Sunday, April 07, 2013

How I Became an Athletic Supporter by David LaBounty

For the first forty years of my life, I cared little about Major League Baseball. I had played some form of organized ball from T to junior high, and I did have fun on the diamond. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories is standing on the mound of a blacktop baseball field in the middle of a school playground in Taegu, starring down a small Korean boy. The only thing we had in common was our gender, age, and a game with four bases, a bat, and a little white ball. But to say I was even casual fan of the game would be putting it politely.

I attended maybe a handful of Major League games. The only baseball game I saw on TV was when they interrupted some sitcom I was watching to show Pete Rose get his 3,000th hit. Twenty years later, I half-heartedly followed the home run record chase. Those milestones were never more than mildly interesting moments in history to me.

Then my son, Gabe, came along.

From birth, we knew he wasn’t going to make his money on any field of play. But one day, he checked out a book at his school’s library, and a baseball fan was born. Over the next few months, he took to the game like a new devotee to a charismatic cult. I thought it was a phase, but as his shelves filled with more and more books on baseball, books most people couldn’t understand with a college degree (I sure didn’t), I began to believe this was serious.

Influenced, in part, by his great-great grandmother and his aunt—and that first book he checked out—Gabe latched onto the Oakland A’s. He liked the fact that they were neither “hated champions” nor “lovable losers,” and he loved their history.

Gabe learned to live and die (mostly die) by Oakland box scores. It seemed like the MLB Network was on 24-7 in our house, and so I began watching games with him. From the outside, it must have looked odd: a father and son watching a baseball game on TV, only it was the ten-year-old boy spouting statistics and history like a veteran color commentator.

Thanks to Gabe, I quickly developed an appreciation for the game; and, soon, we were traveling to see the A’s when they would come play the Texas Rangers in Arlington.  

Going to the games was fun, but I didn’t know who to root for. I had no feelings for the Rangers (at the time, neither did anyone else), and I was starting to like the A’s. But I felt guilty cheering for the A’s in person. What right did I have to claim an allegiance to Oakland? Familial? I lived in California for a few years, but back then I didn’t know the Athletics from the Giants. When I was growing up, I used to claim to “root” for teams, though my allegiances shifted with every move my military family made. In Leavenworth, I liked the Royals. In Columbus, it was the Reds. When we moved to Northern Virginia, I followed the Orioles. In college, I gave up all pretense of watching baseball, and after I graduated, my wife and I only went to one Major League game and that was just to see what the fuss was about with the new stadium in Baltimore.

But with every Oakland game Gabe and I went to, with every game we stayed up past midnight to watch on TV or listen to on the computer, with every loss and every walk-off, I grew closer and closer to this team my son loved, and one summer, when we were deciding what to do for our vacation, Gabe said we should go see a game in Oakland. He tried to sell the idea by saying we could see all the teams in Oakland’s farm system. Oh, and we could also visit family (such a good boy).

And that’s what we did. We saw the AAA River Cats in Sacramento, the AA RockHounds in Midland, Texas, and the A Stockton Ports (they were in Visalia when we saw them, but it still counts). The trip culminated with a visit to the Oakland Coliseum.

It was a crisp, sunny day in June, and we sat right behind home plate in a section filled with mostly older folks who had been coming to A’s games since the team moved to Oakland. We sat next to a couple who ate homemade egg salad sandwiches and grapes and worked on crossword puzzles and a regal lady in the sun hat, bright yellow dress coat, and white gloves who was greeted as if she were royalty. We were asked what brought us to the game, and once we told them of our trip, we were treated like family.
And the game was great. The Twins were in town and beating up on the A’s until the home half of the eighth when Gabe turned his cap around (for which he was rewarded with a spot on the JumboTron), and the Athletics went on to score three runs. They won the game in walk-off fashion in the ninth. They were seven games back and in last place, but the way those guys stormed the field, you would have thought they won the pennant.

After that pilgrimage, I felt I had earned my stripes—or at least one. I was a private in the army of A’s fans. I felt like I could at least wear an A’s hat to a game. But I still didn’t feel like a true, deserving fan.

That all changed last year.

It was my birthday, and the A’s were in town to play the now-hated Rangers, so I decided to take Gabe and my dad to the game. It was a day game, but the stadium was packed. The Rangers, having had a couple of okay years (back-to-back World Series appearances), had found their stride, and the stands were full of passionate but seasonal fans. You know, the kind of people who make me look like a superfan.

My father, who had lived in Texas a few years longer than me, had been a Rangers fan since they were so bad you could get great seats for ten bucks each and the stands were never half full, so he was decked out in his Rangers shirt and hat. Gabe was wearing his Yoenis Cespedes jersey and A’s away game hat, and I was wearing my wife’s A’s hat (I still didn’t have my own).

