In California, a land blessed with more than its fair share of winners, we learn our most important lessons by dwelling among the losers.
So, in this final week of the baseball season, your columnist visited the bottom of the standings in American League West to ask: Which pro sports owner is the more instructive California failure—the failed heir fleeing Oakland, or the billboard billionaire sticking around in Anaheim?
Bay Area fans and pundits already have their answer: John Fisher of the Oakland A’s.
The core allegation is that Fisher, the youngest son of the billionaire Gap founders and philanthropists, Don and Doris Fisher, is engaged in a ruthless campaign of sabotage—of his own team. His goal has been to alienate fans so that he can justify moving the A’s to Las Vegas, where he stands to receive hundreds of millions in public subsidies for a new stadium.
This has made him the most hated sports figure in Northern California, and singularly unpopular beyond. The Mercury News, distilling local sentiment, suggested that Fisher might be the “worst owner in sports history.” CBS Sports called him a human embodiment of “the depredations of shareholder capitalism” and suggested that describing his true awfulness would require the invention of a new pejorative.
To be fair, Fisher’s start with the A’s wasn’t bad. The team had several winning seasons after he became owner in 2005. But Fisher’s real goal seemed to be no victory but rather a taxpayer-supported new stadium. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for taxpayers, California and its communities have wisely stopped offering subsidies for those. Oakland officials did propose a massive entertainment development and ballpark on the bay, at Howard Terminal, near Jack London Square. But the deal wasn’t generous enough to satisfy the billionaire and his team.
At some point, Fisher seems to have concluded that he could only secure massive subsidies for a new stadium by moving elsewhere. So, in recent years, he stopped supporting the team, and started dismantling it. He raised ticket prices, while letting the stadium fall apart. And he got rid of all players who would give the A’s any real chance to win. As a result, they became the worst team in Major League Baseball.
Fans stopped coming, allowing Fisher to justify his decision, announced earlier this year, to relocate the A’s to Las Vegas. Fisher has refused to sell the team to anyone who might keep it in Oakland, despite campaigns by fans and local politicians. Fisher has even refused to give up a partial stake in the Oakland stadium and its land—a position that will make it hard to redevelop the area after its team’s departure.
Fisher’s behavior has been so deplorable that even a sports villain, Mark Davis—owner of football’s Las Vegas Raiders, which abandoned Oakland twice—was moved to say of the A’s under Fisher, “All they did was f—k the Bay Area.”
Fisher’s malperformance might seem hard to top, but he has real competition in Southern California:
Arte Moreno, owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Moreno is a different character than Fisher; a Mexican American from Tucson, he made his own fortune in billboards before buying the Angels in 2003.
Just as the A’s won during Fisher’s early years as owner, the Angels repeatedly went to the playoffs in the early years of Moreno’s ownership. But in the 2010s and 2020s, the Angels have become one of the most puzzling failures in the sport, with Moreno largely to blame.
The trouble in Anaheim was not Fisher-style sabotage. Moreno kept ticket prices affordable and spent money on his team. It was how he spent that money that’s been the problem.
The best baseball teams are deep, especially in pitching. But Moreno was obsessed with stars he could promote—the kind of star ballplayers that would be recognized on a billboard. This strategy produced a familiar sort of California inequality. Moreno, by multiple accounts, including his own increasingly infrequent public interviews, sought to build his team around one or two superstar players. He spent big money on huge contracts to established players, while neglecting homegrown talent.
The Angels became one of the most imbalanced teams in history. For the past 12 years, they have employed superstar outfielder Mike Trout, statistically the best baseball player of the 21st century. Five years ago, they picked up the most talented baseball player on Earth, the Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani, a top-10 hitter—and pitcher. The only comparable player in baseball history is Babe Ruth.
Even with Trout and Ohtani, the Angels have been losers, making the playoffs only once since 2010. Why? Because beyond these players, and one or two other expensive stars, the rest of the team is well below average.
Moreno disinvested in minor league players who might have provided greater depth for the major league team. (In one case, he was accused of not providing them with enough food to eat.) And he vetoed trades of older players for younger, healthier athletes to support Trout and Ohtani. As a result, the two superstars seem overburdened; both ended this year on the injured list.
Angels fans—including your columnist, introduced to the game by grandparents who lived in Anaheim—rejoiced last year when Moreno announced he would sell the team.
A sale promised a more balanced squad and a fresh start in the community. Moreno infuriated many fans with his public backing of Donald Trump. He and the Angels were also at the center of an ugly scandal in Anaheim involving a stadium lease and development rights for stadium parking lots. That deal with the city ran afoul of state laws requiring affordable housing, and led to the FBI arrest and federal conviction of former Mayor Harry Sidhu.
Despite the scandal and the fan base’s desire for new ownership, Moreno took the team off the market earlier this year, and the future is bleak. Ohtani, frustrated at the franchise chaos and losing, is all but certain to leave to play for a franchise with better owners, perhaps the L.A. Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.
This season in the AL West, the A’s will finish last, and the Angels next to last.
All these two owners have given us this season are two very California models of failure. Fisher, a rich man who refused to invest in the team that was his asset, is all too much like the state of California, which refuses to put enough of its wealth in service of its infrastructure, its people, and its future.
Moreno, all too much like the state, devotes its attention and money to the very richest of its players, thus failing to recognize that California, like a team, can only win when the whole roster of people performs well.
Perhaps they’ll come to their sense while watching the balanced and well-managed Dodgers in the playoffs.