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Billy being Billy

In Baseball, Long form on February 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Manny Ramirez is coming to Oakland.


It is absolutely fitting that Manny Ramirez will likely conclude his career in a city that is culturally defined as a non-destination, a bastion of underachievement.

As Oakland struggles to hold onto its three major sports franchises, Billy Beane has placed his chips on a player believed and proven to be a repeat offender of Major League Baseball’s banned substance policy, a clubhouse cancer, the antithesis of a workhorse and one of the greatest hitters of the last 20 years.

As a city and as a fan base, Oakland deserves nothing more or less.

Do not get me wrong. It isn’t a bad move by any stretch of the imagination, as well as a classic Billy Beane signing. The famously thrifty A’s[1] are picking up Ramirez for $500,000, a very small price to pay for a veteran hitter with a career batting average of .312, 555 home runs and an .411 on-base percentage to his name. At 39 years old, Ramirez will be far from the elite player that led the Red Sox to a pair of World Series titles in the previous decade, but at least we know he won’t be a 90-lb. weakling at the plate either.

After he completes his 50-game suspension, which he picked up after playing only five games for the Tampa Bay Rays before testing positive for a banned substance last year, Ramirez could easily revive his career for one more season. If he shoots a few deep into the echo-chamber caverns beyond the outfield fences of Oakland Coliseum, it will be chalked up as a win for Beane and a value-add pick-up for the A’s. In the wake of the team’s marquee signing of Cuban phenom outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, as well as the resigning of Coco Crisp, Ramirez’s addition will at the very least make spring training interesting and generate some preseason buzz.

Here are the things it won’t do:

1) It won’t replace the bevy of talent the A’s unloaded this offseason, including parts of a rotation that had been projected to be the best in the AL West in 2011 before injuries left the team above only Seattle’s carcass in the division’s standings.

2) It won’t generate confidence that the A’s are making a legitimate effort to rebuild prior to their likely (read: inevitable) move to a richer, blander San Jose.

3) It won’t give Oakland fans a player or ensemble to rally behind, something that has been a consistent problem for the A’s for years.

4) Most importantly, and related, it won’t bring people back to Oakland’s empty grandstands.

The last point is surely the most painful. There’s an abiding affection common among those whose hometowns are in decline. This has been exemplified by places like Detroit and Baltimore over the last decade, but it’s an accepted and acknowledged truth in many other places across the country. It’s a brand of civic pride characterized not by accomplishment, but by perseverance, and it is best put on display in conjunction with professional athletics.

Oakland’s population fell in 2010, according to U.S. census data. This was the first time its population had fallen since 1980. As places like Silicon Valley attracted thousands of professionals and businesses over the course of the late 1990s and early-2000s, the Town’s reputation continued to slide as violent crime rates and the housing crisis drove residents out. While the 2.2 percent fall off is hardly as catastrophic as locales in the Rust Belt, recent violence and the disastrous handling of the Occupy movement have not conveyed a welcoming atmosphere to new businesses or citizens.

The physical and spiritual decline has been personified by the consecutive stewardships of Ron Dellums and Jean Quan, mayors whose performance has fallen well short of what Oakland deserves. Dysfunction, budget shortfalls, institutional and bureaucratic pettiness — characteristics shared by the A’s ownership and management — have been and will remain traits inherent to the city’s administration.

The overall point here is that Oakland needs something to rally behind. The Raiders can’t sell out games, the Warriors are mired in mediocrity and the A’s just signed one of baseball’s biggest flameouts to a minor league deal. Even native son Clint Eastwood has ditched Oakland, waving the flag of Motor City’s revival (In all fairness, a “Halftime in America” ad for Oakland’s only Fortune 500 company, Clorox, would have been pretty ridiculous. Awesome, but ridiculous).

A successful A’s franchise would not fix Oakland’s long-entrenched problems, but it would drum up some much needed goodwill. Now seems to be the time to do it. Interest in the Athletics, outside the sports world, is at an all-time high, thanks to the excellent film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane is coming off a career year, not for any particular achievement, but because his name has entered the cultural lexicon as a synonym for overachiever.

It would have been nice if that publicity had carried over into the team’s clout on the free agency market. A’s fans who convinced themselves of that are hopelessly naïve, but after years of forcing themselves to get excited by players like Coco Crisp and Ben Sheets, can you blame them for grasping?

It’s impossible to fault Beane for not going after a bigger name this offseason[2] — I don’t believe he could have, given the franchise’s overall financial health — but it doesn’t make the state of affairs any less depressing. The city’s atrophy has reflected those of is teams. In the early 1990s, the Oakland Athletics were one of baseball’s most dangerous franchises, consistently falling in the top-half of league standings for fan attendance. Last year, Oakland fell dead last. Fewer than 1.5 million fans paid to watch them play – less than half the number who watched the Giants play in a smaller, more baseball-friendly stadium across the Bay.

Manny Ramirez will leave Oakland next year, in all likelihood finishing his time in baseball with a whimper rather than a bang. For a player with as many World Series rings, All Star appearances and accolades he has had, it will cap a disastrous conclusion to an excellent career.

The A’s will leave a few years later for San Jose, where a wealthier fan base, new stadium and revived franchise will try to start over. Just like they did by leaving Philadelphia for Kansas City in 1955 and then again for Oakland in 1968.

I want the A’s to stay in Oakland. It’s an incredibly proud city, despite its flaws, and the populism of $5 tickets, cheap concessions and a small-but-rabid fan base is hard not to love, even if it’s provided nothing but years of disappointment for East Bay fans. Unfortunately, Oakland hasn’t made much of a case for them to do anything but go.

Both should have done better.

[1] “Thrifty” sounds nicer than “miserly” or “They’re the guy at the bar who left his wallet at home, but ‘Don’t worry bro, I’ll get you next time’.”

[2] It should be mentioned here that Cespedes’ signing was very, very impressive given the amount of attention he was receiving from Miami, particularly given the team the Marlins organization is building.

  1. Mad Giants fan Mad because the A’s added more offense than their team this year.

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