Inside the meetings that officially moved the A's out of Oakland (2024)

  • Inside the meetings that officially moved the A's out of Oakland (1)

    Tim Keown, ESPN Senior WriterApr 10, 2024, 07:00 AM ET


    • Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
    • Columnist for
    • Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)

THIS WAS John Fisher's moment. It was a cold and rainy morning at Sutter Health Park in West Sacramento, with the microphone glitching whenever Kings owner Vivek Ranadive tried to heap praise upon the Oakland Athletics owner, but this was the place -- the single, solitary place in the entire known universe -- where people gathered to willingly extol the virtues of Fisher.

They cheered lustily, and perhaps naively, for this singularly uncharismatic billionaire. He owns something they believe they want and now -- temporarily -- have. The moment was the announcement that his historically bad baseball team, a team he systematically dismantled and stripped for parts to maximize profits, will play in a minor league ballpark in their neighborhood starting next season. For how long? Two years, three -- whatever works. For how much? Well, for nothing, as it turns out.

On this morning, the first Thursday of April, none of it mattered. They cheered because they are employed by him, or might be soon, or by an entity that might profit from what this man owns. They stood and cheered because they gave this man whatever he wanted, despite knowing people in Oakland will lose their jobs and fans in Oakland will lose their team. They stood and cheered despite the piles upon piles of evidence that any affiliation with this man and his baseball franchise is likely to end in frustration and anger.

Ranadive, the dealmaker and owner of the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, talked about the vision of his "great friend." The mayor of West Sacramento, Martha Guerrero, addressed Fisher directly: "John, it's hard work running a team." Barry Broome, the president and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council (GSEC), touted Sacramento's civic bona fides and suggested when the time comes for Major League Baseball to consider expansion, they just might have a champion for their city working on the inside. Later, drunk on the zeal of the moment, Broome said, "I think the Fishers are thrilled with the reception they're getting today."

He had to take it on faith. The man himself spoke for roughly 140 seconds. He stumbled through the perfunctories before waving his arm behind him, toward the minor league ballpark and each of its 10,000 seats, and ruminated on how exciting it will be to watch "Athletics players or Aaron Judge" hit homers in "the most intimate ballpark in the big leagues."

His unwillingness, or inability, to name one of his own players is perhaps understandable. This is a man who, for the past year, has created such a toxic environment in Oakland that he can't attend even a single one of his team's games. That most basic act of attentiveness -- sitting in the stands -- is something he can't do, despite his operatives continually criticizing Oakland's fans for the same offense. It is perhaps the most joyless aspect of a joyless enterprise.

But here he was, about a week after thousands of fans in Oakland paid for parking in order to remain outside the stadium on Opening Day and yell at him to sell the team. He will bask in the glory of two or three rent-free seasons in Sacramento before he packs up for Las Vegas. It's the never-ending formula, one Fisher plays clumsily but somehow successfully: There's always a city overeager for big league recognition, willing to prostrate itself for the opportunity to stare into the void and believe it's the sun.

John Fisher: hero.

Who would have thought?

And when the brief ceremony was over, and the wind and the rain swept sideways under the concourse down the left-field line, the hero was gone. Vanished. He shook no hands and took no questions. He walked right past the catered croissants and jugs of coffee and disappeared into the gloom of the late morning, the first to leave his own party.

THE VIEWS FROM the waterfront offices of the A's in Oakland's Jack London Square are magnificent: ferries coming in and out, light shimmering off the Bay, San Francisco's skyline nearly close enough to reach out and touch (the site of the team's abandoned Howard Terminal project is just a slight lean to the north). In a conference room situated to maximize the view, representatives from the team and the city of Oakland met at 8:30 a.m. on April 2, precisely 49½ hours before the festivities in West Sacramento, to discuss a lease extension at the Oakland Coliseum and settle, once and for all, the team's fate in the city.

It was an upset of sorts that meetings with Oakland happened in the first place. After the A's pulled out of a $12 billion project to build a ballpark at Howard Terminal -- an undoable ballpark/retail/office deal the city was inching closer and closer to doing -- last April, the mayor's office sat back and waited to see if the team was interested in extending its lease. Spurned and exhausted by what it perceived as the disingenuousness of the A's negotiating stance, the city was in no mood to make the first overture.

By early February, with no movement from the A's, the city's representatives assumed the team had found somewhere else to play. The MLB scheduling deadline for 2025 loomed, and commissioner Rob Manfred had decreed only that the A's would play "somewhere in the West." A's president Dave Kaval floated possibilities with varying levels of feasibility: Oakland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, the A's Triple-A stadium in Las Vegas, Oracle Park in San Francisco.

