For the second time this season, the Oakland Athletics' home ballpark has provided a literal demonstration of the team's stadium situation and its fanbase's perception toward ownership. It's crappy. (Substitute a far stronger adjective, if you prefer. I would've loved to use one myself.)
Tuesday night at O.co Coliseum, A's players once again had to dodge sewage as a pipe backed up in the bathroom near the home dugout, causing seepage into the Oakland bench area. Athletes, coaches and executives often talk about wanting to avoid distractions that could interfere with a team focusing on the task at hand. What could be more distracting than trying to avoid standing water (and accompanying filth) on the sideline during an actual game?
Amazingly, the A's overcame this obstacle to win Tuesday's game over the Los Angeles Angels, 2-1. But Oakland players could very well have been preoccupied with the fear of yet another pipe stoppage the following night (and throughout the daytime hours leading up to the game). Under such circumstances, is it it that difficult to imagine that the A's lost to the Angels on Wednesday, 5-4?
You could argue that the possibility of another bathroom breakdown had no affect on reliever Grant Balfour — who served up a two-run homer in the ninth to Josh Hamilton — since the bullpen isn't connected to the dugout. OK, yes — fear of flushing and its further repercussions likely didn't cause Balfour to leave a fastball up and out over the plate for Hamilton to crush. But seriously, how many other teams have to deal with the threat of a plumbing malfunction in their home dugout while trying to play a ballgame?
It also warrants repeating that this isn't the only time this season that A's players have had to deal with this sort of issue. Back in mid-June, pipes backed up in the lower level of O.co Coliseum, causing the A's and Mariners to flee from their respective clubhouses and the raw sewage that had flowed into those locker rooms.
Most of the headlines regarding this story explain that "another" sewage leak occurred at Oakland's ballpark. Whenever you have the word "another" or "again" in the same sentence as a sewage-related issue, whenever you have A's players comparing two separate overflow incidents, it's happened one too many times. (Oakland players would surely argue that even once is too many.) It indicates a clear (or perhaps muddied, in this case) problem with the facility being used to host a Major League Baseball game.
The timing of this couldn't have been better — or worse, depending on your view — as the A's were already in the news because of poor home attendance this season for a team that won the AL West last year and pushed the Tigers to the limit in the AL Divisional Series. Oakland followed up that breakout success by showing it wasn't a fluke, pulling away from the Rangers in the division race this year and building a 6.5-game first-place lead. There will be postseason baseball at O.co Coliseum for the second consecutive season.
Yet the A's rank 25th out of 30 MLB teams in average home attendance this year, drawing 22,140 fans per game. Oakland fares slightly better in total attendance, with their 1,704,792 fans this season placing 23rd in baseball. Teams ranking below the A's in average attendance this year include the Marlins and Astros, whose fans have to watch rebuilding projects take the field. Also behind Oakland is Kansas City, which hasn't had a winning season in 10 years and hasn't qualified for the postseason since 1985.
Outfielder Josh Reddick probably didn't endear himself to A's fans by criticizing local attendance on Twitter and joking with a friend about people looking for free tickets. But his remarks demonstrated the sentiment toward poor turnout at O.co Coliseum this season throughout the organization.
— Josh Reddick (@joshreddick16) September 17, 2013
Others in the A's clubhouse showed a little more sensitivity toward the situation, taking the high road when commenting on fan support.
"I don't know if I really have a comment," Josh Donaldson said to USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "We appreciate all the fans that we do have, and the fans that come out here. We respect that. We know that when it comes playoff time, this place is going to be bumping."
The unemployment rate in Oakland is above the U.S. average (though when combined with the San Francisco and Fremont areas, the region actually ranks below the national rate). Taking that into consideration, many people likely prefer not to be told how they should be spending their disposable income, especially by players being paid far more lucrative salaries. (Reddick doesn't earn a million-dollar paycheck yet, but his $510,000 salary for 2013 would be a very comfortable income for any average citizen.)
Just over a week ago, I asked why Indians fans weren't coming out to support a postseason contender in Cleveland. The Tribe is very much in the AL playoff race, yet for a game against the Royals — a close competitor in the wild-card standings — fewer than 10,000 fans showed up to Progressive Field. The Indians are one of the MLB clubs that rank behind the A's in attendance this year.
Yet in Cleveland's case, you could point to several factors influencing fan turnout. The city's economy is struggling, making baseball tickets a luxury many people simply can't afford. Kids are back in school, so staying out late to watch a ballgame is likely out of the question. Indians fans are distrustful of the team's current ownership after breaking up a division winner in 2008. During each of the previous two seasons, the Tribe collapsed in the second half after looking like a potential playoff contender up until July.
But the issue Oakland fans may share with Cleveland fans above all is a disenchantment with ownership.
"There is something wrong here," A's owner Lew Wolff told Nightengale. "You would think that with our lead, people would want to come out, count down the magic numbers, and all that stuff.
"Even if you're not a loyal fan, you would think this time of year, where the teams are in the standings, and where every game means something, people would come out."
Wolff has been extremely vocal about his desire to leave Oakland and move the A's to a new ballpark in San Jose. Knowing that, why would area fans come out to support the team and give Wolff their money? Perhaps sensing that, the A's owner has recently voiced interest in building a ballpark in downtown Oakland. Yet Wolff also admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea that he has no intentions to revisit such plans. Not very sincere, Lew.
Nor is letting its ballpark deteriorate to such a point that the previously mentioned plumbing debacles have occurred. The A's are trying to show MLB that they need a new facility, and baseball should be more proactive in aiding that effort. But who's really suffering in the meantime? Those sewage issues have only affected the players thus far. How soon before fans should worry about pipes backing up in public areas of the stadium? Especially when the A's have announced tarps covering the upper deck of the ballpark will be removed during the playoffs, opening the facility to accommodate more people?
Yet there's Wolff complaining to the national media about his attendance problems.
He's right about one thing. There is something wrong. It's tone-deaf remarks blaming Oakland fans from Wolff and players like Reddick. Those people will fill the seats during the playoffs, supporting the players that have provided a winner over 162 games. But a winning product has to represent more than what's seen on the field.
To win their approval during the six months of the regular season, to get fans to part with hard-earned disposable income that can be spent on any number of other enjoyments over the long term, Wolff and the A's (along with MLB) need to treat their customers with a hell of a lot more respect.