Sunday, August 07, 2005

Bleacher Bum: The Tenth Man

The only thing I ever wanted to do for a living was to play Major League ball. Although I've got what some would consider a successful career, it's not my first choice. I think it was late in high school that I realized that I would never make it to the bigs. Even though I signed up for the college team (Univ. Calif. Berkeley) and attended the first team meeting, my afternoon lab classes for engineering prevented me from attending practice. So, barring the development of the world's most wicked knuckle ball by my late 30's, I was toast. Stick a fork in and find some other way to scratch for some green.

At 17, with a car and my playing days over (company softball excluded), I started regularly attending major league games in both SF and Oakland. Previously, my family made maybe one annual outing. Even though I loved being at the games, I wasn't content with being merely a spectator. My first game as an "adult" included fan participation along with the group I was with. Thanks, Ken, for the spark. We sat in the bleachers for an A's game in '81 (Billy Ball!) and heckled the other team's left fielder. It was great fun. I never looked back. If I couldn't affect the game by my playing in it, I discovered that I certainly could by interacting with the game from the stands. A life-long bleacher bum attitude was born. (Just last night, 24 years later, I heckled with my friend Mike, although somewhat weakly, the Astros bullpen pitchers while warming up from my 9th row Giants season tickets.)

Within only a few short years, I was attending a minimum of 60 games per year. Cat calls were common for me from the Candlestick box seats, but it was in the bleachers in Oakland that I excelled. From September of '85 to April of '88 I missed just one home A's game. I developed an enormously loud voice and learned to pace it over 9 innings every day for years. I've only heard two people my entire life that were louder. Every left and center fielder in the AL, whether starter or pine rider, knew me personally. But there were dozens of other like-minded bleacher bums in Oakland (in CF and RF too), and I was kinda the LF ring leader.

Some ballplayers took heckling with a grain of salt and interacted with me with a smile. These guys became friends of sorts. Others were visibly, and statistically, shaken. A few feared me as some kind of serial murderer. We all kept tabs on each visiting player's stats as well as juicy shortcomings in their personal lives. If a player were 0-for-his-last-15 coming into Oakland or caught being frisky with an under-aged girl (Luis Polonia), he was reminded all about it in the first inning. Once, I did a stats study and figured that visiting outfielders in Oakland had a larger drop in production than any other group of players or any other ballpark in the bigs. The A's consistently had one of the best home field advantages in baseball. We knew we were partly to blame, and we took tremendous pride in this.

Once, a rookie was so shaken by our heckling that he called time out, ran in to the 3rd base umpire, pointed out to us and complained. The ump gave him a brick of cheese to go with his whine by shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "welcome to the majors, rookie." Needless to say, the heckling got immediately worse. I've also had the pleasure to heckle one ballplayer, Phil Bradley, in five different ballparks around the majors. As a player with the M's, O's and Phils, I got his goat in Oakland, Milwaukee, Anaheim, Seattle and San Fran. Poor guy, he's the one that took it all the hardest. Also, in a just-so-happened night of drinking with George Brett, he confided that the Royals outfielders ranked the A's bleacher bums as the worst fans in the league, even worse than Yankee fans.

Last night at the Giants game Mike mentioned to me that if we yelled in today's yuppified ballpark atmosphere the same stuff we got away with in the 80's, we'd be hauled off to jail in no time. The 80's were so much fun. I just wished bleacher bums could be paid by the home team to rile the visitors. I woulda done it in a heartbeat. But it never happened, and now I'm an architect.

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