"I was there..."
by John Krich
"Blue Moon" Odom is tagged out at home by catcher Johnny Bench during the 1972 World Series between the "Swingin' A's" and the Cincinnati Reds.
By the shores of the great bay (one-third filled and seven-eighths surrounded), by the shores of the abundant bay (one-third salmon and seven-eighths oil slick), by the shores of the unnoticed bay (one-third post cards and seven-eighths eyewash), we’ve come for a tribal birth. Fifty-thousand midwives, coaxing, cajoling, armed with scalpels and forceps, ambergris and homeopathy, skulls, and Ju-Ju, we’ll whoop and holler while the babe remains silent. Push and pull and boil water and soak towels and look down there between the legs where we’re not supposed to look. Find that soft crown and bring forth something pink and cheezy and more alive than we are. Jump-start the battery of our lives, gone dead. Rescue Bump City from the boondocks of history. Get that championship for them A’s, them kiss-my-A’s, who we’d seen go-in-seven-0 and swing-‘n’-run in seven-one, and sock-it-to for you-know-who in seven-two. Just twenty-seven outs of labor pains, and there would be no turning back.
The amphitheatre will be our operating room. It’s waiting for us, all sterilized: such an un-Roman coliseum, grey as the clouds that move in thin steely sheets. Ticket scalpers are doing great business a discreet distance from the surgical gates. The parking lot’s full, so I park by the BART stop, where the untouched-by-human-hands system unloads the expectant Moms and Pops. Characteristically, the station’s complete, but the pathway from platform to stadium isn’t. I follow the most traveled route that crosses two sets of Southern Pacific tracks, an auto demolition works, a trestle bridge over a boggy factory runoff, to a newly-made hole in the Coliseum’s fencing. All around are rusting axles and bay estuary sludge and Granny Goose potato chip exhaust.
How far from the places we live are those spectacles we stage: Miami becomes simply the Orange Bowl, Boston is the short porch at Fenway Park, and Oakland is reduced to this bare circle the players have nicknamed “the Mausoleum.” But once inside the oval, there’s that wonderful first glimpse of green outfield grass, so surprisingly alive and growing. There’s the smooth symmetry of the diamond to welcome us, and assure us that all’s in order for the birth. There’s sausage wafting in the air to alert our canine senses, and a primeval forest’s worth of shrill calls from the vendors. There’s the pow-wow humming of the stands, like a monotonous chant that alerts us to the coming ritual. Captured by this measured realm, we’re willing to suspend all geography. We’re ready for Captain Sal and the age of irony.
1972 A's stars Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Mike Epstein
But where is our cap’n, the brutish Bando, the Catholic rock upon which Finley built his team? Seated high above the right-field line, Section 301, I squint and find Oakland’s own L’il Joe Morgan, warming up before the dugout. He’s playing catch the way all major leaguers do, with all the seemingly superfluous gestures and ticks that the smallest sandlotters use. It’s as though the myth, the uniform, the traditions, are too strong for individual men. This game eats them up. They’re still pretending, still dreaming about being ballplayers.
The A’s take the field now. They’ve changed their fuzzy-wuzzy uniforms again. What a headache Finley’s clown costumes would be to the chaw-chewing veterans with their superstitions and rabbits’ feet hexes! They would have to compute the varying qualities of performance in all six combinations of green, white, and gold. And even as the A’s go through their ballet of infield drills and stand with goody-goody white shoes against the clean lye of the foul lines for anthem-time, I’m looking like a good country doctor—we’re all looking—for signs of choke. Choke is miscarriage is defects is fear of being born. Choke: the time you didn’t and knew you should have. Choke: an uncomfortable escape with everybody watching. Choke isn’t even failure, just ambivalence. And every sport fan knows the symptoms—strong conscience, weak constitution. So don’t slip, boys. Don’t look too closely at what’s up ahead. Just slither like spermatozoa. If baseball is a game of inches, then what’s conception? Or contraception?
A five-year-old sits down next to me and asks his own question: “Daddy, why is it called the World Series?”
