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Dispatches from the Treehouse: Rooting for Oakland  photo

It’s all about the timing


It’s as simple and invasive as a chime on my phone. A banner news alert, which, for most people, involves elections and wars and natural disasters and celebrity deaths. This is worse. Oakland Athletics to start looking at possibility of relocation with the support of Major League Baseball.

That it’s mostly, probably, a bargaining tactic from the team’s ownership to pressure the Oakland City Council to take action on the new Howard Terminal waterfront stadium proposal, and that the A’s throughout their history have threatened to leave, does not make this better. There’s something especially nasty and opportunistic now. The sudden indignation and exasperation of Dave Kaval, the team’s president, make the past fan-friendly ticketing and discounts and Mr. Fix-It persona on Twitter feel like bait-and-switch gimmicks. The immediate tone-deaf factfinding visit to Las Vegas as a potential new home allows Kaval to post a video of himself at a Golden Knights NHL playoff game. Vegas, that fucking spoiled lard drum full of desert rats kicked over, freakish and frenzied in the heat. And above all the reality, chronicled in this very series, that the Coliseum is increasingly unfit for human habitation.

I think about all of the cities that have lost baseball without replacement over the years. Montreal without the Expos, Brooklyn without the Dodgers, Newark, of course, without the Peppers.  These places ceased to exist after their teams left. Chernobyl will be back before they are. Not to mention the two other professional teams that Oakland has lost to cities with deeper pockets or fewer regulations. The A’s are the last, their multi-year slogan Rooted in Oakland contorted to irony.

And the timing of it. Against all odds, again, the team is good, again, with plenty of its best players up for bigger money elsewhere next year. A team that had a six-game losing streak to start the season and a 13-game winning streak to save it; a starting pitcher broke his hand playing a videogame and a relief pitcher dropped his pants on the field for a sticky-substances inspection. This team is fun, weird, scrappy as hell, and, as always, exactly the right fit for Oakland. Going to baseball for me has been an anchor in our return to normalcy, and I’m not alone. The crowds are still small, but they are noticeably growing, even for lumpy, midweek games, and I like to think of the stadium expanse as the real-time measure of people trusting each other again.

And most of all, telescoping up through the years, to think that Milo might grow up with no baseball—or worse, only the San Francisco Giants—guts me. I do not have fatherhood figured out in any way, but I do know that in this marathon you have to latch onto the love ahead that you hope you’ll earn. If I can’t see my son sitting on my lap, me watching a home run over his little ballcapped head, his hand swimming in my glove; if I can’t hear his first terrible rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame and behold his smashfaced horror and delight at his first and last bad hot dog, we won’t just miss those moments then, that’s something taken from us now.

So after a year and a half of a very different kind of anxiety, it’s wait-and-worry again for what comes next. At least now I’m prepared: you appreciate what you’ve got, and you don’t take anything for granted.


Games 17 and 18: Athletics and Twins, Tuesday, April 20, doubleheader, 3:30 p.m. first pitch

A spate of positive covid tests for the Twins moves the first game of the series to a doubleheader after the second. Like the old days, the A’s do what most other teams wouldn’t: our ticket for the first game is good for the second, and we get five straight hours of baseball. Before I leave home, the George Floyd verdict is announced, and the dire bulletins from the city of Oakland, fearing upheaval, subside. I want to believe that everyone who comes out to the games wants to spend the moment in the company of others, and that’s something.

Matt Olson hits a grand slam off the foul pole next to us to help the A’s cruise to a 7-0 win in the first game. The team flips the switch in the second, eking it out 1-0, while the lights in the Coliseum go out for 25 minutes in the fifth inning. For not the first time, the stadium cannot sustain a baseball game at its most basic level. No one is surprised, no one leaves, but the electricity is not the only powerlessness tonight.

