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Empty seats, feral cats, angry fans: Oakland A’s push for new home as crowds stay away

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Oakland A's player and manager on the field during a game.

A's manager Mark Kotsay, left, and pitcher Frankie Montas during a contest with the Detroit Tigers. With A's home games attracting few fans, the team hopes for a new stadium to play in, built with assistance from the city. Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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A recent Oakland A’s home game against the Tampa Bay Rays drew 2,488 to the Oakland Coliseum, an aging ballpark that can hold more than 47,000. A’s attendance had not reached that low a level in 40 years. 

Going to an A’s game these days might seem kind of sad, with so many empty seats. But there are perks, like being able to hear the balls-and-strikes calls of the umpires. At the A’s-Rays game on May 2, you could clearly make out the taunts from the sparse crowd.

If a quieter baseball experience is what you want, the Coliseum in 2022 is the place to be. But you might want to avoid sitting in right field, home to the cheering section of the Oakland 68s, whose members bang out beats on drums and cowbells.

“It’s kind of my social community,” said Esperanza Uruena, an Oakland 68er, one of about 20 in the bleachers.

Jorge Leon, president of the Oakland 68s, said, “We have different drumbeats for all the different A’s players. But we had to create new ones.”

That’s because the A’s traded away All-Stars and fan favorites who helped the team make the playoffs just two years ago. 

Leon, 37, comes to just about every game. He said it’s not just the roster tear-down that’s driving attendance to such absurd lows. A’s fans are used to that, the whole moneyball thing. It’s the A’s trading all their good players, then raising ticket prices, all while threatening to leave Oakland. It feels like they don’t want the fans there. 

“The last day that we could renew our season tickets, we are like, ‘OK, are we going to do this or not?” Leon said. “Part of our mindset was like, Fisher is doing this on purpose, so no one comes, right?”

“Fisher” is John Fisher, the billionaire owner of the A’s. 

A’s President Dave Kaval swears the team is not trying to keep fans away. 

“We don’t need to do that to relocate,” Kaval said. “That might have been true before the league gave us authorization on Las Vegas. And then it would have been a totally sensible plan, maybe.”

Major League Baseball gave the A’s the OK to flirt with Vegas, partly to pressure the city of Oakland into helping them build a new ballpark, something more fan-friendly and less feline-friendly. 

“I see the feral cats almost every day,” Kaval said. “I see the cats, I see the kittens, I see calico cats, I see tortoiseshell cats.”

Beyond the roaming colony of feral cats that’s captured media attention, the 66-year-old Coliseum has had sewage problems and lighting issues, and it used to have vermin problems — maybe before the cats showed up. 

The A’s want a $12 billion waterfront ballpark development, complete with hotels, restaurants and housing. The city wouldn’t help finance the stadium directly from current tax revenue but would redirect taxes generated by the project itself into the surrounding infrastructure.

Opponents of the project say it’ll interfere with the Oakland port, make gentrification worse and steal attention from more pressing issues facing the city, like homelessness.

Kaval says if the A’s don’t get this stadium, they’ll have to find a home somewhere else. It’s not a new threat.

Leon has the memorabilia to prove it. Alongside A’s jerseys and newspaper clippings he preserves in a shed behind his home, Leon keeps an aging banner that fans used to hang at the Coliseum. “So we have one of the classic ones. It’s a ‘Keep our A’s in Oakland’ banner. I want to say from 1998, 1999.” 

The city has changed a lot since then. It’s richer, more expensive, more gentrified. The always misleading caricature of Oakland as poster child for urban decay is laughably inaccurate in 2022 — the median home value is over $1 million.

But ironically, even as the city grows more prosperous, its sports teams are abandoning it. The NFL’s Raiders left for Las Vegas. The NBA’s Warriors left for San Francisco. The A’s are all that’s left among major pro sports teams.

Leon wants the new, fancy stadium. It’s the only way the A’s stick around. But he’ll miss the Coliseum, warts and all. He grew up not so far from it and met his wife at an A’s game.

“Playing baseball and hanging out with your friends and your crew. That’s why to me it’s the most beautiful place. I don’t need the fancy stuff that goes on in ballparks,” he said.

While other A’s fans stay home to send a message to the ownership, Leon still shows up. After some reflection, he doesn’t actually think the front office is trying to keep attendance low. He just thinks they’ve been arrogant.

At the May 2 game, which the A’s ultimately lost to the Rays, 9-year-old Harrison Stone was having a great time, enjoying those simpler things. He managed to walk away with some souvenirs: four baseballs.

“Probably because there’s, like, no one here,” he said.

He grabbed two foul balls, and two were thrown to him by an outfielder with limited options.

Harrison is an A’s fan. But he’s not local. 

“We’re from Las Vegas,” he said. 

It’s harder to get foul balls at Aviators games — they’re the A’s minor league team in Vegas. This year, some Aviators games draw more fans than the A’s do.

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