- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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For the first 10 years of their existence, the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays provided the standard laugh track for big league baseball. Teams that had mismanaged their clubs or complained about the public refusing to build them a ballpark could always point to Tampa Bay and feel better.
Since the club's first winning season in 2008, however, the Rays have won a pennant and two American League East titles, have drafted tremendously, and, after stockpiling 10 first-round picks at this month's amateur draft, are being applauded for their fiscal responsibility and talent evaluation in a division in which the two dominant franchises, Boston and New York, share great advantages over every other team in baseball.
Three thousand miles away, the A's have captured six pennants since arriving in Oakland in 1968, second only to the Yankees in that time frame. Five players -- Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Rickey Henderson -- built their Hall of Fame cases in Oakland. The A's franchise, since its inception as the Philadelphia entry of the newly formed American League in 1901, has won the pennant 15 times, again second only to the Yankees.
Both are certainly in trouble. The A's could be homeless when their stadium lease expires next season, and no one comes to see the Rays play even as they've begun to do everything right.
Baseball blames the public, a predictable response. But the nation's two "Bay Area"s are infamously linked by a quagmire of greed with roots dating back 20 years.
In 1992, National League owners blocked the San Francisco Giants from moving to St. Petersburg. Ten days later, local ownership led by Walter Shorenstein and Peter Magowan purchased the Giants and signed Barry Bonds to the richest contract in baseball history even before they actually took control of the club. Now, the Giants are on the verge of becoming one of the richest teams in the game.
The romantic tale behind that blocked move to St. Pete in '92 is that the NL preserved the Giants in San Francisco for posterity and gastronomy: Owners loved San Francisco's restaurants. The actual story is that baseball's owners were fighting among themselves over money and were just months from ousting commissioner Fay Vincent and forcing a devastating strike, and they wanted to keep the Tampa Bay market open to expansion and the lucrative fees that followed. In the five-year period from 1992 to 1997, baseball extracted more than $500 million in expansion fees from Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay and Arizona.
The chain reaction in Tampa Bay still resonates. Fans are being blamed for not embracing a ballpark that was never attractive; but, from geography issues to fan interest, baseball has never believed in the Tampa Bay market. Landing the Giants might have resonated with the aging, nostalgic New York transplant element in Florida; but it wouldn't have mattered in the long run. Playing in that ballpark would have been as much of a disaster for the Giants as it has been for the Rays.
At any rate, the 1992 failure to bring the Giants to town was the seventh time in seven chances that Tampa Bay lost on attracting a team. Baseball knew the problems, and chose the short-term windfall ($155 million in expansion fees) over long-term health.
Thus, the expansion Rays were doomed to play in a facility unsuitable for baseball and -- surprise! -- attendance (or lack of it) has proved that stadium atmosphere (or lack of it) might be a stronger negative than the positive of a winning team.
Three years after Tampa Bay debuted, an executive summary written by HOK, baseball's exclusive architecture firm, declared, "We believe site location is the most critical issue to the success of a ballpark," in reference to a potential new ballpark for the A's. Tropicana Field (then the Suncoast Dome) had -- and has -- the worst ambience in baseball and is situated in the worst location in baseball.
Baseball knew this, and still took the money.
A year after winning the pennant in 2008, the Rays were 11th out of the 14 American League teams in attendance. In 13 full seasons, Tampa Bay has finished higher than 10th in attendance only twice (seventh in its inaugural season and ninth last year) and was dead last for seven straight years from 2001 through 2007.
Meanwhile, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the move to block the Giants from leaving for Florida was made without clarifying the game's convoluted territory rules -- greed of another sort. MLB excluded San Jose, which has become one of the 10 largest cities in the country, from acquiring a big league team. Baseball considers San Jose to be Giants territory, meaning it is unavailable to the A's.
Stuck in Oakland, owner Lew Wolff is cornered by a city leadership that has never shown the requisite passion to commit to the team, and Wolff, in turn, hasn't grounded the team as an indispensable part of the community.
Baseball has been here before. Talk to the people in Montreal who witnessed a careful succession of curious decisions that led to the depression and ultimate relocation of the Expos to Washington. Listen to the stories of how ownership did not market the club, how the team went as far as not providing street signage and directions to the ballpark in English as a way of discouraging attendance -- an indirect strategy designed to facilitate a departure from town. An impressive lineup of ex-Expos who found their way into the World Series with other teams (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, John Wetteland, for example) should make the Rays think of their best players (Carl Crawford and Dan Wheeler in Boston, Rafael Soriano with the Yankees, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena with the Cubs) now playing for big-market clubs.
A's fans will nod, too. Despite Wolff's protestations that he is not purposely burying his club, the A's appear to be following the Montreal narrative. Wolff is correct that Oakland has lacked the political leadership to give him optimism -- with the brief exception of city manager Robert Bobb. No mayor, from Elihu Harris to Jerry Brown to Ron Dellums to Jean Quan, has used significant muscle to make the A's a priority.
