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Bound for Sacramento, Will the A’s Find an Appropriate Ballpark There?

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Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve known for almost a year that the Oakland Athletics are moving to Las Vegas. Eventually. Someday. And every excruciating step of that process has dominated the news.

Team and city waged a years-long cold war over the construction of a new Bay Area stadium, plans for which finally fell through last year. That tipped off 12 months of open conflict with fans and government in both Oakland and Nevada, stemming from the inconvenient reality that even if the club could finance a stadium in Sin City, it would not be ready before the team’s lease at the Coliseum expired at the end of the 2024 season.

After mooting various solutions, including a stopover in Salt Lake City or the world’s most awkward stadium lease extension, John Fisher’s club is headed for Sutter Health Park in Sacramento, currently home of the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats.

The team revealed the news on Twitter, with replies disabled.

Fisher appeared in Sacramento on Thursday with Vivek Ranadivé, who owns both the River Cats and the NBA’s Kings, to announce the new partnership. Fisher said he looked forward to seeing stars like Aaron Judge hit home runs there, apparently not thinking about how he’d technically admitted that he was rooting for his team to get scored on. Fisher did not take questions from the press in attendance.

It’s an ignominious end to a 57-year relationship between team and city, one that featured 21 playoff appearances, seven pennants, and four World Series titles. Since moving to Oakland in 1968, the Athletics have revolutionized the sport — competitively, aesthetically, or both — not once but three times. Even after a quarter century of underinvestment and neglect, the A’s are sixth in MLB in both wins and winning percentage since their move to Oakland.

Any contemplation of this move must begin with mourning the loss of this unique pillar of the baseball community, the team that put Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, and Jason Giambi in its distinctive green and gold colors. Rollie Fingers’ mustache, the Bash Brothers, Moneyball, Section 149… all of that is now as culturally distant as Lefty Grove and Eddie Collins. They’ll start over in Sacramento, and then again in a couple years, if and when the new ballpark opens in Vegas.

But really, you can take all of that as read. If the team and the culture are dying, it’s been a long and arduous illness. The public hatred for owner John Fisher, whose embarrassing malignity defined the club’s final years in Oakland, is ferocious, but at this point it’s a chronic condition. If he ever heard the jeering, he can now plug his ears with revenue sharing checks for the foreseeable future, as he creeps across the western U.S. like Dutch elm disease across the trunk of a tree.

It’s a tragedy, but it’s done. It’s been done for a while now. The only new information we got on Thursday was where the team will set up camp while waiting for a new permanent home.

Fisher’s Xanadu, a publicly subsidized development in the heart of Las Vegas, is far from a fait accompli. So the stopover in Sacramento could be for three seasons — through 2027, meaning the A’s have already blown their initial timeline for moving to Las Vegas — or for four. But let’s take this announcement at face value, even though I’ll believe in this Las Vegas move only when there are green shovels in the ground by the Strip.

The Athletics’ new home, Sutter Health Park, holds some 10,000 fans in normal configuration, with the ability to expand to 14,000 with lawn seating. There’s an enticing 325-foot short porch in right field; Kyle Schwarber’s contract is up after next season, and if he feels like taking a huge pay cut in order to make a run at the single-season home run record, that’s on the table now.

But overall, this is a pretty unremarkable Triple-A stadium in a city that ordinarily wouldn’t get a sniff at a major league team. As much as MLB has been making noises about expansion over the past couple years, Sacramento has ranked somewhere below Virginia Beach but above Khartoum on the list of most attractive candidate cities.

So what should we make of the A’s playing in a minor league ballpark, in a minor league city, and not even having a place signifier in their team name during their stay in Sacramento? Because, oh yeah, they’re just going to be “The Athletics” for the next three or four seasons.

This is probably going to be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t hate this idea in the abstract. I’ve long staked out two hills to die on: First, that Major League Baseball ought to be played not only in New York and Los Angeles and whatever Sun Belt boomtown is ripe for real estate investment at the moment, but in cities of varying shapes and sizes, from sea to shining sea.

The second point is related: There’s too little imagination, creativity, and diversity in stadium architecture these days. No matter what Fisher and the other owners tell you, it is possible to play baseball in a venue other than an overdesigned Camden Yards knockoff surrounded by five-over-ones.

Even as the world’s biggest fan of Tropicana Field, I’ll concede that 14,000 seats is probably too few for a full-time major league venue. Nevertheless, it’s not like the A’s were going to draw many more fans to see a 100-loss team with a $60 million payroll in Oakland. Especially if buying a ticket meant putting money in the pockets of an owner who was flipping the city double-barreled middle fingers on his way out of town. At least there’s novelty value in Sacramento. And you know what? I think enough time has passed since the first-generation MLS franchise branding exercise for us to play around with new naming conventions for sports teams. I’m happy to reserve judgment for the time being.

But all that is in the abstract. Because — as with so many of Fisher’s plans of late — the more details you ask for, the more rickety this plan looks.

For starters, there’s the fate of the stadium’s existing tenants, the River Cats. There’s no concrete plan in place yet, but John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reported a number of options. The A’s and River Cats share the ballpark full-time through some scheduling legerdemain, or the minor league club could undertake a grand tour of California venues, including the Coliseum and Oracle Park in San Francisco.

