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February 1, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

The Spy at the A's Fanfest

by Jason Wojciechowski

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Tradition has journalists putting themselves in strange situations and writing accounts of their exploits. Hunter S. Thompson did a lot of drugs and went to a motorcycle race in the desert. David Foster Wallace went on a cruise. George Plympton played sports against actual athletes. Me, though, I'm no journalist, so here's what I did: I went to Oakland A's FanFest at Oracle Arena posing as a journalist.

["FanFest again!" the audience groans. Yes, Bill Parker did write about FanFest in the Platoon Advantage space last week. It's FanFest season, and it just worked out this way. I promise we're not renaming ourselves The FanFest Advantage. We'll be back to writing about Saber Boy and Jamie Moyer soon.]

I didn't have any drugs on me, none that I'm admitting, but the grits I had at Jodie's in Albany beforehand were hallucinatorily good. And as an actual fan of the team, I wasn't a total outsider like Wallace, hyper-educated, hyper-literate, and hyper-aware while participating in that least adventurous of vacation adventures. And I wasn't going to be pitching baseballs to Chris Carter.

How did I end up with a press pass in the first place? I'm comfortable telling you this now: it took a con. A long con. A nine-years-long con that started with a spring-break baseball blog. Now, finally, came the glorious payoff—permission to have actual contact with actual Oakland Athletics during FanFest. I did it! They thought I was some kind of journalist! So I drove the 400 miles from my home to the Bay Area, past the water politicking of central California farmland, to reap my reward.

***

FanFest started at ten, but the interviews weren't until 1pm. What do you do for three hours while you wait for your intimate media session to begin? Let me make some suggestions.

First, arrive late because those grits are just too good to rush. This will kill twenty minutes.

Second, get in the ticket line when you don't have to. You'll get three quarters of the way through the queue before it occurs to you to call your media contact and ask whether you're in the right place. You are not in the right place. You must go somewhere else to pick up your pass. This was, I will note, perfectly clear in the email you received from your contact days before the event. Had you merely taken more care to read that email and internalize its instructions, you could have avoided the awkward conversation with the mustachioed gentleman to your left who was pondering whether he was in the right line. You look like an idiot shrugging your shoulders in response to his query, prompting him to wonder whether you are even attending FanFest. You are, you insist, but you're entirely unclear on what this line is for. Eventually, you'll be yoked to your orange press pass emblazoned with the name of your blog (which seems a little silly in the light of day) and ordered to refrain from acquiring autographs. You can ask for special permission as to Anthony Recker, because there's no way he counts, but you won't get it.

Third, get in the line for the actual arena. Then get to the front of the line and be gruffly informed that you have to go ask a man on the other side of the room to move a gate and let you in. Feel free to look completely silly having a big metal barrier shoved out of the way so you can get into FanFest.

Fourth, find a bathroom. This isn't the Coliseum, so you won't have the pleasure of peeing in a trough, but Oracle Arena's lack of privacy screens between urinals provides the next best thing.

Fifth, ogle David Justice, who is taking pictures with Scott Hatteberg and a steady stream of fans on the concourse. Hatteberg is a normal-looking guy. It's easy to see why he was a marginal player, but then this thought will occur to you: that guy, who's about the size of your uncle with the cool movie collection, hit over a hundred homers in the big leagues, was a sandwich pick by the Boston Red Sox, and made something like $14 million in his career playing a kid's game. Be totally in awe.

Now, David Justice looks like an athlete. He's only listed at two inches taller than Hatteberg, but there's no reason at all to believe that. Justice is a legit 6'3", while Hatteberg might have inflated his height by a full 20%. And Justice is strapping. He looks 40-homer strong, appropriate given he got there twice in his career. He looks 300-homer strong. (He hit his 300th with Oakland.) He looks like a guy with two top-five MVP finishes. He's almost uninspiring, the flip side of the Hatteberg coin. Of course that guy was a star in baseball. Of course you'll never be like him. Your genetics are all jacked up, or his are, either way. Hatteberg is the everyman who somewhere in his body and mind carries the ability to hit a baseball. David Justice is a god.

Thinking about all of this, preferably pondering it while you gape open-mouthed at the two players greeting fan after fan at their photo booth, will kill another few minutes.

Sixth and finally, make your way into the main bowl, where the floor of the arena is hosting four autograph-signing tables, one at each corner, as well as a small stage for Q&A panels. You'll see Jonny Gomes's absurd mohawk the second you walk in and realize that you're in the right place to camp out in a seat and wait.

***

Having followed these instructions to a T, I found myself in said seat just stage right, eight rows from the floor. I settled in and decided to really commit to my journalist disguise. I was the only person in the entire building not wearing any type of A's gear, which got me halfway there, but it was time to go whole hog. I extracted my notepad from my pants and started writing.

***

David Forst, assistant general manager, is on the panel as I walk in. I feel bad for him. Billy Beane isn't here, so Forst is stuck answering questions about when the team is finally going to stick with a roster. Those questions carry overtones of a parent wondering when his child will ever pick a partner, buy a house, and settle into life. Forst talks about his emotional attachment and says it's his goal to stick with this group of players, so I think he knows I'm making marriage metaphors in my notes. The problem is that I don't believe him. He's obviously a robot, and the fourth law of robotics bans them from forming emotional attachments to baseball players.

