Game 11: O.Co Coliseum, Oakland

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The Oakland Coliseum: a football-first concrete circle where the sewers back up a couple times a season.

It’s a real looker, you guys.

The stadium shuffles through name changes. Right now, it’s O.Co Coliseum, the website of Overstock.com, which is an awkward play on the starting letters of “Oakland Coliseum” which everyone agrees will always be the real name of the facility regardless of who sponsors it.

I was oddly excited to visit O.Co Coliseum for some reason. I’ve heard the horror stories of it’s awkward shape, poor concessions, ugly facade and bubbling toilets, and I was anxious to experience them for myself. Well, everything but the bubbling toilets, I guess.

The place lived up to the hype(?) – there is nothing about the Coliseum that is necessarily “attractive”. For example, as we walked into the park, we had to go over a small creek/moat that circles around two sides of the park. Here’s the first photo I took when I arrived at the ballpark…

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…the tire is a real clutch move.

Getting passed the moat, I learned two things about last night’s situation: the game was a sellout, and the fans know how to tailgate hard.

This years A’s slogan: Green Collar Baseball. Which is fitting with the blue collar fan base on the east side of the SF Bay.

The Oakland fans are a passionate and rowdy bunch, and while their green and gold uniforms come across quaint and the white elephant mascot is adorable, it’s important to remember that these are the same fans that fill the Black Hole during Raiders games. I was one “land of the free, home of the Chiefs” away from getting a pounding in the parking lot. Tread lightly.

During Spring Training, the MLB Network had a fan vote to elect the “Face of the MLB”. Each team nominated players, and then players were matched up round by round against other MLB faces. The fans made the decisions based on who got the larger percent of the vote. The A’s nomination: Eric Sogard.

Sogard is the A’s second baseman, and is a spectacularly average player. He’s a lifetime .235 hitter in his 4 years in Oakland. But he wears some slammin’ thick-rimmed spectacles, and so the A’s fans rallied and decided he should be the Face of the MLB. The Twitter hashtag “#NERDPOWER” went viral, and Sogard went on to win showdowns against Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs, Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies, Buster Posey of the SF Giants in the quarterfinals and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays in the semifinals.

An underwhelming player with glasses took out four major MLB stars en route to the finals of the competition. And the reason: because the A’s fans were passionate enough to get him there. These fans love their team, and Sogard’s trip through the Face of the MLB bracket is proof of that.

In the end, Sogard lost to David Wright of the New York Mets in the finals: 51% to 49%. Missed it by just 2%.

But how was a fan base like Oakland going to compete with the Big Apple? Simply put: it isn’t fair.

Which is honestly a microcosm of the A’s history over the past decade or so: make an impressive run until the playoffs, and then lose to someone with an unfair advantage over the small-market A’s.

In the early 2000’s, Billy Beane, their general manager, realized that this was a trend within the game of baseball. Teams with tinier payrolls couldn’t compete with teams with larger payrolls. In 2002, the A’s payroll was $41M. The Yankees payroll was $125M. How are you supposed to compete against a club that spends 3X what you can to field a team?

The answer: start playing the game differently. Get ahead of the curve.

The idea was simple: focus on statistics that were controllable with an emphasis on on-base percentage and conserving the outs you have remaining. This meant ignoring formerly meaningful stats like RBIs and glorifying walks and plate discipline. This meant ignoring intangible qualities like whether a player was “clutch” or had a “good baseball body”. They also removed risk from the game almost entirely by eliminating bunting and stealing. It was conservative, but conservation typically pays off big over long periods of time. And the baseball season is a long period of time.

The Athletics believed that by acquiring unknown players who get on base a lot, they could mathematically beat the wealthy empires they were unfairly matched up against. The more you got on base, the more value you had because the more runs were created.

And it worked.

Between 2000 and 2006, the Athletics averaged 95 wins a season.

The only draw back: the playoffs aren’t a large sample size, and conservative play doesn’t work over such a short span. The Athletics made the playoffs 5 times in that 7 year span, losing 4 times in the division series and once in the conference series.

In 2000, they lost to the Yankees. In 2001, they lost to the Yankees. In 2002, they lost to the Twins, which was their only matchup that felt remotely balanced. In 2003, they lost to the Red Sox (who had swiped their statistics-based ideas and partnered it with a $120M payroll), and in 2006 they finally advanced, beating the Twins in the LDS before losing to the Tigers in 4 straight games.

