Major League Baseball, for all its warts, can stake claim to something no other major North American professional sports league can claim: Very few franchise relocations in recent times.
For five decades, in fact, there was only one MLB relocation: the Expos’ move to Washington prior to the 2005 season to become the Nationals. In spite of all of the sport’s other issues, this was a particular point of pride for baseball when comparing itself to the NFL, NBA and NHL.
And then came this week’s news of MLB owners unanimously approving the Athletics’ plan to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas, and all of a sudden an issue that has barely been on baseball’s mind for a half-century is now the predominant story in the sport.
Baseball, of course, experienced plenty of franchise relocations prior to this long run of stability. The 1950s saw the Dodgers and Giants head west, the Braves move from Boston to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns become the Baltimore Orioles and the A’s transfer from Philadelphia to Kansas City. The 1960s then saw the original Senators become the Minnesota Twins, while the Braves (Milwaukee to Atlanta) and A’s (Kansas City to Oakland) relocated again. And the early 1970s saw the Seattle Pilots become the Milwaukee Brewers after only one season and the expansion Senators bolt for Texas to be rebranded as the Rangers.
But that’s ancient history at this point. Modern baseball has been defined by the stability of its franchises, and the addition of expansion teams to grow the league to an even 30 organizations. So the Oakland-to-Vegas announcement feels like a really big deal because in this sport it is a really big deal.
It also stirs up all kinds of emotions.
You can’t help but feel heartbroken for sports fans in Oakland, not only for their impending loss of the A’s but also the Raiders (also to Las Vegas) and the Warriors (to nearby San Francisco) just within the last few years. A once-vibrant professional sports town has now been abandoned altogether.
Which makes you recall how you felt upon learning the news of the Expos’ relocation to Washington some 19 years ago now. Were you excited? Of course. Anybody who endured through 33 years of wishful thinking about baseball returning to the nation’s capital had to cry tears of joy the moment former mayor Anthony Williams donned a red curly W cap to announce the move.
Were you also sad and heartbroken for Expos fans? You should have been. The team they loved for 35 years was abandoning them, with no assurances of another MLB club ever replacing them in Montreal. Our joy most definitely came at the cost of their pain. And if any town in American should appreciate the pain of losing a major league baseball franchise, it’s this one.
Let’s point out some significant differences between these two most recent MLB relocations, though. The Expos were owned by MLB at the time of their move, an arrangement that certainly had its flaws but at least took the onus off any one individual. There’s no Bob Short for Montreal fans to curse all these years later, only Bud Selig, Jeffrey Loria and all the other club owners who voted for the relocation.
The A’s are owned by John Fisher, who is making this decision on his own, though now with the formal approval of his fellow owners. He is taking the brunt of the blame from Oakland fans, who don’t buy his claim that he spent the last decade doing everything he could to keep the team in the Bay Area before resorting to this move.
The Expos moved to a larger market, one of the largest in America. And a franchise that consistently had one of the sport’s lowest payrolls eventually became a consistent top-10 payroll team in D.C. (until the last few years). The A’s, meanwhile, are moving from one of the largest markets in the majors to one of the smallest. And a franchise that has had one of the sport’s lowest payrolls for years may very well take the same approach in its new home.
As sympathetic as most were to Montreal, it was generally agreed that the relocation to Washington would be good for the franchise and good for baseball. And nearly two decades later, it has been good for both.
Will the move from Oakland to Las Vegas be good for the franchise and good for baseball? The jury is still out on that one, and there is genuine skepticism whether this will all work in the long run.
And then perhaps the biggest difference between the two, at least from a practical standpoint: MLB announced the Expos’ relocation on the final day of the 2004 season, and the Nationals debuted in 2005. MLB announced the Athletics’ relocation in November 2023, but the team is going to play at least one more season in Oakland, then embark on a three-year nomadic journey before its proposed new ballpark on the Las Vegas Strip is finally ready in 2028.
Can you say awkward?
Maybe it will work in the end. Maybe the Las Vegas A’s can become an instant hit the way the Vegas Golden Knights were. Maybe we’ll look back two decades from now and say MLB made the right decision to leave Oakland for the desert.
But there are a lot more dark days to come before good days even have a chance of coming to fruition. The A’s are about to play a lame-duck season in Oakland in front of crowds that may not even outdraw some high school ballgames. It’s going to get worse before it potentially gets better.
And nobody will suffer more from that than the good baseball fans of the East Bay, who just had their hearts ripped out after more than five decades.
If nothing else, baseball fans from Washington can appreciate and sympathize with their pain.