I had a paper route for much of my childhood. Five days a week, I delivered the Valley Times, a free newspaper, to 70-odd families in my neighborhood. At the end of each month, I'd go door-to-door and ask if families wanted to "subscribe" to this free paper. It was $2.50. I'd usually get about 10, at least half of them from people I knew pretty well who I assume took pity on the kid asking them to pay for something they didn't have to pay for.
It was an annoying piece of business for me. I've never been much of a salesman. But there were incentives, monthly prizes offered by the newspaper to carriers who exceeded the prior month's subscriptions. The more you got, the bigger the prize. Sometimes, the prize was a ticket to an Oakland A's game.
Thanks to the Valley Times, and some particularly industrious collection work by yours truly, I ended up at the Coliseum one June night in 1982 watching my new favorite team.
I grew up in a house full of Giants fans and all my earliest baseball memories are of black and orange and freezing my butt off at Candlestick. But Oakland was closer to where we lived, so I got to see the A's more as I got older, as I cottoned to baseball. The old stone bowl off Hegenberger was where we went for Little League Day. I badgered my Dad into taking me when the Red Sox were in town so I could see Yastzremski play. I was simply a baseball fan and not one of a particular team.
That changed when Billy Martin was hired to manage the A's. In 1980, they surprised everyone by finishing over .500 a year after losing 108 games(!). By the time Opening Day 1981 rolled around, I was impossibly giddy. When they ran off 11 straight wins to begin the year, I was handed a lifetime sentence. I was an A's fan. They made the cover of Sports Illustrated, rare validation in those days. There was the A's starting rotation--Norris, Langford, Keough, McCatty and Kingman--under the header, "The Amazing A's and Their Five Aces."
The Amazing-ness didn't last too long. There was a strike that year and oh how cruel that was. Nearly a third of the season lost while the A's were in first place. I was having enough problems with puberty and preparing to enter high school, it's not like I needed my primary fixation taken away from me that summer. Looking back, it's pretty much a microcosm of what it means to be an A's fan. No matter how good things get, there's always something.
Yes, they won the "first half" AL West title and beat the Royals in the post-season before succumbing to the Yankees, predictably, in three straight. No matter. I was giddy for Opening Day 1982.
The pattern was set.
It's a strange thing to be at a ballgame by yourself. For me anyway. I have a comment for everything, which is as true now, at 45, as it was then, at 14. On the buss headed to that 1982 game, I tried to engage others in A's conversation. "Can we turn this losing streak around?" "What do you think of the Dan Meyer trade?" I got no takers. So I watched my heroes take on the Royals in silent agony.
I had a sense of entitlement. This was my team. I am at the game. They can't possibly let me down.
Trailing 2-1 in the 9th, with the great Quisenberry on the mound to save it for KC, Jeff Newman stepped to the plate. Great beard on Jeff Newman. He hit one hard, crack of the bat, horsehide in flight, and I exploded out of my seat. I knew they would do it! I knew it.
Amos Otis caught it, comfortably, on the center field warning track and what I felt then was despair. Abject, irrevocable despair. It's a feeling I can conjure to this day, can easily transport myself into that second deck seat. Even as I write--and feel--this, I know it sounds silly. It was not. It was loss.
My buddy Kool Breeze is a Reds fan. A couple years ago, when they stunk up the NLDS against the Phillies, I called to offer my condolences. His reaction was something I didn't expect, but recognized. "They don't care about me," he said. Meaning, his fandom, his despair, his loss, was not anything the team and players ever considered.
Since that night in 1982, I've stored countless memories of my A's experiences. My mood has risen and fallen with their success and failures. Some players have been moved into my personal Pantheon--Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford, Tim Hudson, Matt Stairs, Mark Ellis, Mike Heath, Eck. Some have angered me to a point nobody would be proud to admit. There have been 20-game win streaks, playoff debacles, waves of injuries, promises unfulfilled, surprises beyond any prognostication.
It's different now. Not my passion for the team, but the way in which I consume the sport. I remember the hilarious and obsessive way I used to hunt for the score, back before the internet and Extra Innings and mlb.com. I remember missing the first couple innings of Game 1 of the ALCS in 1988 because I had to pick up Donny at the bus station. The antennae on my car was busted off, so, in order to hear the game on the radio, Donny had to ride with the window down, sticking his finger where the antennae used to be so we could get reception.
Now, I can get A's news 24/7. I can express my (numerous) opinions on Twitter and message boards. I can read every beat writer. I can read every blog. I can get statistical analysis I don't understand, but still use to make my point. There is no mystery any longer. There is no unique honor like an SI cover. And what this all accomplishes is that I feel more attached to the team than ever. Even if that's a mirage of impersonal interactions via electronics, it feels as if the relationship is more stable and equal, as opposed to the one-sided hero worship of my youth. We're in this together.
"They don't care about me," Kool Breeze said. Not like we care about them, he means. That's probably true. But last night...last night.
I spent the last two innings watching their faces. Coco, Yoenis, Brandon, Josh, Cliff, Jarrod. I saw how they felt. Everybody could. Sadness, yes. A feeling of things unfinished? Sure. But also pride. Not a single face in that dugout betrayed the idea that they had done all they could.
That's exactly how I felt. Exactly how 36K in the Coliseum felt. When it ended, they booed a bit, offense at the Tigers jumping around on our mound. But then, remarkably, the cheers got as loud as they'd been all year. They chanted "Let's go Oakland!" and slowly, the players came out of the dugout. They raised their caps to the crowd, turned the full radius of the stadium. The whole team. Milling around, sheepish, but also proud. They hugged. They clapped. And the crowd kept going.
None of us wanted it to end. Winning the World Series would have been awesome. Seeing this A's team get to play more games would have been just as good. The crowd kept cheering and you could see the A's wanting to give them more.
Not necessary, gentlemen. We were just saying, "Thank you." We're in this together. We know you care.
I'm bummed out this morning. Not gonna lie. But I'm not unfulfilled. I'm lucky to have gotten on this particular roller coaster. And if I ever feel any differently, I'll remember this team. Every last one of these players is in the Pantheon. And despair? Not remotely.