowhere, and not in the way the Oakland-only crowd wants them to be going nowhere. Not even close.

***

Rickey Henderson is throwing out the first pitch on Monday night, kicking off the season in which the A's will celebrate the 25-year anniversary of their last World Series championship — Oakland's most recent in any sport. In 1989, the A's took two games at the Coliseum, waited 10 days for Northern California to get back on its feet after its biggest natural disaster since 1906, and then took two more at Candlestick without breaking a sweat. Out of respect for the circumstances, the 1989 team never got the chance to parade down Broadway. Such a parade hasn't taken place since 1974.

But the tables have turned — a quarter-century ago, the Giants were in the same situation the A's were in now. They played in an out-of-date and unpopular venue, had few prospects for a new ballpark, no support for publicly financing one, and faced the threat constant threat of a move, albeit on a larger scale — had a deal for a privately financed park never materialized, they could easily have become the Tampa Bay Giants.

The Coliseum, at that point, was adequate in the same way that Phoenix Municipal Stadium is adequate today. It was a no-frills ballpark that got the job done, featured beautiful views beyond the outfield fences, was generally popular with baseball fans, and drew good crowds. The East Bay was the center of an incredibly competitive Bay Area baseball landscape that, between Oakland and San Francisco, saw four World Series appearances in a three-year stretch between 1988 and 1990.

The past four years have, much to the chagrin of A's fans, featured not only two Bay Area World series appearances, but two sets of rings. The A's have also thrown a pair of short-lived playoff appearances into the mix, reestablishing the Bay Area as the country's best region for baseball — New York has just two playoff appearances in that period, Chicago has none, DC-Baltimore has two, and all of Southern California has only one.

The Giants are set. They're fine. Their annual profits stand at $53.3 million, the franchise's overall worth clocked in at 10 figures for the first time ever in Forbes' recent MLB franchise valuations, and their ballpark will remain one of baseball's crown jewels as long as it's still standing. Despite finishing five games under .500 in 2013, they expect to have sold somewhere around three million tickets by Opening Day.

Speaking of Opening Day, you can buy an upper-deck ticket to the Giants' home opener on the official team site for a cool $150. And because there isn't enough class stratification in San Francisco these days, the team recently announced the launch of the Gotham Club, a members-only organization situated in three different locations throughout the ballpark, some of which feature pool tables and "vintage parlor games". Because who wants to watch baseball once you've paid $1,250 to get into a club that gives you access to secret AT&T Park game rooms?

But living the life of an underdog isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially under MLB's remarkably restrictive Collective Bargaining Agreement. Without it, the free market would have forced the A's out of the East Bay long ago; with it, the team is profitable to the tune of $27.4 million annually. No wonder Wolff, just a year shy of 80, doesn't seem to be moving with any real sense of urgency. It's not that all the money is going to line Wolff and Fisher's pockets' — payroll is higher than it's been in years — but oddly, a system designed to maintain parity seems to have taken away a lot of the incentive for the A's to make themselves competitive venue-wise.

So as Oakland makes progress in Arizona, it has absolutely no traction in California. And somehow, despite the turmoil, the on-field product remains superb.

***

The A's could break through in two different ways in 2014: on the field, and on building a new field. Either one — say, winning the American League or reaching any kind of major progress on a new stadium deal — would be surprising. But the hope is there for both. While 2014 could easily go down as another season in which the A's didn't make the World Series and another season in which nothing got done on the ballpark front, there exists that small chance that huge steps could be taken on both fronts. It could be a year like any other, but it seems that things are coming to a breaking point both on the field and off. If this organization is going to take back the Bay Area, or at least try to, the time is now. After all, trends are only trends until they're broken. And ballpark issues aside — how fitting would it be to give the 1989 team and the City of Oakland the parade they never got, 25 years later?

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