The A's are having a truly remarkable month. Today's Oakland Tribune points out that, with one more victory, they will best the team's best ever month of July and have a winning percentage of .792. However, the A's last "make-or-break the team" home stand featuring the division leading Rangers and MLB best Yankees produced zero sell-outs. This is all the more remarkable given both the A's robust play and that the Yankees were in town over the weekend. So, what gives?
A look at MLB's attendance this year team-by-team is remarkable. Ask a casual fan what teams they think will be at the bottom and the A's and Rays are logical candidates given their stadiums -- and the endless drumbeat in the media regarding how bad their venues are. However, baseball's team with the worst attendance is the Cleveland Indians who play in a gem of a stadium and aren't exactly playing poor baseball -- 50-51 going into today, just 5.5 games off the lead in the AL Central. They were a competent and competitive team last year as well. So, where are the fans?
In Cleveland, the temptation is to say that the economic morass in the city and its surrounding area is the culprit. However, the answer is not that simple. Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Post-Dispatch speculated on My 27 (when the team was doing even better in the standings) that one very big reason that fans are not interested in coming to the ballpark is a disdain for ownership who has shown that, financially, it is not committed to threatening the team's profitability for a championship.
Here in the Bay Area, to say that the fanbase has mixed feelings towards the John Fisher-Lew Wolff ownership team is a an understatement. Fisher, one of the richest individuals in the world and an utterly spectral presence with the team and in life, and Wolff, whose singular drum-beating for a move to San Jose, have alienated many fans both by being cheap and by being consistently and constantly unhappy with the Coliseum. General Manager Billy Beane, who also owns a small part of the team, is less reviled by fans but is still towing the company line. Make no mistake, the Coliseum might not be voted baseball's best venue, but it is not the sole reason that fans are gun-shy about committing to the team and packing the stands.
Much as the Indians for years shedded talent -- see Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia -- the A's have shown a propensity to do the same. This past offseason was utterly brutal for A's fans with fan-favorites and All-Stars Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez leaving town. The trades, in hindsight, look like shrewd moves based on the team's current record. However, they reinforced the reality that A's fans never want to get too comfortable or enamored with a player as they may well be out of town in a few months. (Cahill in particular was a cruel tease as he was signed to a reasonable, long-term contract.)
The business of trading fan favorites hurts attendance, as does the endless talk about the Coliseum and San Jose.
Owner Lew Wolff, who is the point-person, is a scorned man among many fans. In a relative puff-piece by Bruce Newman in the Oakland Tribune this week, Wolff cracked this joke before a recent A's-Rangers game that was less-than-packed:
"It's sad," he said, surveying the crowd. Then he turned his attention to the diamond, where the Rangers were taking infield practice. "Let's watch the expensive team warm up."
The Rangers are extraordinarily well-run. They also have a lucrative TV contract, a major revenue source the A's really whiffed on. However, the A's have the means to be an "expensive" team. They just don't want to. The problem is not Wolff, but rather Fisher who has his wallet locked up. The team seems to operate under the edict that it must be profitable
As with the player trades and the endless stadium talk, baseball as a business does not put butts in the seats. Just look at Miami, which is in disarray even with a gleaming taxpayer-funded stadium. This comment on July 25 from Marlins baseball czar Larry Beinfest to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, speaking about the Marlins attendance and on-field woes, sums up the sheer insanity of the stadium chase:
"We're in this brand-new building," Beinfest said. "It's beautiful. It's done its job, and the team has underachieved. This building deserves better. I think our fans deserve better."
The stadium, an inanimate object, deserves better. The fans, well, they are clearly secondary. Utterly insensitive and tone-deaf.
The bottom line, and CSN Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto pointed this out, is that the ballpark is not as central as some will have you believe.
Being competitive and committed to winning is paramount.