I could tell him. I could recount the bitter corporate rivalry between the greedy American and National Leagues that produced these fall games as a kind of peace treaty. I could name all the winners since ’03. Instead of answers, Daddy fills the kid with Fudgsicles and Colossal Dogs and even cheaper “Shaddups!” Behind me, a foghorn voice blasts down at the vacant outfield expanse: “We love you Catfish, oh yes we do. We love you Catfish, and we’ll be true . . .” Peeking over my shoulder, I find the song belongs to a Filipino tomgirl in an A’s cap with black brainds tumbling out to her waist, green-and-gold frockery all the way. Her escort is her baby-pink grandpa. Behind them, and filling most of Section 301, is a gaggle of black matrons: all stout, all in knit caps with brims of flattened Coors cans, all clapping and shouting to keep warm. They’re placing bets and offering advice and swapping tall tales about past games and future conquests. “Those Reds be bad, but our A’s is gonna be monsters!”
The rest of the crowd filtering past me is a unique genetic blend, label it “Mixed Nuts.” I look mainly at the feet: white imported shoes skidding past, then tennies, then hiking boots that belong to the backpacking crowd that’s just parachuted in. Lower echelon business types drag their wigged wives wearily along, and Hayward pachucos bounce by, grinning to reveal the spaces where they once had front teeth. They’re all shooed by an usherette with goo-goo eyes and rosy cheeks and a smile that’s all gums and hot chocolate. This must be her thousandth game, but she sways with the organ music and cheers Charlie O., the real-live mule mascot making his customary lap around the warning track’s cinder. A proud wagonmaster dug up from the rodeo circuit, reminding us that someplace out there is a land called the West, leads the prized arthritic donkey back to his green-and-gold trailer. The usherette is up on the tip of her Thom McAns, practicing some bouncy routine—poor frustrated cheerleader who never made it past the tryouts. She’s leading two sandy-haired executives to the seats on my right. They’re arriving just in time, pulling up their tweed suits in the knee as they sit, one of them proclaming, “How sweet it is!”
I’m glad to have all of them as company. Being alone at the ballpark is like eating alone in a restaurant—I must cheer as I would chomp, hoping no one objects. But first, there’s the national anthem to hurdle, and I don’t care if it’s being played by Harold Farberman and the award-winning Oakland Youth Orchestra. Will I stand for it? The ladies behind me stay seated, and take swigs from their flasks to warm up their hollers. I end up rising but only to catch a glimpse of Charlie O.—the man, not the beast. He’s in his imperial box behind the A’s dugout, ready to reach for the hot line to his manager entertaining some politician or beauty queen. Behind him, a field of silver Oakland banners fan.
The Reds are being booed, and a gangling teenager is struggling to place his own banner on the upper deck overhang before me. I recognize him right away as one of those accident-prone drifters, a loser for whom all of life’s curveballs have broke wrong. But the A’s have made him feel like a winner, and his sign is a thank-you card. It shows a bulbous-nosed Athletic popping a red pill, and reads “DOWN THOSE REDS!” The artist returns to his seat, but the sign is blown loose and flies up to obstruct our sections’ view of the field. The executives glance at me sadly, and we know what we must do. Tearing wildly, we destroy the banner, letting the pieces bombard the box seats.
Das Spectikal is upon us. As Pete Rose takes his primate stance at the plate, Section 301 and I hold our pencils poised, ready to make the first scratches in our clean scorecards, hoping we’ll soon record an A’s win, the birth of the manchild. Kenny Holtzman, the Oakland starter, is a stringy Jew who, like his people, always manages to survive. He’s also a clubhouse intellect who reads Proust and pitches with a remembrance of games past. Swiveling, barely winding up, he pecks at corners and live by inches. But the Reds get a rally going at once.
I’ll be you half our new contract that those runners die right where they are.” The young execs are starting their own game.
“You’re on, pal.”
Holtzman ends the threat by getting a loping fly-out to George Hendrick, a.k.a. “Easy Rider,” the A’s somnambulist centerfielder. His nonchalance makes the nannies cry, “Be careful, Mister Easy Rider, that ball be hard and if you don’t watch your bad self, son, why it can kill you!”
Cincinnati’s Don Gullett matches Holtzman pitch for pitch and before we know it, the game’s bogged down in its silent middle innings. In the bottom of the fifth, Gene Tenace steps up to bat, and the sun breaks through the swift ocean clouds.
“Better soak in those rays while you can, buddy boy,” the businessman warns his companion.
