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Flashback: Oakland vs. Yankees September 14, 2000

(I figure since MONEYBALL is still in the theaters, I would finally get around to re-posting some of my old posts about the A’s of those days. This was originally published at Why I Like Baseball on August 14, 2001, on the events of the game August 12, 2001. Just to be sure, I checked with Retrosheet.)

I may be a Yankees fan, but I can appreciate the intensity and devotion of fans of other teams. That’s why I’m so fascinated by Red Sox fans, even though they make my life hell from time to time, and why I can’t understand Giants fans, who I’ll tell you all about in a future entry. Last month, however, I got my first look at Oakland A’s fans in their natural habitat, the largely maligned Network Associates Coliseum.

Having heard many a radio broadcast and watched many a postseason telecast from the coliseum, you’d think that the place was some kind of a pit. Well, it’s not. In many ways, the Coliseum is to Yankee Stadium what the Bay Area is to the New York Area–there are some striking similarities, and yet some sharp distinctions. Two of the most cosmopolitan and colorful cities in the world, both famed for their diversity, culture, their place in American history, with lots of Old World blood mixed with an always future-minded fashion sense. There are moments when I’m there when I, as an urban-born New Yorker, feel right at home. But there are times when a familiar situation suddenly seems odd. California is undeniably different.

You can’t go anywhere in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland, it seems, without being panhandled. There are bums in the streets holding cardboard signs at every major intersection: "Homeless. Hungry. Please Help." "War Veteran-Disabled." "No lies, no stories, just need help." The weather is mild enough that the winter doesn’t drive people south, and squatters set up cardboard houses under highway overpasses. While we were there, nine homeless people were arrested for taking over a city building to protest the lack of cheap housing–a building with an earthquake crack so large in it, even an East Coaster like me could see it. I suppose when you’re used to sleeping in a shopping cart, even a deathrap seems like a good thing.

Earthquakes were on my mind a lot at the coliseum, as I tried hard to remember what park the teams were in when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, as we felt tremors pass through from time to time, and as the A’s played earthshakingly great baseball. They swept the Red Sox and then turned their sights to the Yankees.

corwin and I arrived at the park the day after the A’s drove Ted Lilly from the mound and walloped the bombers 8-1. We took the subway, just as we have to games in Boston. In our pinstripes, hats, and other Yankees fan gear, we were heckled a bit by Oakland fans, but always in a nice way. They say what distinguishes the A’s from other teams (especially the angst-ridden Red Sox) is that they know how to have fun. Their fans seem to carry that spirit as well. "You like the Yankees?" one guy said to us as the train approached his stop. "Gee, what was your first clue?" I answered back. "Oh man, just go easy on my boys tonight, a’ight?" he said, as he stepped of the train. "Y’all had enough fun last year, hear?"

On the walking bridge from the train station over to the coliseum, a man approached us. "Got any tickets?" he asked, as we expected. "Nope," we answered. "Got any loose change?" he then asked. Geez, come on man, one schtick at a time! Did I mention the incessant panhandling? At least in the Bronx it’s one OR the other, not both!

A few moments later, we were at the ass end of the coliseum, entering behind the outfield stands.

I tend to judge the dedication level of fans by the cleverness and quality of their handmade signs. At Fenway, signs are prohibited, but not so in the free-spirited Bay Area (though I did read in the rules that broom handles are not allowed… too dangerous). As we made our way down the wide ramps toward the dugout level, I saw a kid carrying a well-drawn sign sporting the A’s elephant mascot ("Stomper") that read "Trample The Yanks." Looking good!

Randy Choate signs for fans.After a quick look at the food options (garlic fries, barbecue, ballpark fare), I made my way down to the Yankees dugout. The A’s were still taking batting practice and it was early yet. I had fun showing my photos from spring training and Camden Yards to the other fans there while we waited and hoped for some autographs and photo ops. Randy Choate came out and signed for quite a while, going back and forth along the dugout. He’s such a cutie, and such a nice guy. Then the Yankees took the field, and he went out to stretch with the team.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the Yankees team stretch. I could probably lead the routine myself. After doing their leg work–jogging backward, side to side, etc.–each player got a giant rubber band and stretched his legs and torso. Then, as always, as they’d probably done since their Little League days, they warmed up their arms by playing catch.

