Independent Oakland Ballers to start play in 2024

  • Jeff Passan, ESPNNov 28, 2023, 09:00 AM ET


      ESPN MLB insider
      Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

If the Oakland A’s leave for Las Vegas, the East Bay will still have a baseball team to root for.

The Oakland B’s.

A consortium of dozens of Oakland-area fans, led by a pair of high school friends, banded together to start the Oakland Ballers — also known as the B’s — who plan to play in the independent Pioneer League starting this summer wearing the same green and gold as the A’s.

The team’s co-founders, Paul Freedman and Bryan Carmel, told ESPN they’ve hired former Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, who went to high school in nearby Hayward, California, as executive vice president of baseball operations. Micah Franklin, a former St. Louis outfielder who is from San Francisco and has coached in the minor leagues, will manage the team.

The plans for the B’s came together, Freedman said, after the A’s — who have played in Oakland since 1968 — announced their move to Las Vegas. The A’s will play at Oakland Coliseum, their dilapidated home, for the 2024 season, but plans beyond that are unclear until their new stadium in Las Vegas opens for the 2028 season.

Freedman and Carmel didn’t want to wait for the A’s to leave for the East Bay to know it would have professional baseball. During discussions to create the team, they made it clear they wanted to start playing in 2024.

“We just felt like our hearts had been ripped from our chests, like all East Bay sports fans,” Carmel said. “Oakland is a city that has seen the Raiders leave town, the Warriors move across town. There was a lot of chatter that maybe Oakland isn’t a pro sports town. We reject that completely.”

The ownership group has raised $2 million, Freedman said, to help fund operations and expand the seating at the stadium of Laney College, an Oakland junior college where the B’s will play. Their acceptance in the Pioneer League — a former affiliated league that was eliminated when MLB cut more than 40 minor league teams in late 2020 — adds to the 10-team league that has teams in Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

While Pioneer League teams no longer have formal affiliation with major league teams, the league itself is one of four MLB partner leagues, a group of independent leagues that work with MLB and serve as testing grounds for new ideas. Rather than playing extra innings, the league in 2021 instituted a home run derby-style “knockout round” to determine the game’s winner.

“What you’re ultimately building in these organizations,” Freedman said, “is fan experience and fan joy.”

The B’s sought input from local fan groups, including the Oakland 68s, while forming the team. They were, Freedman said, “warmly received” because “we’re doing this for the fans. We’re fans ourselves. That’s why we got into this.”

Carmel, who has produced several movies, will serve as the chief experience officer, while Freedman, an entrepreneur, will be chief executive officer. They liked the name B’s as a clever play on the A’s — “And when Paul and I used to play sports in high school,” Carmel said, “we were always on the B team” — but also liked Ballers, to honor their late friend Bobby Winslow, who, Freedman said, often called himself a baller.

Eventually, they realized, they could have both, and they hope to draw support from the thousands of fans who attended the so-called “reverse boycott” at Oakland Coliseum this season. They would, Carmel said, even welcome A’s owner John Fisher, the architect of the move to Las Vegas after two decades of failed attempts to replace the Coliseum — and the target of persistent “sell the team” chants that figure to continue next year.

“He can buy a ticket once they’re available,” said Carmel, pegging June 4 — the same day the A’s host the Mariners — as the likely home debut of the B’s. “We welcome anybody to buy those tickets. I hope they’re fans of what we’re doing.”

The A’s and MLB couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The team will include players who were previously in affiliated baseball or who aren’t selected in the 20-round MLB draft. Wakamatsu, 60, last coached with the Texas Rangers, where he was bench coach 2018-21, including a 10-game stint as interim manager to end the 2018 season. He lends credibility to an organization, Freedman said, that wants to become an institution on its own merits.

“We’re not here to replace what we lost,” Freedman said. “We mourn what was lost. What we’re here to do is say there’s a tradition in Oakland. We get to continue that. We believe when Oaklanders come together, nothing can stop us.”

“We’re by Oakland. We’re for Oakland,” Carmel said. “We’re not going to leave Oakland.”