Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Night In Oakland

Two weeks ago while we were on the road, the band had an off day in between Portland and San Francisco. When the band is on the road in the US, Max and I make a point to try and take in as many games as we can. Touring Canada is wonderful, but our home and native land doesn’t offer the same bevy of minor and professional sporting options the United States does. So with a day off in the Bay Area, we were primed to watch some Major League Baseball. Now like everyone else in Northern California, we wanted to see if the more competitive, more centrally located, San Francisco Giants were at home. Like most trips to Oakland, it began with someone uttering the phrase “sadly, the Giants aren’t in town”. With the Giant’s on the road for the week, Max and I happily started planning our trip to the Oakland Coliseum. What our ensuing adventure lacked in the usual contemporary ballpark amenities, it made up for in originality, leaving us with one of our most unique ballpark experiences to date, and a valuable lesson about our sports fandom.

In order to beat traffic, Max and I decided to take the subway from San Fran (where we were staying) across the Bay into Oakland for game two of the midweek A’s/Rangers series. When we got on the train, we started to chat up some of the local commuters, asking about where to find a sportsbar to watch the basketball game (it was game 5 of the Eastern Finals) and have a beer before the A’s started. The locals laughed us off, warning that there was nothing around the ballpark and that we should head straight into the stadium. Thinking this was just the attitude of the yuppie, west bay San Franciscans’, we shrugged it off and figured we would find a place when we got off the train.

When we got off the train, we realized that the San Franciscans’ were actually understating the Coliseum neighborhood. Connecting the stadium to the subway station was a barbwire covered concrete walkway that ran fifty feet above the ground - right from the station to the Coliseum gates. Underneath the bridge was a completely empty parking lot and some abandoned, graffiti covered shipping yards that stretched as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t that there was no sports bar in the area, there was no organic life in the area. Standing on the bridge, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was in a scene from a post-apocalyptic war movie akin to Mad Max, rather than a baseball stadium. Because the stadium is also home to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, the Oakland Coliseum is a three level high oval the entire way around - resembling a giant concrete crater, devoid of the design intricacies and charms afforded to baseball only stadiums.

But for two Canadian baseball fans, it was going to take a little bit more than an improperly located, poorly attended stadium to get us down. We are after all, going to watch baseball. As we presented our tickets to one of the many underworked ushers, we asked about the regional ballpark fare, inquiring as to what eats unique to the Coliseum they recommended.

“We got garlic fries...but they ain’t as good as the ones in San Fran” he replied. Message received.

Once inside, we decided to find any place we could to watch the basketball game. We found a bar on the second level behind home plate that overlooked the field. As we walked into the bar, a lo-fi version Billy Joel’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” fittingly sputtered out of the restaurant’s outdated sound system. Beside us, a couple decked out in full A’s gear ordered the usual, while Max and I bought the traditional over-priced ballpark beers and turned our attention to the game. Despite the TV being improperly formatted (we couldn’t see the score because it was in the bottom right hand corner of the frame), we left the bar in high spirits due to a Miami Heat playoff defeat and made our way to our seats.

As we sat down (at least the seats we decided we wanted to sit in), we looked up to section after section of closed-off seats. Things were getting so bad that the team was running out of retired numbers to have printed on the giant green tarps that covered the empty seats: Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Ricky Henderson. If things get worse, they might have to retire Frank Menechino’s no. 4. Even the luxury boxes were draped and abandoned. Like many older stadiums, the washrooms utilized trough style urinals in the men’s room. Unlike other older stadiums, these troughs had not been emptied. The Rangers won the game 5-3, and while Oakland was never more than three runs down, it never felt like they had a shot. Maybe it was the atmosphere the stadium created, or maybe it was the A’s lineup that featured Johnny Gomes and whoever Cliff Pennington’s backup is, but the game never felt close.

Given our Oakland Coliseum experience, the prevailing Brad Pitt-fuelled outsider perception that Oakland is desolate and impoverished professional baseball organization was starting to look like an understatement. It wasn’t that just that the games went unwatched and the stadium was left unattended, it was that no one seemed to care at all. Despite the dire state of affairs at the Oakland Coliseum, I couldn’t help but smile and think of how much I enjoyed our experience. There is nothing about the Oakland Coliseum that would make someone say the Coliseum is a nice place to watch baseball. There is also no one who could say that watching baseball at the O. Co. is not a completely unique and memorable experience either. As wonderful as new ballparks have become, they have become common to the MLB experience. The beautiful sightlines, tasty ballpark fare, regionalized decor, creative dimensions (there’s a hill in centre field!), and fan friendly experience can be had in almost any Major League Stadium. Whether it’s PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the Great American Ballpark in Cincy, Safeco Field in Seattle or Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia; the details may change but the idea remains the same. This is not so in Oakland. It may be outdated, unfriendly, cheap and even a little bit miserable, but if you’re a baseball fan, you have to admit, there’s nowhere else quite like it. Just like you have to sit in the bleacher seats at Wrigley or try Bull’s BBQ in Philly, Oakland offers another “unique” stadium experience. And to this baseball fan, that is still worth something.

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