Clay & Enrique fooling aroundI guess when you play catch every single day, and you’re a jokester at heart like Luis Sojo is, you just can’t pass up any opportunity to liven things up. At Camden Yards, Luis played catch sitting in a chair. In Oakland, he was throwing with Clay Bellinger, who was a sometime catcher in the minors. Somehow their normal throwing turned into Luis pitching and Clay squatting to catch. Enrique Wilson got into the act as a batter–first with an actual bat and then just miming swinging and missing. Clay called balls and strikes. You know something? Sojo’s got pretty good control.

It’s tough to know where to stand when you’re waiting for autographs. Just a few feet to one side or the other can make a difference. I felt I was in a pretty good spot, but baseball is a game of inches. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, wanted Derek Jeter’s autograph. I had some photos of him I hoped to get him to sign, but I wasn’t too anxious. Ever since I got him that once in spring training, I’ve felt like I didn’t want to take away chances from others who haven’t had the chance yet. But if he happened to come right to me, well, I wouldn’t walk away!

All eyes were on Jeter as he took BP. You can usually tell what kind of a game Jeter will have at the plate by watching his BP. This time, he didn’t really light up the audience by spraying hits all over, but he did jack a few into one section of left centerfield seats. Derek Jeter signs some autographsWhen he was done, the Yankees were just about finished with their allotted forty minutes of BP time. Jeter then came to the dugout roof, and began to sign. He started about three feet over to my left, and unfortunately for me, then worked his way further left. He had time for about two dozen signatures before he ducked into the clubhouse with the rest of the guys.

Just for the record, when we were seated in the stands and Jeter came in to lead off the game, I told some friends of ours, baseball neophytes, that I wasn’t sure what Jeter was going to do in the game, but that he had hit a bunch of BP balls into that… section… of… well, before I could finish my sentence, Jeter took the first pitch over the wall into that very section of seats in left center. Thanks for making me look like a genius once again, Derek!

Before I forget to mention it, Paul O’Neill signed a bunch, too, down at the other end of the dugout. That kind of shut up some guys behind me who had been going on and on about how O’Neill had gotten too "stuck up" to sign for people since going to the Yankees from Cincinnati…

Up in the stands, we settled ourselves in my favorite place, upper deck behind home plate, and discovered one of the drawbacks to the football-favoring coliseum. The scoreboards are too damn small–instead of one big scoreboard in centerfield, there were two smaller ones in each end zone (off first and off third). I couldn’t read the Runs Hits Errors totals they were so dinky! I had not brought my binoculaurs from the East Coast, but heck, you shouldn’t need binoculaurs to read a major league scoreboard!

As long as I’m on the subject of the Oakland Coliseum’s shortcomings, here’s a big one, but one that is common to many stadia, and that is not enough food vendors wandering the aisles. I don’t like to get up during the game, and in fact, sometimes I get downright superstitious about it (e.g. if I get up now, the other team will score). In Yankee Stadium, you see a hot dog vendor about once an inning. I also don’t like to stand in line and miss any of the game when I DO get up. So I am big on people bringing me food. In Oakland, there are NO roaming hot dog vendors. In fact, the only vendors I saw were one selling Red Ropes (giant, yard-long Twizzlers), and one selling frozen chocolate malt in a cup.

I can understand why this is, if what I’ve heard is true–the A’s don’t make any money from concessions, it all goes to the Oakland Raiders. Feh, there’s that damn football thing again. So what incentive do they have to sell more food faster? They don’t.

This doesn’t explain why you don’t see hot dog vendors in many other parks, but that is an essay for another day. But Oakland is not unique in this deficiency.

Otherwise, really, the Oakland Coliseum is nowhere near as bad as people have been making it out to be for years. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the place that couldn’t be fixed by the removal of the football influence. That includes getting rid of the sky-high seats behind centerfield, the dinky scoreboards, and the strangely zealous fans with the air horns.

