I’ve been following baseball for around eight years now, ever since I inexplicably agreed to join a fantasy baseball league despite not knowing anything about baseball. That decision led me to the wonderful world of baseball statistics and analysis, which further drew me into the game as a whole, and indeed to the podcast which inspired this site and much of my own curiosity about the minutiae of the sport .
It also led to the discovery of Tim Lincecum as, despite my total lack of knowledge, it quickly became clear from following him through fantasy that he was a) good at baseball and b) very entertaining to watch. Consequently, I found myself becoming a San Francisco Giants supporter, which, contrary to what the Giants’ 72-90 record during that terrific first Cy Young season might have indicated, would turn out to be an exceptionally fortunate turn of events over the course of the next seven seasons. Lincecum’s fortunes have sadly faded since those early days of fandom, but my interest in the Giants has not, which is how I came to be getting out of bed at 2:30am one morning in late March in order to catch a flight to San Francisco.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned yet, which explains my previous experience with the game and the ridiculous flight time, is that I am from the United Kingdom. I was born there, I grew up there, and – until about a month ago – I had never even set foot in America, let alone been to a major league baseball game. So, after eight years of following baseball through a mix of MLB.tv, podcasts, fantasy and the internet in general, it was finally time to watch some actually happening in person.
Fortunately, my other half was amenable to a holiday in California (if not an entire two weeks of travelling to baseball games) and so when the MLB schedule was released last September, I started plotting what games we could get to. We had decided to travel at Easter as it was the best time to get a long period off work, while still ensuring that some of our visit would be during the baseball season. That meant I had a window between the first day of the season, April 3rd, and April 10th, when we would return home. I quickly realised that the Dodgers would be in San Francisco for the latter half of the first week of the season, and that the game on Saturday 9th April would be both teams’ sixth game, which likely meant one very good thing: Madison Bumgarner vs Clayton Kershaw. It didn’t take long to decide on that game.
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Taking into account the Giants playing in Milwaukee for the first three games of the season and the questionable wisdom of attending a baseball game with all our luggage and then sprinting for the plane afterwards, that left Thursday and Friday as options for attending a second game. I settled on the Thursday, as I thought it might be particularly fun to attend the home opener at AT&T against the team’s greatest rivals.
With two games locked in, I wanted to try to get to a third earlier in the week. Los Angeles was an option if our itinerary allowed it, but we also wanted to visit Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, and with our first week taking us down the Pacific Coast towards LA, it would have been difficult to stay in LA long enough to catch a regular season game and still have the time to explore both parks afterwards before returning to San Francisco. It seemed much more logical that a third game in the Bay Area was the way to go.
This is a long way of saying that after eight years, dozens of fantasy teams, hundreds of MLB.TV games, and of course well over 800 Effectively Wilds, I found myself at that hallowed place, the park everyone dreams of for their very first game…the Oakland Coliseum.
“Wait”, I hear you say, “the Oakland Coliseum that frequently ranks as the worst park in baseball? The Oakland Coliseum that has suffered from raw sewage backing up into the clubhouse?” Yes, that Coliseum. Perhaps not the most glamourous choice, but this was going to be my very first baseball game; I was going to be excited whether it was at AT&T or the park that the A’s have been trying to escape for over a decade. It was a short BART ride away from central SF, and as we were arriving back in the city on the Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday evening’s A’s game against the Chicago White Sox was the ideal time to fit one more in. What’s more, I found out on the morning of the game that we had the unexpected bonus of Sonny Gray starting for the A’s, after the team’s ace was scratched from his Opening Day start with an illness.
Of course, after having spent years hearing about how Oakland was not the place to go for a baseball game, my expectations for a good fan experience were not as high as they might have been. After leaving the BART station and walking through a caged bridge over what appeared to be a sprawling builder’s yard, it’s fair to say those expectations weren’t raised. Once we got inside the stadium concourse, however, it felt like many of the football (soccer) stadiums I’ve been to: a lot of concrete and places to buy beer and fast food. There wasn’t any backed-up sewage, and unlike many of the football stadiums I’ve been too, the concourse wasn’t impossible to get around as there weren’t twenty or thirty thousand fans trying to have a beer there – because they can’t in the stands – before the game started. Everyone was very friendly (under advice from BttP’s Andrew Patrick, I had not taken any of my Giants gear to this game, so that may have helped) and I was excited for my first live baseball.
