No free lunch for the Sinkin’ A’s

This was once the Athletics’ uniform insignia. Now the A’s themselves are a white elephant—whose owner wants to jam down Las Vegas’s throat after he couldn’t strong-arm Oakland for new digs while deflating the team.

Look, again, to your non-laurels, 1962 Mets. The Oakland Athletics, proud owners of a nine-game losing streak and possibly counting, are off to the worst start of any major league team since the turn of the century. The turn of the 20th century, that is.

After losing 5-2 to the Astros Friday, the A’s sit as the none too proud owners of a 10-43 record after 53 games. The 1962 Mets sat with a 15-38 record through their first 53, after splitting a doubleheader with the Cubs. This year’s A’s stand a chance at knocking the 120-loss ’62 Mets out of the books for baseball’s most beaten team.

The Original Mets, of course, were formed of the National League’s flotsam and jetsam in its first expansion draft and became baseball’s last unintentional comedy troupe. These A’s, in all earnestness, are born of an owner’s ten-thumbed-and-toeless touch. They’re as entertaining and funny as the “Daddy, Daddy” joke about the missing Cabbage Patch Kid and an order to eat the cole slaw.

It’s anything but funny that the A’s may be on the threshold of a free lunch in Las Vegas. Commissioner Rob Manfred says the rest of MLB’s owners could vote some time in June on whether to allow the A’s to move to Vegas—if Nevada’s state legislature is blind or fool enough to approve soaking Nevada’s taxpayers to hand the A’s a new ballpark whose early indications show disaster a distinct possibility.

The preliminary design shows a partially retractable-roof, 30,000-seat park to stand where the soon-to-be-gone Tropicana Hotel & Casino stands, with a long walkway to the home plate entrance and nothing substantial in the way of parking. It’s not unattractive. Even if you’re reminded of early Mets manager Casey Stengel’s reaction to seeing Shea Stadium for the first time: “The park is lovelier than my team.”

All indications seem to be Manfred and his minions thinking the A’s will draw their support purely from walking tourists. Oops. Las Vegas has a population above and beyond the travelers making their pilgrimages to the city’s famous casinos, resort shows, and other entertainment along the fabled Strip and the almost-as-fabled Fremont Street Experience. The city’s real population (653,843) is a little less than half the population of the Bronx. Those who don’t live behind the Strip like coming to the Strip, anyway.

They also like baseball, seemingly. The AAA-level affiliate of the A’s, the Aviators, have led the Pacific Coast League in attendance ever since they became an A’s affiliate, playing in a charming, newly-built Las Vegas Ballpark since 2019. They averaged about 532,000 fans a year in the ten-thousand seat park. Those who think there’s little market for baseball in Vegas, think again.

Double oops. Maybe they did think about it. The artist rendering of the ballpark-to-be lacks parking. Let’s hazard a guess. They think the locals who won’t be walking to the park from the Strip will have to park in adjacent hotel-casino parking garages and then walk to the park. Too many of those garages charge hefty for parking now. Wait until they think about jacking the charges on game days. (Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame manager: This ain’t football. We do this every day.)

An artist rendering of what the A’s propose to soak Las Vegas to build. Where to park? Nearby hotel casino garages? Oops.

It would be nicer if Las Vegas was to get a major league team that behaves and thinks like a major league team. Under John Fisher’s ownership the A’s have behaved and thought like . . . a Triple-A team lacking affiliation. Fisher’s too-well-recorded shenanigans in Oakland have made rubble of a storied-enough franchise and fools of baseball’s Lords, who usually do splendid work making fools of themselves.

Las Vegas isn’t a huge television market. Baseball’s self-immolating television rights and restrictions don’t make things simpler. But the National Hockey League’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, now playing the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals, left cable television for free TV. They’re also tapping national as well as regional advertisers. Assuming Fisher isn’t prepared to sell the A’s any time soon, it’s not a given that he’d push toward the same things. More’s the pity.

I’ve lived in Las Vegas since 2007. Would I like major league baseball in town? You might as well ask whether I love playing a Gibson guitar. But here’s another jolt of reality for you: Las Vegas is a lovely place to live, climate-wise . . . from about the second week in September through about the second week in June. Around that are summers that mean a classic Beach Boys ode to having fun all summer long is greeted by a Las Vegas listener with two words. And they ain’t “surf’s up.”

The Aviators in their open ballpark play predominantly at night, when the heat is only slightly less oppressive than Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime. The A’s in Vegas, if they get the park toward which they aim, would probably not even think of opening the dome from about 10 June through about 8 September. Not unless they want to hand out buttons along the lines of those the Giants handed hardy fans in their ancient, oppressively chilled Candlestick Park: Veni, vidi, vixi—we came, we saw, we survived.

That, of course, presumes that there are a) Nevada legislators with something more than oatmeal for brains; and, b) baseball owners with likewise. It’s frightening to think you stand a slightly better chance finding brains among lawmakers.

