Some 3,000 miles from Oakland, A’s fans’ ‘Summer of Sell’ finds another home
WASHINGTON – Anselmo Ontiveros flew 3,000 miles from the Bay Area to the nation’s capital, donned a green T-shirt and needed just a few minutes to find common cause.
Determined, as he said, to “keep the conversation going” about the fate of his beloved Oakland Athletics, Ontiveros was walking down Half Street near the Washington Nationals’ ballpark Friday when several locals approached him, transfixed by the four-letter message on his shirt.
“A lot of people are like, ‘What is the SELL shirt?” says Ontiveros, a 43-year-old Fremont, California resident who has rooted for the A’s since he was 8.
Ontiveros needn’t get too deep in the civic weeds to describe the sad tale of the A’s, who through owner John Fisher’s neglect and multiple failed attempts to land a ballpark – some of them comically dead on arrival – are now ticketed for Las Vegas, uprooting 55 years in Oakland for $350 million of public money in Nevada.
No, Ontiveros’s elevator pitch was enough to make the locals get it.
“You tell them,” Ontiveros said of his conversation with Washington fans, “and they say, ‘Oh, we hate Dan Snyder.
Yet while D.C. sports fans’ dreams came true when Snyder, the bumbling owner of Washington’s football team, was forced to sell the club after decades of fostering a toxic workplace, A’s fans are left to wonder why Fisher is getting propped up, not kicked out, by Major League Baseball.
Rather than Commissioner Rob Manfred suggesting Oakland might be better served if Fisher was no longer in the game’s ownership fraternity, he has waived the $300 million relocation fee to smooth Fisher’s path to the desert.
Rather than owning up to roster and facility decay while pocketing revenue-sharing money from other clubs, Fisher and club president Dave Kaval, with the occasional snarky support from Manfred, claim fan and civic indifference, not ineptitude, is the reason the club must relocate to Las Vegas.
It has been two months since A’s fans held a “reverse boycott,” turning out 28,000 strong at the Coliseum on June 13 to show that the club’s embarrassing crowd count – fewer than 5,500 have shown up for 15 of the team’s 59 home dates – was not because they didn’t love their team.
It kicked off what multiple fan groups are terming the “Summer of Sell,” in which Oakland supporters show up strongly at opposing venues – the better to keep their cash from Fisher – and enlighten supporters of other teams to join their cause and, against all odds, convince MLB owners to vote against approving their move to Las Vegas.
The chances of that happening are less likely than these stripped-down A’s – now 28-83 after a Friday loss to the Nationals – winning the World Series. The chances are slightly better that their Las Vegas deal goes awry, though MLB’s blessing and hitting all 7s from the loosest slot machine in the desert – the Nevada state legislature – are significant steps toward a move.
Yet the fans will not go quietly, even in the face of opposition.
After gaining national exposure with a successful “Sell the team!” chant at July’s All-Star Game, supporters had their rooter cards instructing fans how to join the cause confiscated when the A’s visited Seattle later that month.
When hundreds of fans wore the SELL message to a Dodger Stadium series earlier this month, some were forced to remove their shirts.
The trip to D.C. was a new challenge – the A’s first road series east of Denver since the All-Star break, a geographical hurdle for the movement.
Yet some were determined to show out.
‘Fans aren’t the problem’
Ben Miller wanted just one thing for his 16th birthday: A trip to D.C. to see his A’s.
Miller has gone to the Coliseum since he was 3. He read Moneyball when he was 6. Had his heart filled and broken by the Coco Crisp-Josh Reddick A’s of the early 2010s.
And now, nearing the cusp of adulthood, getting a harsh lesson in capitalism.
“It’s interesting for a child that’s old enough to understand what’s going on,” says his mother, Amy Miller. “It’s very mixed emotions: Because he loves Oakland, he loves the Coliseum and he loves baseball. But he wants to see the team grow and how does he do that going forward?”
Ben was watching from his Alamo, California home when the “Sell the team!” chants boomed through the TV. A late-summer mother-son trip was hatched: Two games in D.C., an Amtrak ride to Baltimore to see Camden Yards, a couple days touring the monuments.
Ben’s younger brother got involved, too: He bought his older brother a SELL shirt for his birthday.
While Ben has a handle on analytics and memorizes stats with aplomb, one number sticks out to him: 27,000, the crowd count for the reverse boycott game.
“It’s good to see that the fans aren’t the problem,” he says. “I have hope that things will (go awry) in Vegas.”
Ontiveros harbors similar dreams, with every day that goes by with no demolition date for the Tropicana Resort, ostensibly the site of the A’s ballpark, and no viable design after the club admitted its initial stadium renderings were irrelevant.
“This fan base has been beaten up for 20 years,” says Ontiveros. “And now it’s like a big middle finger to us. They’re going to Vegas.
“The biggest thing for everyone is that ownership has blamed the fans for not showing up. And that’s what they’re going with and that’s not true.”
