What a team means to a city and what a city means to a team.
Game 56: Athletics and Angels, Wednesday, May 29, 12:37 p.m. first pitch
I pick up my friend Russ from the airport; he’s in town giving a talk to one of my classes. I grab him at OAK at 11, and there’s a game at 12:30. His first game at the Coliseum. It’s irresponsible not to go.
We park on San Leandro, which runs right under the BART tracks, and at almost every car-length interval on our walk to the stadium there is shattered window glass on the ground. I tell Russ he is getting the authentic Oakland experience, which does not make any sense because I have no idea what this means. What I should say is that this glass—a day old, a year old—feels like more than enough confirmation of what I fear Oakland can be.
The entire game, a good one—four homers, the A’s come back from two down in the ninth before losing in extras—I think about the car, worry that this will be the second time Russ’s stuff has been stolen here. (As my best man, he lost a backpack and his wedding shoes parking in downtown Berkeley for our rehearsal dinner two years ago). I am the host; I am showing Russ the Athletics and reintroducing him to Oakland and the East Bay, but I feel more like an outsider than I have in a long time because today I have a little stake in all of this. A Prius just paid off, Russ’s stuff, a vintage Third Eye Blind CD, a bike pump and an unfilled East Brother Beer growler in the trunk. When I take BART in and out, walking over the bridge to the stadium and literally never setting foot on a real street, I’m a tourist, not a host. I am able to have as little interaction with this part of the city as I can. I am the opposite of rooted in Oakland. Today, I cheer for a team while convinced its city is robbing me. It’s not pride to wear that Oakland identity only when it suits me, shedding it just as easily when it doesn’t.
I must have missed something, a bunch of things, because then Russ is telling me exactly what I want to hear. “Hey man, it’s a day game, a beautiful day, bunch of people around, the car’s totally fine.”
And it is, of course, when we get back. A beautiful day, a complicated and changing city, and I’m reminded that fear is the earliest and easiest way to dismiss a place. Tomorrow, when I read my favorite lines in one of Russ’s poems to my class, I come back to this moment, wishing it wasn’t true, hoping that some day I’ll be better than I am.
this is America and we are boys
slowly tiring into our fathers.
Game 74: Athletics and Orioles, Tuesday, June 18, 7:07 p.m. first pitch
The Golden State Warriors just lost the NBA Finals, the end of a dynasty for the team and the end of an era for basketball in the East Bay. The tenantless Oracle Arena, just next door, seems to be wafting sadness into the ballpark. Between songs, the DJ in the Treehouse keeps saying on a loop, “At least we still got the A’s, Oakland, at least we still got the A’s.”
And this will be a spectacular night. The Athletics will go on to win 16-2, tied for their largest win of the season, and we will hit six home runs. In the 10-run sixth inning, anything less than a double feels embarrassing. It is in almost every respect the perfect baseball game. But first, we have to meet Elaine.
I’m waiting for Tim in the Treehouse, drinking a perfect Drake’s 1500 IPA at one of the standing tables watching the end of Orioles’ batting practice (I think they take BP these days just to remember that the ball can actually be hit). There are two fake bird kites named Falcon McFalconface (yes, really) attached to strings at the top of the Coliseum that flutter in the wind, dipping and whirling around, ostensibly to scare away seagulls, and these kites will be the only birds less successful than the Orioles today.
I see Elaine coming down the row, her staff shirt and clipboard making her official, and I know what she’ll say to the two guys with their beers perched on the edge of the overhang. In the lawless Coliseum, there are only two rules: do not put your drinks on the edge of a section, for fear they will fall and drench the people below, and do not smoke. In a city where you can get high almost anywhere, I’ve seen the staff SWAT-sprint into action the second any joint anywhere combusts. Elaine, having told off those criminals, continues on to me. She sees my Access badge and activates a smile. “Enjoying your day?”
I say I am, very much so, and she’s off, telling me all about the organization, the Coliseum, and how much I should definitely email my praise to the front office. “They get like twenty negative comments for every positive one,” she says. “This A’s Access thing is a big experiment for us, and we’d love to know how much you’re loving it.”
This is not the time to tell her all the reasons I actually love this season. I’m about to head over to three or four different sections that aren’t mine. I love the ladies who pour our beer know us by name and talk shit about other customers with us. I love the Boom Boom sauce for the chicken tenders that is always empty by the fourth inning because the word is out. I love being on the Jumbotron about every other game because we are a) here and b) not always on our phones. I love it because there is an Irish Heritage night where, legally, Tim and I cannot be arrested.
