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Expansion Ballers eager to prove baseball can still thrive in Oakland

When Bryan Carmel closes his eyes, he can hear the sound of the drums, smell the hot dogs on the grill and begin to imagine what the Oakland Ballers will look like in their first game at Raimondi Park on June 4.

“It has to feel like Oakland,” the Ballers co-founder said. “For me, the basic idea is a block party.”

A block party during a baseball game, 48 nights every summer.

It’s not quite the vibe of the Savannah Bananas, the group of fun, carnival-like baseball players who tour the country like the Harlem Globetrotters. These guys are artists first, baseball players second.

Like the Bananas, the Ballers are an independent team, unaffiliated with Major League Baseball, and they hope to incorporate some of the silly spirit of the Bananas into what they do. They also hope to maintain an identity as a professional baseball team in Oakland, capitalizing on the void local baseball fans might feel when the A’s leave the city for Sacramento at the end of this season.

Oakland Ballers executive vice president of baseball operations Don Wakamatsu, middle, speaks next to manager Micah Franklin, right, during a news conference at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. A new independent league baseball team called the Oakland Ballers is expected to begin play next spring and welcome loyal A’s fans who are heartbroken over their club’s planned departure for Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

“It’s like your heart is ripped out of your chest,” Carmel said, contemplating the end of the A’s 56-year career at the Coliseum after this season. “That’s what I felt.”

Carmel and Paul Freedman, who first met as students at College Preparatory School in Oakland, founded the Ballers last November with a dream: to bring baseball back to life in Oakland.

And they didn’t hesitate to make fun of the A’s. It’s right there in the name: they call themselves the B’s. They use a similar logo and have the same green and gold colors. The A’s used the slogan “Rooted in Oakland” for years before announcing they were moving to Las Vegas; the Ballers have already sworn to never leave town.

And while the Ballers’ initial $2 million in funding is nowhere near enough to fund an MLB expansion team (no ownership group has yet publicly expressed interest in expanding to Oakland), it That’s enough money to start a professional baseball team in Oakland. the Pioneer League, a nearly century-old independent league whose teams were once affiliated with Major League Baseball but now serve primarily to provide a testing ground for possible MLB rule changes.

And to provide a home for neglected players.

“Every player is trying to live a dream,” said Don Wakamatsu, the former Seattle Mariners manager and general manager of the Baller. “It’s been a tough road for these players, whether they didn’t leave college or they were released, and they were still trying to achieve that dream. We want to be quasi-creators of dreams.

They’re definitely not in it for the money. Ballers players will earn an estimated average monthly salary of just $2,000 during the season, which runs from May to September. They will also benefit from accommodation.

Why would Wakamatsu, the first Asian-American manager in MLB history and a highly respected big league coach, want to work for a new Pioneer League baseball team in Oakland?

“It has a lot to do with the A’s leaving,” Wakamatsu said.

Once a three-sport star at Hayward High School, Wakamatsu remembers going to his first A’s game at age 9 and feeling like the A’s were sports giants.

“I have a lot of roots here and I would like to be able to pay some of that forward,” he said. “Can we find a kid from Skyline High School or Hayward High and give them the opportunity to live the dream that I was able to live?” »

To help him, Wakamatsu hired Micah Franklin as his first manager. Franklin is a San Francisco native, a former MLB scout and coach who worked in the national system. Ray King, a former major league pitching coach, will join his staff, along with longtime San Francisco Giants first baseman JT Snow, who will serve as bench coach.

The Ballers were initially hoping to play at Laney College, which was something of a twist. Less than seven years ago, the A’s announced plans to build a $500 million private stadium near the college, with construction expected to begin in 2021 and open in 2023.

Paul Freedman, co-founder and CEO of the Oakland Ballers, speaks during a news conference at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. A new independent league baseball team called the Oakland Ballers is expected to start playing next spring and embrace loyal A's fans who are heartbroken over their club's planned departure for Las Vegas.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Paul Freedman, co-founder and CEO of the Oakland Ballers, speaks during a news conference at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. A new independent league baseball team called the Oakland Ballers is expected to start playing next spring and embrace loyal A’s fans who are heartbroken over their club’s planned departure for Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Of course, that never happened.

“It wasn’t done properly,” John Beam, Laney College athletic director, said in a January telephone interview. “You have to shape the narrative. But that was shaped by other people. The faculty was not open-minded. The entire community should have thought about how to achieve this.

“But you’re always aware of the feeling of multimillionaires plundering the community in one way or another. I think it stops people from thinking about it. It could have been the best thing that could have happened.

But in February there was another twist. Talks between the B’s and Laney broke down following the team’s request to build several thousand additional seats to increase the current capacity of about 250 at the school’s picturesque baseball field.

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