Ballpark attendance isn’t one of the pressing issues of our times. Yet, as a fan who has always watched the numbers — I think the last time the Chicago Cubs drew less than 1 million fans, which used to be some kind of yardstick of, well, something, was 1966, and it made an impression — the story of Major League Baseball in Oakland is perversely fascinating. I won’t go into all the reasons right now the home team, the Athletics, are such a lousy draw. But a lousy draw they are. Tuesday night games are especially lightly attended, and given recent trends, I figured that maybe 5,000 people would show up for the unmesmerizing non-spectacle of the A’s playing the recently very dreadful Baltimore Orioles. But my expectations had been set a little too high. The reported attendance was 3,748, perhaps the smallest crowd I’ve been a part of in more than 40 years of attending games at the Coliseum. Those who made it to the ballpark did get to spread out and enjoy a beautiful evening, pictured above, and see the home team win, if that’s what they were hoping for.
People wiser than myself suggest that letting go of the past is a key part of being a mature adult, or at least helpful in maintaining one’s sanity.
And maybe baseball helps you learn that: You delight in your successes, suffer through your defeats, and savor the beauties of the game. Then you move on. Win or lose, there’s always next year. You start with a clean slate and take in the new season as it comes, with all its surprises.
But then again, if you haven’t reached that level of growth and acceptance that allows you to watch a pitcher walk in a run without cursing under your breath, baseball can be an exercise in disappointment and can lead one into the depths of bitterness, cynicism and despair.
Take the Oakland A’s. After last year, a season in which they executed a transformation from contender to bad joke, fans would be foolish to expect much from the team. Yet we — and here I mean my family and I — re-upped our partial season tickets, signing up for another season of fresh air and high beer prices and a roster loaded with unknown quantities.
The A’s played their opener Monday night and had what they call a capacity crowd — capacity at the Oakland Coliseum having been reduced by one-third several years ago by blocking off most of the stadium’s upper deck. Well, it’s nice to have a full house on opening night. It’s an occasion. But the next night is probably a better indication of where the fans are at.
And Tuesday night — our first game of the season, and a beautiful night to sit outside and watch baseball — the announced crowd was 10,000-some. Eyeballing the stands, most people we talked to guessed the actual attendance was substantially lower than that — maybe 6,000 or 8,000. (Next door, meantime, the Golden State Warriors were playing before a sellout crowd — something like their 170th in a row.)
Although the team’s business and on-field strategy is a little inscrutable at this point — it apparently no longer includes the concept of assembling a winning team, for instance, let alone hanging on to productive and popular star players — one suspects that an empty stadium for the season’s second game isn’t a sign of the franchise’s robust health.
But somehow, the A’s bend over backwards to make those few who decide to attend their games feel extra welcome. Last night’s game featured a “guest services” guy in our mostly empty section who descended on everyone who took a seat to check their tickets. With tens of thousands of vacant seats, you wouldn’t want people to sit just anywhere they feel like — people shouldn’t get an iota more than they paid for.
Thom and I are in Las Vegas on an adventure I’ll describe later. We’re staying at Caesar’s Palace, right on The Strip. Our arrival last night coincided with the beginning of the NFL’s 2015 season, Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the New England Patriots, and when we went downstairs to dinner, we could hear cheering and shouting from people watching the game in the bars, lounges and restaurants around us. It was a mixture of one part fan enthusiasm, I think, and four parts monetary self-interest for the hundreds or thousands of bettors gathered on the premises.
After we ate, we went over to the Caesar’s Palace sports book, where the house entertains wagers on all manner of sporting contests. The room is the size of a small concert hall, with screens showing games, highlights of games, and the current betting line on upcoming events, especially college football. By the time we got there, it was already the fourth quarter, and the Patriots’ lead seemed secure. But while the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt, the outcome of many bets — whether New England would cover the 7-point spread, for instance — had not yet been resolved. So the throng in the sports book was still hanging on every play.
