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Dispatches from the Treehouse: Cakes and Cats  photo

Call the tank manager


It isn’t easy.

The offseason, with its distinctive lack of baseball, is always hard. Harder still with an owners’ lockout and a season in jeopardy, a sick squabble for money that delays the season’s start a week and pushes our opener back more than two. Harder still as a fan of the Oakland Athletics, who raised ticket prices, slashed amenities, and went into one of their patented teardowns just days after the season was saved. One team, the Mets, took three players and is paying the trio almost as much as the entire A’s team. This is a dragon’s breath fire sale that only A’s fans would endure, and end up thriving from, if given the chance.

And endurance is the plan this year. Drive away fans to show how unlivable the Coliseum is. Force the hand of Oakland and the league. Let the media run shot after shot of an empty stadium to blame the fans instead of the men running the team. Rebuild later, just in time for the newly built stadium, wherever that will be. Stay or go, our billionaire’s bases are covered.

It’s one thing to have your season mortgaged for your own future. It’s entirely something else to be the shoveler of this shit for the eventual benefit of Nic Cage’s dino bones buyer in Vegas or the next Southwest gates country music sensation in Nashville or the Antifa rollerderby league of Portland. I’ll take a tanking only as long as it’s our tanking.


Opening Night, Game 11: Athletics and Orioles, Monday, April 18, 6:47 p.m. first pitch

But we are here. It’s baseball, it’s still our team, and it’s spring in the Bay. Somehow the team is 5-5 after the opening road trip. We’re in some seats just behind home plate. We want to be seen.

Kate and I arrive early enough to watch the player and staff introductions (cute),  the “opening night” fireworks (cheaper than a kid waving a sparkler), and the organization’s nod to the famed fanatical fans and drummers from the right field bleachers. The season’s slogan is #DrumTogether, which is both commendable and a matter of necessity. The team’s first hype video featured only the backs of players and a scattering of balls, bases, and body parts: they just didn’t know who would still be on the team by the time the season opened. These fans, of course, would be here. They’re the heart of the team but also what’s left.

“Have you seen any of the cats?” Kate asks.

They’re here too. The roving bands of feral cats who, a mere week before the home opener, were found to have taken over the Coliseum. Survivors, like us, making the most of it.

I shake my head. Both of us know that if we saw them, we’d adopt them all, so we have at least avoided becoming Those Cat People for one more day.

At last Tim and Evan slide into our row. “Well, it was a 35-minute wait to get in, and I was having a diabetic fit at the bottom of the line, so I already ate my sandwich.” This is how Tim’s 2022 campaign gets started. “They really should have a separate line for diehard fans having diabetic fits.” Once, many years ago, Diabetic Tim screamed loudly in the street for an hour that he Wanted to Eat a Baby. We’re all here. Good luck keeping us out.

And we have a friend. “Those were some fireworks, huh? Amazing! This feels like a playoff game!”

He’s from Modesto, which is clear without him telling everyone in his row and ours that he’s from Modesto. “Takes me only an hour to get here…because let’s just say…I don’t always drive the speed limit,” he says with the nefariousness of a man who just ate a baby in the street. Tim gives me the look that he’ll be my problem for the rest of the game.

And I don’t mind. Somehow, Modesto is the only A’s fan whose optimism, indeed his entire life-force, seems totally undimmed by the uncertainty of our collective condition. He knows his A’s and he knows his baseball. He chats with everyone; he swigs Dr. Pepper. He is also a season ticket holder, an astonishment that is confirmed when a 20-something frat bro staffer from the front office in suit and tie sits down next to him and thanks him for his dedication to the team. This, perhaps, is the only remaining luxury of the rocketing prices and diminished perks: on Opening Night, someone from the front office is going to haul their ass down here and listen to you. The Bro’s got a whole visible list of fans on a piece of paper and just for a second I feel sorry for him. It’s not him treating the fans like shit, but he’ll get the abuse.

But not from Modesto. He asks about the new stadium, gives his advice, waits patiently for the canned responses from the Bro who has heard all of this from the last dozen ticketholders he’s been sentenced to assuage. The Bro nods like a bobblehead, smiles like the guy who just made you his own Fireball signature cocktail at the tiki bar in his basement.

When the Bro finally extracts himself from the chumminess, Modesto turns the tractor beam on us. “Did you hear about the cats?”

Rougned Odor crosses the plate for Baltimore’s first and only run and Modesto frowns. “I just don’t like him. Odor. It’s just…I mean I shouldn’t criticize. They are trying their best. But there’s something just plain mean about him.” This is Modesto’s equivalent of carpet bombing an animal shelter.

Somehow our stares at him have not yet registered us as mean people. Tim retreats to his happy place, muttering, “Just look at the cake.”