(You’re laughing at the idea of the A’s being “storied?” They had a dynasty or three during their Philadelphia tenure. They had a couple of well-chronicled and well-remembered powerhouses in Oakland: the Swingin’ A’s who won three straight World Series from 1972-74; the Bashing A’s who owned the American League West from 1988-90 [and won a World Series around an earthquake in 1989]; the Moneyballers who made frugality and on-base percentage virtuous and owned the AL West from 2000-2003.)

That was then. This is now. The Sinkin’ A’s have a tentative agreement with Nevada governor Joseph Lombardo and other local muckety-mucks to seek a mere $380 million in tax dollars toward a ballpark estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Said muckety-mucks, writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “evidently consider it a win that public financing might account for less than 25 percent of the 30,000-seat ballpark’s construction cost. To which I ask: Have they seen the A’s play?”

Or, have they seen how the A’s in their non-glory might distort the championship picture? The American League East is a division in which the weakest team is two games above .500 at this writing. They could have three wild card contestants under the dubious new system. But only one might earn a card, as Rosenthal points out, because, in the AL West in which the A’s now play, the Rangers could win that division but the Mariners and the Astros could claim the other two cards by going 13-0 each against the A’s, which is doing things the easy way.

Don’t laugh. It could happen. As of this morning, the Mariners are 7-0 against the A’s and the Astros, 4-0. “[T]he A’s are so horrifyingly bad,” Rosenthal writes, “the possibility of them having an outsized impact on the postseason should tick off the owners of the AL East clubs, and frankly all of the other owners, too.”

It should also tick Lombardo, local Vegas leaders, and Nevada lawmakers off, too, that a man whose team opened the 2023 season with a team payroll only $17 million higher than Aaron Judge’s 2023 salary, and can’t be trusted to put a genuinely competitive team on the major league field, can even think about such a sad sack drawing in Vegas.

The tourists are liable to think soon enough that, if they’re going to get fleeced, they may as well get there the old fashioned way—at the tables. The locals, of whom there are far more than Fisher, Manfred, and even Lombardo think, know that, if we must see a white elephant, we prefer it on the A’s chests during throwback uniform days.

Some of us, too, have smarts enough to know this: The days of municipalities being soaked for sports stadiums must end. Team ownerships aren’t exactly impoverished. The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders (they, too, came here from Oakland) got themselves a new playpen called Allegiant Stadium. Tourists will be paying for it for three decades to come by way of Vegas’s notorious room taxes; locals will pay for it by way of “bonds that are a general obligation of Clark County, putting taxpayers on the hook once the reserves run dry.”

In other words, Las Vegas gave the store away to get the Raiders. To get the A’s, it’s not unrealistic to think Las Vegas might give the shopping mall away.

A franchise relocation requires 75 percent of baseball’s owners to approve. The AL East’s owners could make note of the wild card kink described earlier, decide the A’s and their addlepated gnat of an owner are more trouble than they’re worth, and vote no. (They might also ponder that they’re being soaked, too—for revenue shares to a team whose owner won’t return the favour with legitimate competition.) But that would be only 16 percent. If they’re smart, they’re going have to do some smooth maneuvering to get another nine percent to do the right thing.

Brains now require telling Fisher and his minions, not to mention Manfred and his:

You reduced the A’s to the kind of rubble that attracts protestors to the near-empty park and boycotts otherwise. You failed to strong-arm Oakland or Alameda County or California whole into building you a new real estate paradise with a ballpark thrown in for good measure. You want to bring your POS (Planned Obsolescence Show) to Las Vegas? Pay for it yourselves, or stay the hell out.

Vida Blue, RIP: “You deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.”

I’m talkin’ baseball—like Reggie, Quisenberry
Talkin’ baseball—Carew and Gaylord Perry
Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt, and Vida Blue
If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke—
they’ll be with Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

Terry Cashman, “Willie, Mickey and the Duke (Talkin’ Baseball),” 1981.

Vida Blue

A Time cover star one season, Vida Blue became a poster child for Charlie Finley’s caprice and cruelty the next.

Out of 24 major league rookies to throw no-hitters, Vida Blue had the greatest sophomore season of the group—including the only Hall of Famer among them, Christy Mathewson. That sophomore season made him a national phenomenon, a Time cover star, a Cy Young Award winner, the American League’s Most Valuable Player . . . and a particular victim of then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley’s notorious caprice.

Blue died at 73 Sunday. He’d never again equal that surrealistic 1971, after his owner left him feeling worthless during offseason contract talks that took a turn called nasty even by Finley’s contradictory standards. He’d be a good pitcher who never again got anywhere near the greatness his 1971 promised.

On 21 September 1970, Blue struck nine Twins out (including Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew twice), walked one, and landed a 6-0 gem supported by a run-scoring double play in the first and a five-run eighth, finished when A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris—in the middle of a very unlikely 22-homer season (he averaged five per 162 games lifetime)—yanked a three-run bomb with two out off the Twins’ Jim Perry.

