Autumn is always a strange time for baseball fans. Games are gripping and often beautiful. Cool weather lends baseball a regality it lacks in the dog days of summer. But the season is imbued with a stubborn twinge of melancholy, an unshakeable sense of an end of things. Summer dies in September. Every fan mourns its passing.
In Oakland, however, the end of the 2023 baseball season has brought with it a different kind of dissonance, born of a more tangible sense of mourning.
Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum 13,102 fans gathered to watch the A’s final home game of the year against the Detroit Tigers. It was a perfect day for baseball—blue skies, green grass, a sympathetic breeze, stands full of chattering fans, and children in little league uniforms clattering puppy-like after foul balls. Everyone I spoke with inside and outside the Coliseum seemed to appreciate the simple fact of being there. On my way from BART to the Coliseum’s south lot, I hitched a ride on the motorized cart of Martha Marin, a grandmotherly Oakland native who’s helped transport fans across the Coliseum’s vast expanses of concrete and asphalt for more than six years. I asked her how she likes working A’s games.
“Oh, I love it,” she told me, gesturing at the sea of Kelly-green A’s gear spilling across the parking lot below. “I meet all kinds of wonderful people, I get to enjoy the sunshine, and I get to move around. It’s great.”
The A’s played admirably, as well, with a spark of hustle and spunk one wouldn’t typically expect from a last-place team on a no-meaning day. Left fielder Esteury Ruiz led off the A’s half of the first inning with a single; then he stole second; then he tried stealing third.
The true stars of the day, however, were A’s fans themselves, in particular members of the Last Dive Bar and the Oakland 68s, the supporters’ groups who sit in the left and right field bleachers, respectively, and who over the course of the afternoon transcended their role as mere spectators by becoming active participants in the proceedings. That started some two hours before first pitch when the 68s commissioned a prop plane to fly back and forth over the Coliseum’s airspace trailing a red-and-white banner reading “DORIS, COME GET YOUR KID”—a message to A’s owner John Fisher’s mother, Doris, and a callback to the billboard ads that members of Last Dive Bar had taken out earlier in the month denouncing Fisher’s decisions to disinvest in the team while seeking to move it to Las Vegas.
Thirty minutes before the first pitch, the 68s recongregated on the eastern side of the BART pedestrian bridge. Cladin Oaklandish-printed “SELL” shirts, they marched in unison back into the stadium, hoisting flags and repeating their signature exhortations—“Sell the team! Stay-in-Oak-land!” They sounded like a Viking horde descending upon a concrete castle.
They got the entire Coliseum to repeat those chants in the top of the fifth inning, as has become custom, and in the 7th, across the entirety of the lower span of the right field bleachers, they unfurled a massive golden flag embossed with the Oakland city crest and appended with the hand-drawn message: “Oakland will never quit.” It billowed triumphantly in the breeze and made its way onto the Coliseum’s scoreboard.
The unfortunate part of Sunday afternoon is that the A’s—and, with them, major league sports—may not be long for the East Bay. This is what sets A’s fans’ autumn melancholy apart from that of other teams’ fans in other cities. Elsewhere, fans dread a long winter with no games to attend. Fans in Oakland face an entirely uncertain future.
Next year might be the last the A’s play in Oakland
“It’s bittersweet,” Anson Cansenaras, a 68s spokesperson and lifelong A’s fan, told me in the parking lot before the game. “I’m a little exhausted. In this community, A’s games bring us together. But it’s hard knowing these days might be numbered.”
“It’s always emotional on the last day of the home schedule. But especially this year,” said A’s diehard Will McNeil, who goes by the moniker Right Field Will, and can be found almost every home game seated proudly in the first row of section 149, in the right field bleachers, gesticulating wildly with a giant A’s flag he likes to extend over the right field railing between innings. “We don’t know what next year’s going to hold. Hell, it could be the A’s last year here. So we’re trying to enjoy every second of it while we can, while we have it.”
If you’ve been following Oakland politics even casually over the last several years, you’re familiar with what McNeil and Cansenaras are talking about. It’s outside the scope of this article to explicate it fully, but in summary, the issue lies with A’s owner, John Fisher, who purchased the team in 2005, and who has been working with varying degrees of ruthlessness—and often with direct assistance of Major League Baseball—to move the A’s somewhere other than East Oakland ever since. Last spring, he announced that he’d committed officially to relocating the A’s to Las Vegas.
This decision followed several years of intensive negotiations with Oakland’s leaders over terms to a potential stadium deal that seemed to turn uglier and more stressful with each passing month—and that infected the experience of caring about the A’s with a kind of hostage-situation anxiety. By 2021, Fisher and A’s team president Dave Kaval was positioning the approval of a massively complex and eye-poppingly expensive mixed-use development on Oakland’s waterfront—the Waterfront Ballpark Project at Howard Terminal, which was to rely on nearly $1b in public funding—as Oaklanders’ only chance of keeping the A’s in Oakland.
