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October 17, 2012

Punk Hits

Three Nights In October

by Ian Miller

The first of three parts.

I jumped out of an airplane once. I was falling at 120 mph at 14,000 feet (then 13,000, now 12,000) and I was perfectly calm. My small simian brain had no frame of reference for what was going on, so it didn’t even register what was happening as a threat to my safety.

That’s kinda what it was like “covering” the three American League Division Series games at the Oakland Coliseum (or O.co, if you’re into the whole brevity thing). I didn’t have the good sense to panic.

When I couldn’t swing credentials for the National League Division Series games in San Francisco, I requested, and was granted, credentials to cover the ALDS game(s) in Oakland. By the time the series got to California, the A’s were already down 2-0, and it looked like they were about to be eliminated by a potent Detroit club. I figured I’d get to go to one game and get a taste of what it was like to hang out in the press box in the playoffs. I ended getting a helluva lot more than that.

I assume it’s obvious that I’m not a journalist. I’m just a guy who loves baseball and can write a little bit. Like the A’s, I had no business being at the ALDS. The games are now long over—Oakland’s Cinderella season unceremoniously ended by a steamroller with Michigan plates, driven by Justin Verlander—so my accounts aren’t meant to function as game stories or recaps. I’m mostly just trying to make sense of the experience by typing it out. In doing so, maybe I can give you, my fellow baseball devotee, a little sense of what it was like to be there.

GAME THREE
I live about five minutes from Oakland/O.co yet rarely attend games there. It’s nothing against the team or the fans or anything -- it’s that godforsaken stadium. It was actually halfway decent before the Raiders moved back in ‘95 and Mt. Davis was erected, but the football reconfiguration ruined whatever retro-multipurpose-bowl charm it may have had. The bleachers are now 20 feet off the field, so you feel removed from the proceedings even if you’re in the front row. The legendarily expansive foul ground means even the best seats are 30 feet away from the action. You might as well stay home and watch the games on TV -- and many do. Even in 2012 -- a year in which they won the AL West -- Oakland ranked 27th in attendance, with just over 20,000 per game. It’s not unusual to hear announced attendances in the neighborhood of 12,000 souls, or about one-third capacity.

I arrived at the Coliseum a few minutes before 2 p.m. Tuesday. The Auxiliary Media Kiosk was not yet open, so I sat in the warm sunlight among the stadium vendors who smoked and gossiped as they waited to start their shifts.

At 2, I collected my press credential from Debbie Gallas, the A’s media services manager. If you were related to Debbie, she’d be your fun aunt who spilled all the family secrets once she’d had a couple. We had exchanged emails a couple of times, and I told her it was nice to have a face to put with her name. “The Ian Miller?” she said with mock surprise. “Of Baseball Prospectus?” I assured her that yes, I was the one and, thankfully, only. Now officially official, I headed into the bowels of the Coliseum.  

I’d had credentials before, at AT&T Park and at various minor-league stadia, but Oakland is something else entirely. While AT&T is intimate and bespoke for baseball, Oakland is sprawling, labyrinthine. There was ample signage directing media folks like me to our various destinations: the press box, the interview room, and the field.

I was surprised to find that my assigned seat is in the main press box, and not in the auxiliary (read: outdoor) one they’ve set up to handle the overflow. Like most of the “amenities” at the Coliseum, the press box is spartan. The three tiers of seating have power outlets and ethernet ports, but the chairs are worn and broken down; the armrest on my green office chair is missing a screw and spins freely.

Because this was the playoffs, we were packed in tight: on my right was Casey Tefertiller of Baseball America; on my left, Zach Rymer of Bleacher Report. Casey’s been doing this a long time: he’s a former beat writer, and his sportswriting now is restricted to covering the A’s organization for BA. Zach, like me, was covering his first playoff matchup.

Local sports media were well represented: Susan Slusser is everywhere, all the time. The rest of the press box was filled with bylines we all know: Kevin Kernan, Tim Brown, the Freep’s John Lowe in his trademark straw hat (Boater? Fedora? I’m not up on the latest millinery terminology). Pedro Gomez slummed it with us after he concluded his pregame TV spots.

Some were grousing about the meals—a box lunch that includes a cold sandwich and a bag of chips—some chatted with their colleagues, others hunched over their laptops, making travel arrangements. Most pecked away at a story: researching, adding, deleting.

There are maybe a dozen TVs in the press box—because this is Oakland, they’re CRTs, and the feed is standard definition. Before game time, they were tuned to one of the other division series contests; during our games, we got the TBS feed (without sound, of course) of the play in front of us. There’s a 10-or-so-second delay—about half the time between pitches -- which is nice: it allowed me to watch the pitch happen in front of me and then see it again on TV to get another perspective.

For Oakland, Game Three, like every game in the series, was an elimination game. Brett Anderson got the call for the A’s—his first game action in three weeks. Anderson strained his right oblique in a start against these same Tigers on September 19th.

If Anderson was feeling any ill effects of the injury, he didn’t show it in the first: he K’d Austin Jackson and Omar Infante, both swinging on sharp sliders, and induced a weak grounder from Miguel Cabrera to retire the side in order. In the bottom half of the inning, the first three A’s hitters reached against Anibal Sanchez, and they notched the only run they’d need, via an RBI single by Yoenis Cespedes.

Anderson looked vulnerable immediately in the top of the second: he got two strikes on Prince Fielder, then threw a slider that caught a little too much plate. Fielder drove the pitch to deep right-center. Extra bases, certainly, but would it be four or just two? But Coco said nuh-uh. Crisp sprinted to the wall, timed his leap perfectly, extended over the wall, and robbed Fielder of a home run. The sold-out Coliseum erupted.

Anderson allowed hits to the next two hitters, but somehow, after Crisp’s web gem, the outcome of the game felt predetermined: it was Oakland’s night. Seth Smith added a solo homer in the 5th to give the A’s an insurance run they ultimately wouldn’t need, and Cook, Doolittle, and Balfour each pitched a scoreless inning to lock down the A’s victory.

In the press box, reporters rejiggered travel arrangements and game stories, then headed down to the clubhouses and interview room to get reactions.

In the interview room, we’re treated to Brett Anderson and Seth Smith. You’ve probably watched plenty of these postgame pressers, and they’re rarely interesting. But being in the room with these guys is different somehow. Maybe it’s because they’re real people and not holograms or demigods. You see the body language, and you really see that Brett Anderson is only 24.

He gave pretty typical athlete answers but was candid in his appraisal of his own performance. He admitted to struggling through the middle innings: “[I] kind of fought myself innings three through five, and was falling behind, but I made pitches when I had to.”

Smith, on the other hand, is pure comedy. It doesn’t come across in the transcript, but the guy is hilarious. Every answer is deadpan, smirking, arch.

“We already had a run, and we didn't even need my homer,” Smith smirked. “I don't even know why I'm here, but I appreciate the invite.”

I know the feeling. 

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

Related Content:  Oakland A's,  Detroit Tigers,  Alds

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