Slightly over a year later, Blue finished that Time season credited with his 24th win, before what looked like a certain American League Championship Series Game One triumph turned into disaster: leading the Orioles 3-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, Blue and the A’s were torn for four runs, two scored by Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson, en route a 5-3 loss that led to being swept out in three.

Still, Blue sat atop baseball’s mountain. No Show sophomore sat higher. As Time put it with a corner banner on his cover issue, the 21-year-old lefthander put “new zip in the old game.” He’d posted a staggering 1.82 earned run average, a 0.95 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and a 2.20 fielding-independent pitching rate. On the mound he looked taller than his six feet with his knee-up, arm-whip delivery. And, with a fastball considered the hardest that didn’t belong to Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

As would be said of another ill-fated child prodigy, Dwight Gooden, over a decade later, Blue was great before he’d even had much chance just to be good. He stood at 22 as the youngest man ever to win an MVP and the youngest (until Gooden over a decade later) to win a Cy Young Award. Analysts determined that one out of every twelve tickets to American League games were sold for his starts.

Even President Richard Nixon got into the act, when learning Blue’s 1971 salary ($14,500) was barely above rhe rookie minimum. Nixon called Blue “the most underpaid player in baseball.”

Then it came time to talk contract for 1972, in the days before Curt Flood lost his reserve clause challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court and well before Andy Messersmith pitched contract-less and prevailed to finish what Flood started. No player that offseason would better evoke the once-fabled malaprop of radio comedy legend Jane Ace: “You’ve got to take the bitter with the better.”

Audaciously, Blue engaged an agent and asked for a $100,000 salary for 1972. It happened, according to Jason Turbow’s Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, when Blue’s veteran teammate Tommy Davis—seeing him drowning in endorsement offers—introduced him to a California attorney named Bob Gerst, who agreed to represent Blue for a flat fee instead of percentages per.

You can only imagine how little Finley loved that idea. The same Finley who’d crowed during Blue’s sensational season, “Don’t you worry about him making money. He is going to make money. He is going to get more than money. He is going to get great things from this game. I’m going to see that he gets great things. I’m going to protect him.”

Come 8 January 1972, Finley proved just how much he’d protect Blue. Aghast as it was that Blue had Gerst in tow, Finley simply couldn’t resist talking down to the earnest lefthander.

Well, I know you won twenty-four games. I know you led the league in earned-run average. I know you had three hundred strikeouts. [Actually, 301, but let’s not get technical.—JK.] I know you made the All-Star team. I know you were the youngest to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP. I know all that. And if I was you, I would ask for the same thing. And you deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.

“He said it with a smirk,” Blue would say later, “and, man, it made me want to slide under the table.” This was the kid who’d gone on a USO tour of Vietnam with comedy legend Bob Hope and, when Hope asked how come he didn’t get more money from Finley, cracked, “Well, Mr. Finley claimed I was only using one arm.” Who knows how much of a strand of truth that crack contained?

The talks became contentious enough that Finley took them public while Gerst helped swing a profitable non-baseball job for Blue to prove he wasn’t kidding around. A’s players were torn between believing Blue should get every dollar he thought he was worth and wishing he’d sign for Finley’s proffered $50,000 just to be among them.

Gene Tenace, Vida Blue

Vida Blue (right) with catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace, at a 40th anniversary celebration of Oakland’s first of three straight World Series championships.

Blue even announced he would leave baseball for that job with a successful bathroom fixtures manufacturer. (Wags suggested Blue was going down the toilet.) Finley’s pressures included making Davis—maybe the team’s most valuable bench player in 1971—a scapegoat for introducing Blue to Gerst, and rather nastily. He ordered a very unwilling manager Dick Williams to wait until the A’s arrived at the ballpark, for a spring exhibition game three hours from home, before telling Davis he was released—and leaving Davis to find his own way home. (Turbow recorded that the A’s traveling seceretary loaned Davis his car.)

Blue got some relief from baseball’s first-ever players strike, over a 17 percent pension hike, the players finally agreeing to settle for a little over half that. Finley kept the pressure up, acquiring once-glittering but shoulder-ruined righthander Denny McLain and trading popular outfielder Rick Monday to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman. Finally, commissioner Bowie Kuhn interceded.

“It wasn’t that Finley’s $50,000 offer was outrageous, the Commissioner said,” Turbow wrote, “but that ‘Finley had a way of making it seem so’.” Blue finally came away with a $63,000 1972 salary. “He treated me like a damn coloured boy,” the lefthander told two California newspapermen when the deal was done. “Charlie Finley has soured my stomach for baseball. Tonight isn’t tell it like it is. Tonight is tell it like I feel.”