At some point, I went to the restroom. Most men maintain silence while they go about their business in such settings. But as I stood at a tastefully style urinal, the guy next to me asked, “You have any money on that game?”
“No — we got here too late,” I said.
“I’ve got three thousand bucks on the under,” he said. He was referring to the over-under, a proposition in which you can bet on the total points scored in the game. Taking the under means you’re betting the total points will be lower than the number set by the house; betting the over means you’re betting the score will exceed that figure.
“What’s the over-under tonight?” I asked.
The score at the time of the restroom visit was 28-14, meaning the guy would lose his bet if another 10 points were scored. The Steelers had been moving the ball, and this guy was nervous he was going to lose his three grand.
“Well, it’s raining, anyway,” I pointed out — rain at the game might make it harder to score.
“Yeah — let the rains come. Slow everything down,” he said.
On screen in the sports book a few minutes later, the Steelers were driving again. Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback dropped back to pass. He threw an interception that killed a potential scoring drive.
I saw the guy from the restroom. “There you go,” I said. He had already launched into a celebration. He was going to win his bet.
In just 10 hours or so, the A’s and Tigers will be back on the field, this time in Detroit, to continue their playoff series. It hardly seems possible, because Saturday night’s game in Oakland, the game the A’s won 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, barely seems over. The epic tension of the game, the pitching, the crazy enthusiasm of the crowd (yeah, the Coliseum looks great with those third-deck tarps taken off and all those seats filled with fans), and the A’s finally breaking through to get a run home. Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say on the matter for now. Here’s Kate’s scorecard for Game 2–Tigers up above, A’s below (click the pages for bigger images).
How many U.S. pro sports franchises are named after an individual–an actual person? Two. Or one. Or maybe none, depending on who you believe and how you count.
I was wondering after watching the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. They'd be the first team I think of as being named after an individual, because they're indirectly named after a leader of the Native American Sauk tribe, Black Hawk (1767-1838); "indirectly" because the team's first owner reportedly named the team not after the chief himself, but after the U.S. Army's 86th Infantry Division, in which he had served in World War I. The 86th was known as the Blackhawk Division, the Army says, because it was originally drawn mostly from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the Sauks' territory, in part, before Enlightened Democracy arrived with its plows, canals, and railroads to tame the prairie.
The Black Hawk image allegedly handed down from history (above, from a history of North American Indians by way of Wikipedia) is not as logo friendly as the one the Chicago National Hockey League franchise came up with (left); I will say, aware of the sensitivities involved and as someone annoyed by the Boston Celtics' leprechaun, that I think the Blackhawk logo is kind of cool. It is a little odd, though–the chief has been made to look rather calm and stoic, and the profile is reminiscent of a mugshot.
The second actual historical personage with a U.S. pro team named after him is Paul Brown, the first head coach of the Cleveland Browns National Football League franchise. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which claims to be an authority on the past of that remarkable city on the shores of Lake Erie, declares outright in its entry on the Browns that the original franchise "was named after its first coach, Paul E. Brown … 'the father of the modern offense.' "
But: The story is not that simple, and there is an alternative theory expostulated in an above-average Wikipedia entry and in a 1995 article in the Baltimore Sun (written about the time the Browns moved moving from east to become the Ravens). First, it appears that back when the franchise was approved, its owner hired Brown and told him he could name the team; he's said to have not liked the idea of naming it after himself. Later, a naming contest was held, which produced the name Panthers, the moniker of an earlier Cleveland football franchise. The owner rejected the Panthers name, perhaps because the guy who owned the rights to it tried to charge him for it, whereupon the franchise was name the Browns. But according to one account, the name referred not to Paul Brown but to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," whose popularity the franchise sought to glom onto. (For what it's worth, Paul Brown apparently thought the team was named after him, Joe Louis or no Joe Louis; and in later years, I think Brown went on to help start another franchise, the Cincinnati Bengals.)
So those are my two. There must be others (one's eye is drawn to the American League's Cleveland Naps, which must have been a reference to the player Nap Lajoie). Anyone?
