AT 6 P.M. ON Wednesday, April 19, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao was driving home from an event for the opening of a local business when she received a call from A's president Dave Kaval.
"Hey, just a heads-up," Thao recalls Kaval saying. "Somebody leaked to the press that we have a binding deal with Vegas."
Thao was stunned. Since taking office in January, she and her staff had picked up where previous mayor Libby Schaaf left off, negotiating with A's owner John Fisher to facilitate a massive, city-altering $12 billion project for a ballpark village on 55 acres along the waterfront at Howard Terminal. The work to keep the A's had been a long haul, spanning several mayoral administrations and three A's ownership groups, but Thao believed they were $101 million away from procuring the required amount of public funding for the infrastructure outside the ballpark. It was a paltry sum for such a vast project, and Oakland had just been assured of another $65 million in federal grants that would have brought the difference down to $36 million. Thao had scheduled a week of intensive talks with the A's and a team of mediators to bring the deal home. Hotel rooms were booked. Flights were reserved. Thao even gave it a name: The Negotiation Summit. At the event the evening of Kaval's phone call, Thao told Leigh Hanson, her chief of staff, "I really think we're going to get this over the finish line."
The first meeting between the new mayor and the A's, held in mid-February, was congenial but businesslike, with Thao intent on making sure Fisher was serious about building a stadium at Howard Terminal. When Fisher said he was, Thao said, "Good, because let's be very clear: I don't want to waste your time and I really don't want you to waste mine." The A's had been holding similar meetings with officials in Las Vegas, part of Fisher and Kaval's two-year-long "parallel paths" strategy that turned the team's quest for a new stadium into a race to see which city would be first to satisfy Fisher. Rooted in Oakland had evolved into Whoever gets there first.
But Kaval's phone call -- "a blindside," Thao says, "just 'Hey, we're gone'" -- came after no breakdown in talks, no stalled process, no contentious back and forth. Kaval's call triggered a sequence, one call begetting another. Thao hung up with Kaval and called Hanson, who called Steve Kawa, the lead negotiator for the deal and a longtime friend of the Fisher family.
"I can't believe this is what's happening," Kawa said. "I'm calling John."
Kawa called Fisher, suggesting he reach out directly to the mayor. Fisher called Thao to confirm the news.
Thao says Fisher told her, "I feel really bad. I really like you and I like working with you, but we're going to focus all our energy on Las Vegas."
"I'm disappointed," Thao responded. "In the very beginning, I literally asked you, 'Are you serious about Oakland?' and you said yes. But if your focus is on Vegas, good luck."
Thao hung up, and the two sides haven't spoken since. Howard Terminal, as far as the A's were concerned, was dead. Rooted in Oakland was dead, and the Oakland A's were entering the hospice phase of their stay in the Bay Area. In the end, after switching from his "binding agreement" property -- the site of the former Wild West Casino -- to a different Las Vegas site within a month, it became clear that Fisher traded his 55-acre legacy development, one with a stunning design by world-famous Danish architect Bjarke Ingels that included a community park built right on top of the ballpark, one with the residential and commercial real estate, a city within the city, for nine acres in the parking lot of the Tropicana in Las Vegas, a project Oakland officials have derisively dubbed "Fisher's putt-putt course."
And when the "leaked" story was posted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Oakland contingent felt like they'd been played for fools. Kaval was quoted throughout the piece -- by name -- as was commissioner Rob Manfred.
"Not sure it's a leak when you're quoted in the story," Hanson says. "Pretty sure that's not how leaks work. If you're going to be strategic, try not to be so sloppy."
THE WORD RECLUSIVE is affixed before John Fisher's name so frequently it might as well be a title. He is part-owner and a member of the board of directors for The Gap, a company started by his parents, and is involved with various other family enterprises, including the Mendocino Redwood Company and Sansome Partners, an investment firm. He bought the Athletics along with Lew Wolff in 2005 for an estimated $180 million and became majority owner in 2016 when Wolff sold his remaining 10 percent of the team. Fisher, 62, had not granted a single interview during his 18 years with the A's until speaking last month with two local outlets and ESPN.
