Wednesday, October 10, 2012

UPDATED Why Bay Area fans like all their teams ... unless they hate them

--by Josh Suchon

People will never understand it outside the Bay Area.

Bay Bridge SeriesFans in other two-team markets shake their heads in disbelief, call it blasphemous, wonder what they’re smoking up north, mock the Bay Area, and use it as proof there’s something wrong with the people who live there.

The truth is, especially for people who spent their whole lives in the Bay Area, it’s more common to like both baseball and football teams than hate one team.

Alright, it might be a stretch to say the football fans “like” each other. It can feel like a war zone in the stadiums when the 49ers and Raiders play each other. There are plenty of fights and bullets to prove it. But don’t let the couple hundred knuckleheads obscure the larger truth.

Bay Area fans of one team don’t hate the other team. In some cases, they like both baseball teams equally. If nothing else, they go to both ballparks, and enjoy being able to see American League and National League baseball. If their favored team wasn’t very good that year, regional pride dictated you cheered for the other team.

For the first 20 or so years after the A’s and Raiders arrived in Oakland in the late 1960s, Bay Area fans didn’t have to pick one team to like. It was easy to root for both teams. They rarely played each other head-to-head. It was even rarer for both teams to be good.

The Coliseum and Arena under construction.
The Raiders were great in the 1970s, found a way to blow it in the playoffs most years, and won the Super Bowl in 1976. The 49ers were pretty much lousy the whole decade.

When the A’s won five straight division titles from 1971-75, and won three straight World Series titles in the middle of that run, the Giants just weren’t very good.

The Giants won the division in 1971, lost to the Pirates in the championship series, and didn’t reach the playoffs again until 1987. In fact, they finished under .500 in 10 of the next 15 years. That’s an entire generation of kids who didn’t know what it was like for the Giants to reach the playoffs. Their only thrill was knocking the Dodgers out.

From 1976 to 1986, the two teams went an entire decade where – other than the strike-interrupted 1981 season of BillyBall -- they were always closer to leaving town than finishing in first place.

Would the A’s move to Denver? Would the Giants move to Toronto? Would the A’s move to New Orleans? Would the Giants move to St. Petersburg? Would the A’s move to DC?

It was easy to like both teams when neither was any good, and both were possibly on their way out of town. The region never knew which team would be its sole resident.

The point was driven home in 1982, when the Raiders did leave town for Los Angeles.

Now the 49ers had the market all to themselves. They enjoyed the greatest decade that any team has ever experienced in Bay Area history, reaching the playoffs every year and winning four Super Bowls in the 1980s.

It’s hard not to like a winner, especially a charismatic team like those 49ers with Hall of Famers in every direction. A few Raiders loyalists held out, rooted for the team down in LA, and hoped for a return that seemed impossible. But most Raiders fans embraced the 49ers as the Bay Area’s only team and enjoyed their success.

During those ’80s, the Giants couldn’t get a new ballpark built in San Francisco, so they looked south to San Jose or Santa Clara.  The A’s had the territorial rights to that region, but there was no “blue ribbon” committee needed to decide if the Giants could move there because then-A’s owner Walter Haas gave the rights to the lucrative South Bay to the Giants for free. Yes, for free.

In hindsight, it was a horrible business decision. But it wasn’t about business. It wasn’t about trying to get rid of the Giants. Haas’ generosity was based on what was best for the region. It was another sign that we’re in this together.

It was common to see people wearing A’s/Giants split hats. They were sold during the exhibition Bay Bridge series that would be played the final Saturday-Sunday before the start of the regular season.

Late in the 80s, the baseball teams finally started to win. The Giants won the division in 1987. The A’s reached the World Series in 1988.

Then the teams met in the 1989 World Series. The first 16 days in October of 1989 ushered in an unprecedented period of Bay Area pride. But it also forced people to finally pick sides. 
For most people, it was an easy choice. They wanted one team to do well, but they loved the other team.

Personally, I think 1989 meant more to the A’s and their fans. After getting stunned by the Dodgers in the World Series the year before, the A’s simply had to win it all. It was not a time for civility. It was a time to dismantle the Giants and show the world they were the dominant organization in all of pro sports.