And by the way: Blackhawks win!
It’s early yet, but the teams I follow in the major leagues of North American baseball seem headed in opposite directions: The Cubs south, having dropped six of their first nine, demonstrating a penchant for losing from in front: the A’s north, winning eight in a row after playing their first two games of the season without bats; the A’s play far from perfect baseball but when things are going their way, they look like a bunch of kids, no cares in the world.
While watching the A’s take apart the American League franchise from Anaheim on Wednesday night–I find few things in televised sports are more fun to watch than a glutted, money-besotted team fall flat on its face the way the Angels did to the underpaid Athletics–Kate pulled out a book of baseball poetry, “Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves.” She turned to a poem we’ve read many times in the past, “Pitcher,” by Robert Francis (1901-1987).
Here it is, reproduced without permission (but believe me, not for profit):
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
That is a gem, a perfect description of something you can watch inning after inning, game after game, season after season and still not see how different appearance is from intent. And that’s where I think I tend to read poetry, too–on the surface. In poking around to see if I could find a copy of “The Pitcher” online, I came across a nice analysis that looks beneath the appearance of the couplets to examine the poem as a metaphor for writing poetry (I found a more technical analysis here).
Why didn’t I see that? Now that you say it, it’s obvious, like the way an inside fastball can set up a slider low and away. Or another inside fastball.
Here’s another Francis poem, “Catch.” Maybe what’s going on here–I’m talking about intent, not technique, about which I know nothing–is a little clearer.
Two boys uncoached are tossing a poem together,
Overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight-of-hand, every hand,
Teasing with attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes,
High, make him fly off the ground for it, low, make him stoop,
Make him scoop it up, make him as-almost-as-possible-miss it,
Fast, let him sting from it, now, now fool him slowly,
Anything, everything tricky, risky, nonchalant,
Anything under the sun to outwit the prosy,
Over the tree and the long sweet cadence down,
Over his head, make him scramble to pick up the meaning,
And now, like a posey, a pretty plump one in his hands.
It’s been years since I paid more than passing attention to baseball, but it happened again this summer. It was a purely selfish thing: the teams that I had followed most avidly, the Cubs and the Athletics, had become perennial disappointments. In the case of the Cubs, they’re deserving objects of ridicule and a model of how weirdly wrong a franchise can go: since they play in a “destination” ballpark, the home nine’s wretched performance on the field has no bearing on the organization’s ability to pack the stands game in and game out.
The A’s case is different. Heck, there’s a book and movie out there that explains the general manager’s technique of finding undervalued talent, and he is well known for putting together a roster of kids and cast-offs who win more games than anyone would expect. A less celebrated side of the A’s way of doing baseball is that very few players get to stick around long enough for the fans to get attached to them. Do the A’s have a standout first baseman or shortstop or pitcher? You know that when they’re eligible for free agency, they’ll be gone. So the cast of characters change and change and change, and while the teams the A’s have fielded the past few seasons may have made some sort of economic sense–at least from the standpoint of an owner who wants to take the team to a new city and seems utterly uninterested in investing a dime, or more than a dime–the results have been a little dispiriting for the casual fan and unlikely to win any new converts.
The A’s ballpark, the Oakland Coliseum, has become the opposite of a baseball shrine. The limitations of a multi-purpose stadium were built into the place, but it had its graceful points if you were willing to see them. The park featured a beautiful view to the Oakland Hills to the east (though yes, right in the center of the vista was a working rock quarry). Back in the ’90s, the city and county made a deal to get the Raiders to come back, and part of the deal was to remodel the stadium. The result was a grossly ill-proportioned concrete monstrosity that bans the view of anything that might soothe the eye. So, regular outings to the Coliseum is a hard sell to anyone who’s not already a convinced follower of the local teams.
This season? Well, this season was certainly different. The A’s, with the usual collection of odd parts, played their first 61 games in the expected fashion. On June 10, the team was 26-35. From that point on, they won more games than any team in the major leagues, going 68-33. Wow, was that fun to see. And so by August–did I hear someone say, “Fair-weather fan”?–I started going out to see what was happening out at the Coliseum.