After being part of three straight A’s World Series titles, after being one of the players whose sales post-Messersmith Finley tried but Kuhn foolishly blocked*, and after a trade to the Giants that saw him become the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for each league, Blue would move on to the Royals—and become one of five teammates sent to the slammer on drug charges after the 1983 season.

Blue struggled with cocaine addiction until he retired before the 1987 season. He became a pre- and postgame television analyst for Giants games; he became known for philanthropy in the Bay Area and as a role model for children he worked with through a Giants’ outreach program. His marriage (the couple walked under a an arc of bats held by Giants players as they walked to the Candlestick Park mound) ended in divorce; he may have beaten cocaine but struggled further with drinking.

Maybe the Finley contract contretemps roots it. He became “bitter and withdrawn,” noted John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, “eventually developing a drug problem that landed him in court.” Except that, somehow, away from the field, Blue remained likeable and magnetic.

“Vida’s such a wonderful guy,” said Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea in 2005, after Blue was dinged for driving under the influence. He’s been through a lot, but he likes to keep things inside. I went through some tough times myself, and sometimes you’ve got to open up and accept help from your friends.”

And, your children. Blue had a son and two daughters; the son, Derrick, told Shea, He’s got great people skills, and I think that’s been a downfall. People have let him get away with more. People come to me and say, ‘He’s a great guy. He took us out drinking and partying.’ I cringe. That’s what’s wrong with being professional athletes, my dad included.”

A one-time A’s teammate, ill-fated pitcher Mike Norris—one of the early 1980s “Five Aces” said to be ruined by temperamental manager Billy Martin’s callousness toward pitchers and their workloads and by his own issues with drugs—wondered to Shea just how much substance abuse ruined Blue when Finley hadn’t.

I wanted to be the best black pitcher in the history of baseball, the first to win thirty games, but I screwed it up. So you kick yourself in the ass about it. Maybe I could’ve been in the Hall of Fame. It sounds cocky, but winning twenty games wasn’t hard for me. [Substance abuse] led to my arm injury. Being addicted, you’re not going to eat or sleep. You can’t play this game without eating or sleeping. Vida had the best fastball I’ve ever seen, and that includes [Hall of Famer] Nolan Ryan or anyone else. It was inevitable he’d go to the Hall of Fame. I believe . . . Finley turned him off to baseball. If he left him alone, there’s no telling what would have happened to this beautiful person.

Most recently, Blue took part in an A’s celebration marking the half-centenary of their 1973 World Series winners. Who knows what went through Blue’s mind and heart, riding in a classic, antique Thunderbird convertible, around a ballpark left gone to seed, hosting an A’s team left in ruins by an owner who might, maybe, make Finley resemble a kindly grandfather by comparison?

“I know he hung on for that last anniversary celebration like the absolute gamer he was,” tweeted Dallas Braden, another ill-fated A’s pitcher, whose Mother’s Day perfect game was the highlight of a career rendered brief by a shredded shoulder, and who’s since been an A’s game analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area. “Rest easy, Mr. Blue.”

We wish Blue’s family comfort in knowing the man will be remembered for what he was, for what his boss did to him, and for how he tried every time his addiction demons flattened him to flatten them right back. And we wish Blue nothing less than a deserved rest in the Elysian Fields, with the Lord’s embrace, forgiveness, and love.


* In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James probably said it best about Bowie Kuhn’s quash of the notorious Charlie Finley fire sale bid of 1976:

[It] was an ignorant, bone-headed, destructive policy which had no foundation in anything except that Kuhn hated Charlie Finley and saw that he could drive Finley out of the game by denying him the right to sell his [star] players.

What Kuhn should have done, if he had been thinking about the best interests of the game, is adopt the Landis policy: rule that players could be sold for whatever they would bring, but 30% of the money had to go to the players. Had he done that, the effect would have been to allow the rich teams to acquire more of the best players, as they do now. But this policy would have allowed the rich teams to strengthen themselves without inflating the salary structure, and would have allowed the weaker teams, the Montreal-type teams, to remain financially competitive by profiting from developing young players.

“The Landis policy” refers to longtime commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s suggestion—un-acted upon, of course—after Pacific Coast League star Earl Averill refused to report to the Cleveland Indians unless he got a percentage of the sale price the Indians paid the San Francisco Seals to buy him. It may have been the single smartest idea Landis ever had, and it fell on the proverbial deaf ears.

The players on Finley’s fire-sale market were Blue, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, and outfielder Joe Rudi.

Sure. Censor fans. That’s the way to solve the A’s.

RingCentral Coliseum

Ryan Noda’s two-run homer flew to this general location Friday night. thought you didn’t need to see the protest banners by frustrated A’s fans when sending it forth as a highlight—until the censored clip went viral and howls forced the site to restore the original.

Not brilliant. got caught with its censorship pants down all the way around its ankles Saturday. Apparently, someone at the network was not amused that a) the Athletics actually have fans at all; and, b) fans at Friday’s game against the Reds — all 6,423 of them — were likewise unamused at the condition into which their ten-thumbed owner John Fisher has rendered them.

