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Take Me Out to Network Associates Coliseum

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks [1], a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.

BALLPARK: Network Associates Coliseum
BETTER KNOWN AS: Oakland Coliseum
VISITED: July 5, 2001 [2]
CHRONOLOGY: 23rd of 34
RANKING: 26th of 34

When you watch a baseball game on television, you have a sense of what the playing field looks like. You recognize the outfield walls, the scoreboard, the seats behind home and the dugout. Yet you rarely get any kind of definitive look at the exterior. If you’re not dealing with an already iconic ballpark, you have no idea what it’s like to approach the place.

In the case of what was then known as Network Associates Coliseum, just as well. I’ve never encountered less grandeur en route to a major league stadium. That hoary quote from Gertrude Stein was obviously written with the home of the Oakland A’s in mind.

There is no there there. It didn’t feel like there would be when Stephanie and I stepped off a BART train from San Francisco nine years ago and looked for something approximating a ballpark. Normally I’d just follow the crowd, but for a Thursday afternoon game in Oakland, there was no crowd. There was barely any “there”. There was, however, a bridge. There were some panhandlers. There was then a loading dock. Then there was an enormous pile of concrete.

That’s the Coliseum. Welcome to A’s baseball. It’s going on in there somewhere.

Perhaps it was because the outside was so uninspiring that once we were inside “the Net” (or as our local friends called it, “the Ass”), it actually surpassed our expectations. We expected a quarry, I suppose. We got a pretty decent setting for baseball, all things considered. [3]

You had to take a few things into consideration as you settled in for a day of baseball in Oakland. You had to take football into consideration. That’s what the city had to do to lure the Raiders back from their extended Los Angeles stay in 1995. They built Al Davis a wall of luxury boxes that killed the view of the mountains over the center field fence. “Mount Davis [4],” they called this atrocity. It was the moral equivalent of Mr. Burns blocking out the sun and plunging Springfield into eternal darkness.

But it wasn’t the practical equivalent, because while you couldn’t see anything beyond Mount Davis, you got plenty of sun. The sun never stopped pounding us, which was too bad because having unnecessarily bought tickets well in advance, I got us some great seats behind home plate. They were so great, my fair lady of a wife — Scandinavian heritage, burns easily — wanted no part of them. Darn. We asked a friendly usher if it was OK if we moved back some (there’s a request I never made at Shea). No problem, he said, pointing us to some still very good and blessedly shady seats a little further back of home. Paid attendance that day was under 13,000; it wasn’t like we’d be sitting in somebody else’s seats.

Lots of concrete, lots of sun and lots of green. Green, green grass in particular. The one thing I’d learned watching A’s games on TV over the years was a surfeit of foul territory made for a verdant festival of popouts. Surely it frustrated batters, but at least it went well with the A’s caps. You can’t go wrong with green in baseball. And while you could go wrong with width in the foul territory department, I noticed and liked the extraordinarily wide concourses behind the stands. They were darker than Shea, but they were twice as wide. If you needed to escape the midday sun some more, there was refuge to be had.

While I didn’t know what it looked like outside until we got there, the Coliseum felt familiar enough as we waited for the game against the Angels to begin. The A’s were a featured actor on the October stage for half the ‘70s, so whenever I’d find an A’s card in my Topps pack, I probably lingered on it a little longer than I would have if a given Athletic had been a White Sock or a Twin. One feature that felt very familiar was the last row of the upper grandstand — it just cut off, like they ran out of money for it. Surely I’d seen it on a card in 1974 or thereabouts. The Coliseum in those portrayals always looked like Bobby Brady’s backyard to me in those days (sans the Astroturf lawn) and that memory rushed back in 2001.

Also back, not shockingly, was my awareness of the four-game cameo this building had in Mets history. The Mets have lost only one World Series on the road in their existence, and it was here. Up close, it didn’t bother me. In some twisted way, I was happy to forge that connection on a stray July day 3,000 miles from home. Sure, we lost, but we lost to a great team (or so I told myself until 2005 [5]). It didn’t bother me that this was where George Stone went unused and Willie Mays was blinded by the light and Augie Donatelli was simply blind to Ray Fosse not tagging Buddy Harrelson. The Mets kind of mattered in the scheme of things here. This was the only place besides Shea for which there was a banner hanging that said “1973”. This was the only place besides Shea on whose DiamondVision highlights from the 1973 postseason got a workout — though I booed World Series MVP Reggie Jackson when he was presented as A of the Day.

It had been 28 years. I think the rivalry had died down. My Mets cap was greeted with a smile from the guy who sold me my program. He was friendly. The usher who let us move about freely was friendly. The vendor who sold frozen dairy products may have been unnerved, however, when I felt compelled to resort to Default Flushing Etiquette to flag him down.

“MAAWWLLT!!!” I screamed at him. I was just trying to get his attention the way I might have at Shea. I mean, c’mon, that’s how we do it, right? The mellowness inherent in a Northern Californian afternoon was lost on me. He was a whole two rows away when I bellowed, and with few of the 12,719 on hand vying for his attention, he looked a little hurt that I yelled at him. Nothing personal, pal, we just want your MAAWWLLT…I mean malt.

He was nice about it. They were all nice about it. When you’re Oakland competing with San Francisco, the Coliseum competing with Pac Bell, the A’s (muddled under .500 at the time) competing with the Giants and record-pursuing Barry Bonds, you’d better be nice. Only baseball-oriented tourists like us, on an otherwise all-San Fran vacation, were going the extra few miles to be here. Whatever it was that kept fans out of the Coliseum, it wasn’t a bad attitude. Mount Davis notwithstanding, there was no Black Hole [6] here. A’s Nation — including the fans who teamed on the occasional Let’s Go OAK-land chant and particularly the lady who for some reason thought I would know whether Johnny Damon was Korean — was comprised of nice people doing their best to create a nice atmosphere, even as the A’s went down lamely to the Angels. It left us in a good mood before we braved the pedestrian bridge and its panhandlers to return to the BART and the other side of the bay.

You could do worse on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of almost nowhere.