Then we got to our seats, and I was really excited. In contrast to getting tickets for the Giants games, the A’s had proved very affordable, and so I decided that if I wasn’t going to sit behind home plate at AT&T, I had to at the Coliseum. We were therefore in the sixteenth row of the extravagantly-titled ‘MVP Infield’ seating, in section 117. Here’s the view of the mound from our seats:
That’s genuine major league pitcher Sonny Gray warming up! That’s major league catcher Josh Phegley catching him! That’s major league infielder Jed Lowrie standing casually at second base! (I may have been more excited about some aspects of this game than an average fan). Outside of my general enthusiasm for being around 50 yards, instead of several thousand miles, away from the players I was watching, I was also pleased that this did appear to be a pretty good place to watch the starters pitch from. Opposing Gray was Carlos Rodon, so I figured we’d get to see some considerable pitch movement and a few swinging strikeouts. If we were lucky, perhaps we’d even get to see Matt Albers finish a game (I did not know how I would explain getting excited by this to anybody if it happened). Before the game started, there was the important matter of a fan contest to settle, in which two guys had to catch t-shirts fired from a cannon. Both contestants made a horrible mess of their first attempts, which I hoped wouldn’t be a foreshadowing of the game’s quality.
After a week and a half in California, I was starting to wonder if they just had one set of clouds that had to rotate around the state, as we’d only really had one cloudy day and not seen any rain at all. April 6th was no exception and although it had been a particularly warm day, the temperature had started to dip by the 7:05 start, so it was a nice evening to be at the park and there wasn’t any risk of a delay. Our section was pretty full, but generally speaking the attendance didn’t look high:
One thing I knew to expect going to baseball games was that, unlike football, the away fans would just sit anywhere. As it was Chicago in town and not a more local team, there didn’t seem to be a huge number of White Sox jerseys around, but there definitely was one fan on our row: when Adam Eaton drew a leadoff walk (shortly after the picture above was taken), there was some very vocal one-person enthusiasm. Neither her partner nor anyone else nearby joined in. Gray looked to be struggling a little with his command, but after a couple of well-hit balls fortunately found their way straight to outfielders, he made it out of the inning with no further damage.
Rodon’s ability to hit his spots early on was, if anything, worse than Gray’s. Several times catcher Alex Avila had to go way outside to retrieve pitches to right-handers, and two of his early pitches in the zone were hit for singles by Billy Burns and Khris Davis, allowing Jed Lowrie to hit a sacrifice fly that scored the speedy Burns. It was the only run of the inning, as Danny Valencia took an ill-advised swing at a 3-0 pitch and Billy Butler grounded out. The early A’s run prompted some enthusiasm from the fans as – not for the last time – the video boards between the first and second decks implored everyone to make some noise.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of promotions and efforts to get the fans involved in general. One thing that you never get with MLB.tv is a flavour of what’s going on in the innings breaks; I’m used to the ‘Commercial Break In Progress’ message set to silence. This was quite the opposite. I think there were three races: two on the video displays, one of which was part of a competition to win a $50 BART ticket and one which appeared to purely be dots racing round a track for no discernable prize, and of course the giant-headed mascot race between infamous speedsters Rickey Henderson, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley (Eck won by a mile). It really seemed like there was a concerted effort being made to fill every moment that wasn’t taken up by the actual baseball game, whether that was with giveaways, dance cams, or a trivia question from Coco Crisp.
Back to that other thing that was happening in the park. In the second, Gray walked another but induced some weaker contact to get out of an otherwise uneventful inning, and then I got to see my first major league home run in person as Mark Canha blasted one to the opposite field. It was clear that the ball was going well over Eaton’s head from my perspective, although I later found out that not everyone saw it that way; notorious White Sox homer Hawk Harrelson had a different view.
Rodon seemed to settle a little after giving up the long ball, striking out the next two batters to end the inning and inducing several more big whiffs over the course of his seven innings. Gray allowed Chicago to get back within one in the third, as Austin Jackson hit a leadoff double to right and then came home after a groundout and a sacrifice fly, the latter looking like it might be my first exciting play at the plate before turning into a gentle stroll for Jackson, after Khris Davis exhibited an awful arm on the throw home.
After that neither team got a man past second base, with both starters looking a lot sharper and taking the game to the eighth before the bullpen got involved. Over the course of nine innings, I also discovered that Oreo churros are a real thing, and that attendance and seating at baseball is a lot more fluid than most sporting events I’d previously been to. I was aware that people left early – after all, they do that at football games all the time, particularly when the team is losing – but it was very strange to see some leaving in the fourth, and others turning up then, and to have an almost constant flow of people around us. At cricket games, which are probably the closest parallel to watching baseball, people do move around between overs, but you have to wait while play is going on: if you try to get up and move around or return to your seat from the concourse while an over is in progress, the staff will make you wait until the end of the over. It was strange to see people constantly moving even as pitches were being thrown and outs were being recorded.
Ryan Madson got the ball for the save with the A’s still leading 2-1 and despite giving up a leadoff single, he locked down the victory without any further fuss. We’d seen 260 pitches, thirteen hits, fourteen strikeouts, a home run, and three giant-headed mascots having a race. An ordinary night for most of the fans at the park, perhaps, but a very unique one for me. I couldn’t wait to do it again tomorrow, when we’d get to see the Giants taking on their greatest rivals in their first home game of the season.
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