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Dave Kaval is the leader Oakland A’s fans need

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Dave Kaval at FanFest
Jeremy F. Koo

New Oakland A’s team president Dave Kaval committed the team to announcing, by the end of 2017, a site and a timeline for building a new baseball stadium in Oakland. The announcement itself must have been like hearing President Kennedy saying America should commit itself to going to the Moon by the end of 1969, not just in the scale of the coming project but also in the buy-in that will be needed from multiple groups to make it happen.

Kaval must marshal fans, civic leaders, and the owners who have put him forward as their representative, to make a stadium happen on whatever timeline he promises. This is a careful balancing act to be sure all three of these groups are happy.

Fans need to believe that ownership plans to invest in this club both now at the Coliseum and down the road at the new stadium so that they’ll join ownership in pushing civic leaders to approve building a new stadium. Civic leaders need to be convinced that their constituents, including A’s fans, will benefit without giving away critical public resources on construction that should be paid for by team owners. Owners need to avoid pushing beyond the well-established boundaries that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has set down for any City contribution toward a new stadium site, and owners must continue to invest in the A’s and in the Coliseum now to be sure the fan base will be there when the new stadium opens.

For the first time in many years, the A’s have in Dave Kaval a credible leader who can rally this triumvirate together to bring a new stadium and a better fan experience to the Oakland Athletics.

The Fan-Friendly Face of the Franchise

Since Walter A. Haas, Jr. died in 1995 and the team sold shortly thereafter, I think it’s fair to say that fans have perceived A’s ownership as an impediment to team success. Moneyball (the book) charitably describes Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann as “more businessmen than philanthropists,” compared to Haas. Lew Wolff could hardly open his mouth without somehow insulting A’s fans for having the audacity to request a better fan experience in Oakland, between the product on the field and the stadium surrounding it. Then-silent majority partner and now merely quiet managing partner John Fisher was no help, as he was widely seen as just another man sitting on a pile of cash he just would not invest into the club. Put simply, the A’s haven’t had a Mark Cuban or a George Steinbrenner or a Jerry Jones to breathlessly promote the franchise.

Thus, it’s an important change to see the ownership group, sans Wolff, recognize its own deficiencies in promoting A’s baseball and instead put its faith in the gregarious Dave Kaval, as President of the Oakland Athletics. For the first time in a long time, it appears the People In Charge of the A’s see the fans not as an annoyance to hold off until a new stadium plan comes together, but as the very people necessary to make a future stadium successful.

Kaval has been eager to meet with fans. His initial drop-in office hours on Dec. 6, 2016 were a huge public relations coup, establishing right off the bat his awareness that having access to a person empowered to address fan concerns or comments is a huge departure from past practice. Indeed, one man widely perceived to be the face of the franchise by being its most stable and famous figure, Billy Beane, necessarily has to ward off being overly influenced by fan emotions and desires in order to do his job.

My own meeting with Kaval during his drop-in office hours was punctuated by the conversations I had with various members of A’s staff. Each expressed an excitement and new energy throughout the organization as Kaval imprinted his leadership in the first few weeks of the organization. There was this palpable feeling that this was a new era in which major things were going to happen, and the club wasn’t just waiting around for events to break their way.

Kaval himself was a ball of energy, even after four-plus hours of meeting with fans and media. I mentioned that I had read a few preview pages of the book he co-authored with friend Brad Null, The Summer That Saved Baseball, about their 16,447-mile journey to the 30 MLB stadiums that existed in 1998. His eyes lit up. “The book!” he exclaimed. “Let me sign a copy for you!” he said as he leapt out of his chair to a box of his books in the corner of his suite at the Coliseum.

One of the points I raised was at how little we had heard about the stadium effort other than the general point that the team was hard at work. I expressed, pleaded even, that the club find some way to show the work it’s doing to come to a decision on a stadium site. With the caveat that the team can’t prematurely tip its hand regarding a site, Kaval pledged to improve on that front, noting his own social media efforts during the construction of Avaya Stadium for the San Jose Earthquakes.

What the new stadium should represent, beyond being a revenue generator, was a point addressed on Saturday at FanFest in a conference with bloggers. A new ballpark needs a soul to be successful, and that can’t be accomplished without giving fans a successful team to enjoy and without the spaces for groups of fans to congregate around the ballpark. The Summer That Saved Baseball, written in Null’s voice, laments how the recently constructed new parks of that time all felt like Camden copycats:

With each new copy of Camden Yards, however, the uniqueness of each new park fades a little. Make no mistake, every park built since Camden has been a copy.

[. . .]

We accept this unobstructable course of ballpark design. But how much we would give to go back and see a game at Forbes, Crosley, and Tiger (just one more)? We only caution, argue, pray, and beg that not everyone jumps on this bandwagon. Save Fenway. Save Wrigley. Save Dodger. Save even the already bastardized Yankee. We will appreciate them, we promise.

Where does Dave Kaval find the elements that will enable the soul of Oakland to shine through in a new ballpark? As Nico points out, “Kaval is talking to and listening to fans, not to allow the inmates to run the asylum but rather to align choices . . . with the consensus from the very people who will be choosing, or not choosing, what the A’s have to offer.” Kaval also made a point that seems to have been missing from Wolff’s portfolio: Nobody has to be an A’s fan. It’s a free country, and it’s up to the A’s to offer an experience now and later that makes people want to be A’s fans.

