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When it Hits the Fan
by Chris De Benedetti
Previous Columns

'Yeah, We've BEEN to Oakland...And We Love It' - 01/27/2002

When Jason Giambi went on David Letterman's show last December 14th, maybe his rhetorical question should have been re-directed to San Francisco sports scribes: "Have YOU ever been to Oakland?"

If you have, then you would know how vibrant, diverse and underrated it is. And you would clearly know just how crass any columnist sounds when taking pot shots at a city whose athletic history -- professional and amateur -- is remarkably rich and colorful, given its relatively brief history.

The outright glee with which some Bay Area writers reacted to both Giambi's departure from Oakland and his subsequent appearance in the Letterman bit, where he bashed his former city in a Top Ten list, symbolizes the frustrations of most Oakland A's fans. For, ever since the Peter Magowan-led Giants enjoyed success in the late '90s at a time that the A's were suffering in the win column, it became hip to claim that this area is a one-team market; that Oakland was a bad baseball town.

There's just one problem with that assertion: It's simply not true. Not even close.

Have the A's enjoyed on-the-field success in Oakland? A resounding yes. The Oakland Athletics were the first professional team in the Bay Area to win a World Championship in ANY sport. Until 1998, the Oakland Athletics had won the most World Series (four), American League Championships (six) and Divisional Titles (10) since the advent of divisional play, which coincided with the arrival of the A's in Oakland in 1968. As it stands now, only a little team called the New York Yankees have surpassed the A's on-field success.

But, it's the box-office where Oakland has surely come up short, right? Wrong again.

While attendance has not been perfect for the A's in the Steve Schott era for, it's been much stronger than reported. For example, this year Oakland drew 2.1 million fans, an excellent total given that the team stunk for the first 3 months and rumors of moving haunted the entire season. 2.1 million fans isn't that impressive, you say? Consider this: It was more than 7 other American League teams' attendance and it's 100,000 more than the Giants drew just 2 years ago in their farewell to 3Com Park. The A's drew 1.7 million fans in 2000 and were criticized for it. But, that was 100,000 more than the Giants drew when they won their division in 1997, only four years ago. We're frequently told that the Giants are the more popular team in the area. Yet, in the 34 years the two teams have shared this market, the attendance race between the two teams is a dead heat: 17-17. The Yankees once went 25 years (between 1950-75) without drawing 2 million fans. Oakland, by comparison, has drawn over 2 million fans seven times in the last 14 years alone.

Commissioner Bud Selig was quoted in a TV interview this summer as saying that the A's moving to Oakland "was a horrible mistake" and that "they never did well there." Given the facts stated above, the Commissioner is 100 percent wrong. In fact, Oakland has more than acquitted itself as a big-league market that can support its teams.

In light of that, disconcerting questions regarding Major League Baseball's actions vis-a-vis the A's remain: Does Commissioner Selig want baseball out of Oakland? The A's owners tried to sell in '99 and Selig tabled the prospective ownership group. Selig explained that none of the "underperforming" franchises could be sold until a report by their "Blue Ribbon" panel was completed. Yet, before the report was finished, Selig and MLB officials approved the purchase of another "underperforming" team, the Montreal Expos. Why was Montreal allowed to change owners in this scenario, but not Oakland? Similarly, the A's were reportedly close to selling the team this summer to Mandalay Sports. It never happened. One explanation given by MLB for the non-sale was that they were too busy readying for imminent labor negotiatons to approve ANY ownership transactions. However, the Boston Red Sox were sold in mid-December (also with controversy concerning Selig's behind-the-scenes actions) and still no labor agreement is in sight.

Apparently, there are two sets of rules with ownership transfers: One set for the Oakland A's and another for the rest of the league.

Is Selig not allowing the current A's owners to sell? If yes, then is Selig, in effect, holding the A's "hostage" because he needs as many teams as possible to APPEAR to be struggling to give him leverage in negotiations with the Players' Association as this offseason's labor war heats up?

The normal way to get answers to these questions is to rely on reporters, local or national, to investigate, to ask the hard questions. But, that takes work and integrity, and these days those qualities are as short in supply as quality left-handed pitchers. Really, who has time for objective reporting when cheap-shot columns rehashing outdated regional stereotypes are so much easier? And hey, only the national pastime's credibility and a city's prestige -- Oakland's -- hang in the balance.

For years, Oakland has fully and adequately supported the A's. And if San Francisco can finally enjoy box office success with Pacific Bell Park after 40 straight years of being a "bad baseball town," then Oakland has certainly earned the right to solidify their relationship with the A's, namely, by building a baseball-only ballpark in or near downtown Oakland. The question is, will Bud Selig give them the chance? If he doesn't, will we let him get away with it?

Some people around the Bay -- they're called snobs and elitists, technically -- have no time for a working-class city like Oakland. It's their loss. These people view Oakland as the ugly stepchild of the Bay Area. In fact, it's more like the Rodney Dangerfield. It gets no respect, but that doesn't make its critics right. The cumulative negative effect that gibes like Letterman's and Giambi's have on the city is as damaging as it is inaccurate. It leads one to ask again, "Have YOU ever been to Oakland?" If you thought Giambi's Top Ten list was funny, then it's obvious you haven't.

by Chris De Benedetti

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