The city went forward with leases for the Oakland Roots and Soul, the men's and women's professional soccer teams in the United Soccer League. And then, in mid-February, the team reached out to Oakland, in a move that echoed the clumsy "parallel paths" approach Kaval announced when the team pitted Las Vegas against Oakland.

"Approaching us halfway through February indicated to us it wasn't super serious," Oakland chief of staff Leigh Hanson said. "A normal negotiation would have started two months after they pulled out last April. So much trust had deteriorated, but we thought we'd give them the benefit of the doubt and realize their organization was going through a lot of transition. We felt it was our responsibility to the fans and the city to go forward and try to make it work on our terms."

By April 2, the city was on its fourth meeting with the A's, though little progress had been made. In this one, as was the case in each of the previous three, Kaval sat at the head of the table. Hanson sat to his left, directly across from A's chief of staff Miguel Duarte. Oakland councilmember Rebecca Kaplan sat to Hanson's left, with Alameda County supervisor David Haubert and Oakland policy chief Zach Goldman across from her.

Kaval spoke first, as had become his custom, and expressed surprise that the city's lease terms had been reported by ESPN two days before the meeting. Those terms, as outlined on sheets passed around the room on this morning, included a five-year lease with a team opt-out after three, a $97 million "extension fee" and an agreement for the A's to pay for the field conversion when the Roots and Soul begin playing in the Coliseum next year. The city also wanted the A's to help secure assurances from MLB that the city would receive a one-year window to solicit ownership groups for a future expansion franchise.

Taken collectively, it was a big ask. Broken down individually, the extension fee was clearly the biggest obstacle for the team. With the A's, money always is. Kaval said $97 million, payable whether the team stayed for five years or opted out at three, was a nonstarter and wondered how the city had come up with that number. He was told that Mayor Sheng Thao's team had done its research, and the number factored in the cost the team would incur by relocating twice in the next three to five years, the $67 million annually the team receives from NBC Sports for its television rights for being in the Bay Area -- a figure, the city says, that includes just $10 million in ad revenue, meaning NBC Sports subsidizes to the tune of $57 million per year -- and the sweetheart $1.5 million rent the team currently pays at the Coliseum.

"This is above market rate," Kaval said, and Hanson agreed. "It is," she said, "and your deal now is criminally below market." The city receives no parking revenue from the Coliseum, no cut of the food and beverage sales, only a small share of ticket revenue. The extension fee, Hanson emphasized, was not to be misconstrued as rent; it was simply the cost of staying in Oakland. "The goal," she said, "is not to make this the cheapest deal possible. The goal is to make this work for the city."

"Well," Kaval said. "This isn't going to work for us."

Hanson said she shrugged. "It's your responsibility to decide where you're going to play baseball," she said. "We pick up trash and we do cops and we care about economic development, but it's not our responsibility to house you."

This was perhaps the clearest sign yet that Oakland's patience had worn paper-thin, and that the team would have to agree to city-friendly terms or find another place to play. Although the current administration had been in office just 15 months, the cumulative weight of the past 20 years of uncertainty fell on its shoulders. The benefits of staying in Oakland were self-evident: no relocation costs, no need to uproot employees, that television contract available only in the nation's 10th-largest media market as ranked by Nielsen. And despite its many faults, some of them self-inflicted by the A's, the Coliseum remains a big league stadium.

Though the city didn't present financial terms until the fourth meeting, the basic parameters -- a five-year lease with the team opt-out -- were on the table. Sources say the A's, however, never laid out an offer sheet, never presented so much as a single piece of paper with demands or suggestions. At one point during the second meeting, in March, Kaval suggested the A's might be willing to accept "the Raiders' deal" -- two years and $17 million, the arrangement Raiders owner Mark Davis struck for the two lame-duck years in Oakland before he moved his team to Las Vegas.

"First of all," Hanson said. "Please don't call it the 'Raiders' deal' -- that brings back bad memories for everyone in this town. And second, that's not going to work."

The "Raiders' deal" was the only negotiation tactic Kaval employed, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. There was still some vigorous back and forth, though. Kaval took exception to the city's offer of a five-year lease, since the team believes its future Vegas ballpark -- start date unclear, financing undetermined -- on the 9-acre site of the yet-to-be demolished Tropicana Casino and Resort will be ready for the 2028 season, maybe even a year earlier.

Hanson said the city had worked its own numbers there, too, and those numbers indicated the A's will need five years, minimum, before the Vegas stadium is completed. Left unspoken, sources say, is that significant doubt remains whether the deal in Vegas will happen at all, and the five-year gambit was a hedge against ever having to negotiate with the A's again.