“I was conceived in the Coliseum,” Elaine says.
I wonder if I have accidentally said something aloud to provoke this. “Sorry?”
“Yeah, my parents, they said as much. Raiders game. I’ve basically spent my whole life here.”
I appreciate the significance. “You were born for this, then. And I guess you’re not too happy about the move to the new stadium.”
She grips the clipboard tighter, this physical reminder of her job and the company line. Despite everything I love here, the more sinister reading of the Access program is that it’s designed to get people hooked on easy, cheap, effortless A’s baseball again before the gondolas and luxury boxes and kimchi aioli hot dogs arrive. Before Oakland is East San Francisco and before the Athletics are like every other team in the country.
“Well, it’s just a chance to make new memories,” she manages.
I don’t buy it. I’m holding a beer, not a clipboard. “It’s not going to be like this.”
“No.” She looks out at the field, then the seats; looking, maybe, for the exact spot where she got made.
Tim arrives. She looks us both up and down. “Well, I hope you two have fun. But not too much fun! A few years ago, they took out the drunk tank. Now, they just ship everyone off to Santa Rita.”
It appears the rules for Irish Heritage Night have changed.
“And remember,” she says, “Email us that good feedback!”
“We will,” Tim says, “We love it here. And we don’t want to leave.”
Elaine nods. Real Elaine is zipped back into corporate Elaine. She makes a little mark on her clipboard. “Yeah,” she says, “I guess maybe don’t email.”
Tim is scrolling through his phone, looking at pictures of a jail. “Santa Rita looks rough.”
Game 78: Athletics and Rays, Saturday, June 22, 7:08 p.m. first pitch
To attend “Bark at the Park,” you must purchase a $5 ticket for your dog. Tim and I don’t have dogs, but our friend David does. Our receipt reads, “One Access Member Dog and Three Access Member Humans.”
Baloo is a Husky-German Shepard mix, and he is a national treasure. He is frantic at first but settles into a great game with another Matt Chapman homer and a Ramon Laureano laser from the outfield for spectacular out. We get Baloo on the Jumbotron. He makes a love connection with the lab mix next to us, but the lab cruelly casts Baloo aside in favor of five innings in Tim’s crotch. Everyone is right on top of each other, which should be a nightmare—all of the dogs and their owners are squeezed into left field, while most of the stadium is empty—but sections 234-250, jammed with every kind of dog you can imagine, creates a wonderfully bizarre bond. Everyone is polite, apologetic, chatty. I hear everyone’s stories. Our neighbors have a large blind mutt who is led around their house by a feisty Chihuahua-mix, evidenced by the thirty phone photos I am offered without prompting. The chocolate lab with an Athletics jersey below us steals a passing lick of food in his and our row. The Bay is a big and busy place, its sense of tolerance more required than enjoyed, but Bark at the Park changes all of that. Yes, we all have a shared love of dogs, but it’s more so our shared understanding that the dogs will misbehave, will barge into our personal spaces and make fools of all of us. We would like to believe that our shared values bind us together, that we evolve toward empathy, but it’s really our shared embarrassment that brings decency, our silly-ass dogs the great equalizer. Yours will poop this inning, mine the next.
Nowhere is that better on display than a few innings in, when the moment we have all waited for starts blaring out of the stadium speakers. The “Circle of Life” from the Lion King requires everyone with a dog under 50 pounds, and quite a few over, to lift their pooch Simba-style into the air. For a moment, regardless of our lives, everything the light touches is warm and friendly, and we are all indeed in the same circle: Access Member Humans who love Access Member Dogs and can put up with their people for three hours because we also love baseball.
Game 78: Giants and Rockies, Tuesday, June 25, 6:45 p.m. first pitch
The A's are out of town, and it's time to take in our first Giants game of the season. A field trip to check out the other team across the Bay, those three-time World Series champions in their gorgeous park on the trashless water, with stunning city and Bay views, their 30,000 crowd for a Tuesday night game, gourmet ballpark food, bathroom “entrances” and “exits,” and working escalators. A season ticket deposit here is $500; our whole season was $384.
The Giants are terrible this year, and as we grab dinner a few blocks away, we’re able to StubHub $15 tickets six rows from the field. I buy a $10 off-brand off-color Giants hat from a street vendor just off Willy Mays Plaza, and I’m ready to infiltrate the land of the enemy. Oracle Park is the coldest field in the country in the summer, and the scoreboard is so confusing that I can’t tell what inning it is, and in short order, San Francisco has me riled up.
