The Kafkaesque Journey of the Oakland A’s

The Oakland Coliseum, where the Athletics usually play, is a regular major-league baseball park, with a pitcher’s mound that measures sixty feet six inches from home and bases that are ninety feet apart. But other teams have shinier parks, with fewer sewage issues and fewer feral cats. What would be a beautiful view beyond the outfield is blocked by a hulking structure commonly known as Mount Davis, because it was built at the demand of Al Davis, the former owner of Oakland’s former football team, the Raiders, at a cost of five hundred million dollars. That money was paid by the city of Oakland and the county of Alameda, in an effort to lure the Raiders back to Oakland after the team moved to Los Angeles—and before the team moved again, to Las Vegas. Oakland, whose unified school district is facing an enormous budget deficit, is still paying off the debt.

For nearly twenty years, the owner of the Athletics, John Fisher, has been agitating for a new stadium. “Our fans deserve a great ballpark, and that was always my North Star,” Fisher told ESPN last year, in a rare interview. Fisher maintained that the Coliseum could never be that ballpark—that it was, as Dave Kaval, the president of the Athletics, put it in a letter to fans, in 2021, “at the end of its useful life.” And perhaps this was true. It is a Brutalist eyesore designed with football in mind, and apparently needs new pipes—not to mention seats, stadium lights, and animal-rescue visits. (An opossum has lived inside the walls of the stadium for years.) The team, which shares ownership of the park with the city and county, and is not under any legal obligation to care for its upkeep, has blamed the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority for this state of disrepair.

Fisher seemed to believe that it would be easier to build a billion-dollar stadium as part of a twelve-billion-dollar project to develop a stretch of Oakland waterfront, with eight hundred and fifty-five million dollars in public financing for infrastructure land development, than it would be to fix the Coliseum. Alas, not! As of April, 2023, the city and the A’s were reportedly a hundred million or so dollars apart in negotiations surrounding public funding when the team—which had started pursuing a “parallel path” that involved relocating to Las Vegas—pulled out. In various statements, the team insisted that the time to make a deal had expired.

You could be forgiven for wondering about the rush. The waterfront project existed only on paper—and that was more than you could say about any of the plans for Vegas. A year ago, the A’s had a “binding agreement” to buy a parcel of land on the site of the former Wild Wild West Casino in Las Vegas, but that fell through. Then Bally’s Corporation, which controls the site of the Tropicana hotel and casino, which is defunct and soon to be demolished, offered nine acres for a stadium. But it turned out that Bally’s was facing an eight-hundred-million-dollar shortfall on a casino-hotel in Chicago, and had more than three billion dollars of long-term debt on its books. Bally’s wanted to build a casino-hotel on the Tropicana plot, but it was looking for a partner to make that happen; it wouldn’t sort out the position of the stadium until plans for the hotel were hammered out. Oakland officials, ESPN reported, derided the plans as “Fisher’s putt-putt course.”

There was something fantastical about the whole thing. The A’s wanted the state of Nevada to invest hundreds of millions in land development and infrastructure as part of the stadium project. In order to demonstrate that this would be financially worthwhile, the team projected that a new thirty-thousand-seat stadium would draw two and a half million people a year. Then it was pointed out that this projection could not be met even if every seat for every game was sold. In response, the team announced that the stadium would seat thirty-two thousand instead. It’s easy to add two thousand seats when they’re entirely theoretical. At that point, this imagined stadium didn’t even have an architect.

Fisher, whose parents founded the Gap, reportedly has a net worth north of two billion dollars. In 2005, he bought the A’s, with a partner, for a hundred and eighty million dollars; last year, the team was valued at more than a billion. And yet he has long seemed less willing to spend money than other major-league owners. When M.L.B. shut down during the COVID pandemic, the Athletics were the only team to announce that they would not continue to pay their minor leaguers. (The team subsequently reversed course, reinstating the four-hundred-dollars-a-week stipend that each of those players had been set to receive.) And the team’s major-league payroll consistently ranks near the bottom of the league: it’s currently around sixty million dollars, twenty million less than the next stingiest team. In 2019, the team’s shortstop, Marcus Semien, finished third in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player award. When Semien was up for a new contract, after 2020—a down year for him—the A’s offered him $12.5 million, for one season, to be paid in installments across eleven years. Semien, a Bay Area native who wanted to stay, signed a one-year, eighteen-million-dollar deal with the Toronto Blue Jays instead. He then finished third in M.V.P. voting again, and later signed with the Texas Rangers for seven years and a hundred and seventy-five million dollars. The following year, the front office traded away a core of popular young players. Then the A’s doubled the price of season tickets.

Kaval, the A’s president, recently told a reporter for the Athletic, “We plan to grow our payroll ahead of our move to Las Vegas, and once we are in our new ballpark, we plan to have a top-tier payroll.” The plan, it seems, was this: the team would be welcomed into Las Vegas, as the Raiders were; immediately sell out every game; attract hundreds of thousands of fans who would not otherwise visit Las Vegas, boosting the economy; and win so many World Series! But not everyone was convinced. Fisher’s plans “didn’t make sense,” the mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, told the podcast “Front Office Sports.” “To come here and take down an old hotel and put it right at the heart of the Strip, and more congestion—we have enough congestion right now,” she said, adding, “I run into people from Oakland all the time; they want to keep the team.”

Indeed, they did. But, to show their support, they mostly stayed away from the Coliseum—and, when they went to games, many wore T-shirts that read “SELL” and chanted “Sell the team!” The average attendance for an A’s home game this season is around sixty-five hundred people. According to the sports-business site Sportico, five hundred and fifty-three college and pro teams average more fans per home game, including seven teams in the East Coast Hockey League.

The team’s lease to play in the Coliseum is set to expire at the end of this year. In April, Kaval and Oakland were reportedly still discussing an extension that would last until a stadium in Las Vegas was built. But then a Sacramento radio personality known as Carmichael Dave announced, on X, that the A’s weren’t coming back next year: they would play, instead, in a minor-league stadium in Sacramento. That stadium is owned by Vivek Ranadivé, who also owns Sacramento’s N.B.A. team, the Kings. It later emerged that Ranadivé was going to let the A’s play there for free; Ranadivé has talked about the stint as a trial run for a Sacramento expansion team. Some people close to the situation, ESPN reported, believe that Ranadivé is betting against Fisher’s ability to pull off the move to Las Vegas, and that the team, once in Sacramento, will just stay there. Fisher, for his part, said he welcomed the chance to see “some of the best players in baseball” hit home runs in the “intimate” park. He mentioned Aaron Judge, a star for the New York Yankees, along with “Athletics players,” none of whom he mentioned by name.

In the meantime, the A’s finally hired architects for their Las Vegas stadium: shortly before the current season began, the team had a press conference to unveil the stadium’s design. It has a round, multi-part roof somewhat resembling the shape of the Sydney Opera House. The designer, Bjarke Ingels, likened it to a “spherical armadillo,” adding, “In the city of spectacle, the A’s ‘armadillo’ is designed for passive shading and natural light—the architectural response to the Nevada climate generating a new kind of vernacular icon in Vegas.” Certain specifics, such as the location of this grand building, remain unclear. After the press conference, observers pointed out that the renderings of the building had the sun setting in the east.

When I saw the drawings, they didn’t remind me of an armadillo. They reminded me of an insect—specifically, the one described by Franz Kafka in “The Metamorphosis,” in which a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up and sees that his belly has become “domelike” and “divided into stiff arched segments.” Samsa, we learn, has undergone a horrible transformation. He eventually dies of neglect. ♦

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