Iconic baseball figures like Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Curt Flood, and Vada Pinson proved there was great baseball in Oakland long before Charlie Finley brought the Athletics west from Kansas City in 1968. Now, local boys-made-good Paul Freedman and Bryan Carmel are making sure Oakland will keep baseball after the A’s depart for Las Vegas.
Freedman, an educational entrepreneur, and Carmel, a film and television producer, introduced Oakland’s newest professional team, The Oakland Ballers (B’s) at a news conference Tuesday just behind the Laney College baseball field in downtown Oakland.
The B’s will play in the independent Pioneer League as the league’s first team on the West Coast, with most of the competition playing in midwest states Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah.
The B’s will play 48 home games in a 96-game schedule at Laney, where the stadium will be renovated to hold about 3,000 fans.
“I met Paul Freedman in high school here in Oakland in the mid 90s,” Carmel said. “It was our shared love of East Bay sports that bonded us from the very beginning.”
“Everyone who follows Oakland sports knows that the town has the greatest sports fans on the planet,” he said. “Like all Oakland sports fans this summer, when it became clear that the A’s were most likely going to be leaving town and heading for Las Vegas, we felt like our hearts had been ripped from our sleeves. The Raiders left twice. The Warriors moved across the Bay and now we were losing the A’s.”
Freedman and Carmel raised $2 million in funding from nearly 50 investors. They plan on using crowdfunding to give fans the chance to own part of the team. And, best of all, they promise never to leave Oakland.
“There’s been a lot of talk that Oakland can’t get it done,” Carmel said. “That maybe Oakland’s not a pro sports town. We’re here to tell you today that we reject that notion. Because we know our value, we know who we are. You can’t leave town with the baseball legacy that belongs to a community. You just can’t.”
Freedman talked about how teams brought the community together “with shared joy, shared passion and shared identity.”
“My test of the unifying power of sports is, think of a BART train on a normal day. They won’t be talking to each other. Everybody’s hiding behind their cellphones, everybody’s thinking about how different they are from everybody else in that train.
“And you get on the same train after your team wins the game, and everybody’s high fiving, everybody’s family. Same people, same train, different contexts. That’s what sports can do.”
The Ballers hired former Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, who grew up in Hayward, to be the new team’s executive vice president of baseball operations. Wakamatsu hired San Francisco native and former big leaguer Micah Franklin to manage and retired player Ray King to serve as pitching coach.
Wakamatsu saw his first pro baseball game in 1972 at 9 years old at the Oakland Coliseum, when the A’s were about to win their first of three consecutive World Series.
“I fell in love with the game and it’s funny … this is really full circle,” Wakamatsu said. “I’m going to be able to come back here and pay back, and help build a franchise that can affect the community. I’m honored to do that.”
Wakamatsu has already signed about a quarter of the roster needed to start play in May.
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said it’s not like Oakland to just sit on its collective hands as the A’s leave town. “That’s not who we are,” Thao said. “We show up for each other. We know that. For each other, we know that baseball in Oakland is more than just a game. It’s about that social fabric. It’s about making those connections. It’s about a family event. It’s about opportunities for our young kids to see themselves out there on the field. It’s so much more than just baseball.”
Oakland hip-hop artist and community activist Mistah F.A.B. was also out to support the Ballers while remembering how important the A’s were to kids growing up in Oakland, especially those encouraged to play themselves.
“Unfortunately, days when we look at our city right now and a lot of things have been depleted,” F.A.B. said. “Our resources, our opportunities. Our sports teams have left. And we’re looking at a team …what are our children going to do, what do our children do for opportunity? What do our children do for entertainment? What do our children do for excitement? Baseball was something that saved many of our lives because it gave us something to do.”