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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Glow of baseball’s All-Star Game can’t obscure Athletics’ departure

Athletics fans in Oakland have shown their displeasure with team ownership this year, protesting a planned relocation to Las Vegas.

By Kurt Streeter

Major League Baseball wants you to believe in its fairy tale. It wants you to see the talented players at Tuesday’s All-Star Game — Shohei Ohtani, Bo Bichette, Ronald Acuña Jr. — and be mesmerized into forgetting.

Among the many talents on parade will be a first-time selection: Oakland Athletics outfielder Brent Rooker, the team’s lone representative. Maybe, during an at-bat or a lull in play, some announcer will make mention of the Athletics’ all-but-sealed future relocation to Las Vegas, and then turn back to the wishful marketing and competitive fireworks of the game.

None of it will obscure the pain being wreaked upon baseball by the franchise’s prospective move, a pox on the sport that should not be brushed aside for the convenience of a midseason celebration of its best players.

How fitting that the All-Star festivities are in Seattle this week. Much of the citizenry in this tech-fueled port city still feels the sting of betrayal after a hard battle for a new arena was used as a pretext to transport the NBA’s SuperSonics in 2008 to Oklahoma City.

The A’s have followed a similar blueprint. The team’s skinflint owner, John Fisher, heir to the Gap clothing empire, who has an estimated net worth of more than $2 billion, claimed to be serious about building a new stadium that would replace the monolith where the A’s have played since 1968.

Fisher set his sights in 2018 on a sprawling expanse of waterfront beside a bustling port. He added plans to build a warren of residential units and entertainment venues next to the ballpark — making the development one of the biggest in California history.

Negotiations with the city of Oakland were as difficult as one would expect for such a complicated project, but they continued as Fisher pressed the financially struggling city to come up with at least $320 million in public subsidies. A deal seemed close, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. In April, the A’s stopped the dialogue and announced an agreement to build a new stadium in Las Vegas that could be ready by 2027.

No wonder there are some A’s fans who have latched onto a soliloquy delivered by Rebecca Welton, the owner of AFC Richmond, the plucky fictional British soccer team at the center of the Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso.”

“Just stop it! I mean, how much more money do you really need?” Welton barked at her fellow team owners as they considered leaving their tradition-laden league for a lavish new soccer association.

“Just because we own these teams doesn’t mean they belong to us,” she continued.

In the ethereal, almost mystical way that sports bind teams with their communities, fans can claim a hold on their beloved franchises equal to those of team owners.

In this way, the A’s are Oakland’s team as much as Fisher’s.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred denigrated the nearly 30,000 A’s fans who showed up at the Coliseum for a recent game to protest the move and urge Fisher to sell.

“It is great to see what is — this year — almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night,” Manfred said.

In a passive-aggressive manner, the commissioner was excoriating Oakland fans for the recent years in which they responded to Fisher’s selling off stars for spare parts by turning the once raucous Coliseum into a mostly empty morgue.

Did the commissioner forget that for decades, Oakland fans were considered among baseball’s best? Does he somehow not remember that the team’s devotees stood fervently behind their franchise whenever ownership, through all its iterations, put a viable team on the field?

Success has come less often in the 2000s — though the A’s have made the playoffs 11 times in this century. Taking a longer view, stretching back to 1970, Oakland marched to the World Series six times and won it on four occasions. That’s more World Series titles in the same stretch than the Los Angeles Dodgers. More than the Chicago Cubs. More than Atlanta. As many as the Boston Red Sox.

If any of those teams had announced they were leaving for Las Vegas in the weeks before the All-Star Game, the midsummer classic, as it is known, would be played under the darkest Seattle clouds.

The A’s of the past perched at the vanguard of the game. Think of the 1970s teams. Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Vida Blue. Their white pants and white shoes and mustachioed brashness brought a new flavor to a staid game. The way they ended up challenging their team owner, Charlie O. Finley, helped spark a drive toward player empowerment.

Think of the equally cocksure teams of the 1980s and early ’90s and how they perfectly captured baseball in that period. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire helped usher in the age of the long home run — while also, it must be remembered, relying on the crutch of steroids that inflated the game in that era.

Remember the early 2000s? Moneyball. Barry Zito. Tim Hudson. Jason Giambi. The drive to quantify every part of the game. Winning (for the A’s, on the cheap) through analytics has now been adopted in virtually every professional sport.

All of these teams left a permanent mark. All of them played before crowds that turned the old Coliseum into a carnival of madhouse fun.

Now the city and many of the team’s longtime fans feel betrayed. And rightly so. The billionaire owner announced in a pique that his team would leave Oakland for the casino life and the Nevada dust. Baseball’s commissioner so heartily backed the move that he denigrated A’s fans and said he would waive the league’s relocation fee.

Go ahead and watch the All-Star Game. Try to enjoy it. Just don’t get so caught up in the fairy tale that you forget the scar that baseball has wreaked upon itself.

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