At FanFest, I saw Kaval regularly stopping to chat with fans on the way to his next appointment, only taking off when prompted by his staff. Each stop was an opportunity to show how much he wants this team to succeed. Each stop an opportunity to have a fan spread the word that this team is under new management, and they’re going to be doing things differently around here:

Unafraid to push ownership to spend

Promises to invest in the fan experience from our new team President are without meaning, however, if he doesn’t have the ability to convince majority and managing partner John Fisher and the rest of the owners that a higher level of investment is critical for the long-term health of the club. On the player payroll side, Kaval wouldn’t commit necessarily to a specific figure and generally hewed to the same line that Billy Beane and David Forst have maintained, that the money is available for a player the operations staff believes is necessary to put the club over the top. We saw that in the push for Edwin Encarnacion this offseason, and perhaps the offseason might have looked quite a lot different had the club been successful.

I eagerly await the revelation of just how the Westside Club will be transformed into Shibe Park Tavern. Kaval says the club is committed to millions of dollars in improvements to the Coliseum, including the Westside Club changes.

Kaval has pushed this ownership group to go beyond what it intended to spend on Avaya Stadium for the Earthquakes in San Jose, and he did the homework to make sure they’d buy in (Sports Business Management: Decision Making Around the Globe by George Foster, Norman O’Reilly, Antonio Davila.):

Although premium seating was initially not planned, field-level suites and clubs were later added to the design. In order to convince ownership to make the additional investment in these amenities, Kaval and his team packaged and sold all 12 field suites and more than 1,000 club seats over a six-month period in 2012. This gave ownership more confidence in the success of the endeavor and enhanced the construction budget to accommodate these upgrades. The owners raised the stadium budget voluntarily to $100 million to fund these revenue-generating features that also included enhanced LED boards.

It would seem that fans have in Dave Kaval someone who will put in the work to convince ownership of the necessary investments for completing a successful opening of a new stadium in Oakland. But Kaval’s role as President isn’t merely to lead the way to a new stadium.

Unafraid to make the hard decisions

What intrigued me heading into FanFest was the extent to which Kaval would involve himself in the strategic direction of the team. While Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball are two different beasts, Kaval has shown himself to be quite involved in what his hopes are for the soccer team he has run since October of 2010.

Take, for example, Kaval’s answers to one of the questions asked by our colleagues at Center Line Soccer back at the start of 2016:

CLS: Getting younger at key positions certainly helped, but the exception seems to be along the defensive back line. We had a chance to talk to Clarence Goodson, who wants to remain in San Jose, but he is 33 years old. Victor Bernardez is 33, Jordan Stewart, if he comes back, is another at 33, and Marvel Wynne is above 30 as well. Those guys have all expressed an interest in coming back next season. Do you look at the defense as a place that might experience some turnover, or is the feeling these guys have more left in the tank?

DK: "We have a great back line. I think we want to develop some great young players in that area that can be cover and be brought forward and brought along by the veterans. The first priority this off-season is to acquire two or three attacking players, but secondly is to get stronger in the back with a good, young center back and folks that can slot into those roles. So in three years when some of the older players may be retiring or moving on, then we can slot that younger person in.

"That is certainly a priority, and it is an important thing when you are looking beyond one season. The thing is, with my role or with [general manager] John Doyle or [technical director] Chris Leitch, we are looking over multiple years in terms of how we want to piece our roster together. Still, you are certainly correct to highlight that as an area we need to address this off-season."

From an A’s fan point of view, that’s the sort of answer you expect from the general manager, not from a team president. We’re used to team presidents or owners who defer to the baseball operations staff.

In the middle of the 2016 MLS season, Kaval fired John Doyle, who had been general manager of the Earthquakes since the club’s resurrection from hiatus in 2008. The year 2013 also saw San Jose mutually part ways with head coach Frank Yallop a year after winning the Supporters’ Shield. I was curious what were the factors that allowed him to reach the decision to dismiss Doyle and how that would track with how he would evaluate the baseball operations team in Oakland. At FanFest, however, Kaval felt very confident in the baseball operations leadership of Billy Beane and David Forst despite the last two years:

“I think in any organization on the sporting side you need to have a leader that has a good vision and a track record of success. And I think what we had in San Jose was a changing league and I felt like we needed a new direction. Here in Oakland I’m blessed with an amazing baseball operations team: Billy Beane, David Forst, best in the business. They’re going to look back in a hundred years, they’ll look back at this era of baseball and they’ll say, ‘Billy Beane was the one who really set forth a completely new way to build baseball teams using analytics.’ Now all the teams have that so it’s become table stakes, but nonetheless I feel very strongly about the strength of that group and I think more than anything it’s about coming up with a shared plan across the business and the sporting sides to have success both on and off the field.”

Which isn’t to say that things couldn’t change down the line, but I at least can see the plan for the next few years that involves bringing prospects along at the proper pace, including the four A’s ranked between No. 51 and 100 in MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects: Franklin Barreto, A.J. Puk, Grant Holmes, and Matt Chapman. For now, “In Beane We Trust” remains the word from the top.

In Kaval We Trust

Fans have been looking for a franchise figure who seems fully invested in making A’s baseball in Oakland great for the fans once more. The excitement around Kaval’s arrival is an entirely unfamiliar feeling to me. I’ve spent the last 21 years of my fandom not really letting ownership affect the extent to which I profess my devotion to these Athletics because I thought that the only thing that mattered was the team on the field. The only grousing I might do would be the extent to which the team might invest in payroll, but I felt that one owner was the same as any other. Billy Beane was the man working within ownership’s constraints.

Now, for the first time, I’m seeing a representative of ownership in Dave Kaval who has the public savvy and curiosity to push every division of the franchise to the next level, beginning with investing in the Coliseum, investing in Oakland, and investing in the fan. Godspeed to him.