We need a new pejorative for this. The usual words we apply to the most derelict of Major League Baseball owners – those who swell their own coffers at the expense of sincere competition – aren’t quite sufficient when talking about John Fisher’s behavior in Oakland. Words like “greedy” and “neglectful” and “underhanded” might work for, say, the likes of Bob Nutting in Pittsburgh, but Fisher goes beyond whatever pale the usual adjectives signify. So let’s make up a word, one that phonetically evokes unexampled levels of cynicism – unexampled even within the the current guild of MLB owners, for whom the central mission of trying to win baseball games is treated by most as an inconvenience — and perhaps a light dusting of ordure. Let’s go with … Excrenilligent.
Any chronicling of Fisher’s misdeeds in an attempt to get someone else to buy him a place of business is part of a larger discussion of the depredations of shareholder capitalism versus the stakeholder model that held sway in earlier times. Using stakeholders as the compass prompts a firm to consider the interests of employees and the community in which they do business, along with the bottom line, as part of its decision-making. Under the shareholder schema, all that matters is enriching owners and top-most executives. This latter approach is too much with us, particularly in Major League Baseball. The MLB franchise is necessarily a community business. The sport is built upon local appeal in ways that other major professional leagues are not. The everyday-ness of baseball, animated by the sprawl of the 162-game regular season, is one of its defining qualities, and its reliable presence is a ballast for fans through each spring and summer. This isn’t rhapsodizing. Rather, this is merely a statement of how things are in baseball and have been since ballparks were all shoehorned into city neighborhoods and part of the street-level mosaics of those neighborhoods. The “portfolio holding” school of team ownership has done its level best to undo all of this, but you can’t erase origins or the power of them.
The A’s under Fisher are running afoul of this increasingly quaint notion like no club in living memory. Fisher and his tap-dancing valet, team president Dave Kaval, have indeed embodied, well, excrenilligence like none other. Nothing puts a finer point on this than Fisher’s decision to raise ticket prices after disemboweling the roster.
While Fisher is an unaccountable trust-funder who has earned at most a tiny sliver of his current station, he’s presumably not wholly ignorant of how supply and demand work. One raises prices when one’s product is more scarce and/or more appealing, not when one’s product is known to all to be willfully defective. This is a luxury car dealership trying to upsell you on a higher-priced 1977 Plymouth Volare that’s on cinder blocks and has black smoke billowing from under the hood.
More to the point, how do you keep fans away from the ballpark and make your desires to relocate seem like a business imperative? You field a Triple-A roster — the Triple A’s, if you will — and charge fans more to see it. Then you compound matters by neglecting basic stadium maintenance for so long that your home venue comes to resemble the setting of a Nintendo 64 dungeon-crawler. Fisher didn’t want people showing up in Oakland to see his team – if they did it would make his straits in Oakland seem less desperate – and he made his decisions accordingly. Before calculated neglect took hold, the A’s boasted good attendance, especially considering the owner-forced roster churn and unappealing nature of the ballpark. So when you cite the cratering number of turnstile clicks in an effort to justify what the A’s are doing, know that you’re abetting Fisher.
All of this was in the service of being able to peddle utterly risible lies to the people of Nevada. You know the sort. Sure, publicly funded stadia make no economic sense, but this time it’s different. And: Don’t worry, no taxes will be used, (ringed) pinky swear. Then there are the realities of the latest extortion effort by a professional sports team. In the A’s case, their desired funding scheme is shot through with handouts, kickbacks, and opportunity costs for the taxpaying public, and it’s of course likely to cost more than anyone’s letting on. The club is drastically exaggerating the number of jobs the project would create and, in keeping with ancient practice, not acknowledging that those jobs will almost all be of the low-wage, part-time, and seasonal variety. To push back against the established fact that stadium projects merely rearrange discretionary spending by the public, shifting it away from existing businesses, rather than create new spending, the team is advancing the utterly preposterous notion that more than 762,000 tourists each year will come to the stadium for A’s games or things like concerts. Better yet, of those out-of-towners, we’re told more than 400,000 would not have visited Las Vegas in the first place if not for this proposed ballpark. Unstated is that the remainder of that 762,000, the ones who would already be in Vegas, would probably have been spending their money at a business that, unlike the A’s, will actually be paying taxes. You can summarize these projections from the taxpayer standpoint as “a net loss mixed with a lie.”
