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Amidst executives, politicians, and billionaires bickering, fans are left hanging

Observations on the relocation fallout and the Howard Terminal stadium proposal

Port of Oakland’s Howard Terminal
Howard Terminal and the Oakland Estuary are seen from this drone view in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, March 13, 2019.
Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

The dark cloud of relocation is once again cast over the Oakland A’s. As A’s fans, we have lived in a multiple decades-long existential crisis, not knowing if we are going to lose our team at any moment. We get the highs of the new stadium renderings, which could probably fill a museum by this point, and the lows of the news of yet another failed proposal. Being an A’s fan is a roller coaster, which can be really fun at times, and “plunging to possible death” at other times...and this week it’s been the latter. It’s been a real jumble of thoughts and emotions this week for A’s fans, especially the local fans whose lives are inextricably tied to the Coliseum every summer. Out of that jumble, and scattershot comments on the previous stadium posts, here are some of my muddled thoughts.

I believe stAying is still “Plan A”

My opinion is that the A’s still view the ballpark at Howard Terminal as Plan A. I don’t think you actually get the California State Legislature to pass multiple special bills just for this project without actually intending to move forward with this project. That would be outright lunacy. Beyond that, they’ve spent serious scratch on top firms for architecture, and environmental compliance in getting the EIR together, for which they essentially have to pay for. They’ve worked tirelessly on Howard Terminal ever since the Laney College site fell through on this project. They know the hurdles, and they address them head on with the infrastructure and toxic waste cleanup as part of the proposal. They even sued Schnitzer Steel, a steel recycling plant at the Port that was emitting pollutants far beyond legal levels, and they won. That seems to demonstrate a real commitment to the area.

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but despite the relocation talk (which, let’s be real, has already been happening for 20+ years), it does seem like the tens of millions of dollars, and the years and effort put into this wasn’t just for show.

Eliminating the Coliseum Site is a good thing

The only silver lining of the MLB/A’s announcement that other markets are in play, is that the team and the league fully and finally eliminated the Coliseum site. For years, it served as an excuse to avoid conversations, for both sides, when convenient.

Original iterations of the Howard Terminal proposal had included the A’s being able to develop the Coliseum site. They’ve tried to by the half of the site that they don’t own from the city of Oakland. Well, turns out the city does not want to sell its half of the Coliseum site, and would prefer making debt service payments on the land until it figures out what the hell to do with it. In the end, de-coupling the Coliseum site from the Howard Terminal proposal is better for the team and the city, not to mention a pretty big concession in negotiations by the team that hasn’t really been reported.

We know the Coliseum site is convenient, but that’s more or less what it has going for it. Sure, some folks tailgate, but beyond that most people are trying to get in and out of there as fast as possible.

Giants-funded front groups like East Oakland Stadium Alliance flout the A’s for abandoning East Oakland, but the reason the Giants want the A’s to build there is because it will be easy to stop out the competition.

Two franchises left that location, which tells you how great it is economically. It’s not a great site for baseball, which with 81 home games works much better being situated in a locale where people live, work and play.

What I don’t quite get is why the city would even want the A’s to build there, but I think the reason is that it’s an easy decision that gets them off the hook. But that’s a win-lose, in my opinion. I’d take it over them leaving, but having to discuss two sites severely complicates negotiations.

The stadium proposal should be examined by the city and the media on its merits

Unfortunately, it seems we are getting a lot of “billionaires suck” commentary, and nothing much really about the actual deal that’s being proposed. While I’m sympathetic to the billionaires suck line of thinking, if you are talking about any major project, some billionaire is involved. That a billionaire wins is besides the point, in my opinion — the way capitalism works, billionaires always win. John Fisher is fine with or without the A’s, or a new stadium.

The question that should be asked is “Does the city win?”

Howard Terminal is a more or less unused parcel of land. It’s never going to be an active parcel for shipping again. It’s currently just defaulted to a parking lot, because it’s empty space. It’s also filled with toxic waste that has been leaking in to the soil and water. It’s attractive because it’s a short walk from Jack London Square, which is the only portion of the waterfront really developed for Oakland residents to enjoy, and could be a continuous part of a new vital waterfront district.

