Let’s Go Oakland


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.

Track …

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

Butt to:

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.


Go Cubs Go

Walking the dog this morning, we encountered a younger couple pushing a kid in a stroller. The guy had a Cubs T-shirt on. “They’re gonna clinch today, right?” I said. “Oh–you never know. They could still lose it.” Technically, it was true, but I thought it was an overly cautious, self-consciously Cubsy thing to say. As it happened, the Cubs did win this afternoon. They won the National League Central Division title. We’ll see what the next step is. While we let the suspense simmer, we can consider some of the team’s musical history

Growing up in the Chicago area–the far south suburbs, in my case–baseball was a summer fixture on WGN. The station had a heavy schedule of both Cubs and White Sox game. Back then, WGN didn’t have an ownership connection with either team (that would come in 1981, when WGN’s owner, the Tribune Company, bought the Cubs from the Wrigley chewing gum dynasty). The fact you could count on seeing 150 or 160 games a year, including all those weekday afternoon games from lightless Wrigley Field, had something to do with creating a pretty avid fan population that followed both teams. At least I know I and most of my friends did. Eventually, the Sox went to WFLD, on Channel 32. Their games were fun to watch because Harry Caray, who had alienated his bosses in St. Louis and Oakland, took up residence on the Sox airwaves. Many commercial breaks featured Harry and Falstaff beer, and Harry delighted the fans at Comiskey Park by doing his play by play from the barren bleachers in center field, his booth perched about 500 feet from home plate. On hot days, the Sox set up an open-air shower out there for fans to cool off.

When the Sox left WGN (Channel 9 in Chicago), the station responded by adding Cubs games to its broadcast schedule–more than 150 a season. Maybe that was part of developing more of a Cubs-centric fan base. More important was that the long-comatose franchise woke up and started a run of about seven seasons or so in which the team went from a horrifying 10th place finish in 1966 to challenging for firstt in ’67; the following seasons ranged from very good but heart rending (1969) to decent and unembarrassing (1973, when the Cubs and several division foes wallowed around the .500 mark until the final week of the season). Needless to say, the notion that the Cubs could make what was never back then called “the post-season” was a theory we never saw proved.

I did mention music up there. WGN’s telecasts in the late ’60s featured Mitch Miller-like choral numbers that a music salesman in a plaid blazer might have pushed as “peppy.” One had a line that went “Hey, hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it/The Cubs are on their way.” “Hey, hey” was WGN announcer Jack Brickhouse’s signature home-run call; it’s now enshrined on the Wrigley Field foul poles. In due course, that sappy number was supplanted by a mindlessly cheerful ditty that started out, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, for a ballgame today.”

Eventually, I moved away from Chicago, well beyond the reach of WGN’s signal and then, when it became a national “superstation,” into austere Berkeley households with no cable TV. In 1984, the Cubs did what they had never done in my lifetime and played well enough long enough to get into the playoffs. No need to go into how that turned out. By that time, though, Steve Goodman had written the best Cubs song ever: “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” That’s wrong, actually. It’s the best baseball fan song, ever–unique for its combination of humor, poetry, and rueful but affectionate disdain for the home team.

Goodman died a few days before the Cubs clinched their playoff spot in ’84. But by then, he had already composed and recorded the song that the team now uses as an anthem after a home win: “Go Cubs Go.” A year ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a great piece about how the song came to be written. The best part is that some of the team’s execs disliked Goodman because of “The Dying Cub Fan.” I don’t know where any of those guys are now. But today, when the Cubs won, Goodman’s voice was ringing out over Wrigley Field, and it sounded like every fan in the place was singing “Go Cubs Go.”

(Lyrics after the jump.)

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Continue reading “Go Cubs Go”

Last Days at the Ballpark

First of October, last day of the baseball season. Not really the last last day — two rounds of playoffs and a non-global World Series are still to come. But in reality and emotionally for most teams and most fans, Sunday was it. It’s a great occasion for musing on the changes of season and of life. Let’s skip that; Roger Angell and by now about fifty-one other diamond prose slingers have been there and done that. Besides, I went to just one game all year (the A’s cuffed the upstart Tigers). But I’ll indulge in a couple of pictures that come to mind:

–Fan Appreciation Day, Oakland Coliseum, 1983 or ’84 or ’85: The last Saturday of the season. I went with Kate. We sat in the second of the three decks on the third-base side. I don’t remember who the A’s played or what the outcome was. But the park had that look it only gets at the tail end of the year, the afternoon light coming in at an odd low angle. It being Oakland, the game was sparsely attended, as it should have been, the A’s having descended into a stretch of mediocre years. What I remember, though: Seagulls, crowds of them, all over the field and the stands long before the game was over.