Wolff has no reason to trust Oakland politicians, not after the city and Alameda County leadership all but ruined the fan experience at the Oakland Coliseum to accommodate the disastrous return of the Oakland Raiders.
But there is another truth Wolff must face: Oakland doesn't have much reason to trust him, either. Since Walter Haas sold the team in 1995, A's owners have done everything in their power to leave Oakland, physically and emotionally.
The commissioner's office, too, is complicit in the sabotaging of Oakland. Bud Selig rightfully lauds his three-person committee assigned to the daunting and thankless task of assessing the feasibility of baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area. But although he interprets the length of time the committee has taken to reach a finding -- two years and counting since March 2009 -- as evidence of its diligence, Selig is selling a false timetable, for he has actually had the A's-San Jose relocation question on his desk for 14 years.
The city of San Jose made its first overtures to then-owners Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann to lure the A's from Oakland back in 1997. In 1998, Schott and Hofmann began in earnest to cultivate Santa Clara County regarding a site near the Great America theme park. Selig could have answered the question of territorial rights then, long before Wolff purchased the team, just as the Giants' Pacific Bell Park was under construction. Schott and Hofmann continued to insult Oakland by trying to make inroads in Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas; and Sacramento, Calif., in addition to San Jose.
Now, while Wolff and Oakland's civic leaders snarl at one another (or worse, fail to sit down and meet), Selig's committee, as well as the city, appears intrigued by a parcel of land in Oakland called Victory Court, which is located on the waterfront, close to public transportation.
The problem is that Wolff has known about this site for years, and Victory Court underscores just how much distance exists between Wolff and the city. A decade ago, when Schott and Hofmann owned the club, the city commissioned HOK to conduct a confidential study of seven potential ballpark sites in Oakland and elsewhere in Alameda County. They concluded that, of the seven, a site quite near to Victory Court referred to in the study as the "Oak to 9th Plan" was the least feasible, with an estimated cost of $565 million.
Deals don't get done by convincing people they can't work. Wolff knows this. He has made a living in the building business. He knows that the combination of civic energy, passion, creativity, perseverance and belief in a project -- along with friends in powerful positions who can green-light a project -- can turn a challenge into a success. AT&T Park (formerly Pacific Bell Park) provides the best example.
Wolff says he went into his research with the best, most positive intentions. But the energy he brings to Oakland, like that of Schott and Hofmann before him, is negative -- the conviction that baseball in Oakland is dead.
Maybe, ultimately, he is right. Maybe Oakland no longer can support big league baseball. Maybe the team belongs in San Jose or San Antonio. The problem is that Wolff has no option except the one he hasn't been willing to consider: to forge the kind of spirit and positive partnership with Oakland required for making a $600 million project work. No trust exists between the two sides.
Wheels exist within wheels, and quite possibly the Giants and Rays continue to be linked. When the Giants foundered in Candlestick Park, executives pointed to weak attendance but strong television ratings as proof that the problem was not the market but the ballpark. The Rays' television data suggests, too, that the problem might not be the market, after all, but the lack of a nice place to watch a game. The Giants took a risk and built their own ballpark. If the Rays are to be taken seriously, they might need to do the same.
Baseball is a closed club. San Jose is finding that out the hard way. In Los Angeles, Frank McCourt has discovered the price of embarrassing the commissioner, and the only way to save the A's is for Selig to call everyone's bluff -- including his own -- by allowing his committee and the city to work out a deal with transparency and put it on the table to find out once and for all whether Oakland can create a workable stadium deal. Wolff clearly does not want to be in Oakland. If he did, his top executives wouldn't be trashing the city's potential.
McCourt is finished in baseball. Wolff is already based in Los Angeles and has resources. If he isn't already, Selig should begin negotiating the exit plan for McCourt and install Wolff as the new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Removing Wolff from Oakland and installing him in Los Angeles solves two key issues: (1) It opens the door for a clean slate of negotiations between a new A's ownership group and the city of Oakland; and (2) by awarding Wolff one of the four most important franchises in baseball (the Yankees, Cardinals and Red Sox are the other three), it compensates him for blocking him from San Jose.
A fresh start in Oakland calls the city's bluff to produce the comprehensive plan for a legitimate new stadium for the A's -- a plan Wolff says does not exist -- and will put the issue of whether the San Francisco Bay Area is truly a one-team market to the test. If Oakland succeeds, both sides win.
If the city fails, Oakland would have no one to blame but itself. Baseball's next move for the franchise would be either contraction or relocation to San Antonio; New York City; Charlotte, N.C., or some other location. Selig and Wolff would be vindicated after all. But nothing gets done without dialogue. The worst-case scenario might not be ideal for the A's in Oakland; but at least it finally would be honest.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
The Rays and the A's keep learning the hard way that people won't watch baseball in a bad ballpark. But the problems in Tampa Bay and Oakland don't stop with their stadium issues.