This post is coming a little bit late, delayed by my Paris trip, and in the wake of a World Series victory by our cross bridge rivals, the San Francisco Giants, but it’s still very important to me that I get this out. The Oakland Atheletics baseball team was the first proffesional sports franchise I fell in love with. The conversation in the Bay Area during this surprise season by the A’s was that we were possibly looking at a replay of the 1989 season, at another “Bay Bridge” World Series. To which some replied, “Lord, no”, with memories of the great Loma Prieta earthquake of ’89 fresh in their mind. What was signifigant about this past baseball season for me was that it was my first as a season ticket holder and I must say, it made me feel like a King Midas fan, regardless of the fact I haven’t been able to work the same magic on the Oakland Raiders.
My love affair with the A’s began around 1987. That particular year was the year my father took me to my first baseball game, which was a spring training, “Bay Bridge series” game against the Giants. This was several years before interleague play and the only chance to see the two teams meet was before the season. I was so young at the time I was not aware it was Mark McGwire’s rookie year, or that Jose Canseco was playing, or Stew, or Kevin Mitchell and Will “The Thrill” Clark on the Giants side. All I knew was we had backpacks full of cupcakes, the old long lifesavers (remember them?), peppermint sticks and other goodies, pops may have even had beer in his bag, I think the stadium carry in rules were much more lax at that time, maybe we consumed them in the parking lot, but I do remember our pre game shopping spree at Cilie’s Liqour Store on 90th and East 14th was one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.
Dad was pretty much a Giants fan, but my dad was a unique peice. I think on the overall, I saw him as an intellectual type too detached for true sports fandom. He watched the A’s, Giants, 49ers and Raiders and discussed them more in terms of their qualities as teams than being a “die hard.” He’d come to the Bay Area in the 1950s after he was discharged from the Army, and the Giants and the 49ers were the only games in town at the time. The Giants were loved for Willie Mays and the great team of African American and Afro Latin players they developed. Pops was also a true Niner man, Kezar stadium season ticket holder, and a personal friend of Niners players like the great “Alley Oop” wide reciever, R.C Owens. He was thrilled by the Niners ’80s and ’90s success, and I always thought of Bill Walsh as the white version of my dad, they were the same age and both went to San Jose State, sharing a similar intellectual type of temperament.
We didn’t stay for the whole game that day. I’m not sure but I think the Giants were winning when we left. It seems I looked up one day and that same A’s team was in the World Series, in 1988. I was still a little too young to really know what was going on, but I remember a great excitement in Oakland at that time, and I remember watching the first game of the A’s/L.A Dodgers World Series with my dad. Of course, that was one of the most infamous games in A’s history, a game which saw Kirk Gibson running around the bases pumping his fists after a game winning home run against one of the great relief pitchers of all, “Eck” (Dennis Eckersley). The A’s lost that series 4 games to 1, but my love for the team was growing.
I remember anticipating the 1989 season, watching the first rainy preseason game in Arizona and following that team all year, a talented team beset by injuries all year. I remember when they traded for the man who would become my favorite baseball player of all time, Rickey Henderson, bringing him back home to Oakland. I also remember calling my great aunt, who lived a stones throw from the coliseum, and her, being an old Giants fan, not sharing our enthusiasm over the A’s impending victory in the Bay Bridge World Series….
The Oakland A’s of my childhood were a different animal than the A’s of “Moneyball” fame. The A’s team I grew up with was owned by Walter A. Haas Jr, the great grandnephew of Levi Strauss himself. The A’s were flush with cash and had one of the highest payrolls in baseball, I remember when the signed Rickey Henderson to the highest contract in baseball one week, and signed Canseco to a bigger one the next. There was big media talk about the A’s manager, Tony Larussa, and their general manager Sandy Alderson, being as influenced by their legal training as their time in baseball. One could say that A’s team was a sports representation of the Silicon Valley, computer business bay area, similar to Walsh’s 49ers in that perception, whereas the Raiders and the A’s of the ’70s (The ‘Swinging’ A’s) represented the counter culture, Hells Angel, Black Panther, hippie bay area image of the ’60s and ’70s. Interestingly enough, in that time period, the Yankees were not a playoff team, our hometown hero, Rickey Henderson, never went to the playoffs in his late ’80s Yankees sojurn, but was a deciding factor in our victory in ’89.
The A’s were a great source of civic pride, in a time when the Raiders had left “the Town” for the fools gold of the L.A market. That A’s team of the late ’80s had several locally born and bred players, from Rickey Henderson, to Dave Stewart, to Dennis Eckersley, to my man Steve Howard. They were a first class, prosperous, computer precise organization.
In time, the team got older, Mr. Haas died and the Haas family sold the team. The A’s sold off veteran star after veteran star, continuing a trend in which no great player ever seems to play the whole, or even majority of their career in Oakland. The closest we ever come to a great player spending their career in Oakland is for them to have several stints, like Rickey Hendersons career, or Reggie Jacksons last season in Oakland in ’87 (which means I MIGHT have seen Reggie play…).
In time, the A’s became known for having very stingy ownership and making do with less. This is the era of Billy Beane and “Moneyball”, which we saw a resurgance of in this past season. Although this era has been an era of frustration as well as triumphs, the scrappiness of it impresses me as a prototypical feat of bay area ingenuity. Billy Beane’s winning with less reminds me of the Black Panthers rise to national attention out of the ghettos of West Oakland, M.C Hammer and Too Shorts rise to rap greatness selling tapes out of the trunk of their cars, and on the 57 bus, Freddie Washington’s “Forget Me Nots” bassline for Patrice Rushen, Larry Grahams invention of the slap bass style, Bruce Lee’s teaching martial arts to “outsiders” in his Oakland studios, or Al Davis winning Super Bowl titles with players the league thought washed up, a la Jim Plunkett. In short, an Oakland thing, making somethin’ out of nothin’.
At the same time I watched the San Francisco Giants sign the greatest argurably the greatest player of our era, Barry Bonds, in 1993. Seems like they trended upward ever since. Barry of course, is a Bay Area native son himself, the son of the great Bobby Bonds, and he propelled the Giants all the way to a shiny new ballpark. The Giants had the perfect storm going for them in the mid to late ’90s and the early ’00s: a great star (Bonds), a mayor who was a big gun in the state and knew how to work the machinery of power (Willie Brown), an influx of yuppies due to the success of the areas tech firms, and a big shiny new ballpark. I saw the A’s, who joined with the Niners to keep the Bay Area relevant in sports in the days of Raiders desertion, get relegated to redhead stepchild status.
Still, through all this, the A’s rise like Maya Angelou. I stopped going to A’s games myself sometime in the early ’00s, caught up in the thrill of being an adult. I started back in ’09 after my dad died and I had a rough breakup. My mother really enjoyed this as well, being the huge A’s fan that she is, I remember when she’d go out into the yard to do yard work with a radio to listen to the game.
Billy Beane and co did a great job in putting a team on the field that could win this past season for a small amount of money. There are threats of the A’s moving to San Jose, but due to the Giants ownership of the rights to the San Jose market, it seems less and less likely. With the current rennassaince going on in Oakland, it would be good for the team and the city to find a nice, central location for the A’s to play ball in. It’s been noticed that downtown locations work excellently for baseball and basketball, while football can thrive on the outskirts where there is more space. I have to give credit at this point to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who was very visible throughout the A’s entire playoff run and made it a centerpiece of her crusade to “Save Oakland Sports.”
What I know for sure, is the A’s have brought me lots of joy and pride in my life, and I hope future generations of Oakland youths can don the green and gold cap, be it snapback or fitted, and feel the same sense of pride for an Oakland institution.