With our prime location in the posterior of home plate, we see every bit of Sean Murphy catching or batting. He lit up the internet a few games earlier in Tampa Bay when he re-orbited a foul ball off his ass. I had to look up what cake meant before admitting that he does indeed have cake. The cake. Cakes. Slices of cake.

“You know he’s getting offers from gay porn producers,” Tim says and Evan nods. “At least they’d pay him a living wage.”

The A’s play well in front of what may be their largest crowd of the season, seventeen-and-a-half thousand. Frankie Montas has a no-no into the fifth inning, the A’s throw out two runners at home plate and score four of their runs unearned after a wild Oriole throw with two outs. A night with the kind of weird and improbable baseball we will need all season.

Modesto stays to the end with us and then breaks away to the parking lot, where he will burn rubber, all hopped up on Dr. Pepper, back home. He says he hopes to see us at another game, and I have no doubt we will. All of us faithful few will probably have matching tattoos before the year is out.


Game 17: Athletics and Rangers, Sunday, April 24, 1:07 p.m. first pitch

Russ, poet of the sport and godfather to this series, comes into town for his birthday weekend of baseball. We see four games in five days at two stadiums. We get one win.  

But we’ll take it today. Perfect weather, a little league day at the park, $14 personal pizzas, and Maria.

We’re sitting in the second deck and Maria is our section security. She has the face of a bemused turtle and she isn’t taking anyone’s shit.

There’s a group of two or three families a few rows beneath us with a gaggle of adorable young girls. One of the fathers, wearing tiny, flowered shorts and an I’m-young-but-retired shirt, gets a stern talking to from Maria. Then another security member approaches him. As the new security then walks the aisle next to us, he catches our eye on the way up.

“Was that a Length of Shorts Violation?” I joke.

“I wish,” he deadpans. He and Maria have another conference. Calls on radios are made. Another supervisor and then two uniformed Oakland cops arrive. Nobody makes a move. The families continue to have a blissful and entirely unobtrusive time.

We are so perplexed by this apparent invisible crisis that we lose track of the game. Maria makes Shorts’s children sit silently in their seats because they have been, somehow, making too much noise on the empty stairs in our nearly empty section. She removes a trio of boys in their little league uniforms. A jettisoned older woman with a braid down to her butt screams that This Isn’t The A’s.

I couldn’t agree more. Maria might be the most extreme agent, but all over the park I see the staff expelling people from seats—good ones, bad ones—nowhere near anyone else.  

When the cops move to the top of our section, still without engaging anyone, Russ hits the moment perfectly. “Wait, maybe they’re here for her. Maybe Shorts complained about Maria and they’re watching her.”

This makes as much sense as anything these days. Fans bewildered by staff for their sudden change in attitude and approach. Gut the team, sky the prices, sure, but also make one of the last remaining pure joys of the Coliseum—the lazy, urban-picnic, live-and-let-live chillness—a surveillance state.

We have plenty of time to watch our section flirt with the panopticon because one of the other marked changes this season is on the field: this team is going to really struggle scoring runs. After leading the league for the first two weeks of the season, the A’s bats are dead. Only a Stephen Piscotty home run with Murph Cakes on first breaks through on the board.

So we are riveted by Maria whenever she emerges, this blur of zealotry, kicking each and every late arrival out of our section. I ask, “What’s Maria’s day job, do you think?”

“Fish tank manager for celebrities,” Russ says. “She gets flown all over the world on private planes to manage exotic fish tanks. Actually, it’s probably her private plane now.”

He’s hit on this so perfectly that I wonder if he’s already asked. Has he already seen her plane? Is he in league with her?

Adding to the strangeness, the moment the ninth inning starts, another supervisor whispers in her ear and she bolts down the exit. Has she been fired? Is she trying to beat the traffic at the nearby airport? Is she—like all of us—sick at what our minders have made us become?


Game 22: Athletics and Guardians, Sunday, May 1, 1:07 p.m. first pitch

My parents are the ones in town this weekend and they’re going to their first game with their grandson. Milo is now a year-and-a-half old, and instead of recoiling at the yelling and cheering as he did last year, he happily claps along with everyone else, even during a game where he sees no runs and only four hits. He’s our own family Modesto.

I was not a baseball fan growing up. I played three seasons of little league with my dad as the coach. To demonstrate his unimpeachable fairness, he pitched me the least of all the kids on the team. My strongest memories—surprise surprise—are the weird ones. I once accidentally caught a fly ball in the outfield in my uniform shirt pocket. Once I had to poop in the woods next to the field before the game and scrape the brown off my pants with a rock. I turned an unassisted triple play only to realize that we’d already had one out when everyone started running back to the dugouts and orange slices.

