The year was 1975. The Athletics were playing their eighth season in Oakland. The previous seven had brought an average of 91 wins, four division titles and three World Series Championships. The A's were among the top draws in the Major Leagues while Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers were the talk of the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, across the bay, the San Francisco Giants were struggling through a decade-long stretch of mediocrity in the aftermath of the Mays/McCovey/Marichal era. They were nowhere near the playoffs and just over 6,000 people per night came through the gates of Candlestick Park on average that season: good for last in the major leagues and less than half the fans the A's were drawing only 23 miles up the road.
Fast forward to 2012. Sunday's A's vs. Giants interleague finale at the Coliseum was packed full of Orange and Black. In an area where two storied big league franchises have peacefully co-existed for almost 45 years, the chips have shifted almost exclusively to the San Francisco side. The Giants have emerged as one of baseball's elite franchises and are in the midst of a long sellout streak while the A's haven't finished outside the bottom three in AL attendance since 2005.
Ten years after the Moneyball A's rode an explosion of farm talent to the AL West title, the team remains cash strapped, unable to hang on to their best players, and stuck looking up to two of baseball's highest spending and highest powered teams in the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.
How did we get here?
In 1992, with the A's only a few years removed from three straight World Series appearances, the Giants were spinning their wheels and flirting with a move to this place far far away. In a gesture towards assisting the struggling Giants, the A's conceded territorial rights to the San Jose region, a decision that has come back to haunt Oakland in the Giants-dominated AT&T Park era, as the A's are now blocked from moving into the fertile Silicon Valley market by those very contractual rights.
To avoid oversimplification, I will refer you to this excellent piece at the Athletics Nation blog for background on this contentious issue.
After making a huge splash by signing all-world free agent Barry Bonds, the Giants remained in California. Seven years later, the rivalry hit its biggest turning point with the opening of spectacular AT&T Park. In 1997, both teams were in the bottom half of MLB payroll with the Giants spending just over $10 million more than the A's. Fifteen years later, the Giants are eighth in MLB team payroll, spending almost $63 million more than the A's.
AT&T Park has turned the 81 yearly Giants games into must-see events, an integral part of the San Francisco nightlife. Along with the revitalized China Basin area, the park draws in thousands of young professionals, college students and corporate suits on a daily basis.
While perhaps not as baseball savvy as the old Croix de Candlestick crowd of yesteryear, these "new" Giants fans buy a lot of garlic fries and Bumgarner jerseys. While sticking by the A's is a badge of honor, it's the images of McCovey Cove and 24 Willie Mays Plaza that litter the Facebook pages and Instagram feeds of the Giants' target market. You don't need to be a baseball fan to enjoy a night out at AT&T because, hey, Panda hats.
There are other factors. The reach of the Giants' flagship radio station KNBR 680 is vast, while you can currently find A's games on who-knows-what FM. The Barry Bonds era put the Giants at the forefront of baseball consciousness for almost two decades regardless of success in the standings. And, though not fair, negative perceptions of the city of Oakland's stepsister status to the sexier and more popular City by the Bay play a factor when it comes time for the locals to choose a side.
On the field, the Giants are set for the present and future while the A's, constantly forced to pinch pennies, find themselves scraping for bargain deals and can't-miss prospects. The difference between the two products can't be understated. While the Giants could send as many as seven players to the All-Star Game next month, most casual MLB fans couldn't name seven players on the A's entire roster.
All in all, Giants fan-hood in this era comes pre-packaged: beautiful park on the Cove, Timmy, Cain and Buster, panda hats, giraffe hats, Kruk & Kuip, gamer babes, ball dudes and beards. For those who came on board around September 30th 2010, this is an awesome life.
The A's once had a similar distinct identity, and will likely get it back some day. With the dynamics of 1975 and 1992 flipped around, the Giants may hold some of the keys necessary to an A's revitalization. For the present, however, the Battle of the Bay is a one-sided affair.