Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History" -- Part I

The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History is an important part of the Athletics historical cannon; however, it is certainly not a beach book. Its length of 352 pages and academic writing style slow the casual reader down. In short, you will conk out a few pages in each night when reading before bed – making its completion a bit of an accomplishment.

One of the striking aspects of the book is that it makes the argument that the Kansas City/Arthur Johnson years were actually not effectively a time when the team served as a farm team for the New York Yankees, despite what many consider to be a series of one-sided trades, including shipping out a young Roger Maris. Author John E. Peterson contends that the swaps were more balanced than the team is given credit for by critics, including Cooperstown, N.Y.'s mayor Jeff Katz who -- in an unofficial capacity -- authored a strong counterpoint with The Kansas City A's and the Wrong Half of the Yankees: How the Yankees Controlled Two of the Eight American League Franchises During the 1950s

The bookends of the book also perhaps the most critical sections – the final years of the Philadelphia incarnation and the birth of the Charlie Finley era. The remainder, a season-by-season recap, is important, but dry material.

(Author’s Note: I read this book on my Kindle, making citing pages virtually impossible.)

Early on, we get a peek into the last burning embers of the once-mighty Philadelphia Athletics. 
This passage, regarding the 1950s finances of the team was telling:

The indebtedness of the team was staggering. The team had not even paid for the uniforms worn by players during the previous season.

A last-ditch attempt to save the Athletics by a group of Philadelphia businessmen, in conjunction with one of Connie Mack’s sons, is mentioned. Curiously, the author suggests that Johnson’s bid was successful thanks to two seemingly non-material issues: 1) he was kind to Connie Mack’s chauffeur – who had been pressed into shuttling the frail Mack to an American League meeting regarding the franchise's fate – and; 2) the Kansas City group showed up for the definitive meeting with Mack one hour earlier than scheduled. Johnson slipped a fifty dollar bill to the chauffeur and was granted access to Mack before the Philadelphia contingent. Of course, the story is more intricate, but this aspect was particularly interesting.

Historical reports laud Johnson as a shrewd financier. Peterson writes:

...he was an individual who could arrange mutually profitable deals involving millions of dollars through the ingenious use of lease-backs, second mortgages, large cash loans and special stock issues without any individual investing much of his own money. 

Regarding the purchase of the Athletics, Peterson summed up the feeling at the time of the deal:

In Chicago financial quarters, the talk was that Johnson swung the Athletics deal without a dollar of fresh money appearing on the table.

In reality, Johnson likely spent slightly more that $570,000, as sums moved in both directions, including payments by the Phillies for Connie Mack Stadium and Kansas City for Johnson's minor league stadium in town.

What seems clear, however, is that Johnson was a savvy businessman who did get a very good deal for the Athletics. (One thing to bear in mind is that if the Philadelphia contingent was successful in gaining control of the team, they would have been on the hook for the mortgage at Connie Mack Stadium and would not have received a pay-out from the Phillies for the facility.)

Six years later Charlie Finely purchased the Athletics for $4 million, a valuation that meant Johnson's Kansas City investor group reaped a 400 percent return on their investment.

When Finley Comes to Town

Of more interest to Oakland Athletics fans are the Charlie Finley origins. Charlie O. always talked a very good game, for instance, after purchasing the team:

"My intentions are to keep the A's permanently in Kansas City and build a winning ballclub....I have no intention of ever moving the franchise. I will spend any reasonable amount of money to get the Athletics into the first division....I believe the Athletics can be built up, but that will take money....I am not interested in capital gains, nor am I a fast-buck man."

Some of Finley's early plans included a sizable direct-mail campaign and offering, then-innovative, nine-game plans.

Much like what unfolded in Oakland, in 1962,, two years after his purchase, Finley was grumbling about attendance and was making eyes with a new city:

Reports indicated that Finely still wanted to move the team to Dallas. Before the season started, city councilman Charles Shafer was told Finfley refused to consider a two-year contract to broadcast the A's games because the team would move to Dallas after the 1962 season.

Finley formally applied to the league to move the team on May 18, 1962, but was denied as the American League meeting called was to discuss plans to aid the minor leagues, not relocation, thus making him out of order. A furious Finley issued his grievance to the media:

"Those goddam club owners think they can keep me from moving the team. I'll show them a thing or two. I've got some tricks I haven't used yet. My lawyers tell me they can't keep me in Kansas City, some kind of antitrust crap."

Beyond attendance, Finley's issues in Kansas City included parking, access roads, and concession problems.

The answer for Finley was a for the city council to submit a general obligation bond issue that would fund a 50,000 seat stadium with 15,000 parking spaces. For Athletics fans, this ultimate by Finley feels timeless:

"Unless Kansas City is willing to start action for a new and modern stadium, its days as a major league city are numbered. The present stadium is the worst in the major leagues in many respects."

Finley's grumblings did not lead to an immediate bond being floated, but did yield action in the form of feasibility (remodeling/parking additions/new stadium) studies and served as the origin

Birth of Green-and-Gold

In 1963, one of the on-the-field developments was that Finley put the lats names of players on jerseys, something that had not happened since the team's inception in 1901. However, this proved to be a one-year fad, with a twist -- Finley printed abbreviated names such as "Cooz" (Wayne Causey) and "Hawk" (Ken Harrelson).

Of greater historical importance, 1963 marked the launch of the Athletics current color scheme -- green-and-gold, The '63 squad donned vests in the "Kelly green"/"Fort Knox gold" variant. Peterson claims these colors were chosen because they were Finely's wife's favorite colors. (Other books have noted that Finley aped the scheme used by his hometown university, Notre Dame.)

