I’m not from around here. I bring that up because we’re going to get into some personal Bay Area stuff here, and I want you to know I understand that I’m speaking as an outsider.
That said, I do come from a place with two baseball teams, and I happen to be a fan of the eternal baby brother in that crosstown rivalry. The Chicago Cubs own the city, outshining my White Sox for both attendance and attention.
The South Siders don’t have the apparently bulletproof draw of an ivy-covered stadium in the throbbing heart of the city and don’t operate with a top-five — or even top-10 — payroll, but they have been at or above the middle in team spending for a significant portion of the decade. They don’t use their secondary status in the Second City as an excuse for behaving like a small-town operation.
This unambitious dream is available to the Oakland A’s, perhaps now more than ever. Their siblings, the recently three-time-World-Series-winning Giants, are in a tailspin over in China Basin; plans for a sparkling new Howard Terminal stadium are allegedly in motion and the crop of young talent currently clocking in at the Coliseum is tantalizing.
History lays a pretty clear path for the A’s to grab enough attention to participate in Major League Baseball like an adult franchise; it also paints a picture of an organization that has been unwilling to do so for a while. The A’s have not been in the top half of Major League Baseball teams in payroll at any time in the last two decades. The last time they were in the top twenty was 2007, and they haven’t been above 26th since 2014.
Nevertheless, they’ve seen attendance swell at several times during that frugal history — more than enough to convince me that protests of the impossibility of selling tickets in the East Bay are fraudulent. If you’re wearing green and gold right now, you can probably guess when.
After an ugly and poorly-attended end to the 20th century, the year 2000 saw Oakland win the division and draw more than 1.5 million fans for the first time since 1993. As they continued to make the playoffs, that number swelled to a peak of 2,216,596 in 2003 — the only season since 1992 that they surpassed the league average.
After that season, 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada left in free agency, but attendance held over 2.2 million as the A’s won 90-plus games for the fifth straight season. They still drew over 2 million in 2005, after trading Mark Mulder. By 2009, though, virtually every fan’s favorite players were gone — taking the wins with them — and attendance was back under 1.5 million.
The run of success earlier this decade had a similar effect, with yearly attendance sneaking over 2 million again in 2014, then seeing a precipitous drop following the Josh Donaldson trade. Then there was the Sonny Gray trade, and further decline.
The pattern looks even more dramatic if you go back to the Bash Brothers days, when attendance peaked at 2.9 million in 1990 before declining into nothing as the team lost Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Mark McGwire (among many others).
After steadily declining post-Donaldson trade, attendance saw only a slight uptick during last year’s playoff run. They say past is prologue, and the fan base’s collective ears seem to have pricked up as usual, but if they’ve learned from their past, they’ll require more time, and more proof that their favorite toys won’t be snatched away the moment they become attached.
The lesson is not only that the A’s are capable of drawing when competitive, but that the fan base seems to grow wearier and wearier with each successive tear down — fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; but trade my favorite player five times and we’ve got problems.
The opportunity for another dramatic comeback is certainly there now, though. The aforementioned Giants have a core that is once again underperforming, even by the new, lower standards they’ve established. Perhaps more notably, San Francisco’s farm system projects for a bleak near future.
Oakland will never convert Giants die-hards. Of course they won’t — the whole point of die-hards is their inconvertibility, but there are a legion of casual or as-yet-undecided baseball fans who are available to attend games and fund a middling payroll. There’s a generation of kids to grab, the way the Giants grabbed the youth of 2010-2014.
The A’s have as talented a young team as any in baseball, built around a young superstar in Matt Chapman, with some of their best prospects still yet to arrive. They have a marketing team that has made strategic and creative moves to improve the fan experience.
Fans will start to come, as they always have. All Oakland has to do to keep them coming is step up to the table — not the VIP table behind the velvet rope where the Giants and Cubs and Yankees sit, but at the very least the grown-ups’ table with the White Sox and Mets and frankly most of baseball.
If a sparkling new stadium gets it done, great, but the fans have shown more than once that glitz and glamor aren’t a prerequisite for their presence — just players. If the team invests in its own talent — never mind actually signing a high-priced free agent — fans will show up to the Coliseum or Howard Terminal or even Fremont (remember that plan?).
The A’s may never eclipse the Giants in payroll, or dethrone them as the Bay’s preeminent baseball franchise, but I doubt that will bother a soul in Oakland.
If my experience as the fan of my own little sibling franchise is any indication, they’ll wear it as a badge of honor and they’ll wear it to whatever venue you put a good team in.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.