Friday, May 18, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

So I went to the Royals-A’s game on Monday night. That was a chilly one, made all the more so by the A’s utter inability to muster up any kind of offense as they fell to mighty Kansas City 2–0. Since then, the Athletics dropped three of four to the putrid Royals and won’t be going anywhere this year unless they can perk up their limp, listless bats.

I took my cousin to the game. She and her husband just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Boston, where she attended law school, becoming a Red Sox fan in the process. She is originally from Virginia and never attained loyalty to a team growing up there. It was fun to give her some of my history at McAfee Coliseum (which everyone still just calls “the Coliseum”), where I’ve been attending games for the last nine years and have shared a season-ticket package for the last three. My cousin is just the same age I was when I moved to California from the greater New York area. She was very excited to go to the A’s game—only her second baseball game ever, after a game at Fenway this past season.

I had nine years of stories, facts, and information to relate regarding all the A’s games I’ve attended. Not sure what the total is, but figure I never have gone to less than 15 games a season, and my maximum for one year was 28 games, counting playoffs. Maybe I’ve been to 150 or 175 games? Fortunately for my cousin, I was restrained and didn’t babble on and on. Not to wax nostalgic, but talking to her made me realize how much the A’s, and the rest of baseball, have changed in the last decade or so.

Just think about who was on the A’s in 1998—the only player still on the team is third baseman Eric Chavez, who played in 16 games that year as a rookie. He’s their big money guy now, making $66 million over 6 years. In 1999, he made just $200,000 a year.

Kenny Rogers and Tom Candiotti were part of the A’s starting pitching staff in 1998, and the Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito had never been heard of before—now they are all gone. Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez had yet to have their big years for Oakland. Jason Giambi was on the A’s, but he was known solely for his hitting, not for steroids or grand juries or pituitary tumors or any of that. I mean, for goodness sake, Rickey Henderson was still on the A’s when I went to my first game at the Coliseum! Other names that have passed through over the years: Terrence Long, Matt Stairs, John Jaha, Ben Grieve, Frank Menechino, Jim Mecir, Chad Bradford, Scott Hatteberg, Cory Lidle, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Ricardo Rincon, Billy Koch, Eric Byrnes, Frank Thomas…it’s hard to believe. I saw the last five of Art Howe’s seven years as A’s manager, and then three years of Ken Macha before the current manager, Bob Geren, was installed this past off-season.

Nine years ago, the great Bill King was still alive and broadcasting A’s games on the radio. Ken Korach, who is very good in his own right, was the #2 guy next to King. No one had even heard of Vince Cotroneo, Korach’s current partner in the radio booth.

Since my first A’s game, I’ve seen a lot of big games in Oakland. I saw Roger Clemens pitch his first game as a Yankee, on Opening Day 1999 in the rain, when the Coliseum was Network Associates Coliseum. I’ve seen playoff games that made history, including the infamous 2001 defeat to the Yankees in Game 3 of the division series, in which Jason Giambi’s brother, Jeremy, failed to slide at home plate and was subsequently thrown out by Derek Jeter. I saw victory over the Twins and defeat at the hands of the Yankees and Red Sox and Tigers. I lived through The Streak in 2002, when the A’s had the third-longest winning streak in baseball history: 20 wins in a row to break the American League record. I was at the last three wins of that run, all coming on game-winning hits in the bottom of the ninth—as exciting a stretch of games as anyone could see and not be watching the playoffs.

Moneyball had yet to be written, and no one knew what kind of general manager Billy Beane would be since 1998 was his first season in that role. Turns out he’s been pretty good: the A’s have earned 4 AL West titles and a wild card spot in Beane’s nine full seasons, even though they have only advanced in the playoffs once, getting ousted by Detroit in the ALCS in 2006.

Some of the vendors at the Coliseum have become familiar to me, but one has stood out over the years, if only because I seem to see him at every sporting event I attend, no matter where it is. I’ve seen him at Sharks games in San Jose, Warriors, A’s, and Raiders games in Oakland, Giants games over in San Francisco…. What can I say? The guy is everywhere. I’ve seen him sell soda, sno-cones, ice cream, kettle corn, cotton candy, hot dogs, lemonade—you name it. He was there Monday night. He’s been a steady presence through all the changes on the team over time.

Besides the A’s changing roster, things have changed around the ballpark, too. There was a time when anyone could walk up to the box office and purchase day-of-game tickets in the upper deck for all but a handful of games (Yankees, Red Sox, Giants) for only $6. They became $8 for a couple of years, but who cares? Here were inexpensive seats that were regularly available—they cost less than a movie does now. Wednesday tickets in the upper deck were a dollar. Parking for all games was just $6. It’s up to $15 on some days now.

For the past two years, upper deck tickets have no longer been made available. In order to drive up demand (and ticket prices), owner Lew Wolff, who took over in 2005, decided last year to stop selling tickets for the upper deck. Now there are probably over 10,000 seats that sit covered with tarps for each and every game. On Wednesdays, you can get bleacher seats in the outfield for $2, but otherwise, the cheapest seats are $22. (The web site also offers “standing room only” tickets for eight bucks.)

Used to be that the Coliseum held 44,000 people or so, and when a big game—for example, against New York—was sold out, the ballpark would open up Mount Davis, the monstrous set of upper, upper level football seats. Sure, home plate might as well have been 50 miles away, but at least you were AT THE GAME. Now, the Coliseum holds about 34,000, and if a game is sold out—TOUGH! You should have gotten your tickets in advance, dummy!

Of course, more change is coming this way. Wolff plans to abandon Oakland for a new site slated to open in a few years—in Fremont! Never mind that no one has heard of Fremont! What will the team be called? The Fremont A’s? The San Jose A’s of Fremont? The mind cringes at the possibilities. And while there is something to be said for a new, state-of-the-art ballpark (although the personal TV monitors at each seat might be going overboard), there is also something to be said for attending ballgames in a major city that is easy to reach. I’m sure I will not be the only one to be inconvenienced by driving the extra 20 to 30 minutes to Cisco Field. And driving that distance in traffic will take much longer—it will be murder!

Baseball has changed since 1998, as well. Back then, there was no rally monkey, and the Angels were always bad. Thunder stix did not yet exist in the United States. The highest payroll belonged to the Yankees, but it was a paltry $74 million, crackers compared to today’s Yankees payroll of $200 million. September 11 had not happened to cast a shadow over our nation and world—it had not yet made everyone aware of the potential for catastrophe any time 20,000 or 30,000 people get together, even for a sporting event.

Likewise, the steroids issue was just a whisper, and though it was later discovered that some of the greatest perpetrators came through Oakland, at the time, everyone was believed to be innocent, and the fans applauded madly for every home run. Now such applause is accompanied by skepticism, and all the fans watch with indifference instead of ebullience as Barry Bonds across the bay marches toward Hank Aaron’s home run record.

I can only muse on what the state of the A’s, their park, and baseball in general will be in another nine years. I hope the games are still enough fun that I want to take my wife—or my cousins or my buddies or my kid (if there is one)—and just go spend a sunny day or nice evening at the ballgame.

1 comment:

Star said...

Meathead - This was a real nice piece on baseball, history and more. I hope the A's stay in Oakland. Even though change is constant, it makes me melancholy because so many traditions are created at ballgames.