The first two games of the Series brought out the passion and the emotion. It wasn’t the 1968 Summer of Love. It was mostly friendly. But with a World Series at stake, it was heated and intense in the stands. Fans made it clear which team was their team.

Then the earthquake happened.

Baseball no longer mattered. This was about life and death, about helping your neighbor, and about a region finding strength in its solidarity. It was almost like Mother Nature’s way of reminding Bay Area citizens, “this is not a divided region. This is not Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles. We’re all in this together.”

Ten days after the earthquake, the Series resumed. It was part of the Bay Area’s healing. It showed the world that we were OK, and life was getting back to normal. The A’s finished off a four-game sweep. The celebration was subdued, out of respect to those who had lost their lives, or had their lives dramatically altered by the earthquake.

After the World Series, after fans were forced to choose a side, it was hard to get back to the old days of rooting for both teams. The lines had been drawn. Both teams were annual contenders over the next few years. That meant they were a threat to each other.

The teams had two of the biggest stars in the game, Jose Canseco and Will Clark, and the two toughest kids on the block are eventually going to see who is toughest. Shortly before the 1990 All-Star Game, Clark called Canseco “a jerk.” Canseco’s response was, “I'm making a million more than you are, you big, overrated, three-toed sloth with no arms.”

Even with the name-calling, it was all in fun. It wasn’t real hatred. It was almost like the Bay Area was trying to force itself to dislike each other.

The biggest reason for the A’s-Giants rivalry building was the front offices. Mostly, the A’s front office, which always resented how the Giants received more media coverage. The San Francisco papers and the San Jose paper dramatically favored the San Francisco teams. The East Bay papers played it mostly down the middle, with perhaps a slight edge to the Oakland teams.

The only all-sports talk station was KNBR 680, the Giants flagship station, and the 100,000-watt flame-thrower rarely discussed the A’s.

The A’s wanted to beat the Giants in spring training games so bad, they paid their players bonuses for important contributions that led to those victories. Over and over, the A’s beat the Giants in those seemingly “meaningless” games in the early 1990s.

Still, it wasn’t much of a feud. Residents liked both teams and supported both teams. They didn’t need to pick sides. The strike in 1994 united both sets of fans in their contempt for the sport.

Then the Raiders returned in 1995.

The Raiders fans who returned to the Coliseum were different that the Raiders fans from the 1970s. This was a rougher, tougher crowd – more South Central LA than blue collar East Bay. A new generation of Raiders fans didn’t know what it was like the first time the Raiders were in Oakland. They just knew the colors and the reputation.

It didn’t matter how many holdover fans from the 1970s remained. The tide had turned. The silver and black reputation had been sealed. Even “normal” fans bought into the hype, the experience of dressing like it was Halloween, and acting like animals.

Besides, those 13 years in Los Angeles brought out the anger and hatred between Norcal and Socal.

Oakland Raiders and 49ers fans didn’t love each other in the 1970s, but they were cordial and wished each other well. Los Angeles Raiders fans hated the 49ers with extreme passion and disgust -- no doubt fueled by the 49ers success and finesse style of football. That hatred carried over from Los Angeles to Oakland as the Raiders came home.

Therefore, it was only natural … if Raiders fans hated the 49ers, well, A’s fans needed to hate the Giants too.

It helped that the Giants now had Barry Bonds on their team, the best player in baseball and the most polarizing player in baseball. Bonds was easy to boo. Bonds was great for rivalries.

It also helped when interleague play began in 1997. Now the teams would play each other six times during the regular season. You didn’t need a World Series to pick sides. You did it during a pair of weekend series’ on each side of the Bay each year.

Meanwhile, the territorial rights issue – which had once showed how the Bay Area was united – now showed how divided the region had become.

The Giants never moved to the South Bay. They built their gorgeous ballpark by the bay in San Francisco, opening in 2000. The A’s wanted their own shiny new ballpark. They badly needed it after the Coliseum was transformed for the Raiders return.

Now, the A’s looked to San Jose. To which the Giants said, “no way, Jose.” They wouldn’t give the rights back. They wouldn’t sell the rights back. It didn’t matter how they once received the rights. It was no longer about what was right for the region. It was about cut-throat business.

