Monday, September 30, 2019

Home Sweet Homefield

It a dump. It's a sewer. It's old. It's ugly. It's cramped. There's an infield on the football field. There's football lines in the outfield.

The complaints about the Oakland Alameda County Ring Central MacAfee Network Associates O Dot Coliseum are numerous and well known. It was one of the last cookie cutter stadiums of the 1960s. Built to house multiple sports, it's the last multi-use facility still home to both a major league baseball team and an NFL football team. The football team that shall not be named is leaving next year, but the stadium will remain largely the same, still encumbered but the monstrosity in center field that ruined the park's aesthetic and its wind patterns. The A's, the buildings last tenant, have done a lot to improve the park over the last couple years, but the reputation remains.

I remember the Coli the way it was. I'll never forget walking across the bridge from the train the first time. I was somewhere between 4 and 5 years old. Before the monstrosity, there was just a simple chainlink fence across center field. To prevent people from watching for free, the fence had those long plastic slats pushed through the chainlink so that you could only see the field if you walked by really fast. The effect was similar to a Zoetrope. You could see the players warming up on the field but the frame rate was so slow that they looked like films of ball players from the 1920s.

That fence was a time machine connecting baseball's past with its present in the mind of a small boy.

It was magic.

That was 1981 and I've been coming to the grey lady ever since. After my dad left, I went with my mom during the heady and wonderful Haas years. I fell in love with Mac, Canseco and Walt Weiss. I was crazy about Rickey. I liked that Carney Lansford looked like an actual carney. I always wanted a batting helmet with a huge jaw guard like Terry Steinbach wore. I remember that my biggest take away from the 1989 World Series is that its existence likely saved my mom from being on the collapsed Cypress Freeway the day of the earthquake. She had elected to work late in San Francisco to avoid traffic. Like a great many others who made the same choice, baseball may have literally saved their lives.

My mom wasn't really a fan. She took me to games because it was something to do. She liked going, but didn't know anything about the game. I remember throwing a tantrum one time on the train because there were no seats. I don't know why I was so worked up. Even in the moment I couldn't figure out why I was so desperate for a seat near a window, but I also couldn't stop myself. Being a kid can be really weird. I did not get a malt cup that day, and I learned to stand on the train in silence.

My grandmother was the opposite of my mom. She was a fan, knew all the players, looked up the box scores each day and listened to games on the radio, but she never went. She would get free tickets at the senior center and give them me and my best friend. She'd drop us off at the gate with $5 each for malts and a soda. Then he and I, all of 10 and 8 years of age, would go in and spend four hours on our own. We would sit in the nearly empty third deck and when the soda was gone and the ice was gone and the sun was beating down, we'd fill the cups up with water from the fountain, return to our seats and dump 32oz over our heads. We never thought to try to move down to better seats. Grandma would listen on the radio and at the bottom of the 8th, she'd drive back to the Coli to pick us up. It wasn't until 2001 when my grandmother finally attended her first game since the Charlie Finley era. We put her in the wheel chair and pushed her up to the 300s for game 3 of the 2001 ALDS. The Jeter Flip Game. As 45,000 people went from manic frenzy to dead silent I told her, "Well grandma, you picked a hell of a game to come out to. People are going to talk about that forever."

When I was a 19 year old college student looking for a way to connect with my 6 year old brother, I brought him to baseball games. It became our thing and for years we never missed an opening day. Our best year, we made it to over 40 ball games. During that time the coliseum was my refuge. When I had an afternoon to myself, or if I needed to escape and be alone, I'd head to a game. It was a great place to be anonymously social. You could almost always find someone to chat with, or you could sit with your headphones on and listen to Bill and Ken describe the action. I got to know the some of the vendors, particularly Joyce who ran the Pyramid Ales stand on the main concourse. I worked for Pyramid at the time, so I always liked chatting with Joyce and grabbing a familiar beer.

Much later, I started bringing my family to games. When I was teaching and had summers off we made a habit of attending a couple games every home stand. It got to the point where my kids felt so at home, they'd run off as soon as we got through the gates. It took a few talking to's and a few tears for them to understand that even though it was familiar, it was still a big public place full of people we don't know. But I was thrilled that they felt so welcome and at ease in this place I'd been frequenting since I was their age. They love game days. Some of it is the baseball. Some of it is being together as a family. A lot of it is knowing that "ballpark rules" apply and they're going to get some kind of treat, usually a malt cup or cotton candy.

We got season tickets this year. It's the first time I've had season tickets to anything. It's been everything I'd hoped. We had a great time going to games and the A's made the playoffs. On Wednesday, Buddy and I will attend the first home playoff game I've been to since Jeremy didn't slide. I wish I could have captured his reaction when I told him. He has no idea that the coliseum is ragged. He's been to a few stadiums, but he's never complained about Oakland. All he sees are the improvements and the opportunity to hang out with his friends and family.

My house is 96 years old. The floors need work. The water pressure is unreliable. There's mold on the back wall. The windows all need to be replaced. It's a mess because we have three kids and two old dogs and two working parents and everything that comes with all of that. It's not a beautiful house, but it's the one I want to live in because it's home. The Coli was built in 1966 and it still works for me. I know there's fans who feel differently. The team wants a new stadium and they're working on getting one, though that's a whole other ordeal. For teams, stadiums are less about places to play and more about real estate development in the surrounding area. The players probably want a new home. I hear the locker rooms and training rooms are the really out dated parts of the building. I've only seen glimpses, but it does seem a bit dreary.

I want the players to be happy. I want my fellow fans to be happy.

For me though, I don't need a new stadium. I've been to a lot of parks. Some major league, some minor league. They all have basically the same plastic seats and the same types of concessions. The prices vary, but the views are largely the same. Once I sit down, I could be anywhere and the surrounding structure fades into the background. Whenever the new place is built, I'm sure I'll enjoy it. I'll go to the park and marvel at its newness and its amenities. I'll look forward to seeing the fans with whom I've developed friendships. I'll sing the songs and drink the beer and hope I still get to see Joyce. It will be nice, but it won't be home. Home will always be that dingy old concrete mausoleum where I was allowed to run free and then eventually let my kids do the same.

If home is where the heart is, then mine will always reside at 7000 Coliseum Way, just over the BART bridge. Where you can forever enjoy "beer while you're walkin', beer while you're talkin'," and it always smells like bacon wrapped sausage.