"It's a mistake to say Fisher is a mystery," says Ignacio De La Fuente, who served on the Oakland City Council for 21 years (1992-2012) and was a mayoral candidate as recently as last year. "There's nothing mysterious about him. He's a rich guy who uses his money to make money. I don't think he ever had a connection to Oakland. It's an interesting dynamic when you look at the type of sports owners we get. The Haas family" -- which owned the A's from 1980 to 1995 -- "was the only one that ever gave a s--- about Oakland."
This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen sources familiar with the negotiations and motivations, some of whom requested anonymity to speak freely. They reveal a messy, complicated and ultimately confounding path that led Fisher and the A's to decide to take the A's out of Oakland, their home for 55 years, and leave the city without a major professional sports franchise.
The A's have filed a relocation application with Major League Baseball, where it will be reviewed by a three-man committee consisting of Kansas City Royals CEO John Sherman, Philadelphia Phillies CEO John Middleton and Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio. The committee will make a recommendation to commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB's eight-member executive council. If it advances past the council, three-quarters of the league's 30 team owners must vote in favor of the move for the A's to become the third major professional franchise, after the Warriors and Raiders, to abandon the city since 2019, and the first MLB team to relocate since the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005. Recent media reports have indicated the vote could take place as soon as November.
To hear Oakland officials tell it, this is the tale of a risk-averse billionaire owner who chose the riskiest project possible, one that required nearly $1 billion in public funding for on-and off-site infrastructure, and then walked away when the finish line was in sight. The A's contend that progress was too slow, that environmental and local groups put up roadblock after roadblock, and that Oakland city officials simply couldn't guarantee a stadium deal before the team's January 2024 deadline to continue to receive the franchise's lifeblood: revenue sharing from Major League Baseball. Losing revenue sharing, Fisher said, "would be hugely detrimental to the organization."
The deal Fisher chose in Las Vegas, should it be approved, consists of $380 million in public funding for the infrastructure surrounding the ballpark, nine acres of land and access to a growing media market -- though far smaller than Oakland's -- that has long been viewed as ripe for an MLB expansion team. The projects in both cities called for Fisher, through a combination of his and his family's vast wealth, and financing through Goldman Sachs, to privately pay for a ballpark predicted to cost in the neighborhood of $1.2 billion.
For a moment that typifies the disconnect between the Fisher and Oakland, look no further than Kaval's initial call to Mayor Thao on the evening of April 19. "I can't really understand how they can say they were blindsided," Fisher says. "At the end of four years of negotiations, we were nowhere." This contention mystifies those who worked to put together the financing on a project that was a source of both torment and delight; torment because the project was vast and unwieldy and expensive, delight because it was universally seen as having the potential to transform the city. The public infrastructure money Oakland was asked to raise dwarfed the $380 million in Las Vegas, and city officials say everyone understood it would take time. "To say we were nowhere is BS," Mayor Thao says. "To say there was no proposal is total BS. Let's be very clear: we did have a proposal. But maybe it wasn't a proposal John Fisher could afford."
Fisher, who calls himself a "superfan" but is more likely to be found courtside at a Warriors' game than in the Diamond Level at the Coliseum, has become such a pariah he can no longer watch the team he owns in person. The target of fan vitriol and chants of "Sell the Team" that started in the right field bleachers of the Coliseum and spread across the country: to the All-Star Game in Seattle, to a random afternoon game in Washington D.C., to pretty much everywhere the A's go. "Fisher Sucks" and "Stay in Oakland" have become the dominant sounds in a nearly empty ballpark, so much so that Fisher jokes that he "watches with the sound off." The biggest crowds of the season came when the fans staged two "reverse boycotts" -- rousing, daylong condemnations of Fisher's ownership. A group that calls itself The Last Dive Bar -- a reference to the Coliseum being baseball's last dive bar -- recently helped buy electronic billboard space in the stadium's parking lot, visible to the thousands who sit in traffic on the infernal Nimitz Freeway, that addressed Fisher's mother. In massive LED letters, it read: "Doris, get your kid." The fashion statement of the season is a simple green T-shirt with "SELL" stamped in white across the chest.
