Taj Tashombe’s plan to keep A’s in Oakland for long haul is rooted in fan base’s diversity
The team’s vice president of external affairs, an Oakland, California, native, is charged with community engagement and outreach for a new ballpark
Rhonda Morris has deep childhood memories of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the Oakland Athletics. Team owner Charlie Finley would make the players sit at folding tables around the concession stands on Saturdays and talk to the kids and sign the A’s magazine.
That was the first time Morris met Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. She doesn’t remember the specifics of their conversation, but, oh, goodness, was she just happy that Henderson was there and engaging with kids from East Oakland, California.
Morris, a vice president of human resources for Chevron, has seen everything over the course of her lifetime fandom. She remembers when she came back from an expatriate assignment in Europe on the lone day the A’s sat in first place in the division during the 2012 season.
Oakland trailed the American League West leader Texas Rangers by five games that season with nine to play. The Athletics would go 8-1, including a series sweep of the Rangers in the final three games to secure the AL West title on the final day of the season.
Besides the good years Morris has witnessed, she has been there for the dismal, soul-crushing ones too. It has not made her bitter, though. On Opening Day, unless Morris has a family or business conflict, she can be found at the ballpark.
“So that was a fantastic memory, coming back to America and coming back to watch the A’s play,” Morris said. “[This fandom means] every year I am in California, in the Bay Area, not working, I will not miss Opening Day.”
Taj Tashombe walked into Morris’ suite on Opening Day last month, gave her a hug and shook hands with her husband. Tashombe, the man around town, moved through the room effortlessly. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. Not only is Tashombe in charge of getting to know and fortifying the team’s relationship with lifelong fans such as Morris, he’s also looking to turn casual fans or non-fans into active members of the fan base.
As vice president of external affairs, Tashombe is the A’s official charged with community engagement and outreach for their new ballpark. Ever since he reached out to A’s president Dave Kaval via email in 2016 to say that the team needed not only an Oakland native to lead the charge on the project but also someone who is invested and tied into the fabric of the community, Tashombe has hit the ground running.
How else did Kaval plan to create interest in people who weren’t necessarily fans and get them to trust whoever the messenger was? In a city as diverse as Oakland, it was imperative the person holding that position be a reflection of the community, have fingers on the pulse of what people wanted from the team and a new ballpark, and know how to make all these different groups feel seen and heard.
In a way, this is a homecoming for Tashombe, who started his career as an intern for the A’s. Before returning to Oakland, the Clark Atlanta University graduate spent more than a decade as a branding executive with sports and entertainment companies such as the NBA on TNT, NFL Sunday Night Football and MLB Network. His time as a special assistant to the office of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and to the Port of Oakland’s director of communications taught him a lot of what he knows today regarding how to interact and engage with the community.
“I said, ‘You need people with local, institutional knowledge that can assist with building the story and narrative around keeping the A’s in town,’ ” Tashombe said. “The only way you can do that is with actually putting people in positions that can influence the community that are from that community, and it was a no-brainer from that standpoint.”
During most home games, the 35-year-old Tashombe is anywhere but in the Coliseum, making new friends and new connections or putting on new programs to get the community together.
Even on the days he does head over to the ballpark, he’s probably coming from some event with Oakland residents. For example, take Opening Day: Before heading to the stadium for the season-opening festivities, Tashombe participated in San Leandro High School’s career day to discuss the Athletics’ efforts.
When he asked the class of juniors how many World Series Oakland had won and where that total stood in the overall count, the room was quiet. No one knew that the nine championships the A’s had won were good for third most behind the New York Yankees’ 27 and St. Louis Cardinals’ 11.
OK, so the students didn’t know that fact, but that wasn’t indicative of how much they were following the team. More than a few of them grilled Tashombe about Oakland’s decision to wheel and deal the team’s best players or prospects such as Addison Russell, Gio González, Trevor Cahill (who is back with the franchise), Josh Donaldson and others over the past few years.
Tashombe elected to go with a bit of humor and give the students some background information regarding the team. Then he asked the students what would they do, given the insight they had now, if they were the decision-maker.
