As the A’s take the field for their home opener Friday against the Seattle Mariners, the team’s overachieving glory days depicted in last year’s “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt as General Manager Billy Beane are a warm, if distant glimmer.
While Opening Day traditionally represents a time of hope, this year it presents Oakland with the twin quandaries of a team that seems overmatched on the field and eager to leave the O.co Coliseum — the latest name for the former Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, its longtime home.
The owners, Lew Wolff and John Fisher, have been striving to get approval for a new ballpark in San Jose, a city eager for big league ball. But they have been thwarted thus far by the San Francisco Giants, who own the territorial rights to San Jose.
With the exception of 2010, when the A’s finished 81-81, they have not had a winning season in five years. In this most recent off-season, the A’s once again traded or failed to re-sign several of their best players, including pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey.
“They don’t want to win,” said Garth Kimball, a founder of Baseball Oakland, a group trying to keep the A’s in town. “They want to be able to get out of town without anybody caring.”
Yet the A’s are not totally conceding the division to big-spending rivals. They signed the Cuban slugger Yoenis Céspedes to a four-year, $36 million contract, and also signed Manny Ramirez, a once-feared hitter who won’t be eligible to play until May 30 because of a suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.
Attendance at A’s games, however, has been a persistent problem: Last year it was the worst in the major leagues. “For us to compete, we’re going to have to have a new stadium,” Beane has said — an argument Kimball calls tantamount to the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing games for gamblers. “It’s money-driven,” he said.
Kimball is also irked that Wolff has placed tarps across 9,000 seats covering most of the upper deck. “It was a way of embarrassing the fans,” Kimball said. “It’s the Montreal-ization of the Oakland Athletics.”
Jim Leahey, the A’s vice president of marketing and sales, said through a spokesman that the team does not need 44,000 seats. “It is not a great fan experience to sit in the upper deck at our park, especially in the outfield,” he said, “and it doesn’t make business sense to staff those areas when there are not enough fans to fill the park.”
Leahey said the A’s offer fans many other enticements, from cheap tickets to novelty bobbleheads.
The San Jose gambit has been an ongoing story line with the Giants and A’s. When Walter Haas owned the A’s, he gave the Giants the rights in 1990, when the owner Bob Lurie was trying to escape Candlestick Park. The effort failed, but the rights stayed, even when Lurie sold the team to a group that included John Fisher’s father, Donald Fisher, founder of the Gap stores.
Now the A’s are in roughly the same position as Lurie was in the 1980s: Trying to persuade fans to come to the park, while publicly decrying its conditions in an effort to build a new one.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.