Sports | August 29, 2022 6:17 am

How the Oakland Athletics Became the Sorriest Franchise in Professional Sports

Worst record in the American League, rogue possums, fans having sex in the stands...this is as bad as it gets

A view of the Oakland Coliseum in 1989.
The year was 1989. The Athletics swept the World Series. It's been downhill ever since.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

The only thing more depressing than striking out on a called third strike to end a baseball game is being ejected immediately after.

That’s how one day ended for Oakland Athletics outfielder Seth Brown earlier this summer, when, after home plate umpire Nic Lentz rung him up on a pitch outside of the zone, Brown unleashed a barrage of…interesting instructions. On an irate march back to the dugout, Brown screamed at Lentz: “FUCK YOUR DAD AND FUCK YOUR MOM.”

A little much? Oh yeah. But at least he cared. The same couldn’t be said for the smattering of fans who’d bothered to come by the RingCentral Coliseum that day. Brown’s team had somehow managed to lose a game in which their starting pitcher, Frankie Montas, had carried a perfect game into the eight inning.

Oakland Athletics games these days look like the country is still locked in peak quarantine. For the first time in 40 years, the ballclub is poised to reel in less than one-million fans in a season. It could actually come in well under; the ticketing office can only count 567,301 to date, which amounts to an average of around 9,000 visitors per game. The “ballpark” that the franchise carves out of the erstwhile football stadium for each homestand is built to accommodate over five times that amount.

Nope, this shot isn’t from a COVID-era game. This photo was taken a few days ago.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Whenever fans do come, “fun for the family” isn’t on the menu. The setting leans more apocalyptic. On last week’s YES Network broadcast (the New York Yankees were in town), commentators Michael Kay and Meredith Marakovitz were baffled by possum cages in the press booth. But possum sightings are a regular occurrence in the nooks and crannies of MLB’s fifth-oldest stadium. Sportswriters have taken to Twitter this season with spooky shots of possums poking their heads through holes in the ceiling.

After one made it onto the field back in 2014, fans embraced the sighting. It was trotting around near the foul pole in extra innings, so, naturally, it was dubbed the Rally Possum. But the maximum lifespan of the North America possum is just four years. It’s nice to think that the Coliseum is home to an ancient, elusive marsupial, but the truth is far more logistical and dispiriting than that: the Athletics simply don’t care enough to rid themselves of a generational possum infestation.

Or perhaps they’re just unwilling to devote any money towards fixing the issue. This would square with how the ballclub likes to conduct its affairs these days. It has a payroll under $50 million at the moment, second-lowest in the league, and after a trade deadline in which it traded away whatever “stars” (extremely relative term here) that it had left, the highest-paid player — a man named Chad Pinder — makes just $2.5 million. That’s half the major league average. Overall, the team’s payroll is as low as it’s been since the year 2003. This despite the fact that John Fisher and Lew Wolff bought the team in 2005 for $180 million, and it’s now worth six-and-a-half times that amount, at $1.18 billion.

Despite mismanagement at the top and a proud tradition of trading away talent, the Athletics have managed some success in recent years. They won 97 games in both 2018 and 2019, and were a legitimate divisional foe at the peak of the Houston Astros’ 2010s run. But the team has only won five playoff games since under this ownership group, and haven’t gotten out of the ALDS in over 15 years.

Definitely not helping is the team’s bizarre love affair with Billy Beane’s “moneyball” philosophy, a concept that was misrepresented in a film adaptation of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season. While a worthy catalogue of the analytics revolution that has taken over baseball in the 21st-century, the movie over-emphasized the importance of low-cost, high-OBP players in the pursuit of winning ballgames, while conveniently ignoring that in that 103-win season, Miguel Tejada won MVP for the ballclub and Barry Zito won the Cy Young. That’s only happened 19 times in MLB history, and not since 2013.

Sometimes, the Athletics front office gets out of the way of the Athletics baseball team long enough for the team to win games. But no team could possibly withstand the current stranglehold on dugout. This year’s installment of the Athletics is on pace to lose over 100 games. Either they’ll finish bottom of the MLB, or they’ll lose the dubious prize to the Washington Nationals, who just traded away this generation’s Ted Williams.

An Oakland Athletics outfielder tries to rob a home run.
Another day at the Coliseum. The A’s have a run-differential of -153 this year.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For years, the team’s direction off the field has been as confused as this year’s play within the lines. The franchise has not-so-subtly threatened to follow its old roommates (the Raiders) to Las Vegas, if the sparkling, $12-billion “Howard Terminal Project” (a 35,000-capacity, Bjarke Ingels-designed stadium, with surrounding developments, in the Port of Oakland) isn’t paid for by local municipalities. There was some good news for the franchise in late June — when Bay Area officials reclassified the 56 waterfront acres as a “mixed-use” area — but it’s still unclear whether taxpayers will be contributing to the project, and truckers and longshore workers are actively suing the commission that’s allowing the Athletics to build by the water. So: there’s still no plan, and no vote on what to do about it this November. Oh, and the Coliseum lease runs out in 2024. The ceremonial shovels needed to scoop dirt yesterday.

This team is a Rob Manfred migraine that even the Tampa Bay Rays, inventors of that disingenuous “sister city solution” (they wanted to play half their games in Montreal) can’t match. MLB is keen on adding teams in Nashville, Charlotte, Portland and Austin. You know: fun, forward-looking moves that invigorate fans of the game and create millions of new ones. Instead, they’re stuck dragging around a franchise that doesn’t take itself seriously, yet inexplicably, despite playing in one of the biggest markets in the country, takes revenue-sharing dollars from other, earning ballclubs.

Does the sorriest franchise in professional sports just need new ownership? The owner of the Golden State Warriors, Joe Lacob says he’s had a “standing offer” to buy the Athletics from Fisher for “I don’t know how long,” according to an interview with NBC from last month. That could be a hell of a change; Lacob has four rings since buying the Warriors 12 years ago, and the team is famous for managing its players in the exact opposite fashion to the Athletics. It retains its homegrown talent (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) and builds around it for as many champion runs as possible.

Sometimes, all it takes is one owner who gives a shit. Steve Cohen, a lifelong New York Mets fan who’s willing and happy to spend money, has completely changed the culture and expectations around that franchise since purchasing it in 2020. The Mets head into September atop their division, as clear title contenders.

Maybe, though, just maybe, the Athletics’ woes all track back to the Coliseum, a structure the The New York Times once succinctly summarized as “a bland, charmless concrete monstrosity that isn’t worthy of preservation.” That line came from an article titled “The Oakland A’s Are Trying to Solve Their Stadium Problem. Still.” It was written five years ago. If only the writer knew where the Athletics would be in 2022: not yet down by the water, let alone down in Vegas, but still here, playing in the country’s biggest dump, a place where rodents roam, E coli spreads in sewage-soaked locker rooms, and fans would rather go down on each other in the upper reaches of the miserable stands than be subjected to a bastardized edition of their national pastime.