Thursday, September 6, 2007

Game #29: The Soon-to-Be-Fremont A's

There was a classic moment from an old Simpsons episode where the Simpsons visit the San Francisco Bay Area. As the family escapes from Alcatraz at the end of the episode, Bart yells “We can make it to San Francisco!” only to be rejoined by Homer’s “What are we, made of money? We’re swimming to Oakland”

That’s kind of the difference between the two cities in a nutshell. San Francisco – wealthy, young, vibrant, cosmopolitan. Oakland – blue collar, rough, lively in some places, but somewhat depressed. That character is reflected somewhat in their teams, more so in their fans, and very much so in their ballparks. Meanwhile, these A’s are scheduled to move down the Bay to Fremont in the next couple of years, and it’ll be interesting to see how the team and its fan base changes as they embed themselves in the high-tech-dominated South Bay.

It’s a da*n good thing the A’s are moving, too, since the McAfee Coliseum is a classic example of a concrete multi-purpose monolith. It’s massive, to the extent that the upper deck is kept completely shut at most baseball games, and, as with the Metrodome in Minnesota, the signage feels distinctly temporary, letting the stadium flip-flop from A’s green and yellow to Raiders black and silver as needed. The perfectly round original stadium, with its round bowl of seats, also leads to a huge amount of foul territory, pushing fans away from the play and giving the infielders plenty of room to catch pop-flies that would be well into the stands in other parks.

There are tales that the park had a certain degree of character, years ago, when the outfield was open and looked out onto the hills east of the city. In those days, a breeze coming into the open end of the park made it a distinct pitcher’s park, and provided both views and air for the fans to enjoy. Then, in an attempt to lure the Oakland-then-LA-then-Oakland Raiders back into town, Raiders owner Al Davis championed the creation of a monolith structure in center field, featuring seats that are never full for baseball (and rarely full for football for that matter) and luxury boxes much too far from the infield to bear any baseball appeal. Furthermore, this structure blocked out the hills and the breeze, cut down on the park’s character, and turned this once-pitcher’s haven into a still-air home run yard. All for a cost even higher than that of building the entire PNC Park in Pittsburgh, itself a gorgeous ballpark. This structure has gained the scornful name of “Mt Davis” and the park as a whole the status of temporary home until the A’s can complete their new one.

The stadium further suffers by its location, surrounded by nothing more than parking lots and freeway. There’s nothing around and nowhere remotely nearby to head to. Fremont, for that matter won’t be much better without a concerted and active effort to promote local (i.e. walking distance) establishments, a fact that the park owners have apparently recognized. We’ll see how effective they are in following through.

I had actually been to McAfee Coliseum, formerly Network Associates Coliseum, formerly the Oakland Coliseum, many times before, but this turned out to be the first time in my memory that I’ve been there to cheer on the A’s. Every previous visit has been to see and to cheer on the other team, whether the Giants, the Red Sox, the Blue Jays (carrying a large Canadian flag), or even Seattle when Ichiro was a rookie.

I was joined at the game by Sam, and we were fortunate to randomly run into a friend of his on BART (the subway) and her cousin, who were bearing an extra field-level ticket they weren't planning to use. With the addition of one extra close-to-the-field ticket at under face value from a scalper, and given that their tickets had been free, the entire game cost a grand total of $25 for the four of us. Furthermore, we sat at their seats in row 36 for a couple of innings, and then with some creative ticket stub demonstration and careful timing, all four of us were able to sit down to row 10, in the vicinity of my ticket, improving our view nicely.

These seats, though, I think wouldn’t have been worth the money:

I will give the Oakland fans, scarce though they are, some credit. First for the group of fans who make it to each and every game, to sit well out in Left Field and drum their way through the entirety of each game. These fans even made it into a TV commercial a few years back for their well-recognized “Tejada!” chant. The most distinctive, and amusing, current chant features shortstop Marco Scutaro, during whose at bats a variant of the old Marco Polo game seems to spread across the stadium. “marco…” “SCUTARO”

This game was Travis Buck t-shirt day. In classic fashion, and unlike in Philadelphia where Cole Hamels bobblehead day coincided with his pitching start, this promotion coincided with the A’s announcing that Buck was shut down for the season with injuries. Fantastic.

The game itself was the third of the home-and-home series I saw, and unlike in the other two, each of which was swept by a single team, these two games were each, unfortunately, won by the road team, and both in convincing fashion. The storyline behind the game was the matchup between two pitchers having tremendous seasons: Tigers reigning rookie-of-the-year Justin Verlander, and A’s all-star-game-starter Dan Haren. While Verlander lived up to expectations, throwing in the high nineties and racking up 10 Ks in 6 2/3, Haren was not able to hold off the Tigers, who put up 5 runs against him in 6 innings.

The A’s day was epitomized by an incident in the 7th. After the A’s chased Verlander at 128 pitches by loading the bases with two outs, Jack Cust came to the plate with 3 Ks already on the books for the day, clearly not seeing the ball very well. Did the A’s pinch hit for him, in an American league park with no concerns about carefully managing their bench? Nope – they let him hit, and as might have been predicted, he struck out, yet again. Shocker.

Meanwhile, we were within spitting distance of this guy. Luckily, I only had a still camera, and no video camera, or I might have been worried about my safety.

The same book I’d referenced in an earlier post talked up the A’s as having the #1 hot dog in all of baseball. So, thus prepared, I gave one a go, only to be dreadfully disappointed. Not impressive at all, and no better than the $1 dogs I remember having in Oakland on dollar-dog/dollar-ticket Wednesdays a few years back.

I did, though, make it to Top Dog, an apparent Berkeley institution a few days later, on being shown around Berkeley by another friend, Scott. And this did not disappoint at all. The linguica, shown below, was tasty, spicy, and fantastic.

Finally, the drive up from Southern California offered the chance to enjoy some of the great California coastal scenery. While the setting sun meant that I missed out on the northernmost views, the lighting of the sunset on Big Sur made the scenery particularly beautiful. See more pictures in the photo album.


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