‘They love their city’
Even a fan as young as Miller is left only with nostalgia – the Stephen Piscotty signature on his Kelly-green jersey, the not-so-distant past that included Matt Olson, Sean Murphy, Marcus Semien, Sonny Gray – 2023 All-Stars representing other teams.
Friday, Lawrence Butler, one of the club’s top prospects, made his big league debut. Zack Gelof’s jersey was nearly as popular as the SELL shirts in the crowd, with the Delaware native and Virginia product returning to the East Coast with six homers in his first 22 big league games.
But the team is very raw, overmatched on most nights and must play through the swirl of uncertainty surrounding the franchise.
They appreciate that the fans are showing them love, even in a rather unique fashion.
“They’re very passionate about their team. They love their team. They love their city – they love Oakland,” says outfielder Brent Rooker, the club’s lone All-Star this season. “They’ve made it very clear how they feel this year about those two things.
“Throughout all the noise and the lack of success on our part, they’ve done a great job staying with us and remaining passionate.”
It is a mutual piece of empathy, what with A’s fans cringing at the position their lads are in, a far cry from a club that just four years ago posted a second consecutive 97-win season and drew 55,000 fans to the Coliseum for the AL wild-card game.
“I feel bad for these guys, because I still root for them,” says Keith Pierson, a 35-year-old A’s fan from Philadelphia who rues the trades that sent Olson and Murphy to Atlanta in consecutive offseasons, only to see them sign reasonable contract extensions. “It’s not their fault that they’re not who should be on the team.
“There’s no reason why they couldn’t afford (Olson and Murphy), especially with all the revenue sharing (Fisher’s) supposed to be using. Not for his pocket.”
Pierson is an A’s fan because his grandfather, three franchise moves ago, was a Philadelphia A’s fan. Now, Pierson tracks them on the East Coast, attending games in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington in recent years.
While he’s far detached from the Coliseum, he nonetheless ordered a $15 SELL shirt.
“Technically, it makes no difference to me. I’ll still root for them,” he says. “Unfortunately, as long as Fisher’s the owner, I won’t be spending any money on them. It’s like the Nationals are getting my money so I can root for Oakland.
“If they move to Vegas, I just have to accept it. I can’t change that. But once Fisher’s gone, then I’ll probably fly out to Vegas and go to a game. Once I know that the new owner is going to actually put product on the field.”
‘Anyone is susceptible to this’
Rep. Barbara Lee can’t control the A’s roster. But the Democratic congresswoman from Oakland, an A’s fan since Rickey Henderson’s salad days, is trying to flex her legislative muscles.
She’s the latest lawmaker to threaten MLB’s antitrust exemption, introducing the Moneyball Act, which would revoke the exemption unless owners of a relocating team compensate up to 10 years of tax revenue to the cities they are departing.
Friday, a half-dozen of Lee’s staff members, attending in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the office, donned SELL shirts and watched the action from the 300 level. Sean Ryan, Lee’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, says Lee’s primary objection is with Manfred waiving the $300 million relocation fee for Fisher.
“That’s when it felt like Oakland was getting the short end of the stick,” says Lee. “Other small markets should be put on notice. Anybody is susceptible to this.”
Manfred has said it is not “realistic” for Fisher to afford both the $1.1 billion he’s estimated to finance to build the stadium, along with the relocation fee. Yet the whole affair once again raises the question of how public and how private a stadium project should be.
The equation is even more complicated in Oakland, which like many California cities is facing a housing and homeless crisis.
“The city needs to spend its money on schools and the police and transportation and all those things,” says Oakland native Janet Rossi, who now lives in Washington and proudly wore her SELL shirt Friday. “I think the owners of the teams have plenty of money to help out with all that if they want to.
“It seems like they don’t.”
After the Nationals erased an early A’s lead and seized a 3-2 advantage in the fourth inning, the A’s fans awaited their big moment. Whether in Oakland or Seattle, Denver or D.C., the supporters pause in the top of the fifth inning and, after the first batter, begin a “Sell the team!” chant.
Friday, the green shirts were scattered about an announced crowd of 22,651. Yet they were heard.
“Are they chanting, ‘Sell the team?’” asked veteran broadcaster Bob Carpenter on the Nationals broadcast.
“They are,” replied his colleague, Dan Kolko. “Happening in away ballparks all across the country.”
It won’t stop anytime soon, probably not until, as so many A’s fans say, there’s shovels in the ground in Las Vegas. For now, they choose to view their plight through green and gold-colored glasses, to hang on every hangup in the Vegas deal and take Oakland mayor Sheng Thao at her word when she says a deal for a new stadium at Howard Terminal was much closer than Fisher or Manfred portrayed.
At this point, they have little choice but to hope and holler.
“The deal in Oakland is there,” says Ontiveros. “The reason we’re here is we haven’t lost hope. We feel like it’s 50-50 and let’s just get our voice out.”
Friday night, it was heard once again.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A’s fans bring ‘Sell the team’ movement to Washington