How Moneyball and Stadium Politics Killed Opening Day

POLITICO

By James Wallenstein

OAKLAND, Calif. — Civilization may be sinking and glaciers melting, but springtime elsewhere still holds promise: trees leafing, wrens warbling, baseball bats cracking and catchers’ mitts popping. Just not in this city. Here most leaves don’t fall, and the wrens don’t leave. And the Athletics promise nothing.

When I moved to the East Bay four years ago, I started going to my share of Oakland A’s games. But I don’t think I’ll be going to many more. Not because their players aren’t likable (most are), nor because they don’t sometimes win (they do), nor because my eyes haven’t adjusted to the brightness of their colors, green as if for dollars and gold as if for bullion. The color combination may be just a coincidence, but if it is, then it is almost too fitting.

The A’s are most familiar to those who don’t follow baseball as the subjects of Moneyball, the book and film that tell the story of their general manager’s success in the early 2000s building an outperforming roster on the cheap by adopting the then-unorthodox statistical-analytical principles of player evaluation known as sabermetrics. Moneyball is meant as a celebration of ingenuity, of an underdog outsmarting big dogs; the book’s subtitle is The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. But the story is only half true to begin with, and once you start to think about it, that half doesn’t even seem so sweet. It’s the story of an owner getting bargains not at other owners’ expense but at his own players’. In any case, the rest of the league quickly caught on to sabermetrics. Whatever advantage its use once gave the A’s, who’ve posted a winning record in just under half of the last 15 seasons and won one of seven playoff series, is long gone.

And yet, despite their being sold more than 15 years ago to a clothing retail heir on the Forbes 400 list, the A’s are still playing a version of Moneyball. If the strategy in the earlier version was to field a team whose opportunism reflected the organization’s, in the current version it is to exploit loopholes in the league’s financial system in pursuit of a profitable mediocrity. In fact, for the A’s to be truly mediocre this year would be for them to overachieve. Where’s the excitement in opening day of a season that’s over before it begins?

Of course, I’m not the only fan who feels this way, here or in other baseball cities where a sandbagging frugality reigns. And would fandom really be sweeter on the other side of the tracks, if, for example, I were to go back to the team I grew up with, the New York Mets, whose new owner has signed the better part of a new roster, including three former A’s, at seven times the A’s payroll? It’d be hard to put your heart into a team like this, which will be interesting only if it loses. The mercenary character of the league shows through at both ends of the payroll spectrum — and also in its franchises’ connections to the cities they represent. Though the value of professional sports teams has soared in the last decades (the A’s’ estimated worth is more than seven times higher than the 2005 purchase price), owners citing long-debunked projections of municipal economic benefits have exacted $4.3 billion in the last 20 years from the public in subsidies for new stadium construction. The national mood is sour enough that even Congress, the laggingest indicator of all, has taken notice.

In late February, three members of Congress (including Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), whose Bay Area district extends south from San Francisco, introduced a bill that would eliminate the tax-free status for municipal bonds used to finance stadium deals. The lawmakers have focused their ire on Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders football team, whose front office stands accused of sexual harassment. But they clearly have the wider universe of ownership in mind.

Since 1998, major league franchise owners in bigger markets have redistributed nearly half their ticket and television revenues to franchises in smaller markets on the understanding that the small-market owners will put this money back into their teams to make them competitive. Because they share the Bay Area with the Giants, whose commercial territory is larger, the A’s have been able for most of the years of this revenue-sharing program to attain a small-market designation and so to receive subsidies. Given the size and wealth of the Bay Area, the proximity of the A’s stadium to downtown San Francisco, and the at least $100 million a season the A’s rake in from selling TV broadcast rights, we may surmise that other team owners were not entirely pleased with this arrangement, worth roundabout $40 million a year to the A’s. In the collective bargaining agreement of 2016, the payments were set to be phased out, though not before the A’s were named in an MLB Players Association grievance for failing as required to put this money back into their payroll.

The grievance, which is ongoing, has obvious merit. Players are bound to the team that has drafted or acquired the rights to them for the first six years of their career. The first few in this “service period” are typically spent in the minor leagues, where salaries are notoriously low; a player who makes it to the majors gets a raise and becomes eligible for arbitration in his third year. But it’s at the end of this period, when the player becomes a free agent, that, depending on his performance, owners’ coffers may open to him. Some owners’ coffers, that is.

The A’s regularly decline to re-sign valuable players at the end of their service period, trading them beforehand, if possible, for prospects who are early in their pay cycle and who may give them a few seasons at a big discount to their future value in the open market. Since every team is on the lookout for the specialized talents of the next Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg — the underappreciated veterans who figured in the 2002 Moneyball season — the A’s strategy is to try to exploit the lag in the system between performance and financial compensation. To follow the A’s is to watch players develop to the point at which they are too good to keep: The more promising the player, the slimmer the chance he’ll spend his prime in Oakland.