Three strikes, I tell Tim, and the Giants are out.
The first and most obvious horror is that only ticket prices (and street merch) drop when a team is shitty. When you are used to giant five-buck beers, paying $14.75 for a sippy-cup feels like wearing your skin inside out. Reflexively, I keep grasping for my Access badge to swipe for discounts or to wave in the face of anyone who challenges me, and when there is nothing there, I start praying for the earthquake. Here, at McCovey Cove on the very edge of the Bay, we will slide into the water and swim back to safety. Elaine will be waiting for us.
The second and far more subtle difference is the suspicious dignity of the whole affair. We start down to our seats when an usher stops us. “Please wait until a pause in play.” He holds us until the next out, and then we and our gaggle proceed like children at a crosswalk. I’ve seen this before in “classy” ballparks, the management’s insistence that most people cannot comprehend on their own when they are blocking someone’s view or disrupting the game, and they are right. In our seats, a young girl, no more than four, rambles around the aisles and screams about hot chocolate and tries to drink my beer—I am still in Bark at the Park mode and scold her “no, bad, no!”—as her mother obliviates into her phone. Two teens take selfies as a ball careens into foul territory feet behind them. At least four stadiums plan to extend their netting along the baselines; last year a fan was killed by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium. If baseball retains any claim to being America’s pastime, it’s because we happily attend a game where men throw hard cork and hide balls at a hundred miles an hour and hit them back with sticks even harder and we believe that there are no consequences for us, that someone else will step in and handle everything, that we are beyond the danger we have come to see. If this is no longer our pastime, it is certainly still our essence, our price of admission for the rest of the world. There will always be netting, there will always be men with placards, hit away.
The third strike, and it has to be the third, is the “ballboy” down our first base line. He is a 65-year-old retired tech investor with three kids and one grandchild. I know this because they announce it to the entire stadium. The dude waves. San Francisco, far from being embarrassed by this, leans in, because it’s simply the way life is lived in the first American city to eliminate the middle class. One of my former students in Michigan was a ballboy for the Tigers, and he got the job like anyone else: liking baseball and knowing someone who knew someone. Here, there are Prudential financial billboards off the 101 freeway reading, “They say millennials are lazy. Retire early and prove them right.” My cousin, a onetime realtor in the city, had a favorite story of selling a multimillion-dollar house to a twentysomething techie who was so lonely that he had my cousin play videogames with him for hours in the empty house after they closed the deal. This is what the American Dream looks like in the upside down. Get rich first, play when you’re old, be a kid when your toys are worth millions, make your playground a city so that you are never alone.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. This is National League ball, so everything spins the wrong way, the Coriolis Effect here on the winter side of the Bay. Madison Bumgarner strikes out 11 and also drives in a run, my hometown Colorado Rockies look like a collection of ski bums on summer jobs waiting for the slopes to reopen, and as the large and patient crowd spills out onto the Embarcadero after the last out, the orange and black is swallowed immediately by the city, rootless within blocks of Willy Mays.
Game 86: Athletics and Twins, Tuesday, July 2, 7:08 p.m. first pitch
We are home, back in the disgusting and delightful Coliseum, for the last home stand before the All-Star Break. The A’s will finish with 50 wins, halfway to a hundred, halfway to a great season. Tonight, Chris Herrmann becomes the first in Athletic team history to hit a grand slam in his first at bat, and the A’s beat the streaking Twins 8-6.
And there’s another Bay Area unicorn: a man four rows down is wearing a Trump t-shirt. Tim and I plot what we’re going to say.
“You know who isn’t a veteran? The fucking president,” Tim growls, practicing. “No. Wait. I know we’re in a trash palace, but someone’s taking it a bit too LITERALLY.”
Everyone around us is doing the same: you can see pointing, whispering, even someone taking a picture with their phone. Then the guy stands. He’s about eighty, with a limp and a cane. He’s got a Vietnam Veteran hat on. He gets slowly to the end of his row, and even more slowly passes all of us on the stairs. No one says anything. This is most certainly not the Oakland way, the Bay Area way, the 48.2 percent of America way (last week a friend of mine was accosted on the street in Berkeley for drinking with a non-disposable straw), but it is the baseball way.
I think again about the Treehouse, the name perfect not just for the old oak trees of Oakland or the team’s steadfast, root-down devotion to the city. It actually is a treehouse: a fantasy, built for a summer up off the ground, where we can scheme and plan and play while it is warm, deaf to those calls to come inside as we try to stay as long as we can.