The live game broadcast Friday had no funny business. When A’s first baseman Ryan Noda smashed a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh, to shave a Cincinnati lead down to 8-5, the flight of the ball into the right field seats passed very visible protest banners draped from a railing.

The banners demanded Fisher sell the A’s, presumably to interests who’d be reasonable about building the A’s a new, hazard-and-poisons-free ballpark in Oakland rather than failing to strong-arm Oakland into all but handing them a new ballpark on a plate as a kind of by-the-way portion of a ritzy new real estate development.

But decided those hunting game highlights didn’t need to see such nonsense. It allowed an awkward-looking edit of Noda’s blast to circulate without so much as a hint of the protest linens in sight. The edit probably made those who hadn’t seen the live broadcast wonder if they’d lost their ball-tracking skills. The edited footage went viral. Only then did restore the original footage.

“We were unaware of the edit,” said an unnamed spokesman to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s A’s beat writer Matt Kawahara. “When it came to our attention, we corrected it as it isn’t consistent with our policy.” If you buy that, my Antarctican beach club just shaved another couple of thousand off the sale price.

This is hardly the first time baseball’s government or an individual team’s administration has played the censor. Following are just some such examples:

In 1964, the White Sox tried to stick veteran relief pitcher Jim Brosnan with a contract clause prohibiting him from writing for publication without the organization’s prior approval of what he wrote. Brosnan already wrote a pair of somewhat controversial, from-the-inside best-sellers, The Long Season (about his 1959 between the Cardinals and the Reds) and Pennant Race (about the Reds’ surprise pennant), all by his lonesome, even. He’d also written other magazine articles since.

Brosnan essentially told the White Sox where to stick it and retired to a life of writing, advertising, and sportscasting, until his health declined and he died at 84 in 2014.

Censorship in baseball isn’t new by any means. The White Sox wanted Jim Brosnan to submit to team approval before writing for publication; then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to suppress Jim Bouton based on a small magazine excerpt. Both pitchers told both overlords where they could plant it.

In 1970, commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried directly and clumsily to suppress another veteran pitcher’s book, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, his deep diary of his 1969 between the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Astros to whom he was traded late that August. Having read nothing but a brief magazine excerpt from the book, Kuhn demanded Bouton sign a statement saying it was all the doing of his nefarious editor Leonard Shecter. Undeterred, Bouton all but demanded Kuhn plant it where the sun didn’t have a chance.

The sore-armed right-hander, who’d taken to throwing the knuckleball to keep his career alive, after arm issues began eroding him circa 1965, retired after a send-down to the Astros’ minors. Bouton became a sportscaster for local New York news, tried a comeback in 1977-78 that ended after a few gigs with the Braves, and re-retired to a kind of renaissance life of writing, co-creating Big League Chew gum, restoring an old ballpark here and there, and ballroom dancing with his second wife, before cerebral amyloid angiopathy took hold of him after a 2012 stroke. He died at 80 four years ago.

As the 1980s moved forward, Yankee fans became anywhere between more restless and more revolted over owner George Steinbrenner’s ham-handed rule. The Boss took to ordering Yankee Stadium security to confiscate protest banners for openers and their creators for continuers. And that was only for openers. As a 1989 Banner Day gathering began under the right field stands, it included a fan named Bob DeMartin, dressed in a monk’s robe and a Yankee cap, brown beads and sandals, carrying a Grim Reaper’s scythe from which hung the sign, “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does.”

DeMartin was removed from the House That Ruthless Rebuilt post haste. According to the New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson (the second sportswriter ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, after his colleague Red Smith), Yankee Stadium ops director Bill Squires removed DeMartin because his garb and sign were “sacriligious.”

“Maybe so,” Anderson wrote, “but if God is a Yankee fan, He had to be chuckling at that sign along with all those who saw it. To many, it was more charitable than sacrilegious.”

Early in the 1980s, Karl Ehrhardt, the crafty Mets fan known as the Sign Man for his well-made game-punctuating signs over the previous decade and a half, found himself on the wrong side of the Mets administration. He’d been critical of the Mets’ dissipation in the second half of the 1970s (WELCOME TO GRANT’S TOMB went one of his fabled signs, referring to imperious, patrician front office leader M. Donald Grant), and the Mets quit inviting him to team functions outside Shea Stadium. So Ehrhardt removed himself from the ballpark for most of the rest of his life.

And, when the 2021 American League Championship Series moved to New York, Yankee Stadium security decided a fan named David Taub—showing up for the game dressed as Oscar the Grouch in a trash can, referencing the Astros’ illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation of 2017-18—didn’t need to be allowed into the park. The security guard who rousted Taub claimed the Astros complained to baseball government about protest signs and implements on the road. The Astros claimed neither they nor commissioner Rob Manfred were “aware” of any such complaints.

