In 2003, journalist Michael Lewis published an account of how the Oakland Athletics, arguably the poorest franchise in baseball, were revolutionizing the game by exploiting market inefficiencies that had more or less gone ignored. Essentially, given that the team couldn’t compete with big-money clubs like the Yankees in terms of payroll, the A’s had to find skill sets that were undervalued and attempt to build a winner that way.
It was, of course, a successful strategy both on and off the field (Moneyball, the ensuing book by Lewis, inspired an Oscar-nominated movie starring Brad Pitt as A’s general manager Billy Beane). And today, the A’s methodology has been adopted by every team in Major League Baseball, with even the Yankees mixing in a heavy dose of advanced metrics with their financial largesse.
In the meantime, the A’s are back at it with a new revolution. Only this time, according to team president Dave Kaval, what they have in mind is “bigger than baseball.”
It centers on the team’s plan to build a new ballpark. Admittedly, that’s not really big news. Teams build new ballparks all the time (the Texas Rangers just opened one this season). But it’s how the A’s are doing it that’s notable: They’re acting as a member of the community, not as some business interest that sucks money out of it.
In particular, last month, the A’s ponied up the legal fees to sue a major local polluter along with the State of California. The lawsuit claims that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has exhibited a “failure to impose and enforce environmental law” against Schnitzer Steel, the polluter in question. The CDTSC is responsible for oversight of the air quality in Oakland’s industrial section, which happens to be adjacent to where the A’s plan to build the new ballpark (at a site dubbed Howard Terminal). It’s close to the Jack London Square waterfront where developers are hastily renovating the area in anticipation of the A’s new ballpark.
In many U.S. cities, a new sports stadium will assuredly dislocate the underprivileged and economically insecure. For instance, in L.A., when the Rams built their new stadium, the local community fought back to minimize the expected gentrification that would both precede and proceed the construction. The community of Inglewood, a predominantly Black municipality in L.A., feared that the stadium would raise property values and push out longtime neighbors, which is exactly what’s happened: Rents have gone up and Black renters and homeowners have had to leave the area.
Oakland is a city with many historically Black neighborhoods. In particular, the West Oakland neighborhood, where the A’s plan to build their ballpark, has long been home to communities of Black, Latin and Asian citizens. Not to mention, the industrial waterfront is what originally made Oakland.
However, the community is currently rethinking and reimagining what it wants to be and who it wants as its members. Stretching back as far as anyone can remember, the economics of the port have long been used to justify the environmental racism that those living in the immediate area have had to endure in the name of prosperity. But today, the people of Oakland are no longer willing to put dollars before their quality of life. As such, they’re fighting against the notion that their air must be poisonous for the city to be healthy financially.
In joining them, the A’s really are on their own from a local sports perspective. If anything, the other Oakland teams have done the exact opposite. After 47 seasons, the Golden State Warriors recently left Oakland to cross the Bay and call San Francisco their new home. And the semi-peripatetic Oakland Raiders have once again picked up stakes and left the city to head south — this time to become the Las Vegas Raiders. To help stem the tide of departures, the A’s have promised the city that they intend to stay, using the motto #RootedInOakland to signify their commitment.
But as we know all too well, it’s easy to make a big statement. Just take the number of corporations that made bold statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter over the summer — how many of them have followed that with equally bold initiatives? Not many. At least in pro sports, the A’s are bucking this trend. Their commitment to the city and to the people of Oakland seems legit and deeply considered. As Kaval told the New York Times, “You can’t have doubt. Changing the status quo is not easy. People resist it, and you need to have perseverance and resiliency.”
I think this is particularly relevant on the heels of NBA players boycotting a number of playoff games as a means of protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake (and all the other senseless violence inflicted upon Black people by the police). In the meetings that followed, the players seemed to demand that the league’s owners step up and affect change in their cities — a posture that was mocked by some as naive. The argument being that there wasn’t much the owners could do about systemic issues like police brutality and racial injustice besides lip service.
Well, they could do a lot worse than follow the Athletics’ lead.
In the movie Moneyball, Pitt as Billy Beane has a scene where he confronts an older generation of men who think they know better than everyone else how to run their world (in their case, pro baseball). Pitt explains that the pro scouts, known for their judgment, don’t even see the real problem. And no one can fix a problem until they truly see the issue they hope to solve. “Guys, you’re just talking. Talking, la la la la la, like this is business as usual. It’s not,” he tells them.
“We’re trying to solve a problem here, Billy,” one particularly red-faced veteran scout argues.
“Not like this, you’re not. You’re not even looking at the problem,” Pitt responds.
When he asks them what they think that problem is, they all fail miserably to answer, allowing him to truly hone in on the task at hand. “The problem we’re trying to solve,” he explains, “is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.”
The same could be said of America itself. This nation is an unfair game. So if a community wants to thrive, if a city wants to compete, it can’t do what other cities have done before; it has to look at its own community, its own team’s unique requirements. Then it needs to commit to a strategy where everyone wins — not just those who are already at the front of the line.
The thing is, most pro sports franchises haven’t historically seen themselves as members of their community (despite what they say). The A’s are at the forefront of changing that. Not only are they #RootedInOakland, but they’re acting like it, and they’re quickly discovering that’s the new way to win.