Peterson offered this passage regarding the reception of the new duds:

The press ridiculed the uniforms and opposing players taunted the A's with comments like, "Hi there, beautiful."

The Athletics lone "All-Star," Norm Sieburn, did not play in the game as Yankees manager Ralph Houk felt the green-and-gold uniform would embarrass the American League.

The Athletics also changed the start time for games, moving weekday games to 7 p.m. from 8 p.m. and Saturday games to 6 p.m. Finley explained the team's calculus:

"Most of our fans come from 50 miles away. We want them to get to bed at a decent hour."

Enter the Chiefs

In February of 1963, Lamar Hunt announced that he was moving his Dallas Texans to Kansas City. The city gave him a very favorable lease, $1 a year for the first two years with the city taking half of concession sales. After the first two years, provided ticket sales were above $1.1 million, the city would receive five percent of gross receipts. However, should sales not reach the $1.1 million target, rent would revert to $1. In a sign of things to come, Kansas City also remodeled Municipal Stadium to make it more friendly for football.

Finley was inflamed and demanded similar terms. The city council responded that the team's rent was lowered in 1955 and 1956 (to $25,000) -- when the franchise first arrived. However, in comparison, the subsequent years' bills were north of $100,000 -- peaking at $148,000 in 1959 and clocking in at $125,000 in 1963.

Kansas City's then-mayor, H. Roy Bartle, and the outgoing nine-member city council hammered out and offered to Finley a seven year lease similar to what was offered to the Chiefs -- $1 a year for the first two years (regardless of attendance), then five percent of gross receipts if admission exceeded 950,000. If attendance dropped below this level, the rent became $1.

Peterson noted that Finley loved the contract, he was quoted as saying:

"...a wonderful contract. It was so wonderful, in fact, that no one in his right mind would ever have wanted to leave Kansas City."

The long-short, detailed in the book, is that the lease was subsequently ruled invalid and Finley was re-agitated. He telephoned a reporter at the Atlanta Journal and loudly complained. Finley then went to Atlanta and returned with a decision to move the team to that city.

The ever-combustible Finley, upon bumping into Cheifs' coach Hank Stram, informed him that Atlanta had a new stadium in the works and that Lamar Hunt should consider joining the Athletics in decamping from Kansas City:

"This is a horse-shit town. No one will ever do any good here."

By July 1963, Finley's focus had shifted to Oakland as several owners had expressed reservations about supporting a team in Atlanta -- travel costs and leaving the territory open for another club were mentioned.

Much like Atlanta, Oakland had plans to build a new stadium complex -- what would eventually become the Oakland Coliseum and Arena.

Finley's argument to the league for leaving Kansas City was financial: he claimed to have lost $800,000 in 1961 and $600,000 in 1962. At numerous points, Peterson details how Finley was somewhat ham-handed in negotiating broadcast rights. Finley claimed that the team took in only $200,000 in broadcast revenue in 1962, in comparison to $1 million collected by the Yankees.

With Oakland on his mind, and the Coliseum not yet constructed, Finley dialed San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham regarding sharing Candlestick Park until an Athletics stadium was ready. Peterson details:

Stoneham told Finley he would not share the stadium and told the reporters "one of the reasons we (the Giants) moved from New York was that we were assured we would have the Bay Area to ourselves.

However, in a bit of delicious historical irony, the Giants couldn't block the Athletics as Oakland was regarded as "open territory."

Four More Years

The real value of Peterson's text can be found in the juicy details of Finley's squabbles with Kansas City and his flirtations with different locales. Included on this list is Louisville, Kentucky. He even went as far as to sign a conditional two-year contract with the city to use its current AAA stadium. Peterson sums it up perfectly:

Finley had, in effect, moved the team without league approval.

Finley offered:

"I don't expect it to be a bed of roses, but after I have had an opportunity to present all the facts, I am sure they will be appreciative of our problems and definitely give us approval. We have these caps that have KC on the front and we don't want to throw them away, so I think we'll call ourselves the Kentucky Colonels. Or maybe we'll just scrap the caps and call ourselves the Louisville Athletics or maybe the Louisville Sluggers."

American League owners rejected the move by a margin of 9-1 and gave Finley until February 1, 1964 to conclude a lease with Kansas City.

Enter the Finley bluster:

"This is still a free country and I don't believe that anybody can force me to operate my business in a city where I've lost a million dollars in three years. If I'm forced to sign, I'll sue the league..."

Finley pivoted and a plan was hatched to move the team to Oakland, playing on an interim basis at Youell Field. AL owners also rejected this proposal by the same margin, 9-1. (The lone dissenting vote is Finley.)

Attempts to purchase the team by the business community in Kansas City were rebuffed or never considered by Finley and, ultimately, he signed a four-year lease.

Part II: Coming Soon!

There is still a lot of developments to cover, as we explore 1964 to 1968, weigh in on the KC years and examine parallels to today's stadium situation.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Hope Is Not a Great Strategy"

The popular sentiment, or at least one of the most vocal sentiments, with respect to the Athletics shipping off "All Stars" Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija is that ownership -- mainly front man Lew Wolff -- is being "cheap." Accusation of abuse of the fan base are reverberating across the Twittersphere. In particular, this comment stood out on the SMB feed:
While it's understandable and comes from the hearts' of true Athletics fans, it ignores the guiding principles of Moneyball:

  • Buy low, sell high.
  • Don't invest in declining assets.