By the final meeting, Sacramento was already thick in the air. Kaval had made it known the team was in daily conversations with Ranadive and Sacramento, weekly discussions with Salt Lake City. There were those on the Oakland side of the table who believed Sacramento was a done deal before this meeting began -- and they weren't the only ones. Broome, the GSEC CEO, was in the room during the negotiations with Ranadive, and he told ESPN he knew Sacramento was getting the A's 10 days before the official announcement. (After the publication of this story, representatives from Sacramento and the A's denied that any deal was reached before the two sides completed negotiations on April 3.)

But after that fourth and final meeting with the A's, and after Kaval's visceral objection to the $97 million extension fee, the mayor's staff left the A's offices at 9:30 and reconvened at City Hall to review the details. The discussions continued throughout the day, and by early evening Hanson got Thao's approval to present a revised offer: a three-year lease with a $60 million extension fee.

At 7:15 that night, Hanson called Kaval with the new offer. She said he seemed interested -- although he would later say the two sides remained "far apart" even with the revision -- and he thanked her for the call. Within 24 hours, rumblings that Sacramento was the choice filtered out through the Twitter feed of "Carmichael Dave," a Sacramento radio personality well-connected to Ranadive and the Kings. The next morning, Kaval called Hanson at 7:36 a.m. to give her the news. Fisher followed, five minutes later, with a call to Thao. By 10 a.m., at about the same time the A's were on a flight heading for Detroit, Ranadive was standing at the podium, wind whipping his hair, thanking his good friend.

Afterward, Kaval said the decision to choose Sacramento over Oakland was based partly on the abbreviated time frame and partly on factors out of the A's control, such as the expansion team assurances Oakland sought from MLB. The team had to act quickly, he said, to ensure the league office could put together a 2025 schedule with something other than "TBD" next to the team's name. In effect, the A's created an untenable timeline for Oakland, and then used it against them.

At the end of the workday in Oakland, Hanson gathered the mayor's staff and headed across the street to Fluid 510, their favorite bar, to toast the end -- the end of the negotiations and the parallel paths and the false hope and the reading between the lines. They weren't celebrating the A's imminent departure so much as the conclusion of a seemingly endless, and endlessly frustrating, back and forth with a team they never felt they could trust.

FISHER CONTINUES TO fail forward: free rent in Sacramento, $380 million in public money in Las Vegas, no accountability in Oakland. He received unanimous approval from the other 29 owners to move to Vegas. MLB, at the behest of Manfred, waived the team's relocation fee because -- according to a league source -- it would be too burdensome for Fisher to pay. "So if we say there's a relocation fee of $2 billion," the source said. "Realistically, how are we going to get that?"

It's difficult to see the value Fisher brings to the other 29 teams. He seems to have benefited from a billionaire's version of the comfort of low expectations. His front office has fielded playoff teams -- cheap, brilliantly constructed playoff teams -- but those days are so distant they belong to a different era. His team's payroll is last in the league, but that doesn't come close to placing it in the proper context. The A's 2024 payroll of $60 million is 41% lower than the 29th-ranked team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a league where even the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers field teams with payrolls of more than $100 million. Since Fisher assumed sole ownership of the team in 2016, the team has had the lowest payroll in baseball three times and has never ranked higher than 24th.

The condemnation of Fisher has been widespread. Former Athletics pitcher and current Mets broadcaster Ron Darling said, on air, that he is "appalled" by Fisher's behavior over the past six months. Broadcasters from the Tigers and the Angels -- team employees -- have publicly condemned the abandonment of Oakland. Retired pitcher Trevor May, who played for the A's as recently as last season, appeared on the "Foul Territory" podcast and said, "Losing fans is one thing, but treating them this way sends a message to all fans."

There could be other options. Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob said he has a standing offer to purchase the A's and build a new ballpark on the Coliseum site, the same offer he made when then-commissioner Bud Selig approved the sale of the team to his old fraternity buddy Lew Wolff -- and Fisher -- in 2005. "And what team does Lacob own?" the league source asked rhetorically, since the answer is a team that left Oakland for San Francisco.

Meanwhile Kaval, ever the optimist, has touted the idea that Vegas will cure all ills, that the A's will abandon their Moneyball ways and spend like gamblers on tilt when the Vegas money rolls in. Even if that is true -- and history provides no indication that it will be -- the A's face three seasons of further belt-tightening before then. In an all-hands Zoom meeting before the official Sacramento announcement, Kaval informed Oakland staff that there would be significant layoffs at the end of the season. Much of the work done by specific departments -- marketing, ticket sales, public relations -- will be done by employees of the Kings and River Cats.