We arrived at our seats—mezzanine level, above the home dugout, so we could see the A’s bench—and for the first time in my relatively young stadium-going life, Gabe and I started getting heckled. And I’m not talking about drunken rants from blue collar fans spewing colorful words that involved what I could do with mine and my immediate family’s body parts. I’m talking about seemingly normal looking (for Texas) men and women enjoying a day of baseball.

One particularly fiery-headed fan was the worst. Living off the fact that the Rangers were in first place, and had been since the start of the year, this cowboy didn’t go after the Green and Gold we were wearing. He saw our colors and started in on the pinko-communists in tree-hugging LaLa-land that those colors—and, by extension, we—represented. The “real America” (Texas) was so much better than the “cesspool of leftist losers in California-taxland.”

Things only got worse when Texas jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first inning. Our friend cheered like a drunken ape (though completely sober), slapping high-fives with everyone in our section, including my father, and belittling us for our life choices.

Our neighbors tore into us about how we should be on the left side of the stadium with our fairy friends, and several people gave Gabe “bless his heart” looks—a polite way of calling someone “slow” down here. But Gabe and I took the abuse like gentlemen. Besides, we knew these weren’t real fans. These were bandwagoners, people who like the Rangers because they were winning. People who had no idea there was a stadium in Arlington before this one. People who had a hard time with the fact that the Cowboys across the parking lot had won only one playoff game in almost twenty years. These people knew less about baseball than I did. You can’t argue with ignorance. Also, the A’s were losing, and we were in the Rangers’ house. So we were polite and tried to enjoy the game.

But it was a hard game to watch. Every time the A’s would score a run, the Rangers would match them, and by the end of the seventh inning, the Rangers were up 9-4. At least things had finally quieted down in our section. That is until, as we were waiting for Cespedes to step up to the plate at the beginning of the eighth, Gabe looked up from his scorecard and said loud enough for everyone to hear: “Home run.”

I said, “You’re calling it?”

My father laughed and said, “What’s the count going to be?”

Gabe said, “Two, one.”

But Cespedes crushed the first pitch of the inning over the center field wall. Forty thousand people in the stands and all you could hear was my echoing voice screaming: “He called it! My boy called it! Yeah! What a shot!”

There was a little grumbling from our friends, but the cowboy remained quiet. The next batter struck out, and then Brandon Moss went to a full count before he sent the next ball he saw over the right field wall.

As it was flying out of the park, I jumped out of my seat, and all you could hear was me screaming: “You have got to be shitting me!? Again!? Look how far that ball went! Wow!” By then, I was getting some looks, and I was a little afraid firearms were going to be unconcealed.

The next batter struck out, and Gabe looked at his scorecard. “We’ve got a pattern going,” he said. “Looks like Reddick is due for a home run.” Even the Ranger fan next to us nodded. “That’s what the scorecard says,” he agreed in a voice that said, ‘I’ll eat my hat if that happens.’

Sure enough, Reddick smashed a home run in the same spot as Moss. (The count was 2-1. So Gabe was a few hitters off with his other prediction.)

I was back on my feet, screaming: “Unbelievable! Is this the fucking home run derby!?” But my voice was drowned out by a forty-thousand-member choir of boos.
The score was 9-7, and I could feel the Rangers fans starting to sweat (and not just because it was ninety degrees). The red-faced cowboy tried to make fun of us by telling his friend to forgive us. “They’re just Athletic Supporters,” he said.

I’d had enough. “Wow,” I responded. “That’s so original. How long did it take you think that one up?”

He was a little taken aback, but the smile never left his face, it just switched from simple-minded to serial killer, and he responded, “I’ve been holding onto it for several innings.”

Now, here’s where I remembered where I was. I am visitor surrounded by people who pride themselves on their concealed carry permits, and I have a kid to protect. So, instead of saying what I wanted to (‘You’ve been holding onto your athletic supporter for several innings?’), I just said “Whatever.”

The Rangers won the game, but the A’s won the battle. Two weeks later, the A’s swept the Rangers in Oakland, coming from two games behind to win the division crown in a winner-take all game.

Gabe and I jumped around our house like idiots after they won, and all I could think about was I wish I could have seen the look on that cowboy’s face. How I would have loved to call him out for rooting for a bunch of overpriced prima donnas who lost to a group of working class joes, how the David’s that beat the Goliaths. How the American Dream was alive and well in that crazy state on the West Coast.

That’s when I realized, I had achieved fanhood. Cheering for a team is one thing. Going into the lion’s den and suffering the abuse of fools is another. I earned the right to represent my team during that inning in Arlington. I stood up for a group guys I’ll never meet in front of forty thousand people who hated me and the team because of the color of our laundry and proclaimed that I was an Athletic supporter.

Bring on the McGwire throwback jersey.

David LaBounty edits The First Line. He and his son, Gabe, also write the travel/perzine Bookstores and Baseball.

No comments: