A marquee outside the Paramount Theater advertised a bizarre coming attraction: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Whatever in mother’s creation that is, it couldn’t be weirder — or scarier — than the events Thursday night inside a normally peaceful, elegant Art Deco space.
What do you get when Roger Goodell’s henchmen are thrown into the same auditorium with incensed Raiders fanatics in all their sharp-spiked, face-painted angst, tormented and repulsed that the wicked NFL soon might return the Silver-and-Black to Southern California and deprive the Bay Area of its Black Hole forevermore?
“We are pawns in your little game of evil chess. Who the hell are you guys fooling, us or yourselves?” said one peeved fan, berating the league executives amid a small but raucous crowd of just 450 ralliers. “This seems like a b.s. charade. Roger Goodell, that coward, should be here, not sending his lapdogs. You guys are gangsters in suits. It’s despicable. You have a lot of blood on your boots. You have a lot of nerve asking for public money.”
“I appreciate your question,” replied Eric Grubman, Goodell’s relocation chief.
And what do you get when Raiders owner Mark Davis shows up at the theater to a standing ovation from the fans, calls them “the most passionate local fan base in the world,’’ then sits in the front row and takes abuse from the same fans at the podium?
“This fan base does not go on family vacations. We purchase season-ticket packages,” said a female fan, Jules. “We choose to invest our hard-earned money on our team. We are not the California Raiders. We are the Oakland Raiders. And Mr. Davis, if you think the grass is greener in Southern California and then you try to bring this team back here again, you’ll come back to a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Oakland is home. Just stay, baby.”
Up stepped another fan, oozing of passion and concern. “Is Mark still here?” he said facetiously. “You’ve said you needed us to have your back. Last Nov. 20, we sold out the stadium when the team was 0-10 in the middle of a pouring rain. Raider Nation has had your back for years. Do you have ours now? Don’t put it on Facebook or Twiiter or Instagram or one of those. Show us. That’s all we’re asking.”
Pumping his fist, Davis stepped to the podium to answer his critics, with hugs in some cases. “Listen, I don’t know what I can show what I haven’t already,” he said. “I haven’t negotiated in the paper and I’m not going to tonight. We need help and a commitment, too. We need something the Raiders can be proud of. It can be done in Oakland if everyone pulls together. We’re trying to get something done.”
“Have you talked to a mega-developer?” someone else interjected.
“I’ve talked to three mega-developers,” Davis shot back. “We have tried the last three years, every day, trying to get something done in Oakland.”
A Halloween party, this was not. In what league officials insisted was an earnest attempt to spur open conversation in Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis about the potential departure of franchises, the NFL conducted town-hall-style hearings in those cities on three successive nights this week. The East Bay’s turn was last, which seemed fitting, in that the Raiders’ current stadium situation is the most dire. To be clear, (1) O.co Coliseum is a sludge pit that requires a fan to take three showers after attending a game; (2) so-called savior developer Floyd Kephart turned out to be a charlatan, with his Coliseum City plan officially a non-starter; (3) Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has no interest, nor should she, in devoting a cent of public money to a new stadium; and (4) Davis says he still needs at least $400 million — though at least $600 million is closer to the truth — to go with the $500 million he’s willing to pledge with team finances and a league loan.
The drama has been raging for weeks, months, years. At last, it appears to be nearing a tipping point. Let’s make it clear why Goodell dispatched Grubman and other representatives to risk their lives and limbs. First, due process is required as part of the relocation process. But the league also wants to create urgency, headlines, awareness that a vote of the 32 team owners is likely coming in January. The hope is to apply enough pressure to prompt politicians, financiers and developers to come forward, but probably no amount of shouting and insulting can save the Raiders now.
Not that the fans didn’t try. Wearing jerseys that spanned eras — OTTO … BROWN … CARR — they formed a queue around the block on Broadway. TV trucks lined the street, reminding us that the NFL successfully created its own story. “Ten dollars, get your ‘Stay In Oakland’ shirts,’” hawked an independent vendor, down the sidewalk from a woman selling hot dogs. Police cars and motorcycles were positioned outside, thank goodness. They didn’t come close to packing the 3,040-seat hall, which was telling. St. Louis drew 800, San Diego 450. But they were vocal.
“SHUT UP SO WE CAN HEAR HIM!” a woman shouted, unable at one point to hear Grubman.
“Mark, you’re playing us like a puppet,” someone else told Davis. “Just let us know. I’m a grown man.”
Other speakers fought back tears, or spoke of being poor and needing the Raiders in their lives here. It was a night made for a documentary.
All that’s left for Davis and the other contending owners for the two Los Angeles spots — the Rams’ Stan Kroenke and the Chargers’ Dean Spanos — is the filing of relocation applications, followed by the vote. Though Kroenke is the best-heeled and might move the Rams to Inglewood regardless of the vote, the league might prefer he stay in St. Louis and that the two California teams join business hands in a superstadium. Last Sunday in San Diego, there was a sense of finality as the Chargers hosted the Raiders. The fan base is still strong in SoCal, with Raiders fans outcheering Chargers fans throughout a rousing victory. Carson was just 90 minutes away.
Now hear this: Schaaf won’t budge on public money, given the city’s ongoing unemployment and crime issues. So if Davis can’t afford to fund his own building — the way the Giants did and Warriors will across the Bay — he should take the bailout elsewhere. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” Davis said afterward, surrounded by bodyguards. He’s not getting a new stadium here, though Schaaf wouldn’t dare say that at the Paramount.
“As someone who was born and raised in this town and has grown up with this team, I know what the Raiders mean, not only to Oakland but the entire Bay Area,” she said. “We know that the energy is flowing to vibrant cities like Oakland, not tired suburbs like Carson.”
That produced a big cheer. But nothing like the roar after a fan delivered a speech, quoting Al Davis, that had most everyone standing and repeating after him. Raider Nation felt like a potent cult at that moment, and I started to feel sorry for Grubman, who, on the night of his 27th wedding anniversary, was stuck in the middle of an Oakland wake.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.