The new method could get the A’s to the playoffs, but it couldn’t advance them with such a small sample size. The unfair game still had them beat, and while the underdog had gotten creative and earned a matchup with the monsters of the MLB, they never could TKO Goliath.

But it changed the game. It was the birth of sabermetrics in the MLB, and suddenly the A’s are having to find new methods of competing now that the rest of the MLB knows its new tricks.

But it raises the question: why does life have to be so unfair? Why do bad things continue to happen to a team that deserves success more than anyone else? A general manager changes the game, and wins 102 and 103 games in back to back seasons, but gets no championship to show for his spoils. Why can’t the little guy ever catch a break?

Why do bad things continue to happen to those deserve otherwise? And why do good things seem to come to those who don’t deserve them?

Life isn’t fair. We all know this. We all feel this.

We live in a world of inequality and injustice where wealth leads to power and power leads to success, but often at the expense of the poor and the powerless.

I think of Isaiah 1:17 here:

“learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

And Micah 6:8:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

As long as I never made eye contact with a Raiders logo, it wasn’t difficult for me to root for the A’s last night. I think it was because I have learned to orient myself as an advocate for the underdog. In baseball, sure, but in life too. My heart breaks for the less-thans. I root for the downtrodden. Or at least I try. You probably do too.

That was what I found myself thinking about in the midst of an awesome ballgame last night. I’m excited to explore this conversation of equality/justice/fairness further in the book. Let me know if you have any insights into this conversation everyone.

Game Notes:

Bold statement: this will be the best game I see this season.

It was a 6:05PM start time – a little earlier than normal to make time for the postgame fireworks display – and the game was chugging along so quickly, it wasn’t certain if it would even dark yet for the show.

The Athletics are hosting the Washington Nationals* this weekend, and the Nats jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third off A’s starter Sonny Gray. Gray, in addition to having a supremely appropriate name for the Bay Area, was also voted the AL Pitcher of the Month in April. He came into last night’s game with a 1.91 ERA.

* – Going into last night’s game, the home team was 3-7. The Royals and Cardinals both won their home openers, and the Braves beat this same Nationals team back in April. The A’s winning last night is the second time the Nationals have lost

The 3 runs would be all he would give up, but his ERA spiked to 2.17. “Spiked” is used sarcastically here. Obviously, that is still a stellar stat.

The A’s answered in the bottom half of the inning when catcher, John Jaso, launched a solo shot into the RF bleachers to make it 3-1. That was the only run Washington starter, Tanner Roark, would allow. He retired the next 13 consecutive batters – 9 of them fly outs – and breezed into the 8th inning and it looked like the Nats were going to just let him ride to a complete game.

Roark struck out 5, and somehow got 14 fly outs in 7.2 IP with only 2 hits. A’s hitters would pop out 20 times before the game ended.

Roark the win for sure, but Rafael Soriano couldn’t save it in the 9th.

One of the areas of baseball that I’m very intrigued by is superstition. It runs deep in the game of baseball. It started getting really cold late in the game, and to start the bottom of the 9th, I put my hood up.

The A’s promptly scored 2 runs – Jaso singled, Jed Lowrie doubled, Josh Donaldson singled – and tied the game 3-3.

Donaldson’s single went out to left field, and Zach Walters came up throwing to home plate with Lowrie trying to score from second, and Soriano cut the throw off. Why he would do that, I have zero idea, but the tying run scored without a play.

In my celebration, my hood fell down, which was the only possible explanation for Moss, Cespedes and Reddick to go down on three consecutive fly outs. I quickly realized my miscue after Reddick went down, and fixed the matter quickly.

Sure enough, Callaspo led off the 10th with a single and Nick “The Shredder” Punto went in to pinch run. With two outs, John Jaso – yes, again – nearly hit another HR to the same place as his first one. Instead, it bounced off the wall for a walk off double. The Shredder scored from first and quickly showed his namesake by ripping apart Jaso’s jersey while the rest of his teammates mobbed him.

The Athletics won 4-3 on an extra innings walk off.

Then, to make the evening even better, they let the fans walk down on into the outfield to watch the fireworks display choreographed to Journey. Oh, what’s that you ask? Was it the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen? Why, yes it was.

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Eleven down. Ninteen to go.

Up next: San Francisco Giants.

-apc.

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