The city, which has taken so much of the blame, now will find its citizens jobless. And while the A's have sought a new home for the past 20 years, only the past eight have been centered on Oakland. Of those eight, two were spent on a doomed-before-it-started downtown site at Laney Community College, and two of the Howard Terminal years were slowed by a pandemic. Even then, the city was within $97 million -- the original extension fee was a history-rhymes clapback -- of providing Fisher with everything he sought for his $12 billion Howard Terminal mini-city.

None of that mattered within the owners' fraternity, where patience eroded and Oakland, an easy target of scorn, became nothing more than a problem to be solved. "After 15 years of this, owners are on Rob," the league source said. "They want to know, 'What's happening in Oakland? Let's go, it's time to s--- or get off the pot.'"

IN WEST SACRAMENTO, there are logistical questions that remain outstanding. The physics of the Triple-A River Cats, a Giants affiliate, and the big league A's sharing a ballpark have yet to be determined. Significant improvements to Sutter Health Park are necessary to comply with the collective bargaining agreement and receive the approval of the Major League Players Association. Lights will need to be upgraded, bullpens revamped and a second batting cage constructed. The home clubhouse is currently beyond the left-field wall, an arrangement that seems less than optimal.

As the rain fell and the wind blew last Thursday, though, unchecked exuberance ruled the day. Broome said, "The only thing I asked of the Fishers is when they win the World Series in the next three years, they put that parade right in the middle of our town."

He is speaking about the A's, a husk of a team. Winning isn't even a talking point, let alone a goal. Just a few years ago, the front office assembled a vibrant, young core -- Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Sean Murphy -- that could have contended for years if contending mattered. What remains is bound together by baling wire and twine and revenue sharing.

Broome is undeterred. "All we need is a 19-year-old kid named Vida Blue, a 20-year-old guy named Reggie Jackson," he said. "We just need three, four, five guys. We need to look in the Dominican Republic for a shortstop, for Omar Vizquel." (Vizquel is Venezuelan.)

In Sacramento, it all feels fresh and new, the possibilities endless. Ranadive, the man who saved the Kings from a future in Seattle in 2013, stood in front of the smiling crowd and said Sacramento is in "pole position" for a future expansion team. He said it will no longer play "second fiddle" to anyone, even though second fiddle is precisely what they will be if Fisher succeeds in his plan to squat for two or three years before moving to Las Vegas. The A's aren't even putting "Sacramento" in their name, opting for the location-free "A's" or "Athletics," as if attaching themselves to Sacramento might imply something permanent, or real.

What's in it for Ranadive? An MLB source insisted Ranadive and Sacramento were promised nothing more than a temporary visit from the A's. "We don't even have an expansion process in place," the source said. "The owners have to vote to explore expansion first, and then put a committee together. There are no guarantees."

Sources close to the negotiations in both Oakland and Sacramento believe Ranadive is making a calculation that Las Vegas is never going to happen. "Vivek is definitely bright," one source who requested anonymity said. "He made an assessment: Vegas will eventually fall apart and wherever the team is at that moment is where it will stay. He's not the only one who believes that."

Wherever the A's play in 2028, the team appears eager in 2024 to make amends with a fan base it has pushed away in recent years. After walking away from Oakland and choosing nine acres in a Vegas parking lot, the A's seem to believe fans will embrace the nostalgia of the past 56 years and bid a fond farewell.

"We think there are a lot of people who are excited to come out and see a final game at the Coliseum," Kaval said. "I'm hopeful that can be a positive experience, and we're going to do everything within our control to make it positive. New memories can be made, and we have a whole season to do that."

Kaval is standing a few feet from the podium at Sutter Health Park, far enough under the overhang to be free of the rain. He is talking fast, his eyes big, the words a torrent of spin and hope and his own unique brand of untethered optimism. He is speaking for a fan base that, rightly or wrongly, loathes both him and Fisher, to the point where it stays away from the ballpark or attends games just to protest their very existence. And now he is standing in the concourse of the team's temporary future home, a nice minor league ballpark near the Sacramento River with views of the Tower Bridge and the city beyond, a 15-minute walk from the Kings' state-of-the-art arena, ready to cleanse the past.

"I know people are receptive," Kaval said. "I think it can be done."

There will be promotions. Cheap seats. Alumni events. Nods to past glory. Family fun. Seventy-four home games remain on the schedule. Come on out, Kaval says, and help the A's send the old gray lady off with a bang. "It's baseball," he says, eyes widening, "and baseball is all about having fun."

Inside the meetings that officially moved the A's out of Oakland (2024)


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