If the team had sound arguments to present to the public, then they wouldn’t have held a hearing at night on Memorial Day, the same evening that the city’s beloved Golden Knights would advance to the Stanley Cup finals. If the team had an easy and above-board case to make, then the prime movers – i.e., Fisher and Kaval – would deign to show up instead of trotting out consultant-class, faux-economist hirelings to provide non-answers to tough questions from the people that will pay for their adventures. The taxpayers of Nevada should want nothing to do with such corporate welfare. They should especially want nothing to do with Fisher, whose lack of commitment is rivaled only by his emanating powers of incompetence.
This is an owner who, since buying out managing partner Lew Wolff after the 2016 season, has never run a payroll that ranked higher than 23rd among MLB’s 30 franchises. On average, they’ve ranked 27th under Fisher. The largest free-agent contract handed out by Fisher remains Joakim Soria’s two-year, $15 million pact inked in 2019. (The largest contract in Oakland A’s history is Eric Chavez’s $66 million extension he signed back in 2004, or one year before Fisher joined the ownership group.) Fisher was the lone owner who chose not to pay his minor leaguers during the lost season of 2020, and he relented only after a vigorous public outcry. The A’s under Fisher reportedly missed a stadium rent payment in 2020 despite almost certainly turning a very healthy profit in 2019. One could go on if the point needed reinforcing.
This is also an owner whose baseball-ops department, despite trading away front-line talents like Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Murphy, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, and Sean Manaea, is still lugging around one of the worst farm systems in the game. And that’s not to mention the decisions not to tender a qualifying offer Marcus Semien – one of the best players in baseball over the last four years – and to let accomplished manager Bob Melvin jump to the Padres without any compensation coming back. These efforts/anti-efforts have reached a head even as the A’s have had their status as revenue-sharing recipients restored.
This is a historically terrible team that will be terrible for the foreseeable future, and Fisher has never shown any willingness to invest his profits to improve the roster. Underlying all of this is the fact that Fisher and A’s will lose their status as revenue-sharing recipients unless they secure a deal for a new stadium by January. Since Fisher apparently lacks either the skill or work ethic necessary to run a functioning club without those millions the A’s will get just for existing, he needs to overcome his deficiencies and make something happen on the ballpark front. That probably explains the endless daisy chain of hurriedly produced “binding” agreements and stadium renderings. That also probably explains why the A’s are now willing to entertain a 2028 target date for a new ballpark in Vegas even though such a horizon was unacceptable in their talks with Oakland.
It’s notable that Fisher is perpetrating all of it in order to move from shared spot in the sixth-largest media market in the U.S. to a place in the 40th-largest media market. Such a move would ensure the long-term intake of those revenue-sharing dollars. Hell, getting a permanent spot on the dole might be an unspoken part of the motivation. Suffice it to say, this is not an organization that any city should be paying to attract (or even keep). In the mean time, chief enabler Rob Manfred can use Fisher’s increasingly desperate lurches as a means to threaten Milwaukee.
At this writing, the path forward in Vegas is uncertain, and it might force the A’s to revisit discussions with Oakland, which has already offered a significant funding package. If Fisher continues his bumbling and fumbling, then maybe Saudi Arabia will take his call.
The ultra-wealthy, usually spared from any genuine worries in life, often pine for regard and respect. The working assumption is that Fisher is no different in his desires, just worse than most at obtaining them. Unlike his fortune, respect must be earned, and his behavior and performance across the years suggest the notion and the very word will continue elude him. A word he can have instead is excrenilligent. After all, it was made just for him.