When heaping praise on he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned, a similar sentiment was expressed. Yoenis Cespedes' stock was sky high thanks to two titanic Home Run Derby performances and some AND-1 mixtape calibre outfield plays. A certain then-Red Sox pitcher was, statistically speaking, having perhaps his peak year. Pain was felt all around with the result, but it was a decision guided by how the Athletics have always operated.

  • Get maximum value relative to where the franchise is in the competitiveness cycle.

The reality is that, injured or not, Moss ended up having an average year and largely was a non-factor down the stretch -- before magically reappearing in the Wild Card game.

Moss' WAR was 2.5 and his average was .234. His best attribute was his attitude, followed by his 25 home runs.  Moss is 31 and arbitration eligible. He is going to command around seven million. Remember, this guy was a scrap-heap pickup. It's better than even odds that Moss' best years were in green-and-gold. Moneyball doesn't pay for past performance.

Donaldson is perhaps the best case A's fans have of ownership "abusing" the fanbase. Not only is he a great story, a converted catcher and fringe prospect in the Rich Harden-Cubs deal, he is a fiery guy who plays hard and posted some amazing numbers. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times even gushed that he was, based on WAR, the best player in the game.

Still, there were cracks in the firmament. Donaldson slumped mightily in 2013 after the All Star break and seemed to peak in 2014 around the time Kepner's article came out. Make no mistake though, Donaldson -- based on his last two years -- is a stud and the A's won't be getting a +6 WAR from Brett Lawrie. (Although, the switch to grass may help him blossom.)

Instead, the Athletics are saving a good amount of money, as Fox's Ken Rosenthal writes:

Donaldson projects to earn $4.5 million in his first year of arbitration, according to Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors.com. His salaries after that, assuming normal health and production, could be $7.5 million, $11 million and $16 million, a rival agent said. And those numbers actually might be conservative. So, the savings for the Athletics figure to be in at least the $40 million range.

The prospects are TBD. The Athletics might really regret this trade. But, JD's value was Mike Trout-high and nagging concerns like his leg-kick-timing no doubt entered into the calculus. The other thing to consider is that the Athletics swapped a plus defender at 3B for another plus defender. While WAR  has entered the lexicon, its defensive component can be glossed over. On the offensive side of the ledger, Donaldson only hit .255 last year -- albeit with 29 home runs.

While true that Donaldson may have had his issues with Beane, he himself may have issues without now-Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis, a man who worked wonders for the Athletics.

Longer-Term Vision

One of the often mentioned words regarding competitive baseball clubs is that there are "windows" in which a team has a decent chance of: a) making the playoffs; and b) winning the World Series. Jonah Keri, a fabulous writer, had serious egg on his face when before the 2012 season he offered that the Athletics had felt their window to compete had closed and that was the motivation behind shipping off Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey.

From the Grantland piece:

Oakland’s trades of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey last month signaled a rebuilding process within a rebuilding process.

It turns out Keri, a really, really smart guy, guessed wrong. Beane sold high on each player. With the exception of one very fine season (2012 for Gonzalez), all three have failed to blossom into true "All Stars." Cahill and Bailey are virtually forgotten and Gonzalez is still a 2-3 pitcher, not quite an ace. The only common denomination among the three is that they all received big paydays.

The trades, from a marketing perspective, were disastrous in the short run. (In general, it is best to avoid buying the Athletics yearly calendar.) Fans were upset and similar allegations of no "long term vision" and ownership being cheap were uttered.

Of course, the "prospects" netted in this trade helped propel the team to three great seasons and included two future All Stars -- Derek Norris (2013) and Ryan Cook (2012). A cogent argument could be made that the savings from shedding these players -- or assets as Beane might call them -- also enabled the team to be the high bidder on Cespedes -- also an All Star (2013).

Hearing rumblings that Beane et al. might be looking to add -- now that he has subtracted so much -- sounds heartening and familiar. This is Beane in a piece by Oakland Tribune scribe John Hickey:

"We've collected young players, and we're going to try to redeploy the extra payroll."

A long-term vision should be defined by winning baseball and, no matter how championship-less the club remains, for their budget (real or self-stated) the team continues to excel in the aggregate.

Again from Hickey's piece:

Beane simply doesn't believe in the tear-down-to-bare-ground-and-rebuild philosophy. Since 1997 under Beane, the A's have won at least 74 games every year. The only other major league teams who can make that claim are the Yankees and the Cardinals, two postseason regulars.

Here is some historical perspective on this accomplishment from ESPN's Buster Olney:

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses. 

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win.

In contrast, here's an instance where the Athletics were truly cheap and lacked vision. From the National Baseball Hall of Fame's newsletter Inside Pitch:

On Dec. 10, 1935 – 79 years ago this week – the Philadelphia Athletics traded future Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Boston Red Sox in return for Gordon Rhodes, George Savino and $150,000. 

By 1935, Foxx had collected two MVP Awards and crushed 302 home runs. He belted 58 homers in 1932, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record at the time, and won the American League batting Triple Crown in 1933. His natural strength, cultivated as a boy on his family farm in Sudlersville, Md., was so formidable that Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez declared Foxx “has muscles in his hair.” 

Rhodes, meanwhile, lost 20 games for Philadelphia in 1936 and retired. Savino, a catcher, never made it out of the minor leagues.

The truly cash-strapped Athletics traded one of the greatest sluggers ever to pay the bills.

The modern-day Athletics are frugal, but cheap is a stretch.

The Counter-Narrative

It's human nature to tie events (favorable or unfavorable) to our convictions. To say that Wolff, the bane of large swaths of the fan base for his inability to commit and build a new stadium in Oakland, is orchestrating a concerted effort to dampen fan enthusiasm while enriching his ownership group is a an easy, if emotional-driven, connect.