Portland has been floated as another possible home for the A’s, which makes sense if you think a smaller market with the same reticence for public funding is ideal. If the name stays, the Athletics’ new mascot could be a mustache riding a unicycle or an emotional support chinchilla slacklining between two tattoo parlors. Nashville is another possibility, which makes sense if you want to combine the heat of Las Vegas with the humidity of a mermaid’s casket, and you can’t wait to host a bunch of born again bachelorette parties barfing into their dick hats at the ballpark.


Game 31: Athletics and Blue Jays, Tuesday, May 4, 6:41 p.m. first pitch

I get my first baseball coming out of the bathroom. I’ve been to games for decades in stadiums all over the country. I’ve sat almost everywhere in the Coliseum you can provided you’re a sneaky trash person who doesn’t have good tickets. I’ve never gotten a ball before. (And let’s be clear: these are balls from play. Competitive balls. Not batting practice, not a player flipping you one at the end of an inning, because that only happens to cute kids, old people who might not make it to the end of the game, and, you know, nice people. My little person is too little, my hair still has a little brown in it, and my plea bargain with Chipotle of Berkeley obviates any legal claim to niceness.)

Tim and I decide on a whim to get up and find some food at one of the stadium’s operational feeding troughs. We stop off at this bathroom by chance, I’m wiping my hands on my jeans (no paper towels), and a ball bounces into the concourse and comes to a teasy stop right in front of me. There’s no one else here, and I can stare at it for a fraction of a second before snatching it. I know immediately what it is, but when you’re 36 and it’s never happened before, you start to think that it won’t. All of the older A’s fans tell me the same: the team always says they’re leaving, but they never have, so they never will.

The ball still feels warm, and I think that just seconds ago it was thrown and batted; it was glowing under the lights. It smells strongly like leather.

Tim joins me in the concourse. “Oh shit!”

“Oh, shit.” I hand it to him. “Smell it.”

He stares at me with the expression that has defined our friendship, trademarked His Usual Lunacy. But he does. “It smells like a baseball.”

“Yep,” I say. “Smells like baseball.”

I go back and watch the game the next day, trying to find exactly where it came from. Thank you, Cole Irvin, for your two-out, 0-1 fastball, and thank you, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., for your rocket of a foul ball that landed outside a bathroom. It makes the game and its increasingly heavy gravity in my life that much more real and tangible. I hold it all the way home as a treasure unearthed, from the sands of Egypt, or, I suppose, Las Vegas, except without the radioactive ruin brought by Yucca Mountain or the stinking corpse of a Dutch tourist who ran afoul of the Flamingo security staff. My little piece of a baseball civilization that might one day exist only as artifact. My son will always be able to have this ball. I just need to know he’ll be able to get his own too, plenty of them, and that it won't take 36 years.


Game 43: Athletics and Astros, Tuesday, May 18, 6:40 p.m. first pitch

We go down by two runs in the seventh, but claw one back in the seventh and then again in the eighth. Ramon Laureano wins it with a sacrifice fly in the ninth. I’m not one to over-glamorize the glory of the sacrifice in baseball, but there is something special about it to walk-off and win: you've saved up enough outs, the ball just needs to travel far enough. You can start cheering the moment it’s off the bat knowing that you’ve already done enough. That feeling is relief, which this year is just as good as joy.


Game 44: Athletics and Astros, Wednesday, May 19, 6:40 p.m. first pitch

My first solo game of the season. I sit in nine different seats in the ballpark, moving each inning. This is the Coliseum, and it’s the last of its kind. The A’s have said categorically that there will be no baseball future here, regardless of what happens with the new ballpark, and what has felt all this month like a chronic dread now feels acute. This out-of-place, out-of-time experience will be over one way or another. The new park, here near Howard Terminal and the Jack London Square waterfront, or inside of a cow’s sunbleached bones two miles off the Strip, or beside a dog park/brewery/strip club/antifa boutique in Portland, will no doubt be beautiful. It will probably have more than two edible food options. The lights will consistently stay on. But it won’t let you feel like the park is yours. It won’t let you join in quite the same way all the different people who come to an A’s game, the little communities that form section by section and level by level. I don’t belong to the drummers out in right field or the little league teams in the third deck or the grumpy season ticketholders sans their season tickets hugging the baselines. But I’m not turned away. It’s as close as I’ve come to a functioning live-and-let-live world. For a team that might soon be homeless, there’s a vital placelessness here that still matters.