"I truly empathize with the fans," Fisher says. "And I understand the hurt and disappointment and anger, frankly, that's involved in that. The decision was mine. I understand where they're coming from, and my answer to that is, 'Look, I did absolutely everything, more than any other sports team owner has tried, to make it work in Oakland.'"
During a wide-ranging, 75-minute interview, I asked Fisher if he planned to attend a game at the Coliseum before the season's end. He outlined all the reasons why fans don't attend games to watch an owner, but when it was suggested that his case might be an exception, he nodded grudgingly and said, "They'd probably sell a lot of those shirts."
BOTH SIDES CAN find agreement on one thing: Fisher fell in love with Howard Terminal.
He selected some of his personal sculptures from his renowned art collection -- Forbes places his worth at $2.5 billion -- to place in spots around the ballpark. He spent $100 million, a figure city officials don't dispute, to acquire permits and clearances. He hired Ingels to design what Fisher describes as "a neighborhood park," a place the public could enjoy for its art and nightlife even when there wasn't a game. No idea was too grand; traffic would be a nightmare, with no public transportation and no existing thoroughfares, so the A's tossed around the idea of a gondola that would transport fans to the stadium over the freeway and railroad tracks from a downtown BART station. The ballpark renderings show a spectacular, original plan that would incorporate two of the port's decommissioned shipping cranes -- widely but mistakenly believed to have provided the inspiration for George Lucas's AT-AT snow walkers in "The Empire Strikes Back" -- into the design. They would loom over right-centerfield to provide a sense of history, an homage to the days when Howard Terminal was a working port.
The only way to truly appreciate the grandeur of the site, Fisher was told, was to see it from the top of one of those cranes. And so one day in the early stages of the project's development, Fisher, Ingels and Kaval climbed over a chain-link fence and entered federally protected land -- "totally illegal," a source says -- where they stood at the base of one of the 393-foot tall cranes, took a deep breath and began their ascent. Ingels is known for his enthusiasm and charisma. He visualizes his projects from the air. They climbed the grated metal stairs until they reached the top, where they stood on a small platform and looked around, the breathtaking panorama encompassing the island of Alameda, the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, the Oakland hills and the Oakland skyline. They took a selfie and stared down at Howard Terminal, at its potholed streets and railroad tracks and the mountains of shredded metal at Schnitzer Steel, and saw nothing but possibility.
"I rarely want to use no comment," Fisher says of the clandestine trip, "but this time I think I'll use it in the most positive way I can. I will say this: the views are spectacular."
One of the most valuable and beautiful pieces of property on the planet, all his. He wouldn't have to purchase it, or pay for the sewer lines or the electricity or the fiber optic cables or the road construction. Local government had agreed to take care of that. All he had to do was create a vision that would come to life, and leverage some of his and his family's money to build the commercial and residential real estate -- and a $1.2 billion ballpark.
"John wanted to be one of the Andre Heinzes of the world, changing the world," Hanson says, referencing the environmental activist and philanthropist. "You know, standing on top of cranes and envisioning things. Everybody loves a visionary."
But Howard Terminal would remain just that: a vision.
Sources say Fisher's fleeting love affair with Howard Terminal mirrored an earlier fling with another Oakland site: the area around Laney Community College, near Lake Merritt. Fisher targeted the spot after watching hundreds of thousands of fans at the 2015 parade honoring the first of the Golden State Warriors' three NBA championships while playing in Oakland in the 2010s. The crowds ringed the lake and stood shoulder to shoulder around the steps of the venerable Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, where the team basked in the adulation. Fisher became so enamored of the idea of building a ballpark there, despite insurmountable infrastructure problems and staunch opposition from the Peralta Community College District, that sources say he went so far as to inquire about purchasing what is known as the "Henry J," a community landmark since 1914.