The initial SMB tweet regarding the team not really caring about the size of the season ticket base is grounded in the fact that, thanks to numerous streams of revenue sharing (luxury tax, MLB Advanced Media, shared MLB.com merchandise sales) and due to the city and county owning the O.co and taking their cut of the gate, the Athletics financial sheet likely shows that the vast majority of operating income is not attendance driven. The gate is gravy. The proverbial Pepsi machine in Moneyball is always well stocked.

The Athletics due to their perceived status as "small market" have the political cover to make decisions that big market clubs "can't do." However, winning drives these choices.

An interesting aside: All MLB teams will be increasing their digital revenue in the near future, thanks to HBO turning to MLB Advanced Media for streaming.

The fact remains that numerous instances of the Athletics spending money have occurred recently. They don't fit with some fan narratives and depictions of Wolff, Beane, Fisher, et al. and are conveniently glossed-over.

For instance:
  • Extending Sean Doolittle.
  • Extending Coco Crisp.
  • Signing Scott Kazmir.
  • Trading for Jim Johnson (who made $10 million last year).
  • Signing Yoenis Cespedes.
Are the Athletics big-spenders? No. But, fans shouldn't want them to be profligate. The list of big contracts to "big" stars by big market teams that have worked out poorly is long. There are also a lot of players whose value exceeds their production -- Jed Lowrie will soon join the list. The problem is that players are paid based on past performance, and they usually get their best contract after their most productive playing days are over.

Building a Fan Base

By what measures exist (social media, historical gate attendance, merchandise sales), the Athletics fan base is below-average. It really burns one to shell out for a nice custom gold jersey with a player's name on it, only to wake up with a relic as they have been shipped off. It even applies to shirseys, meaning that the average Athletics fans' wardrobe is littered with short-timers and names of years past. This dynamic, the lack of a stable, marketable player, has certainly not helped develop fans. However, in recent years it has been given far too much weight.

The biggest threat the Athletics face is, and has been, the Giants and their shiny trophies. Championships breed passionate fans. Winning the World Series (vicariously through your favorite team) is, for a true baseball fan, the defining moment(s). The Athletics 2012 run was magical, but to paraphrase Beane, "No one remembers you unless you win the last game of the year."

The Giants are a marketing machine and have strategically positioned their minor league teams -- in San Jose and now Sacramento -- such that their Northern California presence is dominating. Before you say, "The Athletics seceded Sacramento," consider that the River Cats really wanted the Giants. From a column by the Sacramento Bee's Marcos Breton in September:

“Our fans were overwhelmingly leaning toward the Giants or they didn’t care which big-league team we were affiliated with,” (River Cats President) Jeff Savage said.

The Athletics badly want to win. It will validate their whole philosophy and bury the ghosts of post-season past. Again, noting human nature wires us to think this way, they may also want to win to gain  greater relevance and political capital for use in a stadium quest.

Just Don't Do It

The only jerseys, shirseys or player-related paraphernalia Athletics fans should purchase is that related to players long-retired and safe from the trading block.

Based on past results and with faith in "the process," only the name on the front matters. The Athletics might truly stink this year (although it's doubtful). However, at the very least the team won't be overly-burdened by big contracts to players in decline; or crippled by inertia.

As Beane noted in Hickey's article:

"Hope is not a great strategy."

Friday, September 19, 2014

Pray for Mojo

If baseball is a game designed to break your heart than surely the A's are succeeding. Finding ways to lose is what bad teams do and the Athletics have been, if not a bad team in the second-half of the season, than just a plain unlucky one.

The reality is that as much as the Cespedes-Lester trade made sense on paper, it has become the focal point of fanbase furor and emblematic of the emotional hollowing-out of the team. When Josh Donaldson compares his own teammates play to that of a "circus," you know the stitching on the ball is coming unwound.

The A's prize in the Cespedes deal, Jon Lester, has said all the right things and fired off the standard cliches about "winning now" and "helping the team;" but, more than any trades in recent years, he is viewed as a hired-hand and a mercenary with his bag packed to head back to out of town as soon as the last game is completed. As unrealistic as it was, when Cespedes said he hoped to play his whole career in green-and-gold, it was like the most beautiful girl agreeing to go to the prom with the well-meaning, smart, glasses-wearing nerd with the severe overbite who had just asked her after emerging from being stuffed in a locker.

Maybe, just maybe, with Cespedes, the A's ownership would pry open their sizable wallets and dole out a contract that made a statement: we plan on being good, for a real long time and Cespedes is ours. And then, slowly but surely, all 5-tools would blossom and Cespedes would be the unstoppable force he seems capable of being. Instead, Jon Lester awaits to cash in his golden ticket to big money and Cespedes awaits a rebirth in Boston.

Rational, clear-minded arguments aside, when Cespedes left it felt a little bit like the fun departed with him.

In 2012, the team and Cespedes were unknowns and expectations were modest, at best. In 2013, the team was either poised to prove itself a fluke or push past the first round, "experts" seemed split. Going in to 2014, this team was supposed to win and maybe that has been the problem. However, games in June and games in August and September are entirely different. The A's are clearly the hunted these days, not the hunters.

Eliminated clubs like the Astros, White Sox and Rangers are relishing the opportunity to be a fork in the eye of playoff contenders. After all, what else do they have to play for? The role of the villain or the spoiler is a great motivator.