All the while, Fisher, who is estimated to be worth up to $2.5 billion, maintained punishingly low payrolls, trading away or letting go every single one of the A’s good and exciting young players, and insisting that the A’s wouldn’t ever be able to invest in their on-field product until they’d secured a stadium that could provide more reliable revenue streams. Many feel that Fisher also allowed the Coliseum to fall into disrepair and that he divested from the in-game experience by closing concession stands and firing vendors.
In 2022, the A’s lost 102 games. Casual fans began to feel like they were being played and some boycotted with their wallets, resulting in record-low attendance. Nearly each night last year visiting beat writers shared on social media disquieting images of a nearly empty Oakland Coliseum at game-time. On TV, the Coliseum at game time often looked abandoned, and the perception of Oakland’s viability as a sports town took a hit.
Fisher’s critics contend that this was precisely his aim. Coloring Oakland as incapable of or uninterested in supporting Major League Baseball supported the economic and political pretext for relocating the team.
“Fisher didn’t want people showing up in Oakland to see his team,” the sports writer Dayn Perry wrote in June, because “if they did, it would make his straits in Oakland seem less desperate.”
Diehards like Cansenaras and McNeil, meanwhile, found themselves caught in the middle, their misery repurposed into a point of leverage. But they held out hope that the A’s, and with them, major league sports in Oakland, would ultimately remain rooted here, somehow.
Then, just a few weeks into the 2023 season, Fisher announced—through what at least one Oakland official suspects was a coordinated leak—that he’d entered into a “binding agreement” to build a stadium for the A’s in Las Vegas. Two months later, legislation earmarking public funding for stadium construction was signed into law by Nevada’s governor, Joe Lombardo.
Adding insult to injury, in recent interviews, Fisher and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred have tried laying the blame for the A’s ultimately needing to relocate resolutely at the feet of Oaklanders themselves. “We have shown an unbelievable commitment to the fans in Oakland by exhausting every possible opportunity to try to get something done,” Manfred said earlier this summer. “Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to have the will.”
Oakland mayor Sheng Thao has insisted the A’s and the city were in fact only $36 million apart from satisfying the A’s originally stipulated terms. Oakland also secured nearly $1b to put towards the waterfront ballpark project Fisher desired.
Fears of job losses and the erasure of a community gathering space
Las Vegas is not yet a done deal. Fisher submitted the A’s official relocation application to Major League Baseball last month and a vote to approve or deny the move by baseball’s 29 other owners is expected in November. Even if the owners vote yes, Fisher still has to prove he can get his new stadium in Las Vegas built, which is not a foregone conclusion, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, thanks to Fisher, the A’s presence in Oakland is precarious, and the Town’s legacy as a sports mecca, along with the community spaces like the Oakland Coliseum that major league sports support, remains under a kind of siege. Consultants hired by Fisher insisted last summer in Carson City that even if the A’s deal in Vegas somehow falls through, Fisher will try to move the team somewhere else, rather than recommit to Oakland.
None of this sits altogether well with A’s fans who feel they’re being robbed of something that might be impossible to replace by someone who doesn’t appreciate the sanctity of what he’s stealing.
“This year has been a culmination of years and years of our owner running us down and convincing us that we’re not enough, that our stadium isn’t enough,” Nina Thorsen, a bleacher mainstay I sat next to in right field, said to me. “It’s really frustrating. There’s so much that’s been contradictory about it.”
“I’m just mad,” said Hal Gordon, AKA Hal the Hot Dog Guy, a lead organizer of many of the summer’s pre-eminent fan protests, including the nationally celebrated reverse boycott held back in June. “I called my dad this morning and told him I was going to the stadium today. My dad’s a White Sox fan. He took me to games on the south side my whole life but he knows the A’s are my team now, and he just let out a deep sigh and said, ‘I’m so sorry man. It really sucks.’ And it does. It’s awful. It’s frustrating because this should be a source of joy in people’s lives. Instead, it’s just become stressful.”
Concern over the future of sports in Oakland and at the Coliseum was not limited to fans on Sunday afternoon. Everyone I spoke to during the game—from the concessions workers to the security guards to the bartenders in the Coliseum’s inner sanctum—seemed burdened by the extent of all they seemed poised to lose.
“Well I’m worried about whether I’m going to have a job next year,” said Don, a bartender in the Treehouse lounge who’s worked at the Coliseum for nine years. He looked around at the ping pong tables and arcade games that decorate the Treehouse’s carpeted eastern flank. “And it’s really a shame, you know, because A’s games are where you get all the kids. We have more little league days here than normal days. Kids singing the anthem. All these kids who the A’s have turned onto baseball, they may be turned away next year. It’s sad to see.”
