Matt Chapman’s urgent postgame plea Monday for more fans at the Oakland Coliseum to watch the Athletics wasn’t all that urgent, and it wasn’t all that much of a plea. It was, however, an understandable and heartfelt misunderstanding about how Oakland plays.
The A’s third baseman spiced up his postgame interview on NBCSports California, in which he doubled three times and helped the Elephants outlast Seattle, 7-6, was actually fairly matter-of-fact, to wit:
“I just want to use this time to just encourage people in Oakland to come out, man. All the fans and support we can get, we can really appreciate it. Tonight, we’re fighting until the very end against the Mariners and I just wish we can get some people out here, man. We’re fun to watch. We really want our fans to come out and support us, it’d be great.”
Nothing wrong with any of that, really, especially since the A’s have been playing .740 baseball for the last 50 games and are now a serious postseason player for every possible berth save the best record and Central Division champion. It did, however, make the same erroneous assumptions that most people make when talking about Oakland’s meager attendance figures (28th and holding) – one, that simply playing well is the solution, and two, that organized marketing is the solution.
The answer he might have wanted to give in hindsight is this:
“We’ll keep winning, and eventually they’ll come. We are fun to watch, and frankly, you can’t beat fun.”
But we must be fair here: Chapman as a 25-year-old player who hasn’t been in Oakland that long hasn’t had time to understand the phenomenon of A’s crowds – namely, that they turn up when they turn up and not before.
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There is, after all, the long and troubling history of the team trying to leave town and slagging off their ballpark at every opportunity in the interim, a message that, having been delivered often enough, has finally reached the fan base at its core. There is a long history of roster churn, of moving familiar and even popular players for prospects, or money, or both. The word-of-mouth view of the A’s, rightly or wrongly, is, “They don’t want to be here, and they tell us the ballpark sucks. Okay, we believe them. Plus, who are these guys?”
Chapman and Company are beginning to change that. The trade deadline decisions were made as buyers rather than sellers, which helps, and now they have all the closers in the world, even ones who have their AARP card. They are making the stand on the roster they have, as they did in 2014, and before that in 2006. This is the new core – we think.
The ballpark is a different issue, and food trucks and treehouses and new season ticket schemes don’t change that. The A's do hate the Coliseum, but rather than advertise it as a weapon for good (“Nobody wants to play us here, so let's make their stay really unpleasant”) as the Giants did in the early ‘90s, they are marked as ditherers who cannot figure out where to put a new park, let alone how to make it a cash dairy.
The trick with A’s fans, then, isn’t to ask them to come out, but to do what the A’s have been doing for two months – letting the word of mouth do the talking. Monday’s announced crowd of 10,400 was uninspiring, but by game’s end those who were there made the noise of 20,000, and it came across on the air, and became a chatting point on the gab shows, and suddenly the talking point isn’t “Look what they drew,” but “Hey, that looks like it might be a hoot. Maybe we should go.”
This isn’t the scientific method or Marketing 101, but it is the method that has always worked in Oakland. In 2002, they won 20 games in a row, and because of a 10-game road trip stuck in the middle of the run, they didn’t catch the people’s collective fancies until Game 16. All their other successful seasons began with sub-optimal crowds as well, because A’s fans need to be shown the team being placed before them is worth the effort. It is, frankly, the way all fan bases should work – the onus should be on the entrepreneur to make a desirable product, not the customer to desire it.
And finally, it takes a lot of data to shift public opinion, rather than like an ocean liner reversing course. Two months isn't enough in this town, and never has been.
For Matt Chapman, winning baseball ought to be sufficient to win the day, and for him, the answer he gave is correct. He wasn’t wrong to say what he did from his perspective, and he wasn’t whiny or snippy in saying it. He’d like to do his work before more folks is all, and that’s a perfectly reasonable request.
But Oakland doesn’t play that easily with its affections, and never has. It needs something more permanent than two months of winning and a year of good marketing intentions. The club’s on- and off-field history in the post-Haas world proves that, again and again.
So the trick, if there is one, isn’t to say, “We’d like you to come out because we’re winning.” It’s to say, “We’ll be here and loaded for bear when you’re ready to come watch a game.Your friends will come too. We're a party just getting started.” It’s a subtle difference, but it is a real one. Fifty games is a healthy chunk of any season, but in the work of changing viewing, listening and spending habits in a town that has been told how inadequate it is for too long, it is but a moment.