Fans of the game know that the Bartman catch didn't sink the Cubs in 2003. The Buckner boot in 1986 didn't cost the Red Sox the World Series. For A's fans, the Kirk Gibson home run in 1988 came in game one, not game seven of the World Series. And, everyone knows that Josh Hamilton dropping the ball in center was not the sole reason why the Rangers lost game 162 in 2012. (It was glorious and it sure did help.) The truth is Cespedes' departure did not seal the A's 2014 fate.

Cespedes departure needs to be added to a series of unfortunate events, including:

- Playing six games against the Royals just as they were peaking;
- An epic slump from Brandon Moss, whose power has all but dried up of late;
- John Jaso's continuing issues with concussions;
- Stephen Vogt's foot problems;
- Nick Punto's strained hamstring;
- Jed Lowrie's hand injury and subsequent fielding woes;
- Really poor starts in August by Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir; and
- Losing Sean Doolittle to an intercostal strain.

While true that the team's offense took a hit with Cespedes gone, focusing on that one hole in the ship ignores the dozens of others contributing to today's slow sinking out of the playoff race.

It seems the key word these days is "mojo" and fans are presented with two options: 1) abandon ship and watch the Titanic ease into the abyss; or 2) stay engaged and hope-against-hope that this "unsinkable" ship/season rights itself. As we aren't left with much else, get right with the deity(ies) in your life and send positive vibes to the A's. All we need to do is get in. The playoffs are a totally different environment.

We need that positive mojo!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Beane Proves It's Always Wins Over Shirseys in Oakland

Why was it so hard hearing that Yoenis Cespedes was gone, shipped off in another Billy Beane trade? The most obvious reason is that he was the clean-up hitter on the team with the best record in baseball, a man with electrifying power and blazing speed. On an emotional level, Cespedes was raw hope. In what seemed to be the bleakest-of-bleak offseasons in 2012, Cespedes was a reason to come to ballgames and to tune-in.

For fans that weathered the long winter that was 2007-2011, Cespedes was one of the main ties left to the magical 2012 team. It's nice to be 20+ games over .500 and leading the division. It was pure, intoxicating magic to win on the last day of the season -- at home -- against a team that tormented you with big stars and a big payroll and in a year when you were supposed to be a joke.

In life, we love people who are flawed. Our relationships are often pock-marked with personality deficits and laced with odd character quirks. However, we care deeply for the people we keep close and regularly paper-over or simply ignore faults. If you anonymize Cespedes, removing the hulking physique, the captivating and terrifying refugee story and the impressive YouTube tape, you get an outfielder who has a 2.1 WAR in 2014 and is batting .256 with 17 home runs.

Cespedes is also 28 years old and posted his highest WAR at 2.9 in 2012. He is making $10.5 million and signed for one more year. He was virtually guaranteed to leave either before or immediately upon conclusion of his contract, not because the A's couldn't afford him, but because they do not give long-term contracts to players who statistically should be in decline based on their age.

The thing about Yoenis Cespedes was that, at least prior to this year, he was the A's most-marketable player. Much of his name recognition was built on his titanic Home Run Derby performance at Citi Field in New York in 2013. The bat-flip GIF when he won the title was widely circulated. Literally no one in the national media -- ESPN's Chris Berman in particular -- could say his name, but he became a recognizable brand that night. Cespedes repeated this year, but really will anyone remember who won the Home Run Derby in twenty years? Probably not. You play to win the last game of the season, not to hoist the "Gillette Home Run Derby" trophy.

As lovable as Cespedes was, and as tantalizing as his potential was, he never truly became the 5+ tool player he was billed as being. Painful as it may be, he simply isn't Mike Trout (2014 WAR of 5.6). This is not an even comparison, but as amazing as the basketball players in the AND1 mixtapes are, they are exhibitionists and not NBA-caliber players and a similar argument could be made -- to a far lesser degree -- with Cespedes. Hitting designed meatballs in the Home Run Derby doesn't advance the goal of a winning a championship, and making 300-foot balloon throws isn't necessary when you take better outfield routes.

Beane and the A's worship at the church of Sabermetrics and Cespedes was expendable. They traded him for a pitcher -- albeit an expensive rental -- with a WAR of 4.6 whose previous years WAR's (08-14) are all stellar with a low of 3.1 (2012) and a high of 6.2 (2009). Lester will be too expensive and too old (31) for the A's to even consider re-signing. But, it doesn't matter. They flipped a good outfielder with a ton of unrealized promise and a slightly-less expiring contract for a power pitcher who is having a bigger positive impact for his team this season and whose intangibles include two World Series titles and a 2.11 postseason ERA. (Duly noted that Cespedes hit very well in two ALDS series. His postseason sample size is still smaller than Lester's.)

The Cespedes trade is a strange coda to the years when Beane flips serviceable, borderline stars for prospects and waves the white flag mid-season. On July 9, 2009 the A's were 49-42 and fives games out of the lead. They traded Rich Harden (5-1, 2.34 ERA) for a seemingly unremarkable haul that happened to include Josh Donaldson. Beane didn't think he had the horses to win and he sold high on a pitcher with shaky medicals and an outsized (based on his performance) contract. Now, he thinks he does have what it takes to win and he again sold high. The reality is if Beane really felt Cespedes was as good as he is perceived, he wouldn't have moved him.

The short-term losers in all of this are we the fans who can't help but fall in love with ballplayers. Now the Cespedes shirsey/jersey can be added to the collection of former A's. (I have one, too.) The other losers in this are the fans of teams with MLB front offices who lack the guts to do what the A's did and, instead, award huge contracts to declining ballplayers based on past performance. The Phillies (Howard) and Angels (Pujols, Hamilton) come to mind.