So it’s not fair to say that I’ve been looking forward to this forever, that my dadliness and sonliness hinges upon our shared baseballery. But the moment is not lost on me. Somehow, it’s another little league day at the park, and the kids are rolled out in every shape and size to show us all who Milo might be. To prove that baseball, despite its age and stubbornness, can still hang.

The nostalgia forms almost in real time, and it runs forward as well as back. We are left to grind out the mechanics of the memory. I have to manage Milo and the fretfulness of my parents. My dad, for his part, doesn’t let Milo get more than a foot away from him at any time. The A’s lose 7-3 without scoring a run before we leave for an overdue nap. It is exhausting. But it’s real and it happened, and I’d like to think we put down a tether to make it easier to find our way back.

That’s all. I keep searching for the bigger feeling, the repayment, but it’s not there. Not yet. I want a hundred more chances to find it.


Game 24: Athletics and Rays, Tuesday, May 3, 6:40 p.m. first pitch

It’s teacher appreciation day, and Tim and I are teachers, so, appreciate us goddamnit.

Because we’re educating America’s next generation that will need all their wits about them to untangle our fucking mess, we’re in treat-yourself mode, just the two of us, just above the A’s bullpen. There are, at the game’s height, six other people in our section, and it’s still surveilled to hell.  But light is staying later, getting more golden, and with the lack of people here, on a Tuesday, when we’re so close up and the emptiness is behind us, it’s easy to think that this is the way it was always meant to be.

A kid from the gaggles they do let down to the field before the game starts, before scattering them back into the shadows, is tossed a ball and drops it. I run down, get it, and give it back to him. I don’t even think about it. Clearly, I need to go to the hospital.

In the first inning, Kevin Smith mashes a grand slam that arcs just over our heads inside the foul pole. Both teams hit well, and my artful photo of two beers overlooking the field is shown on the Jumbotron every other inning.

And it happens again. A ball gets tossed just to the side of us and I pounce. No kids present. I have my hands around it, about to subsume it into my essence, and then Tim asks for it.

I’ve known Tim since we were freshmen in college. We lived together in London. He’s directed me in plays; he’s directed plays I’ve written. When Kate and I got married, he was in both of our wedding parties. Earlier in this very game, he reminisced fondly about the time I had a mental breakdown 80 rows above us during the A’s 2019 playoff game. “I’ve seen you in a lot of unwell moments. A lot. Like, a lot. And that I think was one of your hands-down craziest displays of all time.” He knows me. We know about all there is to know about each other. He has also previously said to me, in this very game, “I would not be at all surprised if you tackled a child to the ground to get a ball.” He has called my obsession with game baseballs a suitable waste of my feeble physical and mental resources.

And here he is asking me for it.  

I have so little right now with this team. Not just the payroll, the attendance, the obsessing over the dozens of tiny governmental fiefdoms in the Bay that must somehow all get together to keep the A’s here. Not just this five-game losing streak that will stretch to nine before it’s over. Not just these Rays that must also figure out their own stadium or be moved and yet can still make the World Series. It’s the deeper post-lockout feeling that we’re all just rubes and rats, scuttling around for the bits of cheese thrown from the luxury boxes. Or, in our case, feral cats hunting the rats hunting the cheese. My fandom being used against me to justify my mistreatment. I see a crack in the ceiling dripping brown water on the walkway from the Treehouse and think all at once this is gross / this is why we’ve got to get out of here / I hope this concrete doesn’t collapse and crush me or the cats. I’ve been hiding the ball in my pocket hoping that everyone will just forget about it. At least this is mine. I scuttled for it. If not my rat at least my cheese.  

And I give it to him.

He smells it, feels it, holds it up against the green of the field. He says, “Yeah, I get it now.”

I think about how these dispatches began three years ago. Up in the Treehouse, with practically free season tickets and cheap food and beer. A cantina of new fans and old fans and squirrelly oddballs. A summer off the ground, high up in the trees, made magical against the dull hum of the world.

Most of that’s gone now. I am too. I buy the better seats when I can. I mug for the cameras and mascots and hosts who rarely venture from the first level. I go limp and get dragged up every jump in price. I’m willing, almost happy, to sit where I’m told. Through a pandemic and a son and a team teardown and the constant threats of having nothing here at all, I’m the dad wondering where the kids in the treehouse have gone.

And yet.

The cake, the cats. Maria. A first ball. My father and my son at their first game together. This season more than ever, we’re going to need to cherish every story and strangeness we can. To hold onto what cannot be taken away, not by a billionaire, not by a Bay council, not by nostalgia. Not by cute kids and only once by Tim.

It isn’t easy to be an A’s fan, but at least we have the practice. We are feral and loyal and we snatch joy even when it’s small. Like the team we love, it’s all about finding what others can’t see. It’s seeing what maybe wasn’t even there when you started looking.


image: Joseph Horton