Hope and Horcruxes
With uncharacteristic foresight, the Athletics’ front office gifted us the 2021 marketing season slogan Rise and Grind. The players, during a 13-game winning streak and after a six-game losing streak, rallied around ace and leader Chris Bassitt’s easygoing maxim and rechristened the campaign Ride the Wave. In the end, it was both.
Thanks to my free MLB TV membership, a pre-pandemic freebie from the golden age when we last could buy our impossibly cheap season tickets, I watched at least a portion of every single game this year. We went to 24 games in person at the Coliseum. Every day seemed like a struggle to live up to expectations of success on the field and a new stadium off it. The team, no matter the month or the opponent or even the inning, was unable to muster its own momentum. When the tide came in, they’d win: they snagged lightning bolts Josh Harrison and Starling Marte at the trade deadline, cruised to their biggest shutout win in history (17-0 in Cleveland), and conjured a franchise-record twelve walk-off wins. When it dragged out—when they lost two games at home to the Team Across the Bay after the eighth inning by one run, when All-Star and then-maybe-Cy Young winner Bassitt took a comeback liner in Chicago that broke his face, when Ramon Laureano, amidst a decidedly human season, was banned 80 games for using performance enhancing drugs, though clearly not enough of them—there was no force on earth or stars that could save the team. It was the year when Franke Montas set the all-time A’s record for strikeouts by a righthander while Matt Chapman was setting the all-time record for striking out. In their last 25 games before being eliminated, ostensibly desperate to keep their streak of three straight years in the playoffs (and, maybe, their 53-years in Oakland) alive, they lost four / won three / lost three / won five / lost four / won three/ lost three. They were as infuriating a team and I can remember.
But that’s baseball. Once the sting subsided, it might have even been memorable in tailgates to come. Every season is a story, and this one was a soap opera. As this column’s resident baseball genius Russ says, all you can hope for, really, is to be in it to the end. And we were.
But what if this really is The End? In the middle of the playoffs, of which we are not a part, when the Commissioner says, “And frankly, in some ways, we’re not sure we see a path to success in terms of getting something built in Oakland,” we worry. Yes, the Oakland City Council did obviously read my last plea and voted for a (non-binding) resolution in favor of the stadium in July. No, there is not yet an Arrakis sand worm stadium rising from the Vegas desert. But the dread is still there, the not knowing, and it’s almost enough to want any answer just to get out of this purgatory.
Game 126: Athletics and Mariners, Saturday, August 23, 6:40 p.m. first pitch
When the front office cancelled all season tickets this year, initially because of pandemic seating rules and then because they are greedy swine, something broke in me. Finally yielding to their sinister design—and because there’s often only a modest difference—I start buying nicer seats. And so, this proud resident of the beautiful, windswept, lawless Mad Max moonscape of the third deck and Treehouse bar convinces himself that four rows from the field, just above the bullpen, isn’t a betrayal of all he stands for.
At first, it’s just for my parents, who are in town and have never seen an A’s game. I tell myself this will be a onetime affair. A combination of secret mission behind enemy lines / old people don’t see good / tickets staying cheap. Down here, you can see the players’ faces and hear them joking with each other, the balls are hit and tossed with shocking regularity to fans all around us, and the staff are disconcertingly plentiful and kind and helpful. But I instinctively sneak down the unsupervised aisles to get to my actual seat. I’m still the guy who fought with a fake bartender, defended the honor of the East Bay against the encroaching fishing hat tech hordes, and almost floated out of the third deck into the lower ionosphere.
I have only nominally prepared my parents for the Coliseum. I point out the four best concessions stands and where the good beers used to be; I neglect to mention getting dripped on with sewage while in the bathroom not once but three times (an inglorious eighth inning as the A’s also get five runs shit on them by the Rangers). In truth, I’m trying to hide most of what makes the Coliseum the Coliseum from them. All of the motley mayhem that somehow turns her into magic only comes with time. Just a visit or two lays bare all that she isn’t, and it’s the patience and endurance that shows what she is—the wonder of baseball’s last dive bar. I want them to enjoy themselves, and like every bad first date, I make this old wreck pretend she’s something she’s not.
And she’s not happy about it. By the third inning it’s freezing, and though we get my parents’ picture up on the Jumbotron, by the fourth or fifth appearance even they are aware that we are some of the very few people here who actually want to be on the Jumbotron. The A’s lose 5-3, but it’s still August; we see a big Matt Olson homer and my parents have a great time. They ask why getting a new stadium is such a big deal anyway. Tonight doesn’t feel like my team or my stadium, but I can pass this off as necessary. I need my parents to like it here tonight almost as much as I need the team to like it here in Oakland forever. And since this does feel like a frantic date, I’m well into the flop sweat of desperation. This has to work.