–Last day of the season, Oakland Coliseum, 1986: Kate and I were going to go to the last game of the year with out friends Robin and Jim, who were and are the most faithful A’s fans we’ve ever known. Something came up that I thought I had to do, so Kate went with them to the game; I was going to drive down whenever my work, whatever it was, was done. I had the game on from time to time, and realized as it progressed that the A’s pitcher, Curt Young, had not given up a hit. Around the sixth inning, I left for the game, now aware that Young was pitching a perfect game. Now I started to worry: I had waited so long to go to the game that now I was going to miss a piece of baseball history. While I was on the freeway, the game went into the 7th. Young got one out, then two; he had retired the first 20 batters in a row. I’d be in time to see the end of it; the 21st batter came up (by looking it up, I know it was Kevin Seitzer and the game was against the Kansas City Royals). He hit an infield grounder and beat the throw to first for a hit. I was simultaneously crushed and relieved; too bad about the perfect game, bu at least now I hadn’t missed one (Seitzer turned out to be the only base runner Young allowed that day). I got to my seat in the top of the 8th.

Enough of the glory of my times. One team I follow, the A’s, is going to the playoffs; they’re playing the Minnesota Twins, a team they’ve had real problems with the last four or five years, so I don’t have big hopes.

My other team is the Cubs. That’s a legacy of having grown up in the Chicago area, having gone to my first game at their park and maturing as a fan, if that’s what fans do, just at the time their good late ’60s team came along. That’s ancient history, though, and by now I don’t have a single atom of sentimentality left for them. They’re just a bad team, no more cute or colorful or loveable or worthy of some special loyalty than, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They’re so bad, they even fail to excel in failure. They did manage to lose 96 games this year, more than any other team in their league. But the mark of a colossally bad team is to lose 100 games; the Royals and Devil Rays managed to achieve that, but the Cubs fell short.

The horror show the Cubs put on has no apparent effect on fans’ willingness to pay to watch. The team drew a full house Sunday, as they did nearly every game. More than 3 million people attended their games this year. The explanation has got to be that the score doesn’t matter any more; the old park, the red brick, the ivy on the walls, the big centerfield scoreboard, the Old Style and franks and Frosty Malts, have become a draw in themselves.

Maybe It’s a little like visiting the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The scoundrels and miscreants in residence today matter less than having an idea what the places were built for and knowing that once, they were home to a Jefferson or a Lincoln or an FDR. Still, I think I liked baseball better when people just stopped coming out to the park when the team stunk. Tickets were easier. And that autumn light, a sparse crowd and a big flock of seagulls seem like the perfect sendoff for a failed season.

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Hall of Fame Guy

A Cubs fan (me) belatedly notes: The baseball writers, discharging their sacred annual duty, have elected Ryne Sandberg, former Cubs second baseman (actually, the first game I saw him play, one of the more memorable games I ever attended because it was called because of darkness after 17 innings, he was at third) to the Hall of Fame. Somehow, the news didn’t stir the wild elation in me that I might at one time have expected (actually, I find former A’s and Twins’ catcher Terry Steinbach getting one vote for the Hall almost as interesting as Sandberg getting elected. I’d love to hear the Steinbach partisan explain the passion that led to that vote).

My subdued reaction is due partly to my ambivalence toward baseball tipping over to estrangement. On one hand there’s the game, which still displays beautiful and subtle moments. On the other hand, there’s the relentless insistence on nonstop entertainment at the ballpark, the wacky player salaries, the prevalence of free agency and constant player movement that makes it hard to figure out just who’s on which team, and the owners and league establishment who treat fans as saps to be milked for as many bucks as possible before they’re hustled out of the park.

And then there’s simple Cubs fatigue. As Steve Goodman asked, “What do you expect when you raise up a young boy’s hopes and then just crush ’em like so many paper beer cups year after year after year after year, after year, after year, after year, after year, ’til those hopes are just so much popcorn for pigeons beneath the El track to eat?”

So, Sandberg was elected to the Hall. My first question was whether he deserved it, because my impression of his career was that he was a very good player, but not one who had the lasting dominance both in the field and at the plate to make him a Hall of Famer. I’m sure that impression is influenced by how the Cubs had a couple of moments of real brilliance during Sandberg’s career (especially winning the National League East in 1984, Sandberg’s MVP year) that ended in disappointment (losing the ’84 playoffs after going up on the Padres two games to none). They reached the playoffs just once more during his career, in 1989, when they lost four out of five to the Giants, who went on to get swept by the A’s and an earthquake.

Beside those two playoff years, the Cubs never had another winning season during his career (they were 73-71 in ’95, the year of his first retirement). That’s a little different from the last few Cubs to make it into the Hall — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins — who were all part of a team that put together a decent string of winning seasons and served as the semi-tragic victims of the ’69 Mets.

But I’m not a Hall of Fame voter or a sportswriter, or even that up-close a fan of the game anymore, so maybe I’m just not remembering how good Sandberg was in the midst of all those bad, so-so, and occasionally good teams. Of course, my wet-blanket attitude does not affect Sandberg’s standing, in the opinion of Kate and many other fans of the distaff persuasion, as one of the cutest players ever.