Oakland has been haunted by stadium problems for close to 30 years, since the Raiders packed up the first time and left for Los Angeles. The city commissioned a study on seven potential ballpark sites in 2001, and De La Fuente, the former councilmember, says, "The most difficult, undoable, f---ing expensive site was Howard Terminal. From the beginning I said that site was bulls---. Total bulls---."
Still, to seasoned developers, it seems incomprehensible that a $12 billion project could collapse over less than $100 million. Did Fisher, publicity-shy and risk-averse, get cold feet?
"I don't think he got cold feet," says Hanson, the mayor's chief of staff. "I think he got an accountant."
ON THE NIGHT of June 7 in Carson City, Nev., nearly two months after Kaval's phone call to Thao, the Nevada State Senate convened a special session to debate SB1, the bill that would allocate $380 million in public funding for a new A's stadium on the Tropicana site. Steve Pastorino sat home in Las Vegas and fumed. He was the team's head of corporate sponsorships from 2013-17 before he was let go less than a year after Kaval became team president. As he watched the hearing unfold, Pastorino grew angrier and angrier that Kaval, long the voice of the team, was not a visible presence, choosing instead to let two Vegas lobbyists, fiscal analyst Jeremy Aguero and Vegas' tourism chief Steve Hill, do the team's bidding.
"They hired these two guys from Las Vegas to sell the deal?" Pastorino asked. "After Kaval had been the front man since he got there? It makes no sense."
Hours into the meeting, state senator Fabian Doñate demanded Kaval take the stand to address the team's willingness to contribute to the state's live entertainment tax. The usually smooth-talking Kaval stumbled, failing to give a coherent answer despite being goaded four times by Donate. For Pastorino, that was the final straw. When it was announced that Las Vegas residents could contribute remotely to the public comment session, he grabbed his keys and headed out with one of his adult children, saying, "Let's go see how government works."
They drove to the Grant Sawyer State Office Building, arriving around 10 p.m. to find a locked parking lot. Undeterred, they parked in the loading dock, slid through a fence and knocked on a locked door. Pastorino told the security guard they were there to testify at the hearing, and they walked into the chamber five minutes before public comment opened.
"It was spur-of-the-moment, not some well-considered process," Pastorino says. "I went in there as a Las Vegas taxpayer who doesn't want to help John Fisher build a ballpark."
When it was his turn, Pastorino leaned into the microphone, gave a brief history of his affiliation with the A's and said, "You cannot trust Dave Kaval." He called his former boss "a walking, talking bobblehead" and asked, "Where is John Fisher? Where the hell is John Fisher? John Fisher does not need a penny of our dollars."
(Kaval declined to discuss Pastorino's statements, citing human-resource concerns.)
When he became team president in 2016, Kaval, 47, brought hope to a franchise that always seemed to punch above its weight on the field despite a continuously uncertain future. Kaval came in hot; he was young and enthusiastic, full of ideas and charisma, savvy on social media. He was hired by Fisher to shepherd the team's stadium efforts, but along the way he attempted to modernize the moribund Coliseum. He opened a bar called The Treehouse above the left-field bleachers. He established Championship Plaza, an area outside the stadium with food trucks and lawn games. He ushered in a flexible ticket program called "A's Access" that proved to be wildly successful. He created the motto "Rooted in Oakland" and had it painted prominently on the vast concrete walls of the Coliseum. He buzzed around the stadium in a suit and tie and went on every radio program and held office hours with fans. He told the story of growing up in Cleveland and being heartbroken when Art Modell took the Browns to Baltimore to become the Ravens.
Even Kaval's detractors, Pastorino included, admired his business acumen and ceaseless optimism.
"I honestly thought Kaval was going to be the one who was finally get it done in Oakland," Pastorino says. "I think Dave is very smart and creative. I honestly think he thought he'd be the one to deliver the stadium, too. At the time, I didn't think he was disingenuous."