The A’s are proposing to take a toxic waste dump parking lot, put a stadium on it at their own expense, and develop it with parks, open space, and residential and commercial properties. The A’s will reap the benefits of their development, so yes it’s probably a great investment for the “evil billionaire.” That doesn’t mean it’s a loss for the city.

The city has no plan to clean up that site, or use it in any meaningful way for Port activities, so this sounds like a win-win.

But wait, aren’t they asking for $855 million? Where is Oakland coming up with that?

The $855 million is to pay for the toxic waste cleanup, and the roads, bike paths, pedestrian walkways and overpasses, bus lanes, and open space development around downtown leading into Jack London Square and on the Howard Terminal parcel itself. The A’s would front the costs and do the work, and a portion of the property taxes they would be paying on their Howard Terminal development will go to repaying that $855 million. So it’s found money. Oakland essentially gets a massive improvement to the city at no cost to them. Those infrastructure improvements improve downtown and the waterfront, 365 days a year. The alternative is pretty clearly to let the land sit vacant and toxic for the next few decades, serving no one except perhaps the San Francisco Giants.

Fairness is subjective, to a degree. I’m naturally biased, but I think on balance it’s a pretty reasonable proposal. Relative to other stadium proposals in other markets, this is an outright gift to the city. Nobody from the A’s is asking the city to write a check, where other markets likely would foot the entire bill for the team (just ask Mark Davis!), diverting funds from other city uses.

Donating nine figures to a sports team has never been a great proposition economically for a city, but in this case that’s not the ask.

The City Council shouldn’t be surprised at the proposal. Their staff has been working directly with the A’s for nine months on crafting it. Journalists, if they’re worth their salt, certainly would have known about most of this already, if not every intimate detail.

But nuance is lost when you want to fire off a fun column to hate on (an admittedly hate-able) billionaire.

The Kaval konundrum, and a solution staring the A’s in the face

After the Lew Wolff era, A’s President Dave Kaval was a breath of fresh air for A’s fans. When he took over non-baseball operations for the franchise, he made vast improvements to the Coliseum (new scoreboards, removing tarps, Coliseum plaza, multiple kids zones, group seating environments, the Treehouse plaza an amazing season ticket membership program with A’s access, etc.). He also communicated openly with fans, inviting rank and file fans to his office or to his suite at games. Hell, he even came to our Athletics Nation meet up and was generous with his time. Last, but not least, he held literally hundreds of meetings with citizens, fans, stakeholders, and an alphabet soup of government agencies to explore deeply, for the first time, staying in Oakland. In my opinion, his initiative was the first time the A’s franchise seriously explored building a new stadium in Oakland, with the slogan Rooted In Oakland. And he put his money where his mouth was, getting through many legal and bureaucratic hurdles to actually get to a real, viable proposal for Howard Terminal.

However, it seems like a lot of the goodwill he built up dissipated in a matter of minutes, when the franchise forced him to play the “bad cop” role and thrust him to the forefront as the relocation threat messenger. That chickenshit MLB commissioner Rob Manfred of course was nowhere to be found. Kaval can’t be the rah-rah guy and make a statement like this. He’s since kind of walked it back, focusing the conversation on the City Council vote rather than relocation, but the damage might be done. And perhaps Cleveland-born, nasaly-voiced Stanford grad isn’t the best ambassador to Marshawn Lynch’s Oakland.

Enter Dave Stewart. Born and raised in Oakland, hero to his hometown A’s, a frequent presence on A’s broadcasts pre- and post-game shows, African-American, and a legend still remembered for his lifesaving work during the 1989 Earthquake. He can talk about his experience as a son of an Oakland longshoreman, growing up in the shadow of the Coliseum, and becoming a World Series MVP for the A’s. He would resonate with people.

However, I’m not talking about using him as a transparent PR prop just to dance for the media. Remember how he offered to buy the city’s share of the Coliseum land for $115 million? I say to John Fisher, you don’t have to sell the team. But how about selling a stake at a sweet deal to a man that really is Rooted in Oakland? Send a message to the city and to the people, that you really mean this.

That might be an out of the box, crazy idea, but I don’t think John Fisher, a man who has kept the Gap in San Francisco despite it’s high costs, and one whose name is seemingly every bay area museum and dozens of bay area charities, wants to own a team out of the market. Stew obviously wants in on the baseball+real estate business. I can’t think of a better match.