That’s all by way of saying that an NPR sports show, “Only A Game,” was looking for a story on Bay Area postseason baseball (the Giants are in the playoffs, too, if anyone is wondering). The story will air tomorrow (
I’ll put up a link when I see one audio is embedded below). And just for the exercise of showing what a radio script looks like, I’m including that below (including the speculative host intro). Here it is:
Major League Baseball’s post-season continues this weekend … with the San Francisco Giants returning home to play the St. Louis Cardinals tomorrow in their National League Championship Series. The Giants go into Game Six against the defending champions … hoping to get back to the World Series … and reclaim the crown they won two years ago.
Across the Bay from the Giants’ sparkling ballpark … another team made the playoffs this year. Dan Brekke of NPR member station KQED reports on the surprising Oakland Athletics … a franchise that battles the best in the American League … and sometimes its own fans.
Back in early June … this is the last thing an A’s fan would have expected to hear … as the year wound down.
Ambi 1/Glen Kuiper game call:
Swing and a miss! He struck him out! And the Oakland Athletics are going to the postseason! Un-be-lievable!:10
The A’s turned a mediocre spring into a summer of conquest. Their roster of unknowns, re-treads, and rookies ended the regular season by sweeping past the Texas Rangers to steal the American League West Division title.
And then … on to the playoffs.
Ambi: Let’s go Oakland chanting.
(Play two or three reps, then end abruptly)
But … before we continue with that feel-good story, a word about Oakland, the A’s … and Bay Area baseball.
The A’s owner … developer Lew Wolff … is determined to take the team to San Jose … build a new stadium … and sell luxury boxes to the Silicon Valley super-rich.
So … a lot of A’s fans aren’t crazy about Lew Wolff. There’s little love lost for the Giants, either, who seem to have everything the Athletics don’t: a beautiful waterfront stadium, a sell-out every game, and money to go out and buy top-level talent.
Something else the Giants have: the territorial rights to Wolff’s coveted new home in San Jose. So far, they’ve blocked the move.
So for now … Oakland fans and Wolff are stuck with each other … in a historic but hideously remodeled ballpark … that ranks near the bottom of the major leagues in attendance.
Ambi 2 or 3:
Let’s go Oakland ambi(in clear for two or three reps, then under)
But all that seemed to change … as the A’s made the playoffs … and came home to play the Detroit Tigers on October 9th.
The Oakland Coliseum was packed … and loud
Ambi 4: Crowd roar
But even then … lots of customers were unhappy with management. With fans begging for tickets … the team left 10-thousand upper-deck seats covered with tarps … and off-limits.The A’s explained they wanted to maintain an “intimate” feeling at the game. For fans … it was just another sign that the organization doesn’t care about them.
Cut 1: “Brad from Santa Cruz”
They probably wouldn’t sell it out and it would look weird. But I agree, that’s a pretty lame reason [… internal edit …]Let’s let the people watch some baseball, know what I mean? :08
Cut 2: “Essence Harden”
EH: It’s completely insane.[…internal edit …]. I understand that during the normal season there might not be enough to fill up those seats. But this game sold out almost immediately, and the idea of having those tarps on there still is completely horrible to the tons and tons of A’s fans that would love to have seats right now.
DB: And why do you think they didn’t open it?
EH: I think Lew Wolff hates us so much. I don’t know why. :20
A’s management did relent … announcing it would open the upper-deck seats … for the league championship and World Series.
That was before the A’s ran into Justin Verlander in the deciding game of their divisional series match-up with the Tigers. He pitched a shutout … and it turned out the tarps could stay on all winter. Some fans complained Wolff had jinxed the team … by finally agreeing to open the upper deck.
But the fans … and the surprising team they had come out to cheer … had a final moment together.
As the Tigers celebrated on the infield … the Coliseum crowd gave the Athletics one last ovation.
