Fans couldn't save the Oakland A's

Manfred could say the A’s have no fans in Oakland. Fisher could bemoan that if they did, the team would stay. It wouldn’t matter that those things are false.

I worry sometimes that writing about fans is amateurish. There’s no news to be broken by quoting a member of the baseball hoi polloi. For some reason, we put more stock in the words of people who stand to profit from this whole enterprise than we do the opinions of those willing to part with their money just to participate. In sports, the customer is right only about the fact that this is something worth paying for; when they won’t, they cease to be worth listening to. In fact, they apparently cease to exist.

The Oakland Athletics alienated their fans over the course of a years-long process of trying to pry public funding from either Oakland or anywhere else. They alienated fans with their lack of commitment, their lack of investment and, finally, with their unabashed willfulness in service of abandoning them altogether. And when the decrepit ballpark, embarrassing on-field product, incongruous ticket price hikes and public pursuit of a new home succeeded in pushing more and more fans to stay home, their absence was used against them.

“Their attendance has never been outstanding, let’s put it that way,” commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this week at a meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors in New York.

News had come out days before that the A’s signed a binding agreement to purchase land in Las Vegas for a new ballpark. In response, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao released a statement saying the city would cease negotiations with the team to find a suitable site in Oakland. Although the details are surprisingly murky — like, what happens between when the lease at the Coliseum expires and when the new stadium is completed — the implication is clear: The A’s are not long for Oakland.

That particular comment by Manfred nagged at me throughout the week. It is hardly the crux of the issue — if Oakland had offered owner John Fisher some municipal-crippling amount of public money to subsidize a new stadium, I doubt attendance would’ve come into play at all. But it’s just so callous. Manfred also claimed he feels “sorry for the fans in Oakland,” yet there he was thumbing his nose at their plight and practically blaming them for the team’s failure in the East Bay.

Later, Manfred touted the future competitive version of the Vegas A’s, saying, “You got really smart baseball operations people. You got owners that want to win.”

If that were true, it would mean the issue at present is the market.

A year ago, I asked fans of four bad MLB teams to tell me why they do or do not still attend games. It was not simply to capture their interest or lack thereof; rather, I wanted to know how fans believe they are best able to communicate with the team and its owner. Is disappointment better expressed through presence or absence? Consumers are told to vote with their dollars, but baseball teams don’t go out of business if they don’t merit sufficient local support. And crucially, there’s no local competition to spend on instead.

At the time I wrote, “The A’s fans I heard from seemed particularly disillusioned and felt particularly unheard.”

Fundamentally, they didn’t think it was possible to send a message to Fisher because they didn’t believe he cared what the fans felt. Already, they could see the writing on the wall about the A’s relocating, and they understood that meant they could either buy tickets to enrich an owner who intended to take the team away from them or stay home and let their absence be used as an argument for doing so.

This week, I followed up with some of the fans from that story to see how the Las Vegas development affected their calculation about attending games and even rooting for what’s left of the A’s in Oakland. There’s ample time to say goodbye, should they want that.

And yet: “I can see maybe going to a game if there's some sort of special grassroots event, but I personally have plenty of memories that aren't going to be topped this year,” 36-year-old Andrew Patrick wrote in an email. He listed some of the iconic on-field moments he has witnessed over the course of his fandom, as well as the ways the A’s played a formative role in finding community and building relationships.

“Those memories will still be there. Going to a random game in July isn't going to change that,” he wrote. “If anything, it's going to leave me bitter that this is the end, like going to get coffee with a partner who you know has already broken up with you.”

“I'll be even less inclined to go to games than I was already, and I was pretty disinclined already considering the increased ticket prices and the historically bad team they're trotting out there,” 40-year-old Danny Willis wrote.

And they have no interest in letting the A’s linger in Oakland while the stadium in Vegas is built, with an expectation that it won’t be ready until the 2027 season.

“Good riddance,” wrote John Baker, an A’s fan living in Brooklyn. Last year, he said he’d consider going back for a chance to say goodbye if the team finally announced a move. Now, though, he’s not even sure he wants to see the team when it comes through New York. “I can't really imagine Fisher will spend a penny more than he needs to until that stadium is built, so my best guess is they'll be the zombie A's with less than 2,000 fans in attendance most nights.”

“I imagine it's only going to get more toxic the next few years,” Patrick wrote. “A's fans feel jerked around, deceived, and betrayed.”

Which is why they say it’ll be difficult if not impossible to remain fans from afar.

This doesn’t matter, of course. In a flailing testament to the futility of fan demonstrations, since before the Vegas news was reported, a group in Oakland had been planning a “reverse boycott” for later this season. The hope was that a full ballpark would convince Fisher to do what empty seats had not: Give Oakland a team worth rooting for. That wouldn’t or won’t matter, either.

Manfred could say the A’s have no fans at all in Oakland. Fisher could bemoan that if only they did, then the team would stay. And it wouldn’t matter that those things are demonstrably false.

There’s righteousness but no satisfaction to be found in pointing out the hypocrisy or fallacy of powerful people. Unless you vote against them — and too often, even if you do — it does nothing to dull their power. And so it can seem naïve to even notice what the fans think.

The A’s are leaving Oakland, fans’ feelings be damned. But don’t let anyone tell you that the fans bailed first.