Scott Haggerty strode into Massimo's, perhaps Fremont's most venerable restaurant. He was jumpy and keyed-up, ready to make the pitch of his life. Nearly three years earlier, in the summer of 2001, Fremont's county supervisor had ensured that his city would be considered for a new ballpark. But ever since, the breaks hadn't favored Haggerty's hometown. So here he was, amid the overstuffed booths, mood lighting, and bow-tied waiters, quietly preparing to sell his anonymous 'burb as the future home of a Major League Baseball franchise.
In walked Lewis Wolff, the man hired by the Oakland A's to find a new site for a stadium, and a man who so believed in the team that he bought a piece of it eleven months later. Haggerty immediately began schmoozing, waving over Massimo's owner Bill Rinetti Jr., whose brother David ran the A's game-day operations at the Oakland Coliseum. Once the flesh-pressing was over, Haggerty got down to business.
Fremont was more than an endless sea of subdivisions, he told Wolff. It was just up the road from Silicon Valley, where cash-heavy tech firms were waiting to drop a load on sponsorship deals at a new stadium. The decrepit Coliseum was lucky to get a few billboards from Kaiser Permanente or the Oakland Tribune, but a new Fremont ballpark would brim with logos from Apple, Cisco, eBay, and Intel. An advertising fortune was there for the taking, and the revenue could finally make the A's permanent postseason contenders.
Just five minutes into Haggerty's spiel, Wolff cut him off: There was no chance in hell that the A's would ever come to Fremont.
"I was actually stunned when he told me Fremont was not an option," Haggerty recalled. "I didn't eat much, because I was sick to my stomach. ... He just knocked the wind out of me. " Thirty-two months later, at a standing-room-only press conference, Haggerty grinned as he watched Wolff, Cisco CEO John Chambers, and baseball Commissioner Bud Selig officially announce that the A's would call Fremont home starting as early as 2010. A new baseball-only stadium, where fans could use Cisco software to remotely order garlic fries or buy digital photos of game highlights, would rise up next to a condominium and retail complex known as a "ballpark village." Haggerty's dream, so casually dismissed in that dark Italian restaurant nearly three years before, was now a $400 million reality.
From a distance, the turnaround appeared remarkable. But a closer look at the A's storied past reveals that their long road to southern Alameda County was inevitable. The team was destined to leave the Oakland Coliseum more than eleven years ago when a prodigal football team finally decided to come home. And then the Athletics' fate was sealed in July 2003, when the lone government advocate for keeping the team in Oakland was shown the door. Indeed, there's a convincing argument to be made that Fremont was the only viable place left for the A's in the Bay Area. It was either that or leave California.
Rooting for laundry
Any story of how a beloved sports franchise would break Oakland's heart must begin with Al Davis. The sweatsuit-clad owner abandoned the city in 1982, packing up his football team and moving it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles. Wooing him back thirteen years later required a monumentally bad deal that nearly bankrupted the city of Oakland and Alameda County. It also ensured the eventual departure of the A's.
Erected during the 1960s' multipurpose stadium craze, the Oakland Coliseum was never a first-rate ballpark. But during the Raiders' absence, it served admirably for baseball. In 1990, the A's set a team attendance record, selling 2.9 million tickets. The park's grass field was regarded as the best in the majors, and the stadium offered sweeping views of the green and gold East Bay hills. Washington Post columnist George Will even featured the Coliseum on the front of his 1990 best-seller, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.
Yet Davis believed the Coliseum was too small for Raider Nation. So city and county officials agreed to build "Mount Davis," a concrete monstrosity full of plastic seats. It made the Raiders' owner happy, but Mount Davis obliterated the views and destroyed whatever charm and intimacy the old ballpark had. It also devastated the Athletics' business model.
It's a basic axiom of economics that when supply increases, demand decreases. So when the supply of Coliseum seats jumped from 45,000 to 63,000 with Mount Davis, the demand for A's season tickets stagnated. In a 2005 interview with an A's fan club, Wolff noted that the team had just 7,000 season-ticket holders compared to 25,000 for the San Francisco Giants, who play in a new 41,000-seat, baseball-only park. "It's clear that the renovation of the stadium to accommodate the Raiders made it less valuable for the A's," said Roger Noll, a Stanford University sports economist and one of the nation's leading stadium experts.
Once A's co-owner Steve Schott studied the plans for Mount Davis in the summer of 1995, he demanded an escape clause in his lease. Between 1998 and 2002, he tried to sell the A's at least three times twice to owners who intended to move the team out of state. He took the city and county to arbitration and won a $16 million judgment in 1998. Then, from 2001 to 2005, he tried to move the franchise himself, first to Santa Clara and then San Jose. He desperately wanted the A's in Silicon Valley, where he could capture corporate sponsorships and sell luxury boxes two things he couldn't do consistently in Oakland.
Schott was nothing if not a smart baseball man. But he knew that as long as his franchise was stuck in an aging stadium more suitable for football than baseball, he couldn't afford the out-of-sight salaries demanded by the game's stars. He learned that firsthand in 1997 when he lost baseball's premier power hitter, Mark McGwire. It was clear that he had to find a general manager who could win on a shoestring budget. He found the best in Billy Beane.
Over the years, Beane has become famous for crafting winning teams from one of the lowest payrolls in the majors. He did it by dispassionately analyzing baseball statistics to uncover no-name players, overlooked or cast aside by other teams. These no-names turned the A's into winners; the A's have reached the playoffs in five of the last seven years. In 2003, Berkeley author Michael Lewis trumpeted Beane's exploits in the best-seller Moneyball.