The A's fostered an underdog mentality made famous by "Moneyball" and exacerbated by the success and perceived glitz of the Giants, their rivals across the Bay. Billy Beane exemplified the team's do-more-with-less ethos, and it spread throughout every aspect of the business.
"'Moneyball' really glorified what it was like to work for the A's," Pastorino says. "This team -- even if it would rip your heart out, you wanted to fight for it. The offices were small and cramped and not as nice or as big as the Giants' offices, but there was a lot of pride in working for the A's. People loved working there, and if you have roots in the Bay Area, it was the best job you could ever hope to have."
Kaval boasts of working 120-hour weeks to get a deal done in Oakland, but sources say his Type-A ways "drove city staff crazy." His friend and Stanford classmate, Brad Null, says Kaval "is always on, and it's totally genuine." Upon graduating from Stanford in 1998, Kaval and Null attended games in all 30 big-league ballparks and wrote a book titled, "The Summer that Saved Baseball." During their breakneck tour -- 30 cities in 38 days -- Null was continually amazed at Kaval's ability to drum up media attention, free tickets and free food at nearly every stop.
"I saw all the reasons Dave was great for this A's job," Null says. "He's tireless, and he can handle rejection and adversity. He's much thicker-skinned than I am. Just like anybody, he'd love for people to say positive things about him, but if they don't, he can handle that."
Kaval's star with A's fans began to lose its shine early in the 2021 season, when he announced the team's much-derided "parallel path" with Las Vegas. After the April 19 phone call to Thao and subsequent announcement that the team would be leaving Oakland, fans began hanging bedsheets from the Coliseum bleachers bearing such sentiments as "Kaval=Liar."
Kaval terms any characterization that he was not a serious and honest player in the negotiations "categorically false. If anyone was paying attention, they'd know that we spent five years, and I spent whatever -- 20 hours a day, whatever it took -- leading an effort to try to get the stadium built at the waterfront."
One oft-cited example of Kaval's changing public statements concerns the Coliseum site. The A's bought half of the 155-acre property from Alameda County in October of 2020, a move Kaval termed a backup in case Howard Terminal fell through. Roughly six months after the sale was finalized, Kaval announced the "parallel path" and began discounting the Coliseum as a viable site. The sale price of the Coliseum land was $85 million, far below market value. The team has paid $40 million to date, and the outstanding $45 million is due in three equal payments in January 2024, 2025 and 2026. But terms of the sale include a clause that calls for the entirety of the remaining $45 million to be paid within 180 days of the A's "announcement of their relocation" from Oakland. It contained no provision that the team remain in Oakland.
"Fisher went to the county without any plan, and the county sells its half of the [Coliseum] to the A's?" De La Fuente says. "Whose fault is that? Fisher, or the stupid elected officials who sold it to him?"
There's a reason, sources say, that the A's immediately discounted the Coliseum as a potential site once they chose Las Vegas: The relocation application with Major League Baseball pertains to the city of Oakland, not just the team's current ballpark, so the A's have to convince three-quarters of the MLB owners that Oakland -- all of it, not just Howard Terminal or the Laney site or the Coliseum -- is not a viable location for the team despite being the 10th-biggest media market in the country. (Las Vegas is 40th.)
Kaval cited sea-level rise and the cost of mitigating the brackish groundwater under the Coliseum (it sits 22 feet below sea level) and claimed the outstanding debt on the bonds related to the Coliseum's 1995 "Mount Davis" renovation (which will cost the city of Oakland roughly $15 million per year through 2026) would have to be retired before any new construction could proceed. ("Not true," Thao says. "They could have broken ground right after the Raiders left.") Fisher says the Coliseum site, despite its endless parking lots and access to public transit, is not suited to be the "ballpark village" concept that allows for walk-up ticket sales and appeals to businesses such as bars and restaurants.
"To be able to attract the 2.4 million fans that we were hoping to attract here for our stadium, it had to be great," Fisher says. "It had to be at least as good, if not better, than Oracle field in San Francisco. And I also felt like, why should our fans settle for anything else? Our fans deserve a great ballpark, and that was always my North Star."