It became less black and white, as the students realized the various parts at play, and by allowing them to come to that conclusion on their own as opposed to lecturing them or being condescending, Tashombe made some friends in the room.
“[Being from Oakland helps] in the alignment. It’s the consciousness, it’s the attention to detail, it’s understanding the market and understanding why it’s important to people from a cultural standpoint,” Tashombe said. “Long story short, that’s really what the entire opportunity is centered around, is connecting dots that make sense for this project in an authentic way.”
To that end, Tashombe helped facilitate the team’s community screening and panel discussion for Black Panther, as well as a Black Panther bobblehead day on Saturday. He’s helped bring local and small businesses into the team’s suites, worked with agriculture groups to set up a garden at Oracle Arena and the Coliseum and had input on the new Treehouse lounge/bar at the stadium.
It's @Marvel Night #AtTheColiseum! In honor of #BlackPanther director Ryan Coogler being #RootedInOakland, the #Athletics gave away this sweet T'Challa bobblehead!#WakandaForever #InfinityWar #FreeComicBookDay pic.twitter.com/rwJZDv99KV
— Matt (@nosoupforgeorge) May 5, 2018
He wants people from all walks of life to get a taste of how the team tries to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome at the ballpark and to know this current group of Athletics officials is serious about extending that approach to the new facility. He’s also assigned to make sure legends such as Henderson, Vida Blue, Dave Stewart, Bill North and more are all treated well, kept abreast and looped in to the conversations about the new venue.
And sometimes the way Tashombe continues to maintain or build relationships is by simply letting things be. As a result of Morris’ love for the organization, she persuaded Chevron to invest money and time into a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) clinic associated with the A’s. Similar to Tashombe, Morris is a high-ranking African-American executive in her company and has found a multitude of ways to pay it forward to children who look like her who have an interest in STEM.
Starting in 2015, Oakland and Chevron partnered to bring more than 100 Richmond, California, little leaguers onto Rickey Henderson Field to learn about sports science through STEM-related lessons for Science and Baseball Day. Former A’s coach Ron Washington and players Shooty Babitt, Blue and current A’s pitcher Kendall Graveman, who studied mechanical engineering at Mississippi State, have all participated in the partnership.
The hope is that the kids take the lessons they learn over the course of their time together and continue to explore their interest in the subject matter. The A’s allocated the area behind Section 217 to Chevron’s STEM Zone for learning stations, allowing little scientists to explore the physics, biology and mathematics that go into the game of baseball.
“It’s really fun and it’s really exciting,” said Morris, who is a member of the A’s community foundation board. “They are fantastic partners. … That I can be a little kid from East Oakland who grew up going to A’s baseball games in this facility and grow up and work for a company that supports my baseball team, No. 1, and supports kids like me growing up who can hopefully work for our company one day in the future and become engineers.”
Some of Tashombe’s challenge is getting folks excited about a team that has been underwhelming the last four seasons and gave its fan base a less than memorable playoff exit in the disastrous 2014 American League wild-card game.
Oakland led the Kansas City Royals 7-3 through seven innings and watched that four-run lead vanish in the final two innings. The Athletics again took the lead, 8-7, in the 12th inning but squandered it and watched Kansas City mount another comeback for the 9-8 walk-off win, its first playoff victory in 29 years. Since then, the A’s have been the only Oakland franchise not to reach the playoffs during that stretch.
But Oakland and its fan base are a scrappy and fun lot, Morris explained. Unlike many other teams, the Athletics allow fans to bring their own food inside the ballpark, which is especially considerate to families and fans who have food limitations. Morris described how the city was a blue-collar town and views itself as an underdog.
“The teams that played here were typically underdogs,” she said. “Players who weren’t necessarily the marquee players but were scrappy and managed to do well … there’s been a lot of connectivity with the persona of the team and the persona of the city. That still exists with the A’s and the Rooted in Oakland campaign.”
With the Golden State Warriors moving back to their original Bay Area home in San Francisco at the Chase Center for the 2019-20 season and the Oakland Raiders picking up and resettling in Las Vegas as early as 2019, the A’s have a unique opportunity in front of them.