The A's front office plays for wins and they don't care about moving merchandise in the team store. If you asked Billy Beane what jersey to get, he would tell you to save your money. After all, those championship DVD sets can be pricy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A's vs. Raiders Ultimatum Facing City Council, Fans

The A's lease imbroglio continues to fester in the sun, wafting an acrid smell into the Coliseum as the team thumps their neighbors across the Bay. The Oakland City council, with a lease approved by the JPA, is risking nuclear fallout from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig who has already issued a statement letting the A's move should the lease not be approved.

Meanwhile, the Giants are salivating at the prospect of having the Bay Area all to themselves and the Raiders are increasingly getting restless as they want to control development of the Coliseum site.

The one positive thing, in this complete and utter mess attributable to long-term neglect more than anything else, is that definitive resolution seems inevitable. The option of the A's and the Raiders continuing to share the Coliseum is no longer tenable. What the future holds is anyone's guess.

Relocation to Where?

It was interesting to hear Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid mention that the A's threat of relocation, assuming lease peace cannot be reached, is actually a real possibility.

Reid apparently mentioned Montreal and San Antonio as possibilities. Realistically, either destination would be a stretch. Here's why:

Montreal -- On the plus side, the city has a stadium available that could host MLB games. Olympic Stadium did so just this pre-season for two Mets-Jays tilts. However, Olympic Stadium would move the A's to arguably a worse facility than the Coliseum. Montreal is also, for all intents and purposes, prime Blue Jays marketing territory. MLB would be crazy, just plain crazy to allow a franchise to move to Montreal without having a new facility fully planned-out, funded and approved by the provincial government (an additional hurdle in Quebec). Also, consider if the A's moved to Montreal -- even temporarily -- realignment would just about need to happen. A real mess to consider.

San Antonio -- The Alamodome can, sort-of fit a baseball game in it. To call the facility Major League-ready is beyond a stretch. The Rangers consider San Antonio part of their marketing territory and would be sure to oppose such a move. Moving the A's to San Antonio would stack three AL West teams in Texas and in the Central Time Zone, making following road games harder for Angels and Mariners fans. A minor concern, as well, is that the A's would need to compensate the Padres for displacing that team's AA club.

It is far more likely that MLB would either ask the Giants to share ATT Park or that the A's would consider moving north to Sacramento.

Why Sacramento?

1. The A's would not need to compensate the River Cats as they are affiliated with the team.
2. Sacramento's media market (Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto) is robust, ranking at #20.
3. Raley Field, while still not MLB-ready, is arguably a better temporary facility than either Olympic Stadium or the Alamodome. (As a historical note, the Seattle Pilots in 1969 played in a AAA stadium and the Montreal Expos began their existence by playing at Jarry Park, also a minor league facility.)

In light of all of these machinations, the news in May that the River Cats are being courted by the Giants -- as their affiliation with the A's expires this season -- is all the more notable. After all, a minor tactic employed by the Giants in San Jose is use and ownership of the team's A-level club to partially block the A's. At the very least, ownership of the little Giants ensures the parent team extra compensation should the A's ever be granted the right to move.

If the A's and Giants swapped AAA locations, there is basically no chance that Fresno would be considered a spot for the A's to decamp to.

Affiliating with Sacramento, and investing in the team if possible, would be a savvy move by the Giants and further the team's ultimate goal -- elimination of a major competitor. Of course, on the other hand, blocking Sacramento might lead to temporally sharing ATT -- a Catch-22 for sure.

Choose and Lose

Anyone who thinks that Raiders owner Mark Davis and the Athletics ownership could join together and build Coliseum City is utterly naive. (They are doubly-naive if they include the Warriors ownership in the group as well.) Witness today's news that the Raiders development group has issued a letter to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and the city council basically imploring the city to pick a side:

"the current proposal ... simply allows the A's to buy more time to find a site outside of Oakland ... and disrupt the ability to deliver a stadium for the Raiders and the ancillary developments adjacent to that stadium."

Read:

  • Approve the lease and risk the Raiders. 
  • Deny the lease and risk the A's.

It is also important to note that the Raiders want to knock down the Coliseum next year.

In a world of limitless funds, free of CEQA and where sports teams were all owned by owners more concerned with community harmony than money, Coliseum City might actually happen. This is not the world we live in today. Note the Raiders' letter's use of the phrase "ancillary development." Both teams want this because club revenues cannot be counted on given the ebbs and flows of attendance and the endless upward march of salaries.

The Coliseum, despite its historic playing field, is emblematic of the sort of hybrid-Frankenstein that trying to satisfy both a baseball and football team has produced. Has a stadium ever undergone a renovation so universally poor? Witness even the Raiders, the team it was expanded for, tarping off 10,000 seats this past season. "Mount Davis" is miserable in terms of sight lines and truly an architectural blight blocking out the Oakland hills. The real cherry, however, is that the city and county are on the hook for bond payments for years to come. As of early last year, about $100 million was still owed for this 1995 "renovation."

Make no mistake, the A's lease situation is fast becoming a showdown. It is understandable and laudable* to want all three Oakland-based pro teams to stay. The reality is that fans are fast being asked to choose sides and there are really only two potentially viable options: 1) save the A's; or 2) save the Raiders. (The Warriors are gone and have no interest in Coliseum area development.)

There is no middle ground and hoping for a "White Knight" to buy the A's, move them to the Howard Terminal site (one rejected by MLB) and thus somehow satisfy the Raiders by freeing the Coliseum just seems unrealistic and dangerous. Oakland simply can't "split the baby."