“Daddy, what happens if a ball hits a teevee camera?” asks the kid between crunches of Crackerjacks.
“L’il lumber, l’il lumber now!” the beer-bellied mammas plead toward the plate.
And Tenace hears their plea. This fall, he’s at the meeting point of those concentric circles labeled actuality and hope. Gino hits his third Series home run, and it lands near a sheet hanging from the bleachers with a bull’s-eye painted on it and the logo “Tenace’s Target.” In secion 301, we rise en masse, like an opera crowd treated to its favorite aria. But we have no “Bravos!”—just a childish cackle, a growl of delight. The usherette bounces in her crepe soles, and encourages the cheers with a wave of her mittens. The black mammas exult. And Tenace, the coal miner’s son, the second-string scrub, does his victory trot. He takes his place in the record books and in R.D. Laing’s ledger of pseudo-events. How can we ever experience his experience of our experience of his experience?
Gene Tenace cracks a homer against the Reds during the 1972 World Series.
It’s time for Finley’s ball girls to bring coffee (spoked, I presume) to the umps along the first and third base lines. It’s really just a chance for these Lolita types to sway their Wedding Gown White tushies, and the crowd claps politely. But there’s no room for sex when we hunger for its more potent after-effects: the child, the child!
The A’s don’t make a habit of padding their leads, and they do not in the sixth—or the seventh. In the eighth, Holtzman weakens and Concepcion’s single sends him from the game. Manager Williams brings on Vida Blue—a lefty to face lefty Joe Morgan, and one of those “percentage” moves that leaves my section to its own mathematics.
“Vida ain’t no reliever.” The consensus up the aisle.
“I heard that.”
“Leave the boy alone, I say. He’s angry at The Man. He ain’t got room for this shit.”
The executives are eager to repeat broadcast cliches.
“He’s pitchin’ in the kitchen,” says one.
“He’s so fast he can throw a pork chop past a timberwolf,” says the other.
But Blue, who’s been punished the whole Series for his early season holdout, is neither angry nor fast. He walks Morgan, and Oakland has advice for its own.
“Don’t you be so quick, l’il brother, you hear me?” But Joe has no objective need to heed his off-season neighbors. All butterball-legs pumping, he puts the Red in front, coming home from first on a crackling, definitive Tolan single.
Reds score as Tenace's tag is not in time.
The mood turns vengeful in Section 301. A loss now would be like a death in the family; the child stillborn. The cheerleading usher has gone glum. Only the execs pretend indifference.
“Back to the drawing board, Charlie O.,” one laughs.
“It was a very good year . . .” the other intones in his best Sinatra croon. They pass their money down to me, and I pass them back more “suds.”
And the ladies behind me are already passing the word, out the stadium and onto Tobaccy Road: “The brothers are beautiful, but they jus’ ain’t ready.”
The A’s have dominated the contest, and the crowd figures they deserve to take it in spite of the tender subtleties involved in either refurbishing or destroying the pitching ego of Vida Blue. There’s general relief when he’s replaced by Rollie Fingers. That’s what a relief pitcher is for.
“Give ‘em the finger, Rollie!”
Her grandpa chuckles at the Filipino foghorn’s scatalogy. And Fingers responds by choking off the Reds’ rally. The pitcher with the handlebar mustache is taking on Homeric proportions. His consistency of craft placates the crowd. Thanks to Rollie, the A’s have one last chance.
“MIKE … MIKE … MIKE…” the scoreboard pacemaker tries to stimulate the comatose crowd.
The Mike being flashed on the big board is Mike Hegan, a pinch-hitter. He grounds out pitifully, and hopes of a miracle finish fade. There are nine Cincinnati gloves poised to make two pitiful outs. But I’m still feeding my fervor with a reminder that the ninth-inning A’s are a different franchise, a new team entirely. Like students reluctant to face a written assignment, these A’s have always done their best work while facing a deadline. Perhaps the usherette is thinking the same thoughts, since she’s clapping her mittened hands together like two stunned fish. A nervy freak, passing in search of his seat, which has disappeared in a Budweiser haze, stops in our aisle.
“Hey,” he whispers to the usherette so that only she and I hear, “you’re gorgeous! Do you know that? You’re really gorgeous!”