Asked if he understands why Oakland fans might be willing to settle for a stadium that is slightly less than great if it meant the team would stay in Oakland, Fisher hesitated before saying, "Yeah, I can appreciate that. But, you know, for us to be successful, which is being able to be competitive with some of the other really strong teams in baseball and with our sibling club across the Bay in San Francisco, we had to be able to have revenues and success comparable to those other clubs." A lesser ballpark, Fisher says, "would not solve the fundamental need for the A's to be in a great, successful ballpark and be able to drive our goals to win a World Series."
De La Fuente, the former councilmember who negotiated the financially disastrous deal for the Raiders to return in 1995, says, "There's no mystery to anything they do. From the beginning it was a way to increase the value of the team and then go to the highest bidder. They don't give a s--- where it is."
THE A'S RELOCATION application, filed August 23, is notable for its omissions. There is no set ballpark design for the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Tropicana Ave. There is no indication whether the stadium will be domed or have a retractable roof, the only two options for a southern Nevada summer. There is no firm financing plan, although Fisher says he has been working with Goldman Sachs to finalize that part of the deal. And there is no defined site for where the A's will play during the three-year -- minimum -- interim between the expiration of their Coliseum lease after next season and the proposed opening of the Las Vegas stadium in 2028.
The A's have hired a construction developer but no architect. (Crane-climbing Ingels is among the finalists.) The team says MLB will make the determination on the team's temporary home, and an MLB source says the A's will need to provide answers to all of those open questions before the relocation committee can take up the team's request in earnest. Given those conditions, a November vote, or at least a fully informed November vote, seems wildly optimistic.
"It doesn't surprise me that the plan they proposed was half-baked," Thao says. "That's been their track record: half-baked plans."
At one point the A's based revenue projections on an annual attendance of 2.5 million in a Vegas ballpark that was to seat 30,000 -- a statistical impossibility for 81 home dates. Kaval has since revised the projected capacity to 33,000. The original renditions of the Vegas stadium, since discarded, showed it taking up far more than nine of the Tropicana's 36 acres, and the dimensions of the field looked suspiciously similar to the Coliseum, complete with its intercontinental foul territory. Target Field in Minnesota sits on the smallest footprint of any MLB stadium at 8½ acres. It is an open-air stadium, and some architects suggest a retractable roof is nearly impossible to fit onto the nine-acre Las Vegas site, which A's pre- and postgame television host Brodie Brazil determined is roughly the amount of land occupied by the Bellagio fountain.
The Coliseum remains the most likely interim home for the A's. The team has floated the idea of playing in its Triple-A stadium, Las Vegas Ballpark, but an open-air stadium with fewer than 10,000 seats in the desert is unlikely to gain the approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Kaval has mentioned the possibility of sharing Oracle Park with the Giants, but the Giants have yet to comment on that possibility. Extending the lease on the Coliseum would require reaching out to the city, something the A's have yet to do. Thao says she will attempt to impose conditions on the team, including leaving the name behind for a future expansion team "because the A's brand belongs to Oakland."
"To see this blow up in Oakland for really no reason and then to hear how little they have in Vegas is mind-blowing," says Hanson. "When they said they had a signed deal, a binding deal, I thought, 'Holy s---, they've been playing us all along.' But then to see this nine-acre parking lot ... what? You walked away from us for that? Not to be a jilted lover, but God is she ugly."
The A's, of course, tell a different story. "That's the busiest intersection in the West," Kaval says. "There are more people there -- cars, people, eyeballs. If you go to Vegas, you end up there. And so, it's quintessential Vegas. It's right on The Strip. And so, I think it will, in many ways, be one of the most exciting and iconic locations for a sports venue in the world, because we're there."