The price for that Antarctican beach club just dropped another couple of thousand.

No fans in baseball are as frustrated as A’s fans. Unless you count Angel fans who only thought they would be done with the Arte Moreno nightmare at last. A’s fans have more than enough reason to be, thanks to their owner willfully breaking the team in half during his tenure while trying and failing to get Oakland to hand him a new ballpark on a plate and casting his none-too-lonely eyes upon Las Vegas.

Las Vegas seems blind enough to go like lambs to the proverbial slaughter handing Fisher what he wants, a new home without it costing him one thin dollar either in its development or the A’s resurrection to competitiveness. And Manfred seems more interested in getting Fisher what he wants, fans and taxpayers be damned, than getting a true reading of the room—or should that be a funeral parlor?—in which A’s fans commiserate and mourn.

But’s clumsy bid to censor those A’s fans still willing to come to their sewage mistreatment plant of a stadium shouldn’t go quietly, either.

This essay was written originally for Sports-Central.

Be careful what you wish for, Las Vegas

Once the white elephant was deployed in defiant pride by th Athletics’s Philadelphia ancestors. Today’s Athletics have been reduced to white elephants by more than just a spring training cap logo. Their indifferently clumsy ownership may want to do to Las Vegas taxpayers what Oakland finally wouldn’t let them do. 

Would I like to see a major league baseball team in Las Vegas, where I’ve lived since 2007? You might as well ask me if I’d like to play my guitar at the Village Vanguard. But something smells not. quite. right. about the Athletics saying they really weren’t kidding about getting the hell out of Oakland. Apparently, they’re buying 49 acres of Las Vegas Strip-adjacent land to prove it.

Talk to any A’s fan who hasn’t been alienated completely by their team in the past decade. Two themes seem to emerge above others: 1) The Oakland Coliseum—oops, RingCentral Coliseum—is a toxic waste dump disguised as a ballpark. 2) The A’s are owned and operated by a Gap heir and board member who’d move heaven, earth, and two adjacent planets to see issues solved at those stores but barely a pebble to see issues solved with his baseball team.

Sewage backups, feral cats, and now possums and their poopings in a Gap store? The sanitation, hazmat, animal control, and exterminator teams would arrive faster than a Nolan Ryan heater. Sewage backups, feral cats, and possums and their poopings in the Coliseum? Nine months might be a conservative time estimate. And that’s just the stadium.

The A’s themselves need work above and beyond containing waste and pests. You think you know the teams that have turned tanking into a refined dark art? You haven’t had as good a look at the A’s as you should have. John Fisher’s ownership group bought the A’s in 2005. The price: $180 million. Today, the A’s are worth a reported $1.18 billion. That value, writes Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein, is six parts Fisher’s refusal to spend on and half a dozen parts his refusal to spend on his team or its brains.

Once upon a time the A’s under the command of Billy Beane were masters of living frugally without living in the dumps. Beane and his discovered players of low expense but high performance prospects and built a once-consistent American League West threat. That was then, this is now. From Moneyball to Funnyball. Except the A’s are as funny as a pickpocket in a nudist colony.

Apstein reminds us the entire A’s roster will earn $56.8 million. It’s MLB’s lowest 2023 player payroll. They also have only two players locked down for 2024. To most baseball fans, the off-season can be just as vigorous as the playing season. To A’s fans, the off-season can be, and usually is, the winter of their malcontent. A day without yet another Athletic swapping his green and gold for less toxic colours is considered a holiday.

Be careful what you wish for, Las Vegas.

Ancient history tells us that ancient Philadelphia Athletics owner Ben Shibe—observed by New York Giants legend John McGraw as being so in debt he had a white elephant on his hands—decided the A’s symbol would be a white elephant on its hind legs, as if climbing a ladder, defiant and determined. There would be periods when the A’s were a herd of elephants plowing the American League when the Yankees didn’t.

Three cities and eleven decades later, the A’s—who trampled the league in the early to mid 1970s, the late 1980s, and the West for much of the Aughts—are a white elephant once more. No matter what the pachyderm’s greenery shows on their uniform sleeves. A few years ago, the A’s put a strolling white elephant on the crown of their spring training caps. Their ownership now makes it a symbol not of defiant pride but defiant deviation down.

How far down? Can you think of another fan base willing to boycott a baseball game at which fewer people are expected to show than at a retro car show in a fast-food parking lot featuring Pontiak Azteks? A’s fans plan to turn up for a 13 June game with the Rays—they who opened the season 13-0, a winning streak that included three whacks and two consecutive bushwhacks (11-0 scores, back to back) on the Elephant—to show there remain A’s fans aplenty in the Bay Area.

They just don’t feel like being fleeced by an ownership unwilling to build them even an AAAA level team and unable to find ways to build a ballpark without further fleecing or, at least, having the incumbent dump upgraded to merely passable.

