OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — They will call themselves the Oakland B’s, short for Ballers.
The minor league B’s will carry on the city’s green-and-gold color scheme. Otherwise, they don’t plan to be anything like the A’s, whose heartbroken fans they hope to support through the team’s painful departure for Las Vegas.
The B’s promise to never leave town
The expansion independent club announced plans Tuesday to begin play in the Pioneer League come May of 2024, with their first home games set for July at Laney College. The intent is to keep baseball alive in Oakland for years to come.
Major League Baseball team owners unanimously approved the Athletics’ move to Las Vegas earlier this month. The A’s will play at the Oakland Coliseum through the end of their lease next year and could be gone by 2025.
The Ballers expect to fill at least some of that void. Entrepreneurs and co-founders Bryan Carmel and Paul Freedman are putting the team in the hands of former big league manager Don Wakamatsu, who has deep Northern California ties.
“The idea of actually starting an independent franchise in Oakland really intrigued me,” said Wakamatsu, a native of nearby Hayward hired earlier this fall as the B’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “It gives me an opportunity to kind of build something from the ground up. I have a real strong history in the Bay Area with players.”
Wakamatsu has already signed nine players, with a roster of 35 to be constructed for the start of spring training in May. And Wakamatsu has a manager in place — San Francisco native and former player Micah Franklin, joined by retired left-hander Ray King as pitching coach
Wakamatsu himself played in the Pioneer League, heading from Arizona State directly to Billings, Montana. He became baseball’s first Asian-American big league manager in 2008 and was most recently the Texas Rangers bench coach in 2021.
Baseball in the East Bay means so much to Wakamatsu — who has spent the past few years focusing on his non-profit educational organization that helps athletes give back in their communities — that it didn’t take a huge sell convincing him to commit. His first game as a fan was at the Coliseum in 1972 and influenced his career path into baseball.
“I found it exciting to kind of thinking outside the box of how can we do something in the city of Oakland, how we can build something, especially with the timing of (the A’s) leaving,” Wakamatsu said.
Carmel and Freedman were already discussing how they might help A’s fans when they were struck by a spirited “reverse boycott” at the Coliseum on June 13 that attracted a season-best crowd of 27,759.
“That was amazing. And the moment of silence in the fifth inning, I had goosebumps,” Freedman recalled. “That activism, that inspiration, that demonstration of just what a strong fan base was part of the reason.
“Bryan and I were already contemplating it, but after that it was like, ‘We cannot let this legacy of baseball end in Oakland. It’s too beautiful, it’s too intertwined with the city of Oakland. And regardless of what the A’s are going to do, we can’t let that legacy end and we have to do something about it.’”
Before the A’s move was approved Nov. 16, Freedman and Carmel were working behind the scenes on the B’s, including coordination with fan groups that pushed to keep the low-budget club in Oakland.
The Ballers have raised $2 million in seed funding from dozens of diverse investors. Now, they will invite anyone to contribute to the early campaign through a crowd-funding platform for the chance at an ownership stake.
“We just started thinking: ‘Where will this go? This can’t be the end of the story, and so what is a new chapter for baseball in Oakland?’” Carmel said.
Carmel and Freedman feared if they didn’t act immediately, the Bay Area would lose a huge number of its baseball fans, who would be bitter about the A’s leaving and never come back to the sport.
“We don’t want that to happen, we love baseball, we think that there’s a place for it,” Carmel said. “And so the idea is let’s give an alternative, let’s give everybody a new team to root for and to come together for.”
The Ballers will feature a familiar look, with a “B” logo in a nearly identical font to the Athletics’ iconic “A.”
The team will become the first Pioneer League franchise in California, set to play 48 home games in a 96-game schedule at Laney College, about five miles north of the dilapidated Coliseum.
Plans are underway to upgrade the Laney ballpark to hold upwards of about 3,000 fans. The venue underwent a renovation about 10 years ago, and an architect from a previous athletic project at the school will be involved again.
Carmel and Freedman were frustrated at the chatter questioning whether Oakland could any longer be a professional sports city after the Raiders left for Las Vegas and the Golden State Warriors moved across the bay to San Francisco — “and we just reject that sentiment,” Carmel said.
“We have a core belief that sports franchises belong to communities and that that’s really the value in that relationship,” Carmel said. “… That’s a lot of why we’re doing this. Oakland is an underdog city, we’re an underdog organization. Is it a major league baseball team? No. We’re in the Pioneer League, it’s an innovation league, it’s a development league.
“We think that that’s great. There’s nothing more Oakland than starting something from scratch and building it from the ground up with the community. And so we don’t see that as a weakness, we see that as a strength that we’re only going to build and get bigger.”