Friday, June 9, 2023

For the A's, Time is a Flat Circle

 “Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever,” Rustin Cohle, True Detective.

For the Athletics, time is truly a flat circle. Born in Philadelphia in 1901. Winners of five World Series titles, they twice assembled and sold for cash (literally) championship teams under the ownership and on-field management of Connie Mack.

Mack sold the team to New Yorker Arnold Johnson and they were moved to Kansas City after the 1954 season. In Kansas City, they were known for making what seemed one-sided trades – particularly with the mighty Yankees (Johnson just happened to own Yankee stadium prior to buying the A's). Roger Maris, the long reigning (until last year AL home run king) was traded for little more than spare parts by the Athletics. Before departing Kansas City, the team was purchased by insurance magnate and Chicagoan Charles O. Finely who first poured money into fixing up the A’s stadium, then promised never to leave – even burning the lease – and then left anyway, this time for Oakland after the 1967 season.*

In Oakland, Finley – a superb player talent scout – assembled though homegrown talent and shrewd trades a championship caliber team that made the A’s the only franchise other than the Yankees to win three consecutive world series titles in ’72, ’73 and ’74 before his own combined arrogance and cheapness both singlehandedly helped facilitate the era of free agency and the dismantling of one of baseball’s greatest young cores. Finley, seeking cash (like Mack before) sought to execute such lopsided trades with other teams – not in the A’s favor – that the commissioner rejected two of them citing the “best interests of baseball” power. Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox and Vida Blue to the Yankees were vetoed. In time, all left and the A’s became moribund.

Prior to selling the team to Walter J. Haas in 1980, Finley actively flirted with other cities – Denver and Dallas/Arlington in particular.

The Haas era was one of relative tranquility and great success – culminating in three world series appearances in ’88, ’89 and ’90, with one title in 1989. It also saw the rise of Oakland’s own Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart into stars. The late 90’s, early 00’s A’s routinely outdrew in attendance the cross-bay Giants. The Giants pre what is now Oracle Park were in such dire straights with the windswept Candlestick Park that they flirted with moving to Tampa Bay following the 1993 season. In fact, the Ray’s franchise is by many considered a “consolation prize” for Tampa Bay after being left at the altar by the Giants. The Haas era was also deeply unprofitable, a common thread throughout A’s history. And, potentially the one cardinal sin committed was Haas gifting territorial rights to San Jose to the Giants, later used as a cudgel by the Giants to block a move down the peninsula by the A’s.

The Schott era followed, with Moneyball and its brand of bargain-basement success during the regular season, but no long runs in the post season. The strategy was punctuated by letting go of blossomed stars and replacing their production “in the aggregate.” It led to a lot of wins, a lot of trades and non-tenures and very little continuity or marketability for the team. Schott sells to Lew Wolff and John Fisher and Wolff begins a quixotic quest down 880 to Fremont and then San Jose, after some brief lip service to staying in Oakland. Exit Wolff, enter Fisher (more fully) and “President” Dave Kaval – serving as the team’s mouthpiece and a worthy successor to Finley, in terms of sheer hucksterism.

Kaval mints “Rooted in Oakland,” trots out stadium improvements (minor and likely MLB mandated after reports of being "embarrassed" by stadium on national playoff broadcasts) and pitches Howard Terminal – a ballpark on the bay on top of a capped toxic pit, in a busy industrial zone, next to an active metal shredding facility with no downtown access (suggesting a private gondola that would take hours to fill the park). Many in the A's faithful lap up the team’s (monetarily cheap and ultimately empty) gestures and believe, arguable against reason, in Howard Terminal. Then, as the stadium – amazingly! –progresses in state, city and county regulatory bodies, Kaval – speaking for Fisher – end it all and try to jam a stadium through in Nevada, which is where we sit today.

The common themes throughout A's history are amazing:

1) Poor attendance -- Philadelphia, Kansas City and Oakland.

2) Threats of leaving town -- Philadelphia, Kansas City and Oakland.

3) Championship-winning dynasties -- Philadelphia (2X), Oakland (2X)

4) Terrible owners -- Kansas City (Arnold, Finley**), Oakland (Finley, Fisher)

5) Trading players for cash -- Philadelphia, Oakland

And so, we are potentially on the precipice of another era of Athletics baseball -- with the team poised to be the only franchise to call four different cities home.

The A's have been MLB's "problem child" practically from their start. The Yankees wanted them out of Philadelphia and effectively neutralized, using Johnson and Kansas City as a pawn. The league wanted teams other than Finley's A's to win in the 1970's. In recent history, the Moneyball concept led in part to the ban on the shift initiated this year. And, the Coliseum has become a national punching-bag with possums in the broadcast booth and sewage leaks in the clubhouses.

As outlined, the consistency of thiss team across three cities is unique and certainly not dull. Could the Athletics move to Las Vegas, settle down and just win ballgames and local hearts? 

It certainly wouldn't be on brand.

* Sidenote: the Kansas City Royals owe their existence arguably to the A's (whose threats to leave led to a stadium referendum) and their color scheme (blue and white) is identical to that of the Philadelphia A's.

** *Finley deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he was a terrible owner who squandered success and failed to properly market the A's when they moved to Oakland. Championship winning alone does not a great owner make.