“We created this reverse boycott,” says the organising group, Rooted in Oakland, “to put a halt to the narrative that the A’s must leave Oakland and move to Las Vegas because there are no fans left in Oakland. This is simply untrue, given the A’s have the lowest payroll in MLB, the organization raised ticket prices after a losing season, and the ownership group has abandoned the current fans while focusing all attention on Las Vegas.”

Those with carrot juice for brains ask, “Where are all those mourning and outraged A’s fans now?” Those with brains for brains answer, “In which alternate universe do you expect fans to turn up at a sewage treatment plant to see a team that’s been unbuilt long enough to the point where they might challenge the 1899 Cleveland Spiders for the worst single-season winning percentage in major league history?”

(That would be .130, if you’re scoring at home. As of this morning’s standings, the A’s have a .157 winning percentage. They’re 3-16. Look to your non-laurels, 1962 Mets.)

The Fisher group wanted to soak Alameda County taxpayers for a brand new ballpark at Howard Terminal. County and city officials who don’t have carrot juice for brains said not so fast. Hence the A’s—who once employed the Yankees’ Hall of Fame legend Joe DiMaggio as a coach—turned their lonely eyes to Las Vegas, with the full faith and blessing of baseball’s attention-deficit commissioner to whom the good of the game is either making money for it or making somebody else pay for it.

Beware when you see the stories reading that the A’s plan to build a $1.5 billion retractable-roof, 35,000-seating capacity ballpark on the Vegas land they’re buying from Red Rocks Resorts. If the A’s and Commissioner ADD have their way, they’ll probably build none of it. The new ballpark—oh, for funsie sake, let’s call it the future Henderson Field (for Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, not for Las Vegas’s growing suburb)—is likely to be financed by a hybrid of tax dollars, between Las Vegas’s hotel room taxes and such other local sources as fund the Las Vegas Stadium Authority.*

How many A’s dollars will go into it is unknown for certain at this writing. What’s known for certain: Just on paper, the ballpark land and plan is probably more valuable than the team. Fisher himself is said to be worth $2.5 billion. But indifference proves to be its own malignancy upon a baseball team. The A’s are in dire need of radical chemotherapy.

It’s not as though they have a consistently sterling Oakland legacy. For every season of triumph (the 1972-74 World Series winning streak; the late-1980s AL West ogreship, etc.) there’ve been seasons in hell. They only began with Charlie Finley treating his team like a father who delights in humiliating rather than guiding his children. They only continued with  Billyball’s blowing a young pitching staff out before their time.

But then their Philadelphia ancestors experienced repeated highs followed by repeated nadirs, too. En route Oakland, they stopped in Kansas City, first to become a virtual Yankee farm team (under Arnold Johnson’s ownership); then, to become a plaything to be kicked, beaten, shredded, and embarrassed, and also rebuilt to be a winner in due course—after Finley could get them out of Kansas City as soon as feasible.

Las Vegas may plunge eyes wide shut into building something state-of-the-art for a team about whom the state of its art is as artful (with apologies to a long-deceased political scientist named Willmoore Kendall) as the assassination plot in which everyone in the room is killed except the intended victim.

Perhaps if Commissioner ADD is as hell bent on getting the A’s the hell out of Oakland as its blithely clumsy ownership and administration has been for nigh on a decade, he might think to impose a single but profound condition upon them: “Sell this team to someone who actually knows baseball and believes a major league team requires major league talent on and off the field.” Well, Las Vegas is a city of dreams, isn’t it?

*  Update: Several hours after I wrote the foregoing, I learned the A’s may be asking Las Vegas, through whatever means, to kick at least $500 million toward a new ballpark. I won’t be shocked if or else! is implied there.

Sal Bando, RIP: One grave mistake

Sal Bando

Sal Bando, a solid third baseman and peacemaker/keeper for the Swinging’ A’s, but the eventual American League player representative helping change the player pension plan in 1980 with a grave error.

“Sal Bando,” said Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson about the third baseman for the 1970s Athletics, “was the godfather. Capo di capo, boss of all bosses on the Oakland A’s. We all had our roles, we all contributed, but Sal was the leader and everyone knew it.” In more ways than one.

When then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to put the brakes on A’s manager Dick Williams’s seemingly endless mound conferences in a World Series, Williams chose Bando as his end-run around Kuhn’s edict. This enabled Bando to visit Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter as often as he wanted or needed to settle Hunter down.

“Take him away,” said the Mustache Gang’s 1973 traveling secretary Jim Bank of Bando, who died of cancer Friday at 78, “and that team was nothing.”

That team was also saved a few moments when mere testiness might have turned grave. The early-to-mid-1970s A’s were known as the Swinging’ As, partially for beating everyone else on the field and partially for swinging on each other almost at will, or the drop of a single brickbat. Bando himself had to thwart a few such swings including one that involved more than a flying fist.

