The main evening activity for the UC-AMP Conference in April was attending a Major League Baseball game at the Oakland A’s stadium, the Oakland Coliseum. I was dead excited for this game. The stadium was pretty dead too. I went with a group of other UC Davis staff members and we all sat along with many of the other UC-AMP attendees, many of whom I had spoken to in the various workshops that day. We had good seats, and there was a mixture of Oakland fans and Chicago Cubs fans all around us. The A’s were playing the Cubs, and it was soon pretty obvious who the better team was. The A’s were more like a D-minus. The stadium itself is a vast concrete bowl, a short walk from the BART, not the most beautiful stadium approach in the world. Contrast with the splendid San Francisco Giants ballpark, whatever that is called now (I’ve not been in ten years). We had to walk quite a distance once we got inside the ballpark, but I had been here before, and things were starting to get familiar to me. I’d only been once, 21 years ago, my very first trip to a baseball game on my very first trip to America. In 2002 I went with my now brother-in-law to watch the Oakland A’s play a great game in the sunshine against the Cleveland Indians, with their slightly (massively) problematic ‘Chief Wahoo’ badge and even more slightly problematic (massively racist) chanting. That aside, the whole experience was bizarre to me, and nothing like being at a football match (except for the other team’s problematic chanting). It was much more of a family outing, with as many women there was men, all of whom were just as enthusiastic. This was definitely not the case in European football stadiums at the time, which were still mostly a male world full of gruff swearing and awful pies. It was one of the things that I really liked about America when I first came, was that things like sport that were seen very much as “boy’s things” while growing up in England were really much more Unisex over here. I think that has changed a lot back in the UK over the years, but certainly as a kid my female friends who liked football were seen as outliers, and even now people back home often assume my wife wouldn’t be interested in sports; over here I get the impression it would be ridiculous to think like that. American sports are for everyone, much more inclusive. On this night, there was one female A’s fan who was not only enthusiastic but angrily yelling at the players before breaking into a rousing chorus of “Let’s Go Oakland”, while another female Cubs fan got more and more vocal about how great her team was to the point where they were calling each other out across the crowd, in a way that was probably more good-natured on one side than on the other (I sketched them both). Back in 2002, I remember one difference between English football and American baseball that stood out most clearly was the part of the game they called the “Seventh Inning Stretch”, when everyone stood and sang this song about being taken to the ball game. I was like, what is this, what is going on? People were joining arms and singing at the top of their voices like it was an old cockney knees-up. It was like being transported back into some antiquated era, the only thing like it now being when they sing ‘Abide With Me’ before the FA Cup Final. Another thing I noticed on that day was how so many of the fans were into their statistics, often writing down all sorts of numbers and reciting all these things about ‘batting averages’ and other phrases I had never heard of. The ballpark on that day was pretty crowded; the A’s (short for “Athletics”) had a pretty good team that season, and made it to the play-offs where I remember they beat the Giants. They had this one player, Miggy Tejada, and then at the end of the game on the big screens they would show this little puppet called the ‘Rally Monkey’. They would wave that thing, there would be little comical scenes starring the Rally Monkey, it was for sure not something we ever did down at the Lane. Imagine if in the 80th minute of a game, we’re 2-1 down against Chelsea or someone, if at that moment all the fans suddenly started waving these little cuddly toys to try and encourage their team to get back to victory, well they would have got, to use a common phrase on the terraces, their “f&*!in’ ‘eads kicked in”.
But the main thing I took away from that first ever baseball game was what I was looking for on this day – Garlic Fries. I was surprised when lining up for food and drink that you can watch the action on little screens as you wait in line, but the most suprising thing was that you could buy fries, right, but with garlic on them. Garlic Fries?! Oh boy I had to try those. And they were amazing. I got back from the game, this is what I talked about, these Garlic Fries. I’d never had anything like them. I’ve eaten Garlic Fries since, but they were never quite as good as those first ones at the Oakland ballpark. So that was my mission here. When I found them I was delighted, but when it came time to pay, I was surprised to find I’d only been charged 9 cents. The cashier when I asked just said, “hey I just press the buttons, I don’t know what the price is”, and she didn’t mind. So she got a better tip, and I got amazing Garlic Fries, that tasted even better for only costing 9 cents. On my way back to my seat I spoke enthusiastically to one of the stewards about my first time here in 2002, Miggy Tejada, Garlic Fries, the Rally Monkey and sunburn, and she listened and smiled, but I could tell there was a bit of sadness in her that things here were just not the same as back in those days, except for maybe the Garlic Fries. When I got back to my seat, everyone around me was jealous of my Garlic Fries, and I probably smelled of them for quite a long time afterwards.
No chance of seeing the Rally Monkey on this night. I left right after the seventh Inning Stretch when they were 6-1 down; in the end they lost 10-1. Even quite early in the game, the fans were singing “Let’s Go Oakland” and then leaving. The same night there was a big basketball match on, the Sacramento Kings were playing in some big important game, and most people around me were following that on their phones or watching it on laptops. Yes, people would come to a baseball stadium and watch a basketball game on their actual laptops. The team was pretty poor though. I heard that on Opening Day, they could only muster up about 3,000 fans to come and watch them. Enthusiasm is not high, and nobody likes the owners (there’s something that the A’s fans do have in common with many Premier League club fans, then). In fact, the day after I went to this game, the owners announced that they would not be staying in Oakland, and would be moving out to a new home in Las Vegas. I started to understand why some of the staff didn’t really seem to care that much, such as the one who charged me 9 cents for Garlic Fries; why would they care, the owners are about to boot them all out of their jobs. It’s a pretty ignominious end to a storied history in Oakland, and there will be a lot of fans that will be pretty unhappy, fans who always loved their team, but it was a pretty unhappy ballpark experience compared with that first one I went to back in the sunshine of 2002. I left on my own, got lost around the stadium, walking through a desolate parking lot before finding the BART and riding back to Berkeley, not the safest I’ve ever felt. It will likely be my last time at the Oakland Coliseum, but I’m glad I was able to go back one last time, and get those amazing Garlic Fries once again.