Suffering Sports Cities: Oakland

Editor’s Note: Notebook contributor Isaac Huss understands the plight of suffering sports fans. He recently chronicled the woes of his hometown Twin Cities and has also looked at the state of affairs in Denver. Today the Suffering City Series empathizes with the good people of Oakland…

Moneyball has been a huge success.  The movie, that is.

On second thought, the movie’s performance actually mirrored its on-field counterpart fairly closely, if you consider that it smartly exceeded expectations, charmed fans, and yet still didn’t win anything of consequence.

Nominated for six Academy Awards and grossing over $110 million, the critically-acclaimed film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill became the highest-earning baseball movie of all time, charming sports fans and non-sports fans alike.

Moneyball portrays the controversial “sabermetric” (using meta-statistics to analyze baseball performance) methodology of Oakland Athletics’ rogue general manager, Billy Beane, in his building of a baseball team beginning in 2002.  A best-selling book by Michael Lewis under the same name became a best-seller in 2003, and the subsequent movie version hit theatres last fall.

The movie’s success is ironic if you consider that Billy Beane and the A’s hadn’t had a winning season in five years when the film debuted, which may undermine the credibility of Beane’s supposed genius, but clearly did not hinder ticket sales.  At the box office, that is.

At the stadium, it’s been another story.  Last year, Oakland finished dead last in big league attendance, and that was actually an increase from last year.  Even including 2006, when the A’s won 93 games and reached the American League Championship Series, Oakland has finished in the bottom five in attendance every year since 2005.

Attendance has been so bad for so long, the organization has become a punchline.  Indians pitcher Chris Perez complained recently about low attendance in Cleveland, “Oakland is out-drawing us.  That’s embarrassing.”

So why have the fans turned on Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s?  Because they simply don’t think their team can compete with the other teams in Major League Baseball.  And why would they get that idea?  Probably because Billy and A’s owner Lew Wolff don’t think so either.

Playing in arguably the worst stadium in baseball and maybe even in pro sports, the Oakland ( Coliseum, it’s no secret the A’s struggle to generate revenue.   And it doesn’t help that Oakland has taken its share of lumps as a municipality.

That’s led Wolff to try just about everything to move the team out of Oakland and build a new stadium elsewhere. “I think he’s turned his back on Oakland,” Oakland’s mayor Jean Quan said.

Wolff even announced to fans that the team was moving to nearby Fremont in 2006, only to have that plan fall apart.  More recently, he has done all he can to move to San Jose, but the cross-town San Francisco Giants have blocked that move, citing territorial rights. Wolff has all but ruled out trying to build a new stadium in Oakland, and his plan in the meantime is to run his team as cheaply as possible and milk the MLB’s revenue-sharing plan for all it’s worth.  The A’s payroll this year is the lowest in the bigs by no less than $6.75 million. Some even claim that management has intentionally capped attendance by blocking off upper decks to make their plight seem more desperate.

So forgive A’s fans if they didn’t celebrate the success of the Moneyball movie.  In their minds, it’s no more than a monument to a doomed business model, not so much in its relying on progressive statistical analysis as much as it is merely a novel response to a misperceived handicap.

The movie makes Beane out to be a martyr, forced to try out this never-used-before method, or risk his job and livelihood.  But why is such a risk so necessary all of a sudden?

The A’s have thrived in Oakland before, to the tune of four World Series Championships, and they believe it can thrive again.  Besides, teams can excel in lousy stadiums, even with lackluster crowds.  Just ask Tampa Bay.

And to call Oakland a small market team is a tricky argument.  No, Oakland is no San Francisco.  But unless a Bay Area resident grew up in San Fran itself, there’s just a good of a chance he or she is an A’s fan as a Giants fan (although bandwagon jumpers would certainly be partial to SF currently).

That being said, any conversation about the state of Oakland sports must involve that annoying rich cousin on the other side of the Bay.  The Giants-A’s rivalry runs deep, with the A’s playing the underdog in this fight.

So no, Oakland residents need not be reminded of how much greener the pastures are over there.  But in what sort of rivalry does a team wants to move to enemy territory?

But believe it or not, the A’s wanting to move to a richer Bay Area city isn’t even the most recent news of the sort.  The NBA’s Golden State Warriors, residents of Oakland for the past 41 years, announced plans last week that they will move to a new arena to be built in San Francisco.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob downplayed the territorial significance of moving out of Oakland, but it’s hard to believe that Warriors fans of Oakland won’t feel slighted.

In fact, Lacob might be hard-pressed to find any fans of his left in town, as he was mercilessly booed when he spoke during Chris Mullin’s number retiring ceremony in March.

Yes that’s right.  Booed during an award ceremony.  Even Warriors fans’ love for Mullin wasn’t enough to suppress their anger at Lacob and the entire organization.  And that was before he announced he was moving the team!

Why were the fans so enraged?  Lacob had guaranteed a playoff birth this season, only to see his team underachieve mightily.  He then responded by trading away his most popular player (Monta Ellis) in such a manner that left fans scratching their heads.  And then booing.

And to think as recently as May 21 Lew Wolff was considered by a Bay Area columnist to be, “The Most Hated Man in Oakland.”  This might now be a two-man race.

Golden State fans’ frustrations with their owner could very well be interpreted more broadly as the built-up frustrations of an entire sports city.  Besides the A’s and Warriors’ struggles on numerous fronts, the Oakland Raiders franchise is widely considered to be the worst in the NFL, and it might not even be close.

A once-proud franchise with three Super Bowl victories, their last Super Bowl win was almost 30 years ago (1983).  The Raiders haven’t had a winning season in ten years, averaging a measly five wins per season during that time.

More recently, the Raiders have become more of a laughingstock than a powerhouse.  They drafted QB JaMarcus Russell first overall in 2007 only to have him perform so poorly that they cut him in 2010, and no other NFL team has found him worthy of a roster spot.

Then to compensate, they sent two first round draft picks to Cincinnati to acquire Carson Palmer, who failed to lead the Raiders to the playoffs and resulted in the firing of head coach Hue Jackson.

At the time, the trade was considered laughably one-sided.   Perhaps less so now, but the Raiders show little signs of improvement.  And nobody’s willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially considering their track record.

Meanwhile, the 49ers from you-know-where just might be the trendy pick to win next year’s Super Bowl after their march to the NFC Championship game last year and their impressive offseason.  This after A’s fans watched the S– F——- Giants win the World Series in 2010.

So in summary, Oakland fans are an A’s move away from being left with the Raiders as their only professional sports team (the Raiders!), while San Francisco would be home to the Giants, 49ers, and Warriors and nearby San Jose would be home to a competitive NHL team (Sharks) and possibly the A’s as well.

But the people of Oakland deserve better.  Warriors fans have finished in the top-10 in NBA attendance the last four seasons despite missing the playoffs in each of those years.

And even though the attendance figures decline, A’s and Raiders fans remain some of the most loyal in their respective sports, despite all the management has done to deserve desertion.

So while it seems to be too late to prevent the Warriors’ move, Oaklanders are holding out hope for their A’s.  Perhaps it’s time for Oakland fans to start praying for a miracle.  Who knows, it might lead to the next made-for-Hollywood baseball story: “A(ngel)’s in the Outfield,” or even, “Field of Dreams 2: If you build it, they will stay.”