After the A’s beat the upstart Mets in the 1973 World Series—and it took seven games to do it—shortstop Bert Campaneris, fuming over Jackson being named the Series MVP despite Campaneris having an arguable better Series, grabbed a table knife during the team’s closed victory dinner and headed for Jackson.

Bando headed Campaneris off at the pass. After enough Series hoopla, including the unconscionable bid by owner Charlie Finley to scapegoat hapless second baseman Mike Andrews over a pair of errors in the Game Two twelfth, the last thing Bando needed was one teammate trying to shish kebab another.

“Because no media was there to document it,” wrote Jason Turbow in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, “the incident was quickly lost amidst the annals of team drama. What really could be said? This, apparently, was how the A’s relaxed.“

“[T]hey didn’t have many rules,” wrote the late Jim Bouton in I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad. “Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.” (Ancient evenings, of course. Today, Bouton would write, “Don’t embarrass the manager to more than two social media sites.”)

A rock-solid third baseman who was too often underrated for his sterling defense (he retired with 8.5 defensive wins above replacement-level among his 61.5 total WAR, and with +35 defensive runs above his league average), Bando couldn’t resist when manager Dick Williams made good on his threat to step down over Finley’s abuses after the ’73 Series and Alvin Dark—a former A’s manager canned after he refused to go along with ginning up an incident and fine against pitcher Lew Krausse—was hired to succeed him.

“When you have a championship club, you don’t make many changes,” Bando told a reporter after Dark’s formal reintroduction. “I hope he doesn’t have too many strict rules, because we haven’t had many the past two years and we don.” As Bouton went on to continue, “[It] doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way.”

That was maybe ten or fifteen percent of the reason. The other 85 percent was because they had a lot of good baseball players. Williams could have tried his long hair, his mustache, and his lack of rules with the Cleveland Indians, for instance, and he would have gotten a lot of long-haired .220 hitters. In fact, there would have been a lot of people blaming his permissive ways for why the Indians didn’t do so good.

Bando, Willliams would remember in his own memoir, No More Mr. Nice Guy, was “the only player I ever socialised with. I’d invite him to my hotel suite after games or during an offday, and we’d just talk baseball. The rest of the [A’s] saw this and figured I must be all right.” Small wonder they didn’t exactly plan a celebration when the fed-up-with-Finley Williams wanted out.

Bando also criticised Finley unapolgetically for his notorious meddling in their off-field lives and for his weaknesses in delivering television contracts to broadcast the team on their own home turf. “In another town, someplace back East,” Bando told The Sporting News in May 1973, “we might be heroes. Here we’re not even something special.”

The Messersmith ruling ended the reserve era near 1975’s end. Bando was one of seven A’s refusing to sign 1976 contracts, electing to play their lawful options out to become free agents at the end of that season. When Finley’s subsequent bid to fire-sale Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers plus pitcher Vida Blue and outfielder Joe Rudi was blocked by Kuhn, and Finley ordered manager Chuck Tanner not to play the three, Bando intervened, threatening a team strike until Finley caved.

The third baseman signed as a free agent with the Brewers, then still in the American League. A player-coach in due course, he finished his playing career in Milwaukee as the team’s and then the American League’s player representative. Which is where Bando made perhaps his worst mistake, even ahead of eventually letting Hall of Famer Paul Molitor escape as a free agent in 1991 when Bando was the Brewers’ general manager.

When the Major League Baseball Players Association joined with the owners to revamp the player pension plan in 1980, the result was 43 days major league service time to qualify for a pension and one day’s major league service time to qualify for health benefits. But it excluded players with major league careers shy of the previous four-year vesting requirement even if they had 43 days or more major league time.

Their redress since has been a 2011 deal between then-MLBPA director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig, giving them $625 per quartet for every 43 days’ worth of MLB time, up to four years’ worth. And, a fifteen percent hike in that stipend as a result of last winter’s lockout settlement. The kickers: It’s still not a full pension, and the players can’t pass the money to their families upon their deaths.

Today, there are 514 pre-1980, short-career players without full baseball pensions. The most recent such affected player to pass was Bill Davis, a first baseman/pinch hitter who played in part of two 1960s seasons with the Indians and one with the expansion Padres.

Bando and his National League player rep counterpart, Montreal Expos pitcher Steve Rogers, voted in favour of the 1980 change and the exclusion. Various surviving affected players even now suspect the reasons included perceptions that they were mere September callups. But a majority of the affected players actually made teams out of spring training, or came up to play in the Show in months prior to September in various seasons.

The solid third baseman who didn’t suffer Charlie Finley’s act gladly suffered a momentary lapse of reason that left several hundred players with short careers but long vision in supporting their union on the undeserved short end of a big economic stick.

A man smart with his own money during his playing days, working off-seasons in banking before the free agency era, then creating a successful investment firm after his playing days ended, should have been smart enough to know better.