Before last season, the A’s had one of the league’s best closing pitchers and one of its best shortstops, the closer a charismatic Aussie, the shortstop a local product who had grown up in the East Bay and gone to UC Berkeley. When the A’s let the closer go, it was said that they were saving up to sign the shortstop. They let the shortstop go, too. Both excelled for their new teams, the closer leading the league in saves, the shortstop shifting to second base and hitting 45 home runs and placing third in MVP voting. A team doesn’t have to win to attract fans, but they do have to try to win. In his decision granting major league baseball its notorious antitrust exemption, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “personal effort, not related to production, is not a subject of commerce.” The A’s management’s effort is plainly commercial. They are just trying to make money.

There’s no indication that the new labor agreement will get the A’s to change their colors. On the contrary, it phases back in the A’s small-market revenue share at 25 percent a year for four years — on the condition that they receive a commitment for a new stadium. And while it restores this revenue, the new agreement set no payroll minimum. As soon as a deal was reached, the A’s set about reducing their payroll further, trading their best pitcher and two best position players, the first and third basemen — the two Matts, Olson and Chapman, to whom the team’s identity was most closely bound — for sundry prospects. Oakland, the city, was once known as the place with no there there. With its policy of getting rid of its every memorable player, something similar may be said of the A’s. As for the new prospects, some will sink and others rise. But where will their rise take them except elsewhere? The A’s say that they’re rebuilding. What are they rebuilding for besides the next teardown?

The A’s have long attributed their low home attendance figures to the perceived deficiencies of the Oakland Coliseum, a 1960s-era concrete cavern built to accommodate Sunday football crowds 60,000 strong. Contemporary baseball parks typically have 35,000 seats and aspire to an experience of spectatorial “intimacy.” The Coliseum is in the city’s gritty light-industrial zone. A fetid canal and paved wetland beneath the walkway from the BART train to the stadium cry out for restoration. So does the stadium itself. Alameda County sold its half share of the complex to the A’s in 2019 — the state is reportedly investigating whether the county properly reclassified the land and advertised the sale — to pay off debt it had incurred from a stadium expansion in the 1990s. An element of this expansion was the addition of a third deck behind the outfield. The deck blocks a view of the Oakland hills, and simply removing it would be a significant improvement.

Instead of renovating the old grounds, the A’s would like to move to a new site where they can sell tickets at theater rather than cinema prices. Threatening despite their “Rooted in Oakland” marketing slogan to leave town if they don’t get it, they are pressuring the city of Oakland — its elected officials on their heels after losing the Warriors and the Raiders — to grant them 55 acres at the city port on the Inner Harbor of the Oakland-Alameda Estuary to build not only a $1-billion waterfront stadium but, for another $11 billion, a whole neighborhood besides: 3,000 housing units, 1.5 million square feet of offices, 270,000 square feet of retail space, a 3,500-capacity performance venue, a 400-room hotel and 8,900 parking spaces.

The recent exposure of the vulnerability of global supply chains and of the insufficiency of West Coast port capacity (not to mention the post-Covid collapse of demand for office space) would seem to make this site an inauspicious choice. In March, a state committee, noting the A’s failure to demonstrate that their proposed development wouldn’t be an obstacle to the work of the port, recommended that the site be used only for maritime activities. But this committee has only advisory standing, and with a number of hurdles in the approval process for the project already cleared and the mayor and other state and local officials apparently on board, its recommendation may well be overridden.

The A’s would privately finance building construction, though they do call for the city to establish designated financing districts which commit tax revenue from businesses in other districts to the building and improvement of infrastructure at the port. The costs of insulating port and game day traffic from each other by building and reinforcing roads, overpasses, pedestrian and bike paths, railroad tracks and crossings, sewers, and lots for shipping containers, estimated in the several hundred millions of dollars, would fall on the city. The extent of the city’s commitment has been a sticking point, though $279.5 million allocated by the state on the quiet to the general fund of the Port of Oakland for unspecified infrastructure projects days before a crucial vote last summer narrowed the gap.

How is it that the A’s can come up with $12 billion to spend on Howard Terminal but not the paltry millions to keep any of their established players? Perhaps it’s a matter of percentages: Though it accounts for only 8.3 percent of the project’s proposed budget, the stadium is the civic facade of a predominantly private commercial real estate venture. A downtown waterfront real estate development on free land in a boomtown — and downtown Oakland is booming — is a surer thing than any ballplayer can ever be. Last season the two Matts together were worth nearly 10 wins above replacement. The A’s back office has surely worked out to the last dollar the value of those 10 wins, and the organization has chosen the replacements.

The plan’s appeal is clear. Along with rain, housing is the region’s direst need. And baseball on the Oakland waterfront would be a many-splendored thing. But the imagined splendor dims at the thought of corners cut and loopholes exploited when the principles of Moneyball are applied to a large construction project in a disaster-prone area. The demoralized fan can change the channel, but approval of the A’s ownership’s bid for a prime slice of Oakland would make it hard to get out of their way.