It is only after seeing the game at home, watching it back to grumble about closer Lou Trivino blowing his second straight save in spectacular fashion via a home run to Ty France in the ninth, that I realize that we’re on television every time a lefty steps into the box. Floating above and behind the batter’s eyeline, a line of Hortons laughing and pointing, cheering, cajoling and praying, and then cursing our luck.
This, I know, will be a problem.
Game 138: Athletics and White Sox, Tuesday, September 7, 6:40 p.m. first pitch
Before this next solo game, I pretend for about two minutes that I’m not going to buy another fancy seat and will, without complaint, return to my barren outlands. Please.
Tonight, I’m on the opposite side, just above the A’s dugout and bullpen. This means I’m in the shot for the righthanded batters. Because I am a deeply unwell fan, I have the lineups out so I know when the righties are coming up, I’ve triangulated my positioning for maximum airtime, and I’m also watching the broadcast—with 15-second delay—on my phone so that I can move as necessary. I’m looking for clarity of picture, duration of shot, and a nice clearing of empty seats for maximum stardom. Early on, I stare as much at the camera going live with its little red light as I do the game.
I wave, I point, I slowly raise my arms as if incanting the sun to rise. Losing complete control over my body—my first celebrity breakdown—I raise the roof, I badly floss. (I do not dab.) I would like to say this is a reaction to yet another anemic outing from the A’s, a 6-3 loss to the White Sox, a team that has already vampired the life out of our season by hospitalizing Bassitt back in Chicago. But there are also times when I forget the camera’s there, or I’ve simply exhausted my repertoire from my Stage Eleven mime class circa 1995, and these moments are better. It really is something to watch yourself for an entire game, a sort of game within the game. You see how much time you spend talking to the strangers around you, how in my case you wait till they turn away before backflipping your eyes in disgust that they don’t know the names of the fake bird kites fluttering above the stadium to ward off the seagull invasion. You’ve seen it on highlights, how long it takes fans to know it’s a home run, that marvelous SportsCenter slo-mo instant when the ball’s off the bat and every face angles out and slightly up, that look where expectation is everything. The split second between happening and knowing has felt like this whole season. At home, as I watch my past self, clowning away the game, I wonder what I’ll know in a month, six months, a year. Is it already over, the team good as gone, and am I just frozen, staring out, waiting for the ball to drop?
Game 151: Athletics and Mariners, Tuesday, September 21, 6:40 p.m. first pitch
Now I bring Kate down to the good seats. I’m addicted and I don’t care. Like all good addicts, I want company. Now my routine is a double act, and by the third or fourth inning, we’ve really refined our distraction for the television audience. It may be my imagination, but “our” camera seems to spend less and less time over here: we’re annoying enough that we’ve changed the broadcast. Watching the game back, it’s not not true.
In the first inning, I dash up the stairs to get a beer and peanuts, trying to make it back before the A’s half. At the stand, I hear the cheer of the Mariners’ last out, and heading back down, I see Matt Chapman tossing the ball into the stands to a man in a floppy felt wizardish top hat.
As I pass, the guy drops the ball and, pinball-perfect, it finds its way down ten empty rows, popping out a foot away on the walkway. I grab it and look back up at the man. He stares, wondering if I’ll give it to him. Fuck. No. It’s every fanatic for himself out here. There are no kids around, and I know I’ll someday have to give up a ball to one of those whiny slugs. This is for me. After all, I’ve spent a year keeping my own kid alive. So what if this ball is my second of the season. I might never get another, and if I do, with my luck, I’ll be on camera next to a Make-A-Wish section, announcers shaming me, and I’ll stare deep into the lens, its red eye burning back, wondering if it’s better just to keep it and run and never enter society again. Milo, Kate, and I will go the forest and start a new family with the ball, Milo’s new brother we name Matt.
I return to Kate and display the prize. “That’s amazing,” she says, knowing how much it means to me and how much it will mean to her if I’m not despondent tonight. “I saw Chappie throw it up there but didn’t see who got it.”
“I did,” I say. “Me. Mine. The game willed it.”
“Yeah, ok, sure,” she says, looking back over my shoulder, hoping the camera caught that so she can play it during the hearings for my institutionalization. At least Milo will be left with one sane parent.
It doesn’t take long to realize the ball is a parting gift from the team. There will be no win tonight, and the playoffs are dimming. I’ve told myself all season that, if pressed, I’ll save my luck for what happens off the field. The universe is holding me to my word. The A’s manage homers from Olson and Marte, but it’s the same sick undertow to these ocean men from the north. This is the Mariners’ seventh win in a row against the A’s of what will be a record twelve; the last, four games from the end, officially eliminates Oakland from the playoffs.