Hurdles remain. A Nevada group called "Schools Over Stadiums," a political action group affiliated with the state's teacher union, filed a petition to force a statewide vote on the use of public funding for the A's ballpark. The petition, which points out that Nevada is 48th in the U.S. in per-pupil funding, would need roughly 150,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Internally, Manfred's decision to waive the A's relocation fee, estimated at anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion, might prove to be a sticking point with owners. Why should Fisher, with the lowest payroll in baseball and a Forbes estimated franchise valuation of $1.2 billion before the relocation, cost every team more than $10 million and get the Las Vegas market, which has long been considered perfect for an expansion team?
"The most important thing is for us to work closely with the commissioner, with the relocation committee and then with my fellow owners," Fisher says. "We've been doing this for the last six years, so they're quite aware of what we've been going through."
Asked if he expects pushback from the owners on the relocation fee, Fisher says, "That's something that the commissioner and the owners" -- here he stops to gather himself -- "it's out of my hands. It's something for them to work out."
Manfred, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed by ESPN for this story, citing the relocation committee's ongoing work. However, an industry source with knowledge of the situation says that the relocation fee was waived because the stadium project in Las Vegas would not have been economically feasible for Fisher if he had been forced to pay "an appropriately valued relocation fee."
When I asked Fisher if waiving the relocation fee was something he specifically requested from Manfred, he paused for a moment before saying, "Like I said, I've had lots of conversations with the commissioner and fellow owners about a lot of different subjects related to our stadium."
Fisher says the team lost $40 million last season and will lose another $40 million this season. He says the team lost $175 million in the five years ending in 2022, not counting the $100 million he says the team spent on stadium efforts. Sports economists dispute this figure, citing the revenue MLB teams get from media rights and revenue-sharing, but Fisher says, "I should know. I write the checks. It costs a lot of money to run a baseball club besides just the money that you're paying for players." Oakland's 2023 payroll, roughly $59 million, is the lowest in baseball, less than 40 percent of the league average. But among the costs Fisher repeatedly raised was the amount the team had to pay out for draft picks in July, a figure directly attributable to slashing payroll and talent after 2021 and fielding a team of young, cheap players, many of whom would be better served by more time in the minor leagues.
"We ended up with a much higher draft pick," Fisher says. "And, you know, it's an opportunity, but it's an expensive opportunity to sign high draft picks."
The A's chose shortstop Jacob Wilson from Grand Canyon University in the first round of this year's draft and signed him to a $5.5 million bonus, more than $1 million below slot for the sixth overall pick. The most expensive contract the A's have offered under Fisher's ownership was four years and $36 million for Yoenis Cespedes before the 2012 season. Following the COVID-shortened 2020 season, they offered Marcus Semien, a local star who wanted to stay with the team, a bizarre one year, $12.5 million contract that called for $2.5 million the first year and payouts of $1 million each over the next 10. After the 2021 season, the team traded away three young and marketable stars: Matt Olson, Matt Chapman and Sean Murphy. While knowingly fielding a depleted, non-competitive roster, the team doubled season-ticket prices before this season while doing nothing to improve the fan experience, once Kaval's priority.
"By the time we reopened [from COVID] in 2021, we were on parallel paths with Nevada," Kaval admits. "That colored our thinking."
The shift in strategy became a self-fulfilling prophecy: raising prices, gutting the team and keeping attendance down as a means of proving the need for a new stadium.
They will spend in Las Vegas, though. Fisher and Kaval are in lockstep on that point. The revenue streams unavailable to them in Oakland will bloom in Las Vegas. The team will retire its "Moneyball" ways and pour the money from the new stadium into a roster that will sustain excellence.
"We are spending over a billion dollars to bring a winner to Las Vegas," Fisher says. "And as I have said, I wouldn't be in this if my goal wasn't to go out and win a World Series."
Fisher also owns the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. Kaval served as president of the team from 2010 to 2017, with a similar mission as the one in Oakland: build a stadium. Kaval made it happen in San Jose; PayPal Stadium, a $100 million facility, opened in 2015. There, the promise was the same: A new stadium will provide the team with the revenue stream to bolster the roster and compete for championships. That promise has not been kept. In a league where 18 of the 29 teams make the playoffs, the Earthquakes have not won a postseason game since 2012 and have qualified for the playoffs just twice since the stadium opened, losing in the first round both times. This season, the Earthquakes' payroll ranks 21st of 29 MLS teams.
