There’s a team on the East Coast with the same problems as the Oakland Athletics: an allegedly bad ballpark, an allegedly small budget and an allegedly small fan base.
Yet the Tampa Bay Rays have still been to the playoffs three times in the past four seasons, echoing the success the A’s had in the early 2000s when Oakland went to the playoffs five times in seven seasons with the same challenges they still face today.
So what happened? Why did the A’s suddenly go into the tank while the Rays have risen to the top of the American League consistently — and are poised to do so again in 2012?
It’s a question not too often explored: why did the A’s suddenly drop off a performance cliff in 2007?
The stadium is still the same, the small budget is still the same, and the fan base is still the same (at least in spirit — see below). We all know the A’s are working on a new stadium, which will increase revenue and thus the future budget possibilities.
And Oakland retains a very loyal — if small, as it ever was — fan base that put plenty of bodies in the seats when the team was winning in their “old” stadium with their “small” budgets: see the team’s attendance numbers from 1999-2006.
So the team that drafted and/or signed All-Stars like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito seemingly lost its ability to draft, sign and develop great players all of a sudden?
It could be argued the Moneyball draft of 2002 started the downfall, but the A’s did get some good players there who produced at the major-league level (and still do): Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, to name a few.
Generally, the Oakland organization hasn’t really drafted and developed too many studs in recent years, although trading away rising players has often helped replenish a new “generation” of talent.
And a lot of that traded-away talent itself came from trading away Hudson, Mulder, et al, earlier.
So overall, a team like Tampa Bay has done a much better job at mining the draft to pick talent that has then been nurtured into a winning team at the major-league level.
This is why the A’s haven’t been to the playoffs in five years. In essence, the Rays are doing what the A’s used to do — so why can’t Oakland do the same thing still?
Baseball is an inexact science, of course, despite the Moneyball approach everyone has adopted in the last ten years. The risks are still risky, and more financial flexibility means you can take more risks.
Yet the A’s have also shot themselves in the proverbial foot by limiting revenues intentionally: shutting down the third deck of the stadium in 2006 was perhaps one of the most foolish actions Lew Wolff’s management tenure has undertaken.
Why would you intentionally limit your ability to put fans in the seats? Why would you take away the chance for fans to spend more money at your ballpark on food, merchandise, etc.?
Oakland has chosen its current path to mediocre “poverty”; Tampa Bay has chosen a different path to on-the-field success and playoff opportunity.
And perhaps that’s the saddest statement of all — the A’s could have kept going the way they were going prior to Wolff’s purchase of the team and still driven the momentum to move to a new stadium, but they chose to gut the team of talent, play it “poor”, and drive away casual fans instead (not to mention the loss of nationwide respect for one of the most successful organizations in MLB history).
So while the Rays continue to succeed under comparable hardships — and perhaps even greater ones — the A’s continue to flounder on the field and sink in the standings while blaming everyone else but themselves.
This Oakland situation is really a microcosmic metaphor for the larger American problem facing society in the 21st century: the American ideal of helping those who help themselves is gone — why should MLB or anyone else help or reward Lew Wolff for cannibalizing his own organization?
The Tampa Bay organization certainly deserves more credit for pursuing their goals the right way.
But in the end, it all comes down to the same truth: Oakland A’s fans deserve better right now, and they’re the ones getting screwed by this whole situation — even if there is a happy ending down the road to San Jose next month as rumored.