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Published on July 3, 2024
Lafayette native starts professional baseball team
Lafayette native starts professional baseball team
Bryan Carmel with the legendary Hal The Hot Dog Guy. Photo provided

There’s a quote by American author Wendelin Van Draanen that says, “You never forget your first love.” For Bryan Carmel of Lafayette and his College Prep High School classmate, Chicago native and longtime Oakland resident Paul Freedman, that love was baseball. “Our friendship began as A’s fans, and baseball was a bonding experience for us,” Freedman said.

Like most kids, Carmel collected baseball cards and memorabilia, and he had a more direct connection to the Oakland A’s. “My mom ran preschools in Alamo and Danville, where a lot of the A’s players sent their kids,” Carmel said. “I worked there as a teacher’s assistant during the summer and got autographs from the players when they came by with their kids.”

Carmel graduated from Columbia University with majors in religion and writing and stayed in New York for 15 years, where he began a career in television, comedy and documentary filmmaking and met his wife, Anamay, who was studying law. “I was working in television in New York and got the opportunity to move to LA for a job as a development executive. I’ve been working in LA as a writer, producer and creative executive ever since,” Carmel said. “I raised my kids in LA, but my heart was always in the Bay Area, where I grew up.”

Despite living in baseball hotspots, Carmel remained true to his Bay Area sports roots and was surprised to learn of the A’s potential departure from Oakland: “In June 2023, I was working on a film project and the entire industry was shut down due to the strikes. Then I got the news that the Oakland A’s were actually leaving town. I was very frustrated with how the media portrays Oakland and San Francisco as big coastal cities that are completely broken, and that’s just not the Oakland that I know and love.”

Freedman was a highly successful entrepreneur in the educational technology space and had founded a number of very successful companies. He had just exited his last company. “Paul and I had always wanted to do something together, and in June he called me out of the blue and said we should start a baseball team. I said ‘yes, absolutely’ and we became completely obsessed with this project.”

And from that simple phone call, the Oakland Ballers were on their way to becoming an established team.

Carmel and Freedman were very impressed with the efforts of East Bay fans to keep the team in Oakland. “We saw the energy around the ‘sell movement’ and it was incredibly inspiring to see that kind of fan activation,” Carmel said.

After the Raiders left town twice and the Warriors went to San Francisco, the A’s departure was a final blow for Carmel and Freedman. “We felt that a new professional baseball team helping the East Bay would open a new chapter for baseball that would give the people of Oakland something to rally behind,” Carmel said. “Sports teams are the institutions that bring us together at a time when we are more divided politically, socially and economically than ever before. It just seemed untenable that a city as great as Oakland, with a wonderful fan base, would not have a baseball team.”

Although Freedman and Carmel had limited knowledge of how to build a baseball team, they brought with them the tools and skills they had developed in their respective careers. “In the beginning, people didn’t take us seriously, even though our wives were incredibly supportive of this adventure,” Carmel said. “It was an interesting marriage between Paul and I. We’re both not afraid to look at a blank slate, and that’s what’s needed. We saw it as a business rooted in a movement of sorts because we were trying to create a paradigm shift in the way communities and sports teams work together and coexist.”

Unlike most teams, the Oakland Ballers were intended to be more than just a bunch of players with the city’s name on their jerseys. “We set the principles for our team: We want to bring different communities together and we know that the true value of a team cannot be measured in a balance sheet – it is the fan base. The fans make the team worth it and we wanted a team where the fans are at the center of every aspect of the organization.”

Freedman and Carmel didn’t want to join a major league team, so they had no choice but to join one of the four independent minor league teams – the Atlantic League, the Frontier League, the American Association or the Pioneer League. “We found an agent to represent us and we got offers from the leagues, but the Pioneer League was our first choice because it’s an innovative league,” Carmel said. “For example, instead of extra innings, we’re going to have a home run derby where each team has one batter who has two minutes to hit the most home runs.”

They now had to find a facility to host the games. Laney College has very nice facilities, but didn’t have enough seating. At the press conference announcing the formation of the Oakland Ballers, Freddie Morris of the City of Oakland raised the possibility of the team playing at Raimondi Park in West Oakland. “It was a real opportunity to show what can happen when private citizens, community members and the city and neighbors actually work together, and prove everyone wrong who said you can’t get anything done in Oakland,” Carmel said.

Raimondi Park was named in honor of Ernie Raimondi, a minor league baseball player who grew up in Oakland and was killed in World War II. “We had an Ernie Raimondi night and his grandson was our ceremonial first batter, along with 70 members of the Raimondi family in attendance at the game,” Carmel said. “The community was very welcoming and it was a very rewarding and positive experience with the team, the stadium and the community.”

It was important that the stadium fit the team’s core principles from a design perspective. “We engaged with the community and learned from the other local baseball team what not to do,” Carmel said. “We built relationships with community groups and went door-to-door with Carroll Fife, who represents West Oakland, to connect with our neighbors and make sure any concerns they might have about the ballpark were addressed. Our vision is to make every game feel like a street party around a baseball game where people just enjoy meeting neighbors and friends. A big part of our mission is to support local sports and youth sports. When the Ballers aren’t using the facility, the field is intended to be available to the community, who can sign up to use it.”

There were others who shared the same vision, committing $1.6 million to upgrade the parks. “We have 53 investors and even members of the Haas family, who have been great stewards of baseball in Oakland,” Carmel said. “Walter Haas’ legacy is about community, and they are all baseball people who want to keep baseball in Oakland.”

They were lucky when it came to putting the team together. “We were able to connect with Don Wakamatsu, who is a baseball icon as a player, coach and manager, and also a great guy who grew up in Hayward,” Carmel said. “Don really liked the idea of ​​breathing new life into baseball in Oakland and he jumped on the journey with us as our director of baseball operations. He brought his Rolodex from a 40-year baseball career and told him his job was to build the team and hire the coaches. Paul and I then hired Tyler Peterson as our assistant general manager and the rest of the staff. Tyler had previously worked with the Rocky Mountain Vibes of the Pioneer League as director of player scouting and presence and also worked with the PAC 12 network and brought all his printouts and an encyclopedic knowledge of the best college players.”

The Ballers play six games a week and only have Mondays off. “It’s a brutal schedule, but they’re young guys and they’re used to it,” Carmel said. “They have a great attitude and they’re just happy to have a chance. And you know, they have a chance. We’ve already lost four players to major league teams. That’s a compliment to our personnel department, but it’s upsetting to lose some of our best players.” The team will receive compensation for the players and donate some of the money to a community group.

Attendance is good, but the Ballers are still trying to attract more spectators, including from Contra Costa. “My friend Josh Lateiner brought his family and he said it only took us 20 minutes to get to the game and he was able to park right across the street. We’re trying to spread the message that going to a Ballers game is accessible, affordable, safe and a fun thing for the whole family.”

So what has Carmel learned so far? “We live in a time when our social institutions are disintegrating in a way that makes me fear for the future of children, and that can be sobering. However, this adventure has renewed my faith that people want to connect with one another; they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they want to participate in things that have nothing to do with their self-interest. In a time when self-interest seems to be the religion of the United States, it’s nice to see that people still want to be part of something bigger.”