The comparison between the A's and the Earthquakes is "apples to oranges," Fisher says, and Kaval sidestepped the question, saying, "I'm a big believer in the revenue opportunity in Las Vegas." And, according to Fisher, the eight-year-old PayPal Stadium in San Jose is already outdated compared to newer MLS stadiums -- he mentions LAFC, St. Louis and Austin -- and lacks the capacity and premium seating that drives the kind of revenue needed to compete for championships.
SOMETIMES HISTORY RHYMES, and sometimes it claps back. In 1992, San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie reached an agreement to sell the franchise to a group that would move it to Tampa-St. Petersburg. The decision came after a protracted fight to replace Candlestick Park -- one not unlike the years-long fight to replace the Coliseum.
John Fisher likes to tell the story of his family's connection to the Giants. His grandfather was a rabid fan, and his oldest brother, Robert, attended the seventh game of the 1962 World Series, which the Yankees won, 1-0, when second baseman Bobby Richardson famously caught a Willie McCovey line drive to end the game with two runners on base. "I got into this because I'm a fan," John Fisher says. "I know what it's like; it's agonizing when your team loses and incredibly uplifting when it wins."
The Giants, of course, didn't leave, and the Fishers -- and their money -- were among the reasons. In the Sept. 26, 1993 edition of the San Francisco Examiner, Donald Fisher was quoted as saying he and his son John joined the Giants' ownership group to help keep the team from moving to Tampa-St. Petersburg. John is quoted as saying, "It's definitely a civic-minded thing for us. My grandfather (Sydney) was a lifelong Giants fan."
John, according to his father, was the driving force behind the family's decision. In Donald Fisher's autobiography, a self-published, 724-page tome distributed to friends, family and business associates, he writes that John came to him and said, "I think we ought to try to put a deal together to keep the Giants here." The San Francisco Chronicle, which acquired a copy of the book, reports that Donald replied, "I'm not interested in it. If you're interested, you take care of it. I'm not going to pay any attention to it."
The group of prominent local investors, led by Peter Magowan and consisting of an A list of old San Francisco money, managed to purchase the team and build Oracle Park, a privately financed ballpark on the waterfront. When I asked Fisher if any local groups, driven by similar civic pride, have approached him with an offer to purchase the team and keep it in Oakland, he shook his head and seemed to dismiss the question. "I'm not going to comment on whether I've received inquiries into the team or anything like that," he says. "Like I said, I'm a local, right? Bay Area native. And so I think if there was anyone who was going to give it their all to try and make it work, it was going to be me."
Since the A's announced their deal in Las Vegas, Thao says her office has heard from "multiple buyers who are very viable. I'm not going to bring up their names, but there are people willing to come together to figure out how we keep the A's here."
The problem they face, she says, is simple:
"You can't buy something that's not for sale."
And that is unlikely to change. No matter how loud the chants get, no matter how personal the billboards become, no matter how far and wide the "SELL" shirts spread, Fisher has given no indication he plans to accede to the wishes of the Oakland fans. At least not yet. There is a widespread belief around City Hall and in the Coliseum stands that Fisher will sell after the relocation is approved and the team's valuation skyrockets.
Asked directly, Fisher elided, saying, "I got into baseball because I was a fan, and I loved the game. And I always thought the A's had this incredible history to them. ... As I told somebody the other day, I don't really feel like I'm an owner. Because I think, with baseball teams and other sports teams, you're really a kind of a caretaker for creating a legacy of additional history for your club. And that's what I hope to create for us in Las Vegas."
In a twist, Fisher might leave a legacy in Oakland, after all. It won't include sculptures from his personal collection or Ingels' cool ballpark design, but Fisher's investments in the Howard Terminal site will make it easier for the city to lure a new developer to create a new vision. The grant money the city procured awaits the next visionary. The cranes loom, the views are great, the possibilities remain limitless.