The A’s lose to the Astros, again, 8-1. We can play with every other team in the league, but a true nemesis remains a nemesis. In every section I visit, though, fans stay until the end. Optimism misplaced, maybe, but not exhausted.  The Coliseum, in its twilight that it regularly creates when the electricity goes, is a space vast enough for everyone. But it is the fans, determined and optimistic enough, and the team, always good enough, that really make this belonging.


Game 85: Athletics and Red Sox, Saturday, July 3, 4:15 p.m. first pitch

It’s Milo’s first game. He loves most of all the different people: he squeals with delight walking around the whole Coliseum, and though he can’t yet wave, he does a pretty good act of it with double fat-arm flap-whaps at anyone who makes eye contact. When we sit, as a child who hates sitting and sitting still, he stares and stares out at the field. He kicks over a beer; this we can correct. He does not like the loudest of the cheering—a Frank Schwindel double just below us and later an Elvis Andrus single to tie the game in the eighth—but I think he will come around if given the chance. When he gets scared, I take him to the third deck where he can stand against the railing and take in everything at his own pace. We are alone, the two of us, with baseball.

He’s eight months old, and I’ve seen plenty of younger kids here this season. We told ourselves we were waiting for the right game (a weird 4pm start, perfect for his nap schedule, while teaching him early to hate his guncle Tim’s beloved Red Sox), but I, at least, think I’ve been worried about promising him something I might not be able to deliver. I don’t remember anything before I was like ten years old, so I doubt a few early trips to a big old barn with wide green grass and no roof will much register in the totality of his life. But I hope they do, and I hope I do not have to explain them away.

The game goes into extra innings, of course, and we have to leave for his bedtime. After he’s asleep—one of those real infant conk outs after seeing a thousand new things in a day—my wife and I turn on the game. Kate never watches baseball at home with me, and our marriage thrives on her ability to compartmentalize that white noise alongside Milo’s sleep machine whirring away in his room. I do not compartmentalize. The game has already been a success, a fulfillment of all my fatherly dreams, but if they could…and I think we both feel it. Maybe we’ve birthed the talisman for the next nine decades of their success. 

And when they win, 7-6, scoring three runs in the twelfth, we have willed it. We will write this in the we’ll never forget when section of his baby book this month. It is exactly the opposite feeling of when Milo was born, hearing his first cry, and knowing that we’d been given something marvelous so far beyond what we deserve or can take credit for.

I know I can’t control everything. I know there are only so many promises I can keep. I know Milo’s life will teach us lessons about the limits of the world we can create and sustain for him, but I pray that the A’s aren’t one of them. I want Milo wheeling my old ass into a ballpark in the Bay and then taking me home early for a conk out after I squeezed two new things into my gleeful dotage, neither of which I may remember.

The Oakland City Council has scheduled a vote on the new ballpark for July 20. That, in theory, is the point of no return. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that your season, all of your seasons, might be over midway through everyone else’s. It’s hard to think you might lose, and lose forever, with a score that happens in a meeting room and not on the field.

I love the Coliseum. There is no place like it, and there won’t be again. The new stadium, wherever it is, will be more beautiful and more expensive and, my god, might make you actually sit in your own seats. If it’s at Howard Terminal, the build won’t be easy and there’s no guarantee it will bring the waterfront wizardry promised. If it’s in Vegas, it might have a fancy childcare center where parents can drop off their kids to gamble away their college funds and, in shame, never return, at which point the center will auction off the remaining children to serve as acrobat waiters at the Circus Circus or fountain cleaners at the Bellagio. It will be different. But if it’s a choice between place and people, between baseball and no baseball, between belonging and whatever the fuck we pretend keeps us going when we don’t belong, well, that’s easy.



image: Joseph Horton