Now you have this weird dynamic: A’s fans who hate the Giants because they’re blocking the A’s from moving to San Jose; pure Oakland fans who hate any A’s owner who wants to move the team out of Oakland; Giants fans who hate the A’s for constantly whining about San Jose and just want them to go away; Giants fans who are so self-absorbed they don’t even realize the A’s exist across the Bay; and the old guard, the longtime Bay Area natives who still think, “let’s do what’s best for this region because we’re in this together.”

From 2007-2009, the A’s and Giants were awful. The Raiders and 49ers were awful. Four teams. Zero playoff appearances. It gets old cheering for teams that suck. You want to root for a winner.

Finally, a winner arrived in 2010. The Giants won the World Series, a team of misfits that tortured their fans all season long. It was a time for the Bay Area to rejoice its first world title of any sport since the 49ers of 1994-95.

Sure, there were a handful of defiant A’s fans that didn’t want to see the Giants win, and maybe wanted to see former A’s third-base coach Ron Washington win a World Series as the Texas Rangers manager, but the choice of rooting for a Bay Area team or a Texas team is a no-brainer.

Now, we’re in 2012, and both Bay Area baseball teams are in the playoffs again – the sixth time in history, and fourth time in the last 13 years. The Giants were expected to be here. 

The A’s were not expected, and those come-from-nowhere stories tug at people’s emotions.

It creates new fans from those new to the region. It inspires appreciation from Giants fans. And that old guard of Bay Area sports fans, certainly a lot grayer, dreams of another 1989, while thinking, “this is the Bay Area and we’re in this together.”

The great thing about being a sports fan -- especially a fan in the middle of a “we didn’t think we had any chance this year … and now, holy crap, we might win it all” season – is that anything that puts a smile on people’s faces and bonds fans together is a great idea. Even if it’s ridiculous. No, especially when it’s ridiculous.

That’s the only way to explain how the big bad tough intimidating A’s fans -- they are always linked to Raiders fans -- sing and dance along to “Call Me, Maybe” between innings.

Then they get loopy doing something beautiful called The Bernie Lean that requires just outright silliness.

Coliseum bleachers
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle
Then they absolutely rage when closer Grant Balfour enters a game in the ninth inning.
In other words, the Oakland Coliseum this Fall is equal parts teeny-bopper convention, Halloween costume party, heavy metal show, and old fashioned ballpark relic from the 1970s.

In other words, there’s something for everybody … just like the Bay Area itself.

My good friend and life-long Bay Area native Joe Pereira explained is this way: “as Chris Berman would say, this isn’t your father’s Oakland Coliseum.”

Even the most fervent Giants fans – the type that wants them to just go away, or just now realizes they exist – can’t help but root for the Athletics.

It’s hard to hate the A’s. They came from nowhere. They’re a bunch of no-names. They have colorful characters who aren’t afraid to show emotion, and share the experience with the fans. Who doesn’t love a team full of Australians straight from WWE casting? Besides, the A’s have so few fans, there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon.

It’s hard to hate the Giants. Bonds is gone. How do you not respect Buster Posey and Matt Cain? Then there’s beloved former A’s fan favorite Marco Scutaro playing second base.

So the Bay Area cheers for both of its baseball teams. Perhaps grudgingly. Perhaps looking around first, making sure it's alright.

Deep down, A’s fans remember how much joy Barry Zito brought them, and want to see him pitch like it’s 2002 again, keeping the Giants season alive one more day.

Deep down, Giants fans appreciate that something special is happening in Oakland and want to share it.

If nothing else, fans of each team can’t help root for both teams to reach the World Series. Maybe it’s time for a rematch without an earthquake.

If so, forget all that stuff about liking each other.

Then it’s all-out fucking war. 

UPDATE after the A's lose Game 5 to the Tigers and the Giants beat the Reds in 5 games:

The view of die-hard A's fans -- They won't instantly jump over and passionately cheer on the Giants. In fact, the Giants' dramatic comeback will make the A's loss sting even worse. A's fans will need at least a week or two to get over this disappointment. If the Giants are in the World Series, regional pride will take back over, and they'll wish the Giants well. Right now, A's fans are crushed and pissed.

The view of die-hard Giants fans -- Now we don't have to share the local media spotlight with that other team. Cool.

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