It’d be an unnecessary disruption, but a minor league ballplayer’s life is already only somewhat more stable than that of a traveling circus performer in the 1930s. The real issue is the ballpark.

Most of the public discourse about Sutter Health Park is going to be about the stadium capacity. That is, after all, what the public sees: A venue less than half the size of what they’ve come to expect from a major league facility. But the external is not what makes a ballpark MLB-quality. As long as there are four bases, a mound, and a fence, you’re good to go.

What separates bush league from big league is all tucked away in the basement. That’s where you’ll find broadcasting infrastructure, facilities for catering, and the clubhouses.

Shea’s story quotes some current A’s players who were skeptical about those facilities. The clubhouses are situated behind the outfield wall, rather than adjacent to the dugouts, as is the norm for major league facilities. Not having tunnel access from the dugout would disrupt players’ in-game routines. The clubhouses and training rooms, according to Brent Rooker, are small and cramped, and the weight room would need to be expanded in order to meet major league standards.

Former Twins and Mets reliever Trevor Hildenberger’s professional career ended with a stint in Sacramento. He says players are in for a rude awakening.

This is not an unforeseeable complication. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes are in the same situation as the A’s right now. (For those of you who don’t follow hockey and want some context, comparing the A’s to the Coyotes is the meanest thing I’ve ever said about Fisher, his team, or its shambolic relocation.) Having been booted out of their arena in Glendale, the Coyotes are cooling their heels at Mullett Arena in Tempe.

Mullett Arena is ordinarily home to the Arizona State hockey team and seats 5,000 fans: normal for a college barn but about a quarter of the capacity of your garden variety NHL arena. The “intimate” atmosphere, a line Fisher parroted on Thursday, has generated some positive reviews. But living in condominium with a college team comes with the exact same teething issues Rooker and Hildenberger are worried about.

The NHL training facilities and dressing rooms aren’t actually in the original arena, but within an annex. The new dressing rooms weren’t finished when the 2022-23 NHL regular season started; visiting teams used temporary locker rooms set up on top of a practice rink at the start of last season. Given the Athletics have already demonstrated an inability to maintain a construction schedule, it’s reasonable to fear that even if the Sutter Health Park facilities do get a facelift, it won’t be ready for Opening Day 2025.

I asked an MLBPA spokesperson what assurances, if any, the union had received about the quality of facilities at the Athletics’ new home park. I also inquired about the fate of the Triple-A players this new arrangement might displace.

The spokesperson’s response: “MLBPA has had preliminary discussions with MLB about a range of issues related to the temporary relocation and we expect those discussions to continue.”

So stay tuned.

For what it’s worth, the CBA is pretty sparse on what amenities are required of a major league clubhouse. Article XIII, which governs health and safety, contains a list of mandatory treatment equipment, including a whirlpool, ultrasound machine, examining table, and a “hydroculator,” which is a word I’d never seen before.

Attachment 47 codifies general clubhouse standards, including a cleaning schedule, and a provision mandating that towels and washcloths must be replaced every season. (Good for them; I’m pretty sure I have bath towels that are older than Jackson Chourio.) The clubhouse must be stocked with soap, toiletries, and so forth, and players must have access to a safe or lockbox for their personal effects.

Every clubhouse must have a recovery room that’s off-limits to the press, as well as a full-time chef who provides at least three meals per game: breakfast or lunch, depending on start time, as well as pre- and post-game meals. For 4:05 p.m. games, players can arrange in advance for an additional meal, which to my (and Taco Bell’s) immense disappointment, was not referred to as “Fourthmeal” in the document.

In my experience, there’s a wide variation in standards for MLB clubhouse amenities; some visiting locker rooms are about as spartan as an all-boys’ freshman dormitory common room. And while food and toilet paper are codified in the CBA — as they should be, as the building blocks of civil society — there’s some gray area.

Which necessitates the first paragraph of Attachment 47, which requires each team to select a Player Advisory Council (PAC), to “identify acceptable clubhouse standards with respect to meals, nutrition, services, and amenities that should be provided in home and visiting clubhouses.” If the PAC is not satisfied with the clubhouse facilities, this section defines the procedures for remedying the situation: taking the issue up with the clubhouse manager, followed by consultation between the league and the union, and if necessary, a grievance.

I expect the Athletics’ players to avail themselves of this procedure next season. I’ve seen a few people on social media suggest that the union should attempt to block this relocation on the grounds that the facilities are insufficient; there’s no mechanism I’m aware of that would allow the players to do so. But if the A’s are unable to provide facilities that allow their players to train and perform at the level expected by professional athletes in 2025, said players absolutely should raise a ruckus until the problem is solved.

Ultimately, this whole situation is Fisher’s stewardship of the Athletics in microcosm. The A’s have made bold pronouncements that promise something unique and interesting, without first taking care of the mundane details that would make that product possible. Logistics aren’t some triviality; they’re the whole proverbial ballgame.

There’s nothing preventing the A’s from buckling down and revamping Sutter Health Park so that it’s fit for purpose. It’s possible that in 11 months, we’ll look back on this column, and others like it, and laugh at how alarmist and cynical we all were.

But what, in the past 10 years of this franchise’s history, makes you think that’s going to happen? What have Fisher and his men done to earn the benefit of the doubt?

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