Yeah, air horns. Oh, and you probably know about the drums. Some guys get seats in left field, and they form a kind of marching band drum section. I actually didn’t mind the drums–I think they’re kind of nice, but you know I love it when fans take initiative. And they beat the pants off that monotonous tom-tom in Cleveland. But the drums are another football influence. Take it from a marching band veteran such as myself–I know.

Up at our seats that night, we initiated two friends to Yankee baseball, and baseball in general. Behind us was a large group of Bay Area Yankees fans, who started the Let’s Go Yankees cheer the moment the National Anthem finished. Below us were some die-hard A’s fans with an air horn, next to them a pair with one of those giant plastic trumpets. I finally figured out what is so great about those giant foam fingers. THEY’RE SILENT. Anyway, these two groups of boisterous fans took each other’s presence with good humor and we all got along pretty well. Like I said, A’s fans know how to have fun.

For example, Jeter was leading off, with Justice batting second, and Bernie third. At one point in the game, Jeter came up to bat and the A’s fans in front of us began chanting "Ma-RI-ah Ca-rey!" because, well, Jeter used to date her in the olden days. Well, Jeter got a hit. Then came Justice. They started chanting "Ha-lle Ber-ry!" (who David was formerly married to) and lo, Justice got a hit. Bernie then came to the plate, the A’s fans shut up, and all the Yankees fans in our section started chanting "Miss-us Wil-liams!" That cracked the A’s fans up but good. But what do you know? Bernie got a hit, too!

Here’s another something you wouldn’t see in New York. It was Law Enforcement Night, which meant that before the anthem, a few dozen police officers from local precincts were introduced. The notable thing is that they each came onto the field riding a motorcycle with full lights and sirens blaring. What is it with Oakland and loud noises? Each pair of cops came riding in through a gate in center, then split up and went down the warning track to either side. It was only a few under a zillion motorcycles and the whole thing took forever–well, several minutes anyway as they lined up about thirty motocycles on a side. I suppose motorcycles couldn’ tbe worse for the field than pre-season football. And this is the land of CHiPs… When they were done, they rode off into the sunset. I will note that we witnessed no brawls during the game. Hmmm.

The A’s. What can you say about their muscular, energetic lineup? They stumbled out of the gate in 2001, but began a mid-season surge so exciting, so tantalizing, that GM Billy Beane reversed plans to dismantle the team and send soon-to-be free agents Jason Isringhausen and franchise player Jason Giambi elsewhere, instead acquiring Jermaine Dye.

When the A’s are running wild, they look unbeatable. They swept the then-favorites for the AL Wild Card, the Boston Red Sox, in the days before the Yankees came to town. And, as we Yankees fans discovered, everything has to go right if you’re going to top the A’s when they are surging.

My prediction for Saturday night’s game was that the Yankee offense would be buzzing like a bunch of frustrated hornets after the 8-1 loss the night before (the only run was a Paul O’Neill homer), and as Jeter’s leadoff homer showed, it certainly was. But even though they tallied thirteen hits, the Yankees were always fighting the tide, scratching out one run at a time but unable to get a big rally going. Meanwhile Sterling Hitchcock, the Yankees other recent stretch-run acquisition, was looking shakey on the mound. We all know Hitchcock can pitch, but as he’s still not fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, he’s only at 75-80% much of the time. The result is enough chinks in the armor that a team of hot, young sluggers like the A’s can jump all over him. And they did, scoring eight runs on eleven hits and driving him from the game after only 3 1/3 innings. It was like a boxing match with the two lineups landing blows, and with both teams within reach of the win until the very last out.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, the A’s held them off. The turning point of the game came early–in the second. After Jeter’s leadoff homer, the A’s got two back in the bottom of the inning. Going into the bottom of the second it was still 2-1 A’s, and it would have stayed that way if after recording a quick two outs, Hitchcock had been able to retire the number eight batter, Ramon hernandez (catcher) and avoid facing Jeremy Giambi, who was DHing in the nine hole. Unfortunately, Hitchcock walked the only light hitter on the team, and with Hernandez on you just knew what was going to happen… and it did. Jeremy hit a two run home run, and the A’s followed with a rally for two more runs with three singles and a walk before Terence Long, the ninth batter in the inning, grounded out. At the time, I explained to my friends that I thought the walk was the turning point, and it was all a question of whether the Yankees would be able to turn the tide back again.

