Dieter Kurtenbach: You shouldn't have expected any better from A's owner John Fisher

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The Oakland Athletics play host to the San Francisco Giants at Ring Central Coliseum on August 24, 2019, in Oakland, California. - Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images North America/TNS

It was Black Tuesday for the A’s, as the team furloughed scouts and other team employees, issued pay cuts to “a number” of other employees, and eliminating a $400-a-week stipend for all minor-league players, citing the lack of revenue amid baseball’s work stoppage.

The A’s were not the first team to furlough jobs in the pandemic, but Tuesday’s moves made them the most aggressive cost-cutters in Major League Baseball. The cuts brought about justified outrage and condemnation from fans and baseball media.

It should not have elicited surprise, though.

This is how the cowardly John Fisher has run the team since he became the team’s owner in 2005.

Tuesday’s cuts were so significant that Fisher opted to make his first public comments since he bought the team, writing a letter to fans. It did not contain any interesting or exonerating information.

It’s easy to say now, but the moves by Fisher should have been seen from a mile away. It’s estimated that the A’s will save a little more than $1 million by not paying their minor league player their poverty wages. It looks like Fisher is sweating the small stuff, despite being worth an estimated $2.2 billion by Forbes, who updates their list of billionaires and their worths daily.

But it was only last week where the A’s were telling the city of Oakland and Alameda County that they did not have $1.2 million to pay their up-front rent at the Coliseum for 2020.

Henry Gardner, the head of the Coliseum Authority, told my colleague David DeBolt that the A’s told him that they had “no ability to pay” the annual rent due April 1.

If you’re wondering where Fisher came up with the idea to not pay rent and issue widespread furloughs, it doesn’t seem as if you have to look far.

Much of Fisher’s wealth has come from being the youngest of three heirs to The Gap. He is currently on that company’s board of directors.

Sure enough, The Gap stopped paying rent in their 2,785 North American retail stores in April. They also furloughed 80,000 retail employees, as well as cutting executive pay. The company has seen its market capitalization go from $7 billion at the beginning of February to just above $2 billion at the beginning of April.

The A’s are not The Gap. Sports teams carry a civic weight in a way that a place that sells corporate causal clothing never could. This is why owners who make their teams a public manifestation of their egos. The “look at how rich I am” guys might be gauche, but they’re good custodians.

Fisher is not that owner. Despite baseball’s revenue boom and recent on-field success, the A’s are no closer to actually keeping star players who hit free agency and the organization has now struck out on two ballparks (Howard Terminal, always a pipe dream, might as well be declared dead). Fisher does not operate the A’s like a real big-league team. Of course they’re sweating the small stuff — they’re small time.

Everything — even a pandemic — has at least a small silver lining, and one of the ones that I have seen show up over the last few weeks and months is a stripping away of pretense. It’s becoming harder and harder to fake it these days. I think that’s a good thing.

So of course the A’s were the first team in baseball to scream financial armageddon. The A’s are an investment for Fisher — one that he will keep alive only so long as team valuations continue to increase. Yes, he might be worth big bucks, but the team — which he has left to be self-sufficient — had the lowest revenue totals in the American League last year. They were barely getting by when the season was going to be 162 games, with fans. The notion of half a season, with no fans, is, in fact, armageddon when your owner refuses to go into his pocket to bridge the fiscal gap.

I’m not justifying the A’s actions, only trying to explain them. Furthermore, the A’s will not be the last team to plead poverty. Again, that doesn’t make their actions correct.

Beyond the actual dollars and cents, the moves were terrible public relations.

The juxtaposition of a fabulously rich man not paying employees less than $1,600 a month because “he can’t afford it” will not be forgotten anytime soon. Fisher doesn’t like to be in the limelight — photos of him have a Patterson–Gimlin vibe — and, for some unknown reason, he had maintained a semblance of plausible deniability with the fanbase.

But in the course of two weeks, he’s been pushed into the limelight.

For what?

I don’t know how much the A’s spend on advertising and public relations per season, but they have made two massive PR blunders — the rent strike and job cuts — over monies Fisher probably doesn’t notice he made or lost on a daily basis.

It seems to me like a foolish use of (apparently limited) funds.

You’d like to think that team president Dave Kaval, a public relations “guru”, would have been able to avoid such blunders, but looking at his track record in charge, walking into them is par for the course.

The frustrating part for fans is that these cheapskate moves will further hurt the already hamstrung baseball operations department.

This year’s MLB Draft will only be five rounds — that means there will be hundreds of quality players who will be able to sign as undrafted free agents.

Given what the A’s just did to their minor leaguers — something the bottom-of-the-barrel Marlins aren’t even doing — why would anyone want to sign with Oakland this summer?

As for Matt Chapman, Matt Olsen, and soon-to-be free agent Marcus Semien, you can kiss them goodbye. Why would anyone expect a team that won’t pay it’s most affordable players to pony up $20, perhaps $30 million a year for their best players?

I don’t know if Fisher wants to be a big-time owner. Maybe he does but is simply incapable. Regardless, it’s been proven over 15 years that he’s not up for the job. Actions like the last few weeks should not be so predictable.

My hope, for the fans of the A’s, the city of Oakland, and the East Bay, is that he can surprise us: by selling the team to someone who is actually up to the task.

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©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)