Watching the game back that night, as has become my habit as a fan terrified of the future and opiated by the blur of present into past, I map my ball’s life in the game: a 2-0 offering from Paul Blackburn, hit easily on the ground by Mitch Haniger, fielded by Chappie at third and zinged across the diamond to Oly for the out at first. A routine play, one of thousands this season, that for me will never fade. A Gold Glover tossing to another Gold Glover who then tosses the ball into the stands to a man who is decidedly not a Gold Glover.
It reminds me that you don’t wear stupid wizard hats to baseball. You don’t need a glove to make a play, but it helps. Timing is everything. You can watch yourself on TV as much as you want, but what matters is being here, anywhere. There’s more action in the good seats, but it’s all about being in the right place at the right time, taking a piece of the game with you and leaving a little bit of yourself behind.
Game 155: Athletics and Astros, Saturday, September 25, 1:07 p.m. first pitch
It’s a perfect day because of course it is. Our last visit of the season. The A’s are coming off one of their best games of the year last night, a thorough skullfucking of the cheating corpse that is the Houston Astros. Tim and Evan are with us, and Kate and I are back with them where we belong, sidling into the second deck, eyes on the guards, buffered by rows of empty seats.
I’m grabbing Kate a margarita, and on the way back I see stadium security standing outside one of the luxury boxes. This can, and on quick inspection does, mean only one thing: A’s president Dave Kaval is inside. It’s a box right next to the stairway down into the second deck, so I can stand there, past his security, staring through the glass at the man who, along with his boss John Fisher, has callously juggled our fate this whole season. He’s talking on airpods to someone, oblivious to me. I’ve suffered for months wondering whether he’s earnestly trying to keep the A’s here or gaslighting us on their way out to become the Vegas Stepfathers or the Nashville Hot Chickens or some other shit. I’m frozen and Kate’s frozen margarita starts to melt.
I think back to when I fawned over him two years ago, a different planet ago, in the concourse just above us. Now, this goes only two ways.
I knock on the glass and startle him back into humanity. “Please keep the team here, Dave. They mean so much to me and so many people here. We are trusting you to do what’s right and keep them here.”
He nods, says of course he is, looks back to his security to remind us both that they are there and I go back to my seat.
Or I knock on the glass and startle him back into the sixth inning, back to the game and the team he claims to love, and ask him to keep the team here.
“I’m just doing my job,” he says. “We are trying to get a deal done but we have to do what is best for the organization.”
“Fuck the organization,” I say. “This is our team.”
“Sir, I’m on a call,” he says. “You’ve gotta get moving.”
“No, you’ve got to get moving, you bug-eyed eel.”
“Hey guys!” He calls up to his security. “I need you down here!”
I put up a good fight, what with the biting and ball kicking, the faking of a seizure and the shiv made of the Campy Campaneris bobblehead, but they get me down and then out to Santa Rita. No matter; I’ll still be ready for Opening Day, however it comes.
It goes the third way. I stay silent. He keeps talking on the phone to a person more important than any of us. Maybe it’s Fisher. Maybe it’s the commissioner. Maybe it’s an exterminator who is chopping the heads off rattlesnakes at the sandpit they’ve picked in Vegas. I feel like a coward walking back, muttering on a loop all my miseries, but I can’t give up on the chance that this will work out. I have no reason to think it will, but in this world increasingly full of fuckery, I am so tired of bracing for the worst.
I get back in the seventh just in time for the 0-0 game to break open. Kyle Tucker socks a home run, but Josh Harrison comes back with a single scoring pinch runner Skye Bolt in the bottom of the inning. It’s almost enough for Kate to forget about her melted margarita.
Over the next month, the Astros will storm through the playoffs but lose the fall classic to Atlanta, a team that finished the regular season with just two more wins than the A’s. Right before the Series ends, the Athletics get another positive vote from the county supervisors of Alameda and move closer to a new ballpark than they’ve ever been. Two days later, Bob Melvin will leave to manage the $160 million payroll in the swanky downtown park of San Diego, triggering widespread recognition that he sees a dark winter with more departures and lean years ahead. Six days later, one of the supervisors out walking her dog will be struck by a car and killed.
I’ve been told by plenty of people in this first year of parenthood that having a child is like having your heart outside your body. This always sounds to me like a horcrux. The admission that as parents we’re all reanimated from the lives we led and none too picky about the dark magic we must employ. To survive as a parent now, to see so much of our lives in our kids; hell, as just plain people staying afloat on these daily waves of joy and dread, we also find other, smaller parts of the soul ripped out and stashed away.
One of mine is here with this team. And in this moment, in the bottom of the ninth as Marte blasts a double to the wall and Elvis Andrus scrambles home on a broken leg, as the team goddamn lifts Elvis from the ground and carries him, walking off the field together for our last time, I can feel it. Kate and Tim and Evan here. The walk-off, the broken leg, the fucking Astros. It’s my little horcrux, beating, pumping, warming this thin fall light, not done yet.