Soriano tried to do it. He hit the first pitch of the third inning into the seats, but rookie pitcher Erik Hiljus (no, I don’t know who he is either…) was able to keep the damage to just the one run, despite giving up hits to Jeter and Bernie. When he left the game in the fifth it was 6-2 A’s. The Yankees scratched out single runs in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth, but the A’s tacked on two more–final score 8-6 A’s. If Hitchcock had not had that four run inning in the second, if he’d only gotten Hernandez instead of walking him, we would have likely won it. But as I said, everything had to go right. It’s pretty rare for the Yankees to have eleven hits and lose. Jeter went four for five and Soriano went three for four.

The rowdy New Yorkers behind us were placing bets on who would hit a home run. One fellow had Clay Bellinger as his player. Clay Bellinger, for those of you not familiar with him, is one of Torre’s favorite players, because he can play any position, even catch. But he never plays enough to be a consistent hitter and his average coming into the game was something like .170. He had hit a home run a few days before, though, which gave the poor fan some hope. "Come on Clay, hit one out!" he yelled when Bellinger came to the plate. "I’ll split the fifteen bucks with ya!" Later, when Torre lifted Bellinger for a pinch hitter, he called out, "Joe! You owe me fifteen bucks!"

Anyway, we lost. Yankees fans were thinking: Oh yeah? So you beat up on our two suspect lefties. Just wait ’til you face one of our GOOD pitchers. That’s what we were saying as we sat for about an hour in the car trying to get out of the parking lot (our friends had come by car). So, okay, put one more thing on the list of improvements the coliseum needs–better traffic control. Maybe they’re just not used to getting a sell-out crowd out of there? Our friends then took us on an excursion south to the only Krispy Kreme donuts in the Bay Area. Mmm, nothing like a good load of poping hot sugar, fat, and starch to assuage the sting of a tough loss. Very exciting game though, lots to cheer about. We just didn’t get a W out of it.

The next day we boarded BART again, and again made the walk over the concrete bridge to the coliseum. This time I actually had a ticket to sell, so I had my eye out for scalpers. My experience the day before led me to think I wouldn’t have much trouble finding someone. In the Bronx, no one ever wants to take just one ticket, though, and you can expect to haggle a bit to get a decent dollar value out of someone. But here in Oakland, as I have probably said, things are different. At least this time I didn’t get panhandled. Instead, a guy approached asked if I had any extra. I said yeah, just one. He offered me five bucks. I said how about ten? He said "Okay" and handed me ten bucks. Now, I’m sure he was able to sell it for more than that, but still, the New Yorker in me couldn’t help thinking "what a pushover…"

That Sunday Mike Mussina took the hill with Yankee pride resting on his shoulders. Let me say this about Mussina. He has been absolutely everything the Yankees wanted when they blew their wad picking him up as a free agent in the off season. Casual fans or those who don’t watch all the games, who just look at the stats, are going to see his won-loss record this year and think, jeez, this for $88 mil? But you have to see him pitch game after game (in which the Yankees usually score three or fewer runs) to realize what a master he is. Once in a while he just doesn’t have his stuff, and it’s obvious. But when he’s on, you can see him going to school on hitters, setting them up the way Coney used to (and still does, up on Boston). (NOTE: I wrote this entry BEFORE the near-perfecto in Boston…)

Mussina was masterful that Sunday in Oakland, finishing each pitch with a pounce to the foot of the mound, ready to grab an up the middle smash, looking almost like he’s ready for the batter himself to rush him like a linebacker. He looked good, struck out nine, walked none and gave up only two hits in eight full innings of work. THe gem was only marred by the twohits–back to back home runs in the fifth to Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez. You know the cliche: he pitched good enough to win.

