OAKLAND -- This is an anniversary season for the Oakland A's, but not one the team or its fans will be celebrating. It's been 20 years since the club last outspent and outdrew the New York Yankees.
The A's also had a higher payroll and attendance than the Giants in 1992, but that used to happen frequently.
Today, Forbes values the A's at less than half what the Giants are worth; the team is coming off a season where it had baseball's lowest attendance and the Coliseum has become a foster home of sorts as a custody battle for the club between Oakland and San Jose drags on interminably.
This past offseason, the A's dealt away more of their best young players for yet another crop of bargain basement prospects that the ever-frugal team might have to trade away a few years hence.
"It gets frustrating because we really don't know what's going to happen," said Steve Bowles, a 34-year-old season ticket holder from El Cerrito, during Tuesday's exhibition game against the Giants. "There's a lot of blame to go around."
They say in baseball that hope springs eternal, and there were pockets of optimism in the Coliseum Tuesday, including 33-year-old Manuel Rivas, of Watsonville, who praised recent trades and said "the team is going in the right direction." But no one can blame those A's fans who are feeling ambivalent about the state of the franchise and its ballpark as the squad plays its 2012 home opener Friday evening against the Seattle Mariners.
The recently christened O.co Coliseum is one the oldest ballparks in baseball, but it doesn't hold much sentimentality among A's fans. The Coliseum they loved had a view of the Oakland Hills and an upper deck that wasn't covered in tarp.
Most fans at Tuesday's exhibition game said they'd gladly pay "a few dollars more for tickets" if it meant a new stadium and a better team.
But there was also acknowledgment that new stadiums aren't always friendly to working class fans. When the Twins opened their stadium two seasons ago, they hiked ticket prices 45 percent, according to Team Marketing Report; the Yankees increased ticket prices by 76 percent when their new ballpark opened in 2009 -- with seats near the infield selling for more than $1,000 apiece.
For all of its warts, the Coliseum, fans say, does one thing better than many of baseball's gleaming new publicly subsidized stadiums -- it makes baseball accessible to the entire public. The best seats in the house for an A's game typically go for $46, less than half the price at AT&T Park.
Whether the A's new ballpark is built in Oakland or San Jose, Melissa Poulos doubts her family will be in attendance, at least not often. "We'd probably go to maybe one game a year because it would cost a lot more," said the 34-year-old A's fan from San Ramon.
Shawn Jenkins, 46, who grew up in the shadow of the Coliseum and now lives in Stockton, lamented that he'll be stuck in the nosebleed section or his living room whenever the A's finally open a new ballpark. "I get sick and tired of these owners who want everyone to help pay for a new stadium, but then the people can't go because the price is too high," he said.
The economics of baseball have changed in the 20 years since the A's last outspent the Yankees. Teams have developed fresh revenue streams from increasingly lucrative local television contracts or their own regional sports networks as well as new stadiums with amenities catering to businesses and higher-end fans.
The A's famously still managed to win despite their economic disadvantages during the first half of the past decade, but in recent seasons the team has made more headlines with its stadium saga than its play.
"The Giants at least give you the impression that they're trying," Bowles said. "I don't get that impression with the A's."
In 1992, the A's had baseball's fourth-highest attendance, with just under 2.5 million fans watching a team with a $41 million payroll -- fifth-highest in the majors and almost $4 million more than the Yankees and $8 million more than the Giants.
Last year, according to the website baseball-reference.com, the A's had the sixth-lowest payroll in the majors, less than one-third of the $202 million spent by the Yankees.
"It would be nice to see them spend more money and be a little more competitive," said Ricky Couto, 37, of San Leandro. But like many fans at Tuesday's game, he'll still plunk down money for games this season on a squad he doesn't expect to compete.
"They're the hometown team," he said. "You hold on to the memories and hope those winning ways come back."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.