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The sustainability of a faceless franchise

An executive is the face of the Oakland A's. Given that they haven't done anything in the last 15 years more than exceed expectations, how long can that last?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the Bay Area, we talk a lot about sustainability. Normally it has less to do with baseball than with what car you drive and how often you recycle. But it means something in the baseball world, too: sustainability is the Oakland Athletics organization's most impressive feat since Billy Beane took over as general manager following the 1997 season.

In that time frame, the organization has faced every possible disadvantage, namely a list of related factors that contribute to their low-payroll status: a lack of brand recognition, an inadequate venue, and a dominant, in-market rival.

Despite that, the A's have fielded consistently competitive teams. But that's all you can say — they haven't won a championship or come close, and they haven't fostered the career of a single star who will forever be known as an Oakland Athletic. Jason Giambi is a Yankee, Tim Hudson an Atlanta Brave.

Worse, it has always been acknowledged that even the players from 2014's roster with the potential to become stars remembered by an entire generation can only be A's in the short term. Sonny Gray technically won't be a free agent until 2020, but if he survives the next two seasons without getting traded it'll be a miracle. Sean Doolittle is gone when his contract expires, and Josh Donaldson...

Eventually these players will become unaffordable, or be flipped for whatever future value they can return to the organization in the long-term. It's just the way it is.

The result? The most recognizable face of the franchise is somebody who works in an office. You know if you had to name of the 'face of the franchise' for the last 15 years, you'd name Billy Beane.

A single man in the front office has kept the A's relevant through a remarkable understanding of competitive cycles, maximizing a player's value beyond what he does on the field during his tenure with your organization, and the fact that what fans prefer is often not what's best for the franchise.

Beyond all that, Brad Pitt played the guy in a movie. He and his staff revolutionized the way the marketplace for baseball players functions. He has twice won The Sporting News Executive of the Year Award, and not many people win it twice. But at the end of the day, he's an executive, and it's deeply weird that he's the icon of the franchise.

That would be fine if the man had won rings, again, in the face of every possible disadvantage. He'd be a shoo-in Hall-of-Famer. But he hasn't, and the old-school dude across the bridge has won three, and the ALDS is getting old fast.

But the worst part is the fact that despite eight playoff appearances in 15 years, the A's haven't created a star. They haven't created the player with a status in Oakland like that of Barry Bonds in San Francisco, and that's fine because that's not a reasonable bar.

But they haven't even created a Buster Posey, or a Hunter Pence or a Madison Bumgarner. Children who grew up watching those players will remember them forever. I'm honestly not sure that under three seasons of Yoenis Cespedes can create enough memories to leave that impression.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: If you're going to deny fans a hometown hero, break their hearts by repeatedly trading those they most enjoy watching, and make no attempt whatsoever to build a brand long-term, you'd better have something to show for it.

So far? Nope.

So maybe just for once — if the A's aren't going to be a franchise that wins championships, or plays in a picturesque ballpark, or makes any attempt whatsoever to be the Bay Area's most popular baseball team — they could sign a star. Maybe just for once Josh Donaldson could get locked up through 2021 even though it makes no damn sense financially or logically. Maybe Sonny Gray could throw twelve more years of All-Star caliber baseball in Oakland. Maybe Sean Doolittle could be that legendary first-baseman-turned-closer who spends a full decade blowing fastballs by hitters though they know exactly what's coming, and where.

It's just that a successful organization has to have something. It has to have that ballpark (seriously, is there anything else good about the Cubs?) or that star (is there anything else good about the Mets besides David Wright?) or those rings. I don't know what happens when an organization has none of the above for an extended period of time. But it's not good, and it definitely isn't sustainable.