“It’s bad news, man,” said Carl, a hotdog vendor who’s been serving food at the Coliseum for more than 30 years. He fixed me a delicious bratwurst, then shook his head as he handed it to me. “I don’t know what comes next.”
Sorrow attended the thought not only of losing the A’s and the jobs they help provide, but of losing the community spaces afforded by the Coliseum itself, which, for all its infrastructural shortcomings, remains remains one of the East Bay’s pre-eminent egalitarian community gathering spaces, a site both of parties and protests that doesn’t often get the love it arguably deserves.
“It’s so sad,” Sylvia, a security agent at the Coliseum since 2006, told me. She feigned tears. “We’re going to lose our jobs. The Coliseum has just been a wonderful place to work.”
Casey Pratt, perhaps the East Bay’s foremost expert on the A’s relocation drama, predicts the A’s will play in the Coliseum for a few more years, so long as Oakland extends the team’s lease while construction proceeds in Las Vegas.
At any rate, nobody at the Coliseum Sunday appeared ready to stop fighting for this place they love or the team that sustains it.
“There’s still plenty part of me that wants to fight,” Gordon told me. He cited Schools over Stadiums, a campaign led by the Nevada State Educators Association teachers’ union to put the proposed A’s stadium funding bill up for referendum, allowing voters to possibly reject it. “There’s time to organize. None of us is done yet.”
Mike Davie, an impressively mustached Oakland native who’s been attending A’s games his whole life, told me he’s fighting not just for the A’s and the Coliseum, but for Oakland’s legacy.
“Oakland is a great sports town,” Davie told me. “The cost of this ownership has been a loss of community. When this stadium is full, the energy is unmatched. The energy in bars around town when the A’s are good is unmatched. I remember jogging around Lake Merritt in 2013 during the A’s playoff run that year and the A’s game was playing on a dozen different car radios. The potential for Oakland to be an amazing sports town has always been here. We should own this.”
Davie’s comment stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the game. Oakland is a great sports town, and it’s predominantly for the passion and character its teams have aroused in residents. Oaklanders didn’t just take pride in their teams of old. They relied on them. These teams functioned as civic institutions and cultural icons. But through their intense, boisterous support—from the bleachers to Roaracle to the Black Hole—they also lent the teams themselves a new kind of character and clout. The relationship between this city and sports was symbiotic.
This, too, was on display Sunday. Fans embodied Oakland’s singular dissident spirit by employing it in protest. Not long after I spoke with Davie, the 68s unfurled their giant Oakland flag across the top of the right-field bleachers. Ken Korach, the A’s longtime radio announcer, recognized it on the afternoon broadcast. National sports writers shared images of the flag widely on social media. Moments like this have elevated the experience of caring about the A’s and attending their games out of the realm of entertainment all season long.
Before I left the Coliseum, I took one final lap around the place. I keenly felt the cognitive dissonance of the day. It was still a joy to be submersed in September baseball. Here, on the field, were our Oakland Athletics. Here, everywhere you looked, were our colors, the same green and gold that can be found on the Oakland flag that the 68s had draped triumphantly over the right-field bleachers. Here, on a velvet green diamond, was baseball—pristine, pretty baseball—being played beneath a light blue East Bay sky. It was the same as it ever was, even as the melancholy of our heavier kind of autumn hung thick in the air. The Coliseum was still full of joy, the zip of baseball chatter still enlivening and electric, the smell of hot dogs tantalizing in a primal kind of way. In the middle of the seventh, everyone still stood up and sang a song, and it still filled me with happiness, the way that song always has.
But then I thought about how uniformly everyone in attendance seemed to appreciate the simple fact of being there, how perfectly the afternoon’s sense of protest and joy seemed to capture this strange season’s complicated drama in microcosm. It transcended baseball. The clichè saying is that we never appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Not so at baseball’s Last Dive Bar on Sunday.
As I was finally leaving the park, I ran into Juan Rankin, a security guard who remembers watching the A’s win three World Series in a row in the 1970s.
“This is history right here,” Rankin said, smiling as he swept a hand back in the direction of the field. “You can’t replace history.”
Rankin was joined promptly by his colleague Andre, who saw my tape recorder and offered to escort us to BART.
“I hope they come back. If they do leave, it’s going to be sad, because we don’t have any more teams here,” said Andre. “I’d hate to see them leave.”
I asked Andre what about the Coliseum he loved most. “The people,” he replied. “And there really is so much history here. I’d just hate for all of it to disappear. I guess we gotta wait and see.”