If the Athletics and Tashombe play this right, they can capitalize on this sense of loss from the basketball and football teams leaving with their Rooted in Oakland campaign, the continuous messages that they’re staying and they care not only about the city and the team, but also about the community they’ve been in for the past five decades.
“It’s not about worry, it’s about people being upset seeing the teams that we love leaving us,” said Carl Chan, the director of Claremont Realty and “The Mayor” of Oakland’s Chinatown. “Especially when we understand Oakland A’s saying that ‘definitely we want to be a part of Oakland and want to stay.’ We’ve got to embrace, not only for the idea but we’ve got to be a part of this team to make it happen. So we don’t want to be at the worrying end, we want to be the ones celebrating that the A’s will be staying in Oakland … another 50 years or longer.”
Part of that healing process started when the Athletics said in September 2017 that they wanted to build a new stadium and hoped to open before the 2023 season. Oakland identified Laney College and Lake Merritt as its preference, but the Peralta Community College District’s board of trustees halted negotiations in December 2017.
The discussions with the other two potential sites have hit their respective strides in the last month and a half. In late March, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Kaval announced an exclusive negotiating agreement between the city and the team to explore the feasibility of the Athletics putting their new stadium at the Oakland Coliseum complex, which is 11 minutes outside of downtown off Interstate 880.
Days before, Kaval said the team announced that in exchange for paying more than $135 million in debt owed by the city and Alameda County at the complex, the team would be willing to buy the entire 120-acre lot. The current stadium is one of the oldest venues in baseball.
After a 6-0 vote, with one member absent, from the Port of Oakland commissioners on April 26, the A’s and owners of the 60-acre Howard Terminal, which is separated by only the interstate from downtown Oakland, agreed to yearlong exclusive negotiations.
Chan explained that Tashombe and the team reached out to community leaders and members for a meeting in which team officials talked to the locals about what they want to do, how they plan to execute it and how the community could help achieve this goal.
That the Athletics are aggressively pursuing so many options in the city reassured Chan and many of his colleagues that the team means what it says and that it is genuinely committed to keeping its roots in Oakland.
“I recommended they stay right where they are,” Morris said. “Sports has become very corporate, and it’s what fan base or what constituent are you really trying to market towards. If it’s really corporations, the downtown locations are much sexier. They can potentially have views of San Francisco, you have space to create all of the suites, you have pre- and postgame activities like restaurants and bars and other venues, versus a venue like the Coliseum, which has much better access than either of the locations.
“[The Athletics] are very, very family-oriented, and you can do those kind of things in this type of venue. When you start focusing more on purely on profit and corporations, a lot of that charm, appeal to families, you lose it. Their price points and creativity with dynamic pricing also helps them continue to have this really diverse, economically mixed fan base, and it keeps it fun.”
Savlan Hauser, a recent convert to the A’s fan base, attributes her interests in the team to Tashombe and the A’s community efforts. Hauser said that she’s not a baseball expert, but she can clearly see the excitement and civic pride the team brings to the city.
She’s the executive director of the Jack London Improvement District, a nonprofit community-benefit organization, which, along with 10 other commercial districts, supports small businesses and advocates for great neighborhoods in the city. Just recently, the Jack London District, the neighborhood next to the Howard Terminal, became the new home for the Oakland A’s offices, where 200 or so employees work.
By having a chance to witness that up close and personal, she and her group see a lot of possible opportunities a new stadium could bring, such as job training and using local businesses as food vendors. The inroads for school kids, community groups and small businesses are limitless to Hauser.
“I don’t think we even look at the different teams and compare them,” Hauser said. “The A’s are the only team that have really connected with the community at a grass-roots level. It’s very apparent with the new leadership, the new approach to getting connected in a meaningful way with the community foundations, through art programs and educational opportunities and even bringing school kids here.
“We weren’t aware of that effort on behalf of the Warriors and the Raiders. It didn’t seem to matter exactly where they were in the world. To the A’s it really does seem to matter to them that they are in Oakland, and we love them.”