Ambi 5: Out on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” ambi? (Not sure the song pops enough).
For Only A Game, I’m Dan Brekke in San Francisco.
Update: The Giants won, and that means they're the first team to come back from a two-nothing deficit at home to win a five-game series with three straight wins on the road. This was the second five-game series (the history goes back to 1969) in which a home team didn't win a single game (the first was Texas-Tampa Bay in 2010, when the Rangers clinched at the Rays' dome).
"Arcane baseball research." Is there any other kind?
That fine point aside, the San Francisco Giants have a chance for a rare playoff achievement today: They could become the first team in baseball history to lose the first two games of a five-game playoff series at home, then go on to win the final three games on the road. In fact, the Giants are only the fourth team to force a fifth game after losing the first two games of a five-game series on their home field. Here's how that history breaks down:
Teams that forced a fifth game in five-game series after losing first two at home*:
2-3 configuration (two at home followed by three on the road; 1969-1998, 2012):
- 2012 Giants (vs. Reds; series tied 2-2).
- 1981 Brewers (vs. Yankees; Yankees won 3-2. at Milwaukee).
2-2-1 configuration (two at home-two on road-one at home; 1999-2011):
- 2001 Yankees (vs. A's; Yankees won 3-2; fifth game at home).
- 2010 Rays (vs. Rangers; Rangers won 3-2; fifth game on the road).
Other teams that lost first two at home in five-game series (and result), any configuration:
- 2010 Twins (vs. Yankees; Yankees won 3-0).
- 2008 Angels (vs. Red Sox; Red Sox won 3-1).
- 2008 Cubs (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-0).
- 2007 Phillies (vs. Rockiers; Rockies won 3-0).
- 2006 Twins (vs. A's; A;s won 3-0).
- 2006 Padres (vs. Cardinals; Cardinals won 3-1).
- 2004 Angels (vs. Red Sox; Red Sox won 3-0).
- 2002 Diamondbacks (vs. Cardinals; Cardinals won 3-0).
- 2001 Astros (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-0).
- 2000 White Sox (vs. Mariners; Mariners won 3-0).
- 1997 Mariners (vs. Orioles; Orioles won 3-1).
- 1996 Dodgers (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-0).
- 1995 Rockies (vs. Braves; Braves won 3-1).
- 1984 Royals (vs. Tigers; Tigers won 3-0).
- 1981 Royals (vs. A's; A's won 3-0).
- 1979 Reds (vs. Pirates; Pirates won 3-0).
- 1979 Phillies (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-1).
- 1976 Phillies (vs. Reds; Reds won 3-0).
- 1974 Pirates (vs. Dodgers; Dodgers won 3-0).
- 1970 Twins (vs. Orioles; Orioles won 3-0).
- 1970 Pirates (vs. Reds; Reds won 3-0).
- 1969 Braves (vs. Mets; Mets won 3-0).
*100 5-game series since 1969; approximately 52 with 2-3 configuration. Twenty-five teams have started a five-game series with two games at home and lost both those games. Prior to this year, one won the series 3-2; two lost the series 3-2; five have lost 3-1; 17 have lost 3-0.
Me: [Erstwhile Cubs closer Carlos] Marmol. He’s bad. He’s explosively bad, like a bad case of diarrhea.
Me: Yeah. He’s the only pitcher who has recently been likened to diarrhea. ‘Cause when he’s on the mound, the other team gets the runs.
Thom: Aw, shit.
A week of light posting because, well, there was work to do. I got to do a little radio feature on the San Francisco 49ers for an NPR sports show produced at Boston’s WBUR, “Only A Game.” It was sort of a quick-hit story, and the field reporting involved going to a couple fan bars last Sunday. People were amazingly willing to talk, for the most part, and they were not even liquored up. The folks at WBUR did a very nice job on the story, too.
Link to the story page: Jim Harbaugh Inspires ‘Niners to Division Title
And the MP3 link to the story audio.
Oh, yeah, and here’s the rap that’s referenced in the story: