GAMES LIKE SUNDAY ARE WHEN FANS ARE BORN
I rode to O.co Coliseum on BART the other day and I’m glad I did. As the A’s public relations director, I normally would drive to the ballpark much earlier than fans would. But on this day, a family car issue arose and I opted for public transportation. It gave me a rare glimpse of the pre-game routine and rituals of dyed-in-the-wool A’s fans. As I stood at the downtown Berkeley BART station waiting for the Fremont train, there stood a solitary man. He wore an ancient, almost colorless A’s cap, faded badly by countless day games at the Coliseum. He held a white plastic binder in which he had slipped an Athletics’ 2014 schedule under the protective cover. I had no doubt that he would be keeping score on one of his score sheets hidden inside. My guess is he’s been doing the same thing since the days that Campy Campaneris and Rick Monday roamed the earth. Across from this gentlemen were two teenage girls, their faces painted with green and gold and both displaying huge A’s We’re Number One foam fingers. It was clear this was not their first Elephant rodeo.
Yet it might have been a family riding in my BART car that truly captured the essence of why going to an Oakland A’s game is such a special, time-honored activity. Crossing multiple generations, there was a young boy—probably four years old—wearing a green-and-gold cap that was three sizes too large for him which made the cloth sides buckle outward. With him were his grandparents, also adorned in Athletics gear, as well as his parents. Squirming in his seat, it was obvious the young A’s fan was excited about the family outing to the Coliseum. He was probably already envisioning the lush green expanse of the playing field, the smell of freshly-cooked hot dogs, and of course, the likely chance that sometime during the game Stomper, the A’s famous mascot, might pay him a visit. And if he is really, really lucky, he might even see a Yoenis Cespedes home run! As the BART train left Fruitvale Station, the grandfather with the kind face decided to rev up his grandson even further. “We’re almost at the Coliseum. Look for the lights! Look for the lights! It’s almost time to get off.” Wide-eyed and with a smile from ear to ear, the young boy raised his small right arm, and at the top of his lungs, he yelled, “Go A’s!”
For many years, I have good-naturedly jousted with my marketing counterparts at various teams in which I’ve worked for. The debate centers on the merits of promotional giveaways and attracting new customers like this aforementioned boy. As we saw Sunday at the Coliseum, the lines formed early as fans positioned to receive their very own Coco Crisp Gnome because as we know, a garden is not really a garden without one. So we must certainly acknowledge that the giveaway formula works. People love bobbleheads and gnomes. They tend to boost attendance by 10,000 or more per promotion. Yet, I have always contended that the true goal of a team is to turn new customers into new fans. If you can achieve that, they are hooked for life. You can save your advertising money. If they become fans, they check the box scores every day on their own. They tune into the pre-game show on 95.7 FM The Game, hanging on every word by Troy Clardy. They essentially become part of the A’s Family. They begin following the team religiously, observing each pitching change and pinch hitter like they’re new characters in a summer-long soap opera. So how do new customers become fans? Something magical or unexpected unfolds on the field of play with them in attendance. Every fan invariably has his or her story to tell when “it” happened. A Rickey Henderson steal of home plate. A Scott Hatteberg walk-off home run. A Dallas Braden perfect game. The comeback win over Texas on 2012’s final day which clinched the AL West.
I think it’s safe to say that one of those magical moments happened Sunday in Oakland. Looking for all the world like the A’s were headed to a lackluster 6-1 defeat at the hands of the defending World Champions, something special took place in the bottom of the eighth inning with no warning. With two outs and the bases empty, Craig Gentry was innocently hit by a pitch. A spark was lit. A steal of second base later and the familiar chant “Let’s Go Oak-land” began to rhythmically reverberate in the Coliseum. Hit after hit followed as a two-out rally had produced three runs. Then venerable public address announcer Dick Callahan informed the crowd, “pinch hitting for the Oakland A’s, number 4, Coco Crrrrisp!” Representing the go-ahead run at the plate, was it possible that Coco could become the hero for a third straight game, on this, his gnome giveaway day? After working the count, Coco rifled a laser towards Boston shortstop Jonathan Herrera. It tailed toward second base, and we all had visions of the ball rolling to the wall in left center field, scoring two runs and somehow tying the game. Alas, Herrera snared the dart as he crumbled to his knees. While the inning had ended down 6-4, the A’s faithful rose to their feet and gave their team a standing ovation. The message was twofold: they appreciated the never-quit grit of this 2014 club, and maybe even more poignant, they wanted their A’s to know that they still believed!
And their belief was soon rewarded, as two-thirds of the Oakland Catching Cartel provided ninth-inning heroics with solo home runs inside the right field foul pole. First, it was the scalding-hot Stephen Vogt with one out in the inning, then it was pinch-hitter John Jaso, who went down to get a low Koji Uehara fastball to deliver a shocking, two-out, game-tying homer that sent the game into extra innings. With flame-throwing Fernando Abad in 10th inning relief and Athletics fans roaring, leave it to David Ortiz to toss a cold dish rag on the festivities. He Big-Papied a fastball that caught too much of the plate and sent it soaring over the center field fence. Boston led 7-6. But A’s fans—god love ‘em—were not dismayed. In fact, the moment I will remember most came at the very end. After Uehara retired the first two batters in the bottom of the 10th, Bob Melvin was forced to send up Sean Doolittle as a pinch hitter with his bench exhausted. After seeing the count go to no balls and two strikes, on a relief pitcher making his first ever Major League appearance as a hitter, A’s fans rose to their feet again and began the chant anew….”Let’s Go, Oak-land, Let’s Go, Oak-land!” It was their way of telling the Red Sox, as well as reminding the home team, that you should never count out the Oakland A’s, even in such dire straits. There was no quit in Melvin’s club when they faced an almost insurmountable 6-1 deficit with only four outs left in the game. As they will tell you, there is no time clock in baseball and a game is not over until you make 27 outs. Or in this case, until a hitting neophyte named Sean Doolittle became the 30th and final out of a 10-inning loss that felt a lot more like a 48th victory—especially to those Coliseum patrons who may very well have been transformed into A’s fans on this very memorable Sunday afternoon.