February 24, 2024

Kawakami: The A’s wobbly Las Vegas future and the signs of another John Fisher failure

The A’s would be just about ready to open up a brand-new stadium near Laney College in Oakland these days if even a few of the things they planned and promised back in 2017 had come true. But none did.

This might sound familiar: Even after the A’s had to admit defeat in the Laney debacle, they would still likely be in the concluding stages of constructing a new stadium on the Howard Terminal site right at this moment if everything owner John Fisher and his lieutenants had trumpeted and declared had actually happened. Then they delayed that one and delayed again, negotiated with the City of Oakland, and still kept promising.

But … nope.

All Fisher did in all that time (and for three or four other failed stadium efforts before that, dating back decades), really, was waste time. Very precious time. His own time, his staff’s time, the politicians’ time and, most importantly, the A’s fans’ time and emotions. Wasted. Just absolutely squandered. He literally could’ve had a stadium by now, a few times over, if he just was willing to commit more of his vast resources than he wanted to.

You can blame whoever you want, but the common denominator in this is John Fisher. And failure.

And now to the new situation in Las Vegas, which is beginning to feel and sound like all of the old Fisher situations in all the other delayed, frustrating and eventually doomed stadium efforts.

That’s what I took away from the very interesting comments from Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman on a Front Office Sports podcast casting some amount of doubt on the A’s planned move to the site of the soon-to-be-imploded Tropicana Las Vegas hotel, which, it’s important to note, is located in unincorporated Clark County and not in Goodman’s jurisdiction. Plus, Goodman mildly walked back her comments a little bit later.

Again, Goodman was not speaking with any real authority on this matter. But just take her skepticism — she literally said the A’s should figure out how to build in Oakland — as a representation of the Las Vegas demographic that never seemed too excited about the A’s relocating to Nevada.

Just like with every other demographic, business or fan: The more you get to know Fisher’s operation, the less faith you have in anything good happening.

To me, the most telling point wasn’t Goodman’s comments. It was that her clear ambivalence about the A’s in Las Vegas was met with nearly total silence among powerbrokers in that region. Ambivalence on top of ambivalence. Where was the rallying cry from all those businesses and fans supposedly lining up to welcome the A’s? Where was the energy? Why didn’t anybody with clout step up to bellow that the mayor was wrong and the A’s will take this town by storm in 2028, which is the new theoretical finishing date?

If there was a huge Vegas vote of confidence for Fisher this week, I sure didn’t see it.



Rosenthal: Why I remain skeptical about the A’s grandiose Vegas plans

And I’m wondering if Fisher himself is feeling it, too. Because, if he is ever honest with himself, he might come to the same conclusions I just did, sitting here more than six years after his Laney College plans blew up and almost a year after he pulled out of the Howard Terminal talks to concentrate solely on Las Vegas.

Starting with the big conclusion:

Fisher is practically no further along with this Las Vegas stadium than he was with the Howard Terminal project early last year.

Stop and go over that sentence again. I am not exaggerating for effect. Factoring in the mood of the local population, he’s probably a step or two behind that pace, which ought to be fairly scary for Fisher and everybody involved in the Las Vegas situation. That is, if anybody wants to be honest with themselves.

Of course, Fisher could get this stadium done if he buckles down, gets a real construction plan, lines up financing and commits to paying out several hundred million dollars of his own money. He might still do that.

But folks, that was also true at Howard Terminal, Laney College and the Coliseum. It’s always been true, especially at Howard Terminal, when the city was offering a deal that was more expansive than many insiders ever expected. He’s always refused to make that kind of commitment. He just rushes from one project to the next and then the plans blow up. He’s always found a way to fail. He’s doing it again in Las Vegas.

Yes, Fisher has MLB approval to move to Las Vegas. Unanimous, even! But he also had MLB approval to build anywhere he wanted in the Bay Area. And those sites were far more realistic than the tiny, nine-acre plot the A’s have in Las Vegas.

This is why the MLB relocation vote in November was not the final step. It wasn’t even the first step of the final stage of it. There’s just too much else left to figure out. There’s too much up in the air.

Yes, Fisher will receive $380 million from the state of Nevada. But that’s only if the A’s build on the Tropicana site. Which is very likely too small to fit a retractable roof — there goes that dramatic backdrop of the Vegas night — and generally seems too small for indoor Major League Baseball.

There would be no grandeur inside that theoretical stadium. There will be no sunshine. It’d feel small and cramped. And it’d be just another large, air-conditioned attraction competing for attention with lounge acts, mob museums, animal habitats and, oh yeah, every kind of casino imaginable.

At Howard Terminal, the stadium would’ve been next to the Bay, and it would’ve been outdoors. It would’ve had, eventually, a mixed-use neighborhood surrounding the stadium. It would’ve been far, far better than anything that can be squeezed onto the Tropicana site. It’s not mean to say that, and the mayor of Las Vegas just did.

Oakland A's

Oakland A’s fans offer some advice to Las Vegas during a June game at the Coliseum. (Jane Tyska / Digital First Media / East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Even if the A’s get the stadium underway in Las Vegas, the 2028 estimated opening date is very optimistic given all the delays so far —2029 or 2030 seem far more realistic.

So where are the A’s playing after this season, when their Coliseum lease runs out? Gee, Fisher has no announced plans. He doesn’t know, other than it seems likely that the A’s will become an itinerant team, maybe playing some in Sacramento, some in Salt Lake City and some in a couple of minor-league parks in Nevada.

Yeah, looking and acting like a barnstorming 4A team might not be the perfect way to market this franchise to a new city.

Of course, to help the marketing, the A’s lost a total of 214 games the last two seasons. And they’re about to get their TV payment drastically reduced because they’ll likely play most of their games outside of NBC Sports Bay Area’s broadcast region. So you know Fisher will keep the payroll as low as possible.

I can’t imagine how the A’s will be any better than they’ve been the last two seasons, and they might be worse. Until 2029 or 2030.

Buy your Las Vegas season tickets now! 

When I’ve expressed my extreme cynicism about Fisher to high-ranking people in baseball throughout Fisher’s stadium odyssey, they’ve usually nodded in agreement but tried to emphasize the positive. This time, they’ve said, he should get it right. This time, he has to.

They’ve said so again about the Las Vegas situation, and I get it. Fisher has no other options. MLB has shamefully spurned Oakland and opened the Las Vegas market to him. There’s no way out. If Fisher’s ever going to get it done, it has to be now. It’d be too embarrassing not to. Any logical owner would get this done.

And I keep saying: I’ve watched Fisher do illogical things every step of the way. I’ve seen him waste so much time — the A’s are probably further away from a stadium now than they were a year ago, when they were further away than they were a year before that and further away 10 years before that. We know that the other MLB owners don’t want to force Fisher to sell the team. But if anything’s going to get them thinking about it, or at least to suggest quite strongly to Fisher that it’s well past time to pass this team to someone else, it’ll be if he blows this Las Vegas situation.

Which might not be inevitable, but it sure would be the betting choice right now.

(Photo of the potential future site of a Las Vegas ballpark for the A’s, currently mostly dirt: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)