By Jeff Kallman
From your ancient history: John McGraw, managing the New York Giants, couldn’t help observing that debt-addled owner Philadelphia Athletics owner Ben Shibe had a white elephant on his hands entering the 1902 season: Shibe defiantly placed a climbing white elephant on the left breast of his team’s uniforms.
Shibe initially fell into debt when he raided the National League for talent. McGraw was distinctly unamused, but his snarky observation was his way of saying Shibe’s spending would tank the Athletics. Well, now. The 1902 A’s, managed by Connie Mack, went 83-53-1 in a 137-game season and won the American League’s second pennant by five games.
What a difference 121 years makes. Today, the descendant Oakland Athletics are the worst team in the Show. As of Tuesday morning, they had a whopping 11-45 won-lost record. It might have been 10-45, except that the A’s played well over their heads on Memorial Day and beat the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves, 7-2. Before that, they had won exactly three of their previous 23 games.
Arise, 1962 Mets. You may well have four months left as the holders of modern baseball’s losing-est season. This year’s A’s may well finish with more than 120 losses. If McGraw thought Shibe’s spending spree would send the 1902 A’s into the tank, tanking doesn’t begin to describe the headless non-investment today’s A’s owner, John Fisher, performs almost headless.
Fisher has been the principal A’s owner since 2005. He has gone from keeping the A’s minimally competitive (2012-14) to maximally moribund (2015-17) to minimally competitive (2018-20) and back to where moribund doesn’t begin to describe it. The too-long-seedy Oakland Coliseum (oops—RingCentral Coliseum) contains small crowds of stubborn A’s fans almost more interested in protesting Fisher’s ten-thumbed ownership than in what the A’s do or don’t do on the field.
What Fisher seeks off the field, of course, is something else entirely. He failed to strong-arm Oakland and its host county into all but handing him a delicious new real- estate prize, with a ballpark included almost coincidentally. Now Fisher now wants to move the A’s to Las Vegas.
With the apparent blessing of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, Fisher hopes to strong-arm Las Vegas and its host state Nevada into paying almost half or better — for a white elephant. He should be denied. Emphatically.
He has a fan base in Oakland. They simply got fed up with his deconstruction and his shenanigans. The fan bases of baseball’s other tankers have nothing on A’s fans for spiritual exhaustion. But it’s probably a waste of ink to suggest the owners—who may yet meet in June to vote on whether to let the A’s leave Oakland—should think, too, of forcing Fisher to sell the team.
He bought the A’s for $180 million in 2005. They’re worth a reported $1.18 billion today—which, as Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein has written, is six parts Fisher’s refusal to spend on RingCentral and half a dozen parts his refusal to spend on his team or its brains. (This year, the A’s team payroll is only $17 million higher than Aaron Judge’s 2023 salary.)
Jobs? Well. The Fisher people hope they’ve convinced Nevada lawmakers and Gov. Joseph Lombardo that it’ll mean 8,010 jobs a year. A baseball team’s full time staff actually isn’t a third of that. Full-time staff other than specific sports workers are usually no higher than two hundred, as LVSportsBiz.com reminds us. The “annual” staff will be mostly part time and low wage.
That would be in a not-unattractive, proposed 30,000 seat, partly-retractable roof ballpark that would stand where the Tropicana Hotel & Casino now stands . . . but without much in the way of parking. You guessed it. The A’s and their supporters among Nevada’s grand high muckety-mucks are banking on tourists walking down The Strip to provide most of the A’s audience.
Never mind that Las Vegas (whose non-tourist population is almost half that of the Bronx alone) has baseball in its heart, too. The Las Vegas Aviators, who just so happen to be the A’s Triple-A farm, have been the Pacific Coast League’s top draw for most of their life as the Aviators and in their spanking still-new, privately owned (by the Howard Hughes Corporation) Las Vegas Ballpark.
The Aviators aren’t exactly PCL terrorists, but compared to their Show parent they might as well be the Los Angeles Dodgers. Las Vegas may have baseball in its heart, but Las Vegas may also think to itself: We already have a Triple-A team. Do we need a second one in town, even if it’s the pig lipsticked as a major league team?
Can Nevada’s political class have seen the A’s play lately? Here’s a hint: The Original Mets, formed of the National League’s flotsam and jetsam, sucked . . . with style. They were baseball’s greatest traveling comedy troupe. This year’s A’s are as funny as a drowning man begging for an anchor.
Does Nevada know how these A’s may distort this year’s postseason picture even further than Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s array already distorts championship? As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has observed, they could cost the powerhouse American League East two of three wild card entrants. The AL West Astros and Mariners could claim the other two cards by nailing 13-0 season records against the A’s. At 6-0 and 7-0 against them now, respectively, they’re well on the way.
Fair disclosure: I’ve lived in Las Vegas since 2007. Would I love to see a major-league baseball team here? Ask me if I love playing a Gibson guitar. The key, however, is that I’d like to see a real major-league team, paying their own way into town. Nevada should, too.
Owners worth billions have no bloody business strong-arming the public into paying their way. Even those owners who don’t own white elephants of their own breeding.
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born.