The latest sordid turn in this affair is that Raider and A's fans are now poised to be pitted against one another.

*Editor's Note -- My intention is not to question the passion of fans interested in keeping all of Oakland's teams. I have enormous respect with such groups and individuals. Personally, I may even agree with their end goals. However, passion and realism are sometimes opposing forces. Unless a major sea change occurs, vis-a-vis team ownership, it seems unrealistic that the city will save even two of these teams.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A's Lease "Extension" Just Prolongs Team's Limbo

In terms of the A's "announced" 10-year lease extension with the JPA that oversees the O.co Coliseum, the devil is really in the details.

First, we don't even know that the lease extension has been finalized. Per this San Francisco Chronicle report by Carolyn Jones yesterday:

"We are still negotiating, so were surprised by the announcement of an agreement," [Oakland Mayor Jean Quan] said. "We plan to meet (Thursday), continue negotiations, and hope there will be an agreement soon."

OK. Keep that in mind.

The Associated Press report in circulation regarding the agreement has several very interesting quotes:

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig commended both sides for reaching a deal on a lease extension, while offering, "I continue to believe that the Athletics need a new facility and am fully supportive of the club's view that the best site in Oakland is the Coliseum site."

A certain professional football team happens to feel the same way as well...

An additional quote:

"We very much appreciate Commissioner Selig's support for Oakland to be the home of the A's," coliseum authority Chairman Nate Miley added in a statement. "We also agree, and we believe the A's do as well, that long-term the Coliseum is the best site for them in the East Bay."

OK. Either Miley is either giving the A's the push in the A's-Raiders stadium game. or he still believes in Coliseum City and Santa Claus while we are at it. (Perhaps the latter can deliver the former?)

As previously detailed, the Howard Terminal plan was DOA and remains off-the-table with the current ownership group. A's owner Lew Wolff hammered in another -- if not the final -- nail in the proposed waterfront park with this quote:

"Howard Terminal as a potential ballpark site has been and is totally rejected by MLB and the A's," Wolff said in an email to The Associated Press.

Selig chimed in on the issue in a separate AP article:

"I continue to believe that the Athletics need a new facility and am fully supportive of the club's view that the best site in Oakland is the Coliseum site."

Beautiful renderings do not a ballpark project make.

So, is San Jose dead?

If you read the last quote by Selig carefully, you will note that he qualified his comment with "best site in Oakland (emphasis mine)."

The Oakland Tribune later did some editorializing of its own:

[Rhamesis] Muncada (Newballpark.org blogger), who had supported the A's now-defunct bid to move to San Jose, said the problem for Oakland and Alameda County "is that they want to retain all teams but don't have the resources to keep more than one, and they've been unwilling to choose between the two."

So, according to Tribune writer Matt O'Brien, the move to San Jose is "now-defunct." I wonder if long-time A's-to-San Jose champion and current San Jose mayoral candidate Sam Liccardo feels differently?

The Raiders

Muncada hits the nail on the head with his additional comments in the Tribune piece on the Raiders and A's vying for the same small pool of public funds and, more importantly, the same site:

[Muncada] who has been following the negotiations called the deal a "double edge sword because both the A's and the Raiders are competing for the single most feasible site." 

 "The Raiders and the A's are making statements to appear as if they aren't competing, but it's clearly evident (they are)," said Rhamesis Muncada, a San Jose resident who runs NewBallPark.org. "Raiders will take lease approval as a step toward siding with A's, moving Raiders out. A's will think the same if Raiders reach a deal to build Coliseum City." 

That same article also contains this caveat:

Oakland leaders had recently expressed some misgivings about details of the tentative deal. So did Raiders owner Mark Davis, whose vision for a new football stadium could be complicated by the long-term A's lease on the site the two teams share.

Waiting to Exhale/Much Ado About Nothing

Despite how it may be wrapped up by public officials, the A's lease extension is little more than a short-term solution. There is almost a zero percent chance that, barring massive investment, the A's will play at their current stadium into the 2020's. This fact makes Oakland Councilman Larry Reid's comment all the more amusing:

Fans should not exhale just yet, but you know, we're getting close.

Close to what? To an eventual showdown pitting the city's professional football and baseball interests? In truth, even with an inked extension, pro-Oakland A's fans are no closer to retaining the team in the long run.

Just listen to Wolff:

"I think it's a more-than-fair deal for both sides. There is an exit clause if the Raiders come through with whatever they're planning."

If you are planning on streaking down Broadway shouting,"The A's are staying!," you might want to hold off.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Interview with Nancy Finley, A Living Link to the A's 70's Dynasty

With all of the much-deserved pomp and circumstance of the recent '74 A's reunion, the conclusion of a rare three-year run as World Champions, nostalgia for the Charlie Finley-era teams is high. A steward of Finley's legacy is his niece Nancy Finley. Nancy has built one of the definitive virtual vaults for those looking to explore the A's 70's dynasty -- http://www.oaklandathleticshistory.com. Of course, her connection to the A's runs deeper than just her uncle. Nancy's father, Carl Finley, served as de facto general manager and vice president from the Kansas City days until the team's sale in 1980.

The following is an email interview. Nancy's comments (NF) have been lightly edited for clarity.

SMB: Your uncle, Charlie Finley, is essentially missing from the National Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF). Is he deserving of the honor?

NF: I definitely believe Charlie deserves a place in the HOF. The last time I checked, in 2012, the HOF had a time period split down the middle of our dynasty. This is 1947-1972, then 1973 to current. I would make sure Charlie was nominated under both time periods. Also, I believe my father, Carl A. Finley, deserves a place in the HOF under the Executive Category. Also, for both time periods.