Not long after I sit down, I'm almost forced to quit the whole venture because the following question comes from the crowd: "What can we do to help you win?" It's a good thing A's owner Lew Wolff isn't on the panel, because surely nothing could stop him from proposing that fans Occupy MLB until Bud Selig relents and lets the A's move to San Jose without exorbitant payment to the Giants for their territorial "rights." The question, though, getting back to the point, reveals just how out of my depth I am. I may be posing as a journalist at this event, but if this is how fans think, then I've been posing as a fan for the last 25 years, too. I'm having enough trouble dealing with my fake identity without having to defend against assaults on my real one.

Speaking of Lew Wolff, the organizers of the event wisely only mention his name once—boos rain down from the crowd with a vociferousness typically reserved for villains like C.J. Wilson. Polls of this crowd are likely not scientifically valid, however. It's a FanFest held in Oakland. It's Sunday morning. There might not be more than 10 San Joseans in the whole arena. It's probably wise, given all of the above, that Wolff's location is never revealed. One-on-one sessions with the mogul are awarded by lottery, but he's surely hidden away in a bunker in Castro Valley. I count at least seven baseball bats being wielded by fans, ostensibly for autographs, but you can't con a con—nobody wants Mike Gallego's autograph on a bat. Nefarious purposes are in the air while Wolff's justifiable paranoia keeps him safe in his hole.

As the A's in-game host, Kara, roams the crowd, these ominous feelings fade into the background, forming emotional white noise. Moppets ask questions about the players' favorite foods, adults ask questions that would sound less weird coming from moppets, Kurt Suzuki is voted Most Crash Davis Interviewee, and I start drifting off. My notes say things like "Head & Shoulders," "Stomper," and "Blue Man Group," but these are the results of a hypnotic state, and nobody bothered to leave me any suggestions for how to interpret them.

I'm jolted awake by a creepy audience member addressing her question to "my baby boy," by which she means Jemile Weeks. Some of us titter nervously and the buzz of the crowd takes on a freaky electricity. I'm waiting for the woman to present Weeks with a baggie containing a chunk of Mark Ellis's skin. Instead, sensing some discomfort around her, the fan clarifies that she doesn't mean "baby boy" in any sexual manner: she's expressing maternal affection. I think back to Weeks's family, who I've seen on TV. This woman is no mother of Jemile Weeks. I'm on the edge of my seat as the fan doubles down. She relates her story of following Weeks at Stockton, Sacramento, and Oakland, and of being in the stands when he hit his first big-league homer. "Following," she says, and not "your career," but "you." I don't think this woman is oblivious. I think she's sending a message.

Kara, ever the consummate professional, senses the entire event tipping over the edge. She regains control by finding a new moppet with an innocent query about macaroni and cheese, restoring some dignity to the proceedings.

Luckily, it's almost time to meet my contact and descend into the bowels of the arena for interviews with players. There are five other fake journalists here as well, but their cover is stronger than mine. I'm shaky, while they seem almost unafraid to be found out. I start cycles of anxiety. Are they plants? Am I being drawn out? Who is conning who? My mask is slipping, but we move downstairs before it falls completely.

When we arrive at the room, I try to backbench but fail. We're all in one row. Everybody else has recording devices; I have a lame excuse about finding Q&A transcripts annoying. They've got notepads full of questions; my notepad has scribbled references to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" being played in the main bowl. Also hamburgers and a doodle that might be a rat. Bob Rose, P.R. honcho for the team, greets us and dazzles me with a nonstop 15 minute rap that would put Fred Ross to shame. At one point he reads Baseball America's proposed 2015 lineup. At another, he delivers what I think is a modified version of the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

I'm simultaneously pumped up and terrified, hovering an inch above my seat, resisting gravity through sheer force of trauma, when Bob Melvin strolls in. His readily apparent intelligence and charisma intimidate me. I manage to squeak one question, asking him about an earlier statement referring to the 7th and 8th innings as "more leveraged" than the closer role, but he deflects me. Of course he deflects me. He's Bob Melvin. I'm a blogger trying not to let the media wrangler in the corner realize that my journalistic bona fides are limited to a decade-old interview with a college security officer who refused to be photographed because of past involvement with the intelligence community. I am unable/unwilling to press further, on either the CIA claims or the closer mentality issue. My leg is shaking uncontrollably.

Melvin leaves, joking that he thought he'd be able to bullshit us. I take it for a warning shot. He knows me. He did bullshit me, and he knows that I know it. He's not being cruel, daring me to do something about it. He's just letting me know. It's almost gentle.

The next 30 minutes are spent with two pairs of players. Most of them are tall. Two are from the American South. None betray any signs that they see through me the way Melvin did, but what little confidence I may have had left is already shattered. A few questions pass my lips, none of them good. Insight does not result, except insofar as the players gain insight into the falsity of my front.

After the sessions end, the other men in the room express their pleasure with the proceedings. They're excited. They liked it. They're gaslighting me. I simultaneously know it and am powerless to stop it. This isn't about revealing the true me, it's about destroying it. My energy has been wholly diverted to maintaining my journalistic pose. I'm unable to muster psychic defenses to this assault on my entire reality. I learned hours ago, back in the main bowl, that I'm not a fan. Now everyone knows I'm not a journalist. I'm barely clinging to my humanity.

Then Dallas Braden flashes us and what was left of the edifice tumbles down. I don't know where I am. I don't know how to leave. They've won. I set out nine years ago with the simple goal of getting inside, but the game predated my plan. They knew me all along. I wasn't exposed in the interview room by Bob Melvin. I was exposed before I even started.

The jig up, a kindly soul leads me to the parking lot and sets me on my way. Nobody speaks.

Jason Wojciechowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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