OAKLAND — The buzziest sports story last week was on Tuesday when the Oakland A’s gave out free tickets to celebrate their 50th anniversary and attracted a crowd of over 46,000.
TV crews went live, writers filed stories and bloggers tweeted photos. Manager Bob Melvin said it was inspiring.
“It was kinda like a Raider crowd there at first,” he said.
What wasn’t given as much coverage was the next day, when the A’s hosted family, friends and a few true believers for an afternoon exhibition against the White Sox.
The crowd was announced at over 13,000, but even bolstered by sections filled with groups of school kids, there were great, gaping swaths of empty seats. In sections 323 through 334, there wasn’t a solitary soul.
And the thought occurred: Has it finally happened? Have the loyal A’s fans lost faith?
Because really, all the free promotion proved was they have not reached the point where they can’t even give tickets away. The front office will tell you they are taking the long view on attendance, “looking at it holistically.”
But this isn’t a blip. Oakland has been among the two lowest teams in attendance in Major League Baseball for two years. (Only hopeless Tampa Bay is worse.) And the numbers have been in a steady downward slide since 2014.
If anything, Free Ticket Day looked like another of what’s become a franchise pattern. They promote big, splashy, hey-look-at-this events: Food trucks! The Treehouse sports bar! A mechanical rabbit to deliver baseballs! And then it is back to the reality of a haunted house of a ballpark.
Which is not to say people don’t follow the A’s. Team president Dave Kaval says the team’s television ratings are “up the most of any team in Major League Baseball,’’ 70 percent higher than 2017, according to NBC Sports California.
But that only makes the point. People watch on TV but they aren’t buying tickets, despite the giveaways and mechanical rabbits.
The A’s have run into that Yogi Berra truism: “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, no one can stop them.”
The A’s have undermined their support in two significant ways. First, they have heedlessly traded away talented, marquee players for draft choices, prospects and a handful of magic beans.
No sport is more dependent on fan-player relationships than baseball. As the years go by, we recognize players from their batting stance, their predilection for chasing the high, hard one and maybe an inside joke or two.
The A’s swear they are done with their sidewalk sales. They have a great core of young players — and wow, can they hit — and they are going to keep them for years to come.
Uh, yeah. We’ll see.
It’s the second problem that is doing the harm now.
The Oakland Mausoleum.
The ancient, gray crumbling ballpark is an embarrassment. It has always been a football stadium where they also play baseball, but except for the addition of big-screen scoreboards, it is the same old, musty relic it has been for decades.
But wait, the brain trust says, we’re working on a new ballpark.