Monday, October 15, 2012

Thinking About the A's as a Regional Asset

As you know, two places in the country aggressively use the moniker "Bay Area" -- here in California and down in the vicinity of Tampa Bay / St. Petersburg. The similarities extend in that both areas house a baseball team deeply unhappy with their current stadium.

The Tampa Bay Rays, a fellow-small market brethren of the A's, are stuck in the Tropicana Dome serving what seems like a life sentence. The domed ballpark with in-play structural rings and astroturf was seemingly designed by the same team that thought the Pontiac Aztek was a good-looking car. The larger problem is that the Rays are saddled with a lease that runs through 2027. The City of St. Petersburg, where the stadium is located, also has the right to sue any party that negotiates with the team for a new lease.

The Rays are a really good team, with a great manager in Joe Maddon. They even have a coda of sorts to the A's Moneyball in The Extra 2%. Like the mythical field of dreams that was a Fremont Cisco Field, the Rays once dreamed of playing in a cutting-edge "sailboat"-like park.

Despite the team's seemingly iron-clad lease, an issue that actually helped keep the A's in Oakland back in the 1970s, two developers have recently announced concepts for finding the team a more suitable home (here and here).

Last week Rays owner Stu Sternberg put down in writing his desire to have the freedom to negotiate with other parties and look for locations both Pinellas County (home of St. Pete) and in neighboring Hillsborough County (home of Tampa Bay). Sternberg, in deference to the team's current lease terms, is willing to give St. Petersburg the right to veto any deal.

A Lesson for A's Fans

It can be difficult for parties on both sides of the stadium debate -- stay in Oakland/move to San Jose -- to approach this issue dispassionately. Filter these comments on the Rays saga from John Romano in this past Sunday's Tampa Bay Times through an A's fan perspective:

....Because this story can no longer be driven by either devotion or outrage. The time has come to look at the situation clear-eyed and logically. And the reality is this: 

The Rays are not staying at Tropicana Field. 

Once you accept that as a simple fact and not a community rejection, it becomes easier to decide which path makes the most sense. St. Petersburg can either: 

1. Hold the Rays to the terms of the stadium use agreement, and wait for them to try to break the contract, or leave when it expires. The downside to this argument is the next decade will be a slow death march with declining payrolls and a neglected stadium, and Tampa Bay will lose baseball forever. 

2. Negotiate a winding down of the use agreement that allows the Rays to relocate to their desired destination of downtown Tampa, and compensates St. Petersburg for giving up baseball early. 

If you think the Rays are a regional asset and want them to remain in Tampa Bay? Option No. 2 is clearly better. 

And if you think Rays owners are a bunch of carpetbaggers out to fleece taxpayers? It makes far more sense to see how much money might be available in Option No. 2 before consigning St. Petersburg to the eventual doom and lawsuits of Option No. 1. 

We can argue forever the question of whether this is fair to St. Petersburg. And considering that the Rays are the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to finish last in attendance while winning 90 games, the argument for the city's nonsupport does seem fairly strong. 

But the reality is that argument does no one any good. The better debate is figuring out which solution offers the greatest benefits to fans, taxpayers and the ballclub....

Like the Rays, discounting the forthcoming tide-over lease renewal at the Coliseum, the A's are not staying there. They are leaving, and it may be somewhere else in Oakland, it may be San Jose or it may be to a place that isn't the Bay Area. The reality is that there is zero chance the team plays another twenty years at the Coliseum.

Romano's terming of the Ray's a "regional asset" is -- like it or not -- what the A's are. No Bay Area team fills its stadium with just fans from their namesake city. (However, the amorphous "Golden State" Warriors are in their own category.) Zoom out and you realize that no city-named baseball team -- even the Yankees -- populates their ballyard exclusively with the denizens of their metropolis.)

Alameda, Berkeley, Colma, Fremont, Hayward, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Jose all have dedicated A's fans that trek to the Oakland Coliseum.

At present, there is no clear path for the A's moving forward.

The Giants, lack of a complete set of land parcels needed to accommodate a stadium and a still-unpassed city ballot referendum are some of the major impediments for San Jose. Oakland has land, if you believe they will build at the Coliseum or could (given environmental concerns) clean up and build at Howard Terminal, but generates no interest from the current ownership group and thus has no funding mechanism.

No other major metropolitan area has the means or facilities at present to lure the A's. (For instance, Portland is not only a smaller media market than the Bay Area, it doesn't even have a AAA stadium for the A's to temporarily play at.)

There is certainly pride and a tradition of winning in Oakland. However, the A's were winners in Philadelphia as well and they left that city due to poor attendance despite winning five championships. Some of us in the fanbase may have to, for the sake of this historic franchise, cease putting the team in the confining boxes of "Oakland" and "San Jose" and begin to think more broadly.

Like the Rays, the A's just need a home and a path forward -- badly.

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