It’s clear the people need to be inspired, not just talked at. Stew seems like the right man for the job, with a one-of-a-kind story, and the personal interests and resources to sink his teeth into this. While he’s doing that, Kaval can wonk away the details with CEQA or whatever.

The Oakland City Council needs to act, and it looks like they are planning to do so

I’m not saying that the Council actually wants the team to move, but they seem to be very afraid of actually voting on the proposal to have them stay. In general it’s very easy to dodge, and it’s even easier to blame. If the city never voted, and the A’s moved, they could easily say the A’s made the decision to leave. Blame the team, and wash their hands of the matter.

It would be far more inspiring to see the Council working to negotiate the deal in good faith, and getting the damn thing to a vote. The City Council would then have taken a position on it and could take whatever credit or blame would come their way. If they truly believe it’s a bad deal for the city, and it can’t be negotiated any further, then they should have the courage to publicly reject it with a vote, on the record.

To that end, I do have some hope. While the initial responsive tweets were of the duck-and-dodge variety, three Councilwomen have penned a response that invites the A’s to negotiate in good faith and not to seek relocation while such negotiations are ongoing. They also seem to indicate that they will bring the term sheet to a vote on July 20th. That is progress. However, they are still pushing the Coliseum site to some extent, and I think any good faith negotiation would focus on the deal at hand and not try to push something they know is a non-starter. The A’s didn’t go to the legislature for approval on the project, just to build at the Coliseum.

The current City Council has a chance to direct the future of Oakland in a way that few of their predecessors had. The residents of Oakland and the greater Bay Area deserve to have some attention paid to this and a decision taken, one way or the other. Given yesterday’s response from the Council, it looks like there is at least a willingness to deal. The ball looks like it’s in the A’s court to take the olive branch.

Do it for the fans, the city and the community

I’m not just going to harp on the City Council. As fans, it’s unfair that we have to deal with this all the time from the team that we love. While I understand the desire to not sit on this for two years without a vote, the league could have come out with a statement about the Coliseum site being non-viable, without dropping the other hammer of relocation.

I hope that the A’s will receive the Council’s responses in good faith and drop the relocation nonsense to get a deal done. I have to think that they will given that they are so far deep into this process, but a strong statement from the A’s dropping the relocation talk would go a long way to easing those fears. Even a tweet from the A’s twitter that said simply “Rooted In Oakland” would likely quell some fears for the moment.

The A’s are coming off three straight playoff appearances and a core of players that’s entering their prime. They are playing great baseball and are in the mix for the league’s best record. After a year of covid, we can finally go to games again. To have that relocation talk drop in the midst of finally getting to return to our home for the summer to watch our beloved A’s, that stings.

My appeal is to John Fisher, a Bay Area guy through and through, who ultimately calls the shots. I’ve lambasted him in the past with regards to management of the A’s, and I don’t know if he’ll care, but someone needs to tell him that the A’s are important and valued. He’s ultimately the steward of their destiny.

Despite the sometimes (all the time?) confounding political machinations of the city, the East Bay is a cradle of baseball that birthed so many major leaguers, including Hall of Famers and All-Time greats. From Frank Robinson to Joe Morgan to Willie Stargell, to kids that grew up going to A’s games like Rickey Henderson, CC Sabathia, Dontrelle Willis, Bip Roberts, Dave Stewart, Jimmy Rollins and many others. And not just ballplayers, but athletes of all sports and other famous alumni like MC Hammer and Tom Hanks have remarked how having big league sports in Oakland inspired them to reach higher. Hell, Marshawn Lynch went to a city meeting to personally make this appeal.

That’s without even mentioning the four World Series titles, multiple best-selling books and a hit movie, and pop culture references galore. The only team that ever put “OAKLAND” on their jerseys matters. Its fans matter, and its legacy matters to the people, history and community in Oakland.

It’s worth fighting through the bureaucratic morass one last time to get this to the finish line. The fans don’t deserve to be collateral damage in a war between self-interested parties. Mr. Fisher, do you want your legacy to be the guy that moved the A’s out of the Bay Area, or the guy that saved the A’s for your home?