The Oakland A’s are in the late stages of an attempted hasty escape to Las Vegas and team president Dave Kaval is burning bridges on his way out.
David Samson can only sit back and shake his head.
The former Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins president is one of only a few in modern MLB history who have been in Kaval’s shoes, and he believes the A’s planned move to Las Vegas will fail.
First, the binding agreement for $380 million in Nevada state funding for a ballpark is just one on a long list of approvals the A’s must get to prove to MLB owners that they’ll change their cheap ways in Las Vegas.
“When we say a binding agreement for a stadium, a binding agreement with who?” Samson said. “There’s a long runway between binding agreement and signed agreements to allow for the construction and operation of a new stadium.”
The A’s need 75% approval among MLB owners to move out of Oakland, and Samson imagines those owners will have questions before waiving a relocation fee. A’s owner John Fisher broke his decades-long silence last week to assure the public, and most likely the voting committee, that he can dig into his family trust for more financing. The team’s claim to be financially stable contradicts its urgency to get a deal done before MLB revokes its revenue sharing checks. Sources confirmed to this news organization that the A’s relocation application is in the hands of the Relocation Committee and that there is no timeline for a vote.
On top of that, Samson recalls commissioner Rob Manfred and predecessor Bud Selig making clear the league’s intention to keep two teams in the Bay Area. Nevada’s ballpark agreement doesn’t mention the A’s team name, which could mean MLB is keeping the option to place in Las Vegas an expansion team — and the fee that comes with it — or another relocating team coming from a less viable market.
Miami Marlins president David Samson gestures as he says goodbye to members of the media during a news conference before a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, in Miami. Major League Baseball owners on Wednesday unanimously approved Jeffrey Loria’s sale of the Miami Marlins to a group led by Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
“They prefer for the team to stay in Oakland. No matter what anybody has said publicly,” Samson said. “Until I see the moving truck, I will not think that the team is moving to Vegas because it’s such an important expansion market.”
The path to approval is long, tedious and perhaps ill-fated despite the team’s projected tenor that it is ready to move to Southern Nevada. In Samson’s eyes, Kaval is playing by the relocation playbook he used in Montreal and Miami, but the A’s president could be in too deep to repair a fractured relationship with Oakland if things go awry.
Since the agreement with Nevada legislators, Kaval stirred more tension between the team and Oakland, blaming the city and Howard Terminal opponents such as Schnitzer Steel for the A’s relocation from their home of 55 years. Kaval asserts that the Howard Terminal project was doomed because the city couldn’t get the necessary funding, a claim Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao refutes.
“We had lawsuits that the city wouldn’t join,” Kaval said last month. “So these were all factors in pushing out the timeline, increasing the uncertainty about what was really achievable in Oakland.”
In a matter of six years, Kaval went from a potential Oakland hero to the ultimate villain. The tension he’s created with the city may add roadblocks to extending the lease at the Coliseum — notably, another reason why the A’s felt the need to bolt for Vegas, even with a three-season gap between the end of their lease and the expected opening of a new stadium. Kaval declined to comment for this story.
“Clearly he has himself in a position to be unpopular, which is what his job is. It’s what my job was. I understand what he’s doing,” Samson said. “It’s a very, very ‘quicksand’ approach. Because you think you’re making progress, and then you realize you’re sinking. But when you’re in it, it’s hard to see.”
Samson has twice been down this relocation road, with differing results. He was president of the Expos, the last MLB team to relocate, when they were sold to MLB with the intention of relocating to a publicly financed ballpark in Washington D.C. He was also president of the Marlins from 2002 to 2017 and the primary voice behind the organization’s threats to relocate when a new ballpark in Miami was hitting major roadblocks.
Samson saw himself become the villain in the decade between his arrival in Miami and the completion of LoanDepot Park in 2012. He and his stepfather, owner Jeffrey Loria, pointed a finger at local officials for slow progress and planted media threats to relocate to San Antonio. The 2003 World Series champions finished last in attendance in 2005, then cut their payroll to the lowest in the majors. Sound familiar?
OAKLAND, CA – FEBRUARY 10: Oakland Athletics president Dave Kaval stands at the Howard Terminal in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. The Oakland Athletics plan to build a new ballpark at the Howard Terminal near the port of Oakland. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
“I was much too publicly harsh on elected officials. No reason to do that. Because I needed to explain to people why our payroll was low and we were losing games and not signing players,” Samson said. “That’s just me wanting not to be the sole focus of all the negativity.”
Despite all the finger-pointing, Samson reiterated it was never the Marlins’ intention to relocate; they only wanted to apply pressure to speed the ballpark process along. The Giants played by similar rules 30 years ago when the team threatened relocation to Tampa, former executive Corey Busch once told this news organization. Ultimately, the league wanted the Marlins and Giants to remain in top markets.
The Expos had all the qualities of a team that needed to relocate. Low attendance and a weak Canadian dollar became burdensome when the league stopped making equalizing payments. Then the team failed to secure a competitive TV deal and Montreal would not approve public financing for a new ballpark despite league involvement. Washington offered public funds for a new stadium.
“If a new owner, the Lerners, would have had to both buy the team and build the stadium, that would have had an impact on the price,” he said, “which would have had an impact on the amount of money going to all the owners.”
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Since establishing a “parallel path” to Las Vegas, the A’s have built a narrative in conjunction with MLB that the A’s have exhausted all options and that Oakland city officials failed on their end of the bargain. In the relocation playbook, that’s one way to establish grounds for bolting.
Kaval’s “Rooted in Oakland” battle cry instilled hope that the A’s would dig in for the long haul. That has all been uprooted as the team’s relationship with city officials is soured and the negotiation agreement at the Port of Oakland has expired without renewal. Fisher and Kaval are planting roots elsewhere, making promises of financial investment in Las Vegas that Oakland A’s fans never tasted in the 18 years Fisher has owned the team. It’s all for show, Samson says.
“Everybody says that. That’s why you want to do stadiums, so you can have higher revenues, so you could spend more money on payroll,” he said. “We said that and it didn’t work, and new stadiums are not the panacea they used to be.
“You don’t just build a new stadium and draw 30,000 people again anymore.”