But the A’s young pitchers are something special, and Mark Mulder was matching Mussina pitch for pitch, almost like he was learning from him every time they traded places on the mound.

And there were sparkling defensive plays all around. We had brought a friend with us to the game this time, a Giants fan, who remarked at one point what a remarkably well-played game it was. Our answer was, well, actually, this is what we’re used to seeing regularly! The Yankees are not an overpowering team–they don’t homer you into submission, their pitching depends on rock solid defense, they have to manufacture runs. They take advantage of errors and don’t let their own hurt them. And every team, even the lowly Devil Rays, raises their game when they play the World Champions. So yeah, we’re used to seeing a high level of play all the time, we’re used to a lot of one run and two run games. We’re spoiled rotten, in fact, and we love it.

By the fourth it was clear that this game would not be an offensive romp for either team. Mussina hadn’t allowed any hits yet, and Mulder had allowed only a Bernie Williams double. "Betcha fifteen bucks Clay hits a home run," I said to corwin, who laughed. Well, I should have made that bet, because the big moment for Yankees fans came in the eighth, when Bellinger came up to the plate. Soriano was on first, having singled. You figure Clay’s one advantage is that he plays so rarely, opposing managers don’t have much of a book on him. But, well, the one thing they ought to know is that bench guys can hit the fastball. That’s the only pitch they see (in BP), and that’s the only pitch they’ll sit on. Bellinger sat fastball, got one, and hammered it into the seats. Everyone in blue in the stadium went bonkers. corwin was up getting food at the time and when he got back I said "You owe me fifteen bucks!" Tie game, 2-2.

The excitement came back for the A’s fans though, in probably the most dramatic way. Ninth inning, tie score, Mike Stanton on the mound. Stanton traditionally goes through a slump in August, but we thought he had a shot to be great here. He struck out Menechino looking, then walked Johnny Damon on four pitches, oops. Again I felt the walk was the downfall, because if he had gotten Damon out, then we wouldn’t have reached Jason Giambi that inning. Instead, with a man on he struck out pinch hitter Saenz, and then there was Giambi. One on, two out, tie game, bottom of the ninth.

Stanton worked the count full and then threw ball four.

Unfortunately for us, Giambi–who was the real winner of the All-Star home run derby this year, as far as I’m concerned–golfed that ball into the right field seats for a walk-off game winning two-run homer. I just knew that was going to happen when Damon walked. And sure enough, it did. The A’s had swept the Yankees and had won eight straight. The crowd stayed in their seats, not a single one moved for several minutes until Giambi came out for a curtain call. I’m glad I like Jason Giambi because otherwise it would have been a hard moment to take. As a Yankees fan, it was a tough loss, but as a baseball fan, what a scene, what a moment. Giambi is a great player, and on that day, his greatness was greater than Stanton’s.

The idea that keeps Yankees fans from worrying about the postseason, though, is that this is the absolute best the A’s can be. They are at their peak, whereas the Yankees will take it to another level when October comes. At least, we hope so. Last year, there were moments of doubt, as the team sputtered in September and squeaked into the postseason with only 87 wins, and then ran hot and cold in the ALDS and the ALCS, pouring it on only when things began to look desperate. But they did reach that higher level of play, and by the time they faced the Mets, they were clicking on all cylinders.

This year Yankees fans look forward to the same thing. At the time I write this, the Red Sox are deep into their patented annual slide–they fired their manager and immediately slid further in the standings, and were just swept by the Yanks at Fenway 3-1, 2-1, and 1-0–they are now nine games out of the AL East and eight behind the A’s in the wild card race. With Seattle running away with the West, it looks likely that the Yankees will face the same opponents they did last year: the A’s in the best of five series, and the Mariners in the best of seven, or possibly the other way around, depending on how hot Cleveland is.

The A’s and their fans are great. But we’ll see you in October.

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