Back in the day, from 1988-1992, the Oakland Athletics were the envy of all other organizations in baseball:
- They paid players well -- in 1990, the A's had the highest-paid pitcher (Dave Stewart) and the highest-paid position player (Jose Canseco) in MLB. They had the American League Cy Young winner (Bob Welch) and the AL MVP (Rickey Henderson). The team was loaded, with a capital "L";
- They made the big trades -- that same 1990 season, Oakland acquired both designated hitter Harold Baines and eventual National League batting champion Willie McGee for the stretch run;
- They made it to the World Series regularly -- three seasons in a row (1988-90), in fact. That's something no other team has done since except the New York Yankees;
- They had great ownership -- the Haas family was as good as it got in MLB then, spending money and winning graciously while playing a huge philanthropic role in the communities around the Bay Area (including helping the San Francisco Giants try to stay instead of leaving for Florida).
Even Yankees fans felt the A's had an unfair advantage -- consider that sentence for a moment, and then remember when Oakland had those four high draft picks in the 1990 draft, as the defending World Series champs.
(The A's also went 12-0 against the Bronx Bombers in 1990, outscoring them 62-12 in those contests.)
But then two things happened in the early part of that decade which changed everything for the A's: first, the economic landscape of the Bay Area changed with the explosion of the Internet, shifting more money and people into the South Bay and the peninsula areas, leaving a big portion of the East Bay territory "belonging" to the team far behind in discretionary income and desire to go to baseball games in a squalor-like neighborhood; and second, the economic landscape of major-league baseball evolved drastically with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore, putting a huge emphasis on charming and unique ballparks to attract people for more than just the game on the field. Baseball was no longer just for "fans"; it became an event in cities with these trendy new stadiums that revitalized urban landscapes and economies.
Now fast forward to 2013, when the A's struggle to compete salary-wise with the rest of MLB, and their stadium issues are well-known. While Oakland has still reached the postseason in six of the last 20 seasons, they have not been back to the World Series since 1990, and they've been in the AL Championship Series just once in those six playoff appearances (2006).
There are no blockbuster trades now, Oakland doesn't even come close to having the highest-paid players any more, and very few free agents (if any, beyond the desperate) want to play in the Coliseum.
The A's got a first-hand reminder over this weekend of just how Camden Yards changed their destiny two decades ago, as the team lost two of three to the Baltimore Orioles this weekend, sinking deeper into the August malaise they can't seem to escape.
Oakland is just 9-12 this month, after posting at least 15 wins in each of the first four months of the season. They somehow cling to the last AL playoff spot right now, but that could change in the next four days as the A's play in Detroit against the Tigers -- the same team that has knocked them out of the postseason the last two time Oakland has qualified (2006, 2012).
The City of Detroit just filed for bankruptcy, which is ironic since their owner spends his money plentifully on his team while playing in a beautiful ballpark (the best in the AL, in truth). Oakland's economic problems get blamed a lot for the city's inability to support the A's organization, but clearly, Detroit has it worse -- and yet better.
This seven-game road trip is interesting for its symbolic meanings to the A's and the Oakland organization: Baltimore is representative of why the A's struggle so much to win today, and Detroit is an example why the A's should not be struggling the way they are today.
When Oakland returns to the Coliseum on Friday, it'll be interesting to see how much this road trip really impacted the A's 2013 season -- and not just on the field.