This is Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by me, Michael Weinreb, about sports history, culture and politics. Welcome to all new readers/subscribers, and if you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share, however you feel comfortable sharing. (It’s still free to subscribe: Just click “None” on the “subscribe now” page.) The best way you can help out is by spreading the word as much as possible. That said, I have set up payment tiers, if you wish to give something—I’ve made them as cheap as Substack will let me make them, which is $5 a month or $30 a year.
In 1971, after four decades in three different cities defined largely by ineptitude and mediocrity, the Oakland Athletics suddenly became a very good baseball team. They won 101 games in the summer of ‘71 on their way to becoming World Champions in 1972, all as they were systemically developing a personality that reflected the counter-cultural reputation of the city in which they resided. Their star pitcher was the charismatic Vida Blue, whose career ups and downs, wrote Rich Puerzer of the Society for American Baseball Research, “reflected the times during which he played perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries”; their star hitter was one Reginald Martinez Jackson, mercurial slugger and future metaphorical drinking utensil.
And the owner? That would be Charles Oscar Finley, a self-made millionaire and one of the most colorful and ornery sons of bitches ever to grace a baseball clubhouse. Finley was a control freak, a publicity hound, and a vulgar and reviled boss, and largely because of the force of his crusty personality, those A’s teams of the early 1970s were a dynastic force in baseball like none other before or since: Proud mustachioed destroyers of the sport’s stodgy status quo.
Fifty years later, amid the cresting wave of the Moneyball era, the Athletics remain a franchise like no other. They are a team with perpetual budget issues that derive from playing in baseball’s worst stadium, a sterile bowl in an increasingly desolate pocket of Oakland that two other professional sports franchises have already abandoned. And yet somehow, they still manage to field competitive baseball teams. But now the stubborn counter-cultural progressivism that came to define Oakland during the late 1960s and early 1970s has led the city and the team to an impasse, where neither one can agree on how and where a new stadium should be built.
This is nothing new: For decades now, the A’s have threatened to move, only to stay in place. It now feels like they’re the one sports team that should stay in Oakland forever, but this week, Major League Baseball granted the A’s permission to explore relocation to other cities in case their plans for a ballpark on the Oakland waterfront continue to fall through. And one of those cities is Portland, Oregon, which feels, oddly, both like an ideal fit and a truly terrible notion.
Portland, of course, has its own proud counter-cultural baseball tradition; I have written in this space previously about the outstanding documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which chronicles the success (and ultimate demise) of the independent Portland Mavericks minor-league baseball team. So, in a way, the A’s and their odd historical baggage would fit well in Portland, a small city whose many problems often stem from its refusal to acknowledge that is no longer as small a city as it once was. But it also feels like it would be a cruel theft, because as Oakland’s varied sports teams have either sprinted across the Bay to revel in tech-bro money or peace-outed to gamble away their futures in Vegas, the A’s feel like the last remaining vestige of Oakland’s old soul—a team that represents the city’s stubborn resistance to the gentrification that has completely transformed it.
Here’s the central question: If Portland, a city that is essentially on a parallel path as Oakland in terms of gentrification, were to steal away the Athletics, what would it say about how the city’s soul has changed? Of this, I am of two minds: In many ways, Portland’s stubborn resistance to its own growth bothers the hell out of me (particularly when I am trying to cross the street in a city that refuses to acknowledge the usefulness of stop signs or traffic laws or enforced speed limits or roads that make any logical sense). But if Portland is truly a city that considers itself both progressive and counter-cultural and sensitive about its own future, how does it make sense to lure the last remaining team that represents the soul of Oakland? Who’s to say that in thirty or four years, the same thing won’t happen to Portland?
Perhaps this is blind sentimentality. Perhaps you can make the case that when it comes to sports, nothing matters except money. Perhaps you can argue that if Oakland really wanted the A’s to stay, they would act more like they wanted the A’s to stay. Perhaps you could say that I’m clinging to the kind of nostalgia that Charlie Finley id not display when he yanked his franchise out of Kansas City and moved them to Oakland in the first place. But at some point, like in a bad romantic comedy, a sports team and a city realize that they need each other. And I keep hoping that will happen in Oakland, before its too late.
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