The drunk is gone before she can respond, but I watch her permanent stadium rouge deepend. She gets thrilled further when Gonzalo Marquez punches out a single. He’s replaced by Allen Lewis, the Panamanian Express. Once again, whenever it seems to matter most, Gene Tenace is quietly digging his cleats into the batting box’s brown dirt.
The Reds send for “The Hawk”—reliever Clay Carroll—to come swooping in for the kill. Tenace chops at the first pitch, and scrambles stubby-legged to first while the ball drops unharmed in that magical dimension between infield and outfield warps.
“Holy Jeez!” The executives are astir.
“Now we gon’ get tight!” the sisters cry.
The bleachers rumble in waves of foot-stomping. The fickle-hearted who were headed towards the exits have returned to suffocate the rampways. Contemplations on the miraculous have begun. With one throw, the game could be over, or ready to begin again. How open-ended baseball is! How wisely conceived! How many more possibilities there are on the diamond than in our own lives!
“DON … DON … DON …” This time manager Williams’ surprise nominee for sainthood is Don Mincher, and the foghorn chants the catechism. A recycled first baseman, Mincher steps to the plate knowing he’s been chosen not for the quickness of his wrists, but for the calm of his stomach.
Carroll’s next pitch would later be accurately described by Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson as “a bum high fastball with nothing on it.” Mincher, amazed, responds with marionette reflex. Crack! Bat drawn away to full extension, muscles rippling, the hitter again makes those nine Cincy gloves irrelevant. He sends the pitch to that inner outfield wasteland where no player, living or dead, can get his butt quick enough. The Panamanian Express scores the tying run.
“Holy shit, buddy boy! How sweet it is! You better pinch me, pal, ’cause this I do not believe!”
Even the executives are midwives now, straining to glimpse the emergent skull of our savior.
Mincher leaves the game for a pinch-runner, savoring what was to be his last base-hit before retirement by flinging his cap to the ground with combative bravado. Saint Don has given us the strength to go on, and, under the rules, the chance. The last player on the A’s bench is Angel Mangual, and the choir of nannies bless him: “Take it light, Angel darling!” What it is and what’s got to be!”
Mangual swings at the first pitch, and we’ve hardly time to gasp. He appears to have been handcuffed, as the bat-on-ball makes no sound, not a good sign, sending a grounder with delicate tentativeness toward ecstasy. “Threadin’ da needle,” it’s called. Skipping between first baseman Perez and a desperately lunging Morgan, the ball slows predictably in the dewy outfield grass. Tenace scores the winning run before the ball can be touched.
The Coliseum is one huge orgone box—wired with an affinity that spills down all the ramps, that tramples on the planted slopes around the concrete bowl, that sparkles amidst the parking lot scramble, across the railroads and junkyards, over the little trestle bridge, over fences that are hurdled now with ease, out on the Nimitz, in the clammy bay waters. “By the bay, by the bay, by the beautiful bay …” Mister and Missus Baseball Fan U.S.A. are carried along by riotous pleasure. Dazed children wave stiff pennants, looking as though they know that gesture does not do justice to the moment. Their parents are grinning without fear, some whimpering and gasping and hooting, none of them worrying about looking ugly or forming words. Guard railings are casually destroyed on the happy march to the BART station, where the platform overflows with a chanting mob. The traffic cops look scared, but they’ve no need to be. The chants are not slogans, but odes to the A’s. The arriving silver trains look like toys, like kiddie models, in the grip of the crowd’s new strength.
Their eyes kicked out by Charlie O. and his mercenary mules, the fans carry visions with them—visions of a new world, visions that rise above the cities like jazz, visions that challenge the stupidity of their sources and actualize so sweet an optimism that even death seems a galaxy away. If only the parking lot had been filled with building blocks instead of chrome-rimmed cars! They would have built a new city for themselves right there, with towers and exalting monuments that would have dwarfed the stadium with their usefulness, declaring: we are more permanent than any of our edifices. A goofy tickle seized the throng, sending it in spasms toward the unseen foe: spontaneity. A spontaneity, like baseball, deserving of a better fate than words. “Why not?” the throng asked itself about almost anything. “Why the fuck not?” Whoever invented this game did it so that ninth innings could be like this.