SMB: Did Charlie Finley's divorce, and subsequent cash crunch, kill both the spirit and the means needed to keep the A's 70-era juggernaut alive?

NF: It seems common for most couples to experience a kind of "cash crunch" during a divorce. During this time, Charlie threw himself even more into the business. I noticed Charlie started leaning on dad more. More than the divorce, the main issues were "pending free agency," and (then MLB Commissioner) "Bowie Kuhn." I believe what killed the "spirit" the most was when we were served with a lawsuit in March 1979, on behalf of the city and county (Oakland and Alameda, respectively). Actually, the Coliseum Board was who authorized this lawsuit. The causes of action were ridiculous. This suit was thrown out of court, in our favor, a few months later the summer of 1979. Still, the fact this suit was prepared, after all we gave this area, was the final straw.

SMB: Describe your father's role in helping run the A's. Beyond just being a GM, how else was he involved?

NF: Where do I begin? When dad agreed to join Charlie and the team in Kansas City, dad was promised a minority ownership. This was a "given."  Then, it seemed like if any employee wanted to speak with Charlie, he would go to dad first. I remember Pat Friday (general manager from 1961-65), in our Kansas City days, at our home often. Dad had a way of knowing how Charlie would react, and what his answer would be. It was uncanny. Dad oversaw everything at the stadium, "on site."  Dad's title would have been vice president; however, I noticed dad referred to himself with various titles, depending on the circumstances. I call it a "situational title," depending on the situation, or, circumstances. Dad could put whatever title he chose in our annual yearbook.

Dad moved to Oakland the Fall of 1967 to prepare for the 1968 season opener. Player, Rick Monday came with dad. Both attended Bay Area events to help promote the new team. In Oakland, I remember how Charlie called dad every morning between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. We were PST, Charlie CST. 

When dad saw talent in someone, he would "sell" Charlie on that person. Dad did this for Debbie Syvyer, aka Mrs. Fields, and Stanley Burrell, aka MC Hammer. So when Charlie visited Oakland, dad would make sure to introduce them. Dad focused on running the team, so Charlie could continue running his medical insurance company in Chicago. In Oakland, during home games, it was dad who signed off every day by 5:00 p.m. on our roster. In 1975, dad started attending the annual MLB owners meetings alone. Charlie turned over his proxy to dad. From 1975 onward, I noticed dad starting to settle on the title of vice president. It was about time.

SMB: Did Charlie Finley give Oakland a fair tryout before he started angling to move the club to cities such as Denver?

NF: Oh yes, I believe we gave Oakland a fair try. Also, our fans always came first. Our search for a place to move stemmed from frustration with the Coliseum Board. The front offices needed finishing. It was drywall and cement everywhere. In Kansas City, we were told the Coliseum was ready to move into. Then, we found out otherwise. It would be like moving into a house, without any flooring, or painted textured walls. It may sound minor; however, this is not what we were led to believe. The Coliseum Board is who we dealt with. Dad didn't deal directly with any politicians. At that time, it was the Coliseum board. We were promised the inside front office would be finished. We waited, and waited. When we started winning, we thought this would get the Coliseum Board's attention. Still nothing. Dad loved the Bay Area, and didn't want to move. I do remember when meetings were held with Marvin Davis in Denver. I suspected this was also to put a fire under the Coliseum Board, to make them finish our front office, as they had promised to do.

SMB: Did you ever get to see the NHL California Golden Seals play? Was your father involved with this Oakland-based franchise as well?

NF: Yes, I attended many Oakland Seals games. How nice you remember our Seals. Not many do. For some reason, no one seemed interested in hockey at the time. Now, look at the Sharks. I asked dad why Charlie purchased a hockey team. Dad said Charlie thought we had the "golden touch" with any sports franchise, because the A's were starting to win. Charlie acted like dad felt the same way, and that dad would do the same with the other teams. Dad said Charlie should not have assumed this. Dad reminded Charlie their goal was to focus on the baseball team. Dad walked away because of this. This was about 1969. Dad was back with Charlie by the time I moved to Oakland permanently, in June 1970. Charlie didn't have the time to devote to the hockey or basketball (Memphis Tams) teams. He didn't have the time for the A's either, which is what dad did. This is why the other franchises floundered.

SMB: What would Charlie Finley think of today's stadium mess? Would he be pushing to move the team to San Jose or out of California entirely?

NF: Today, Charlie would be so pleased with the fan support. In the 1970's, we were also the "new kid on the block," which may have hampered things. However, Charlie (and dad) would have enjoyed the great fan support. Also, the A's seem to have been granted many more "perks" than we ever had. This seems to have to do with when the Raiders returned to Oakland. Because the Raiders were given so much, the A's were entitled to some of the same. The press is much more understanding today. This is what I see. I have read some (team-issued) statements, knowing that if we (Finley-era ownership) ever said the same, it wouldn't have been pretty. Charlie wouldn't have had an outside ad agency, or, a front office so large. I wouldn't see Charlie wanting to leave this location, because the fans are so dedicated. It was always about the fans. If it turned out there was a defect (construction, not up to earthquake standards, etc) in the Coliseum, we probably would choose a location similar to where the Giants did -- on the water.

SMB: My understand is that you have a book in the works. Can you tell us some details and when it is slated to hit the shelves?

NF: I have much more to add to my website. I am waiting until my book is closer to the end. Thank you for the compliment.

 SMB: Your website has a treasure-trove of vintage A's clippings and images. Does it pain you that the team's history is somewhat invisible at their current facility?

NF: Yes, it does pain me.