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Childhood often walks the fine-line between the blissful and boring, and Big League Chew was an integral part of the blissful “baseball experience” that my friends and I so desperately wanted to be part of as young boys. We would scan our stacks of baseball cards and see players like Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn with a not-so-subtle, chipmunk-like slab of tobacco stuck in their cheeks as they posed, bat skillfully wielded in the lazy, sun bleached spring training summer–and we wanted to emulate that with pink, shrouded shreds of sugar-coated goodness. We were hip to the insider culture that only the pros knew about; at least in our own minds.
My parents were insanely cheap; and this didn’t seem to be strange at all as most parents of the 80’s seemed to adhere to this doctrine. My friends and I decided that we would have to be enterprising, so we would knock on doors and ask the neighborhood psychos if we could have the pleasure of raking their lawns for 5 dollars. The riches would be immediately spent a mere four blocks away at the appropriately named Happy Market for some Big league Chew and a couple of packs of baseball cards. The leftover dough would be used to rent a movie that was skillfully chosen in VHS form from the Movie Hut down the street for 1.99 a day, and if we were lucky had the name Schwarzenegger or Van Damme on the box. The solitary zit-faced teen wearing an Iron Maiden shirt at the counter would look up my mom’s rental information on the ancient IBM computer and oblige out of boredom or indifference.
I recently walked around the old neighborhood for the first time in over 20 years. The houses still looked the same, as if time had never happened. There’s where I used to wait for the bus. That’s where I got into a fight with Tim Crumrine. There’s where I used to shoot hoops for hours. That’s where a kid’s dad told another kid to “fuck off” and ran over his skateboard. It was a quiet neighborhood and I was hoping my younger self would walk out of my old house so I could tell him about all the wonderful adventures he would have in the future and warn him about all the mistakes he was going to make. I would tell him to forget his anxieties concerning adulthood and to enjoy the simplicity, lack of corruption and absolute wonder of his life at that moment.
Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” poured out of the Mustang in the driveway as Pete and Nick sat on the front porch. They had just torn open a few packs of baseball cards and decided to make a few swaps before the cards were relegated to a rubber band and the back pocket of faded dungarees.
“Ok, you like the A’s right? I’ll give you a Dave Hamilton for George Brett.”
“Are you kidding me! You must think I’m a fucking idiot. That’s not a fair trade; and besides, it looks like he’s taking a shit!”
Pete’s older brother, Craig, stopped washing his black treasure and walked over with kinked hose in hand.
“You turds need to shut the hell up before I hose you down. Besides, I got Amy coming over and you two dumbasses aren’t gonna ruin my chance at getting some trim.”
“You haven’t got a chance in hell,” Pete spat, shoving a brick-hard powdered slab of gum in his mouth.
“Keep talking big mouth and I’ll give both you and your stupid friend knuckle sandwiches. You’ll be spittin’ out teeth for a week”
Craig continued washing his car, alone with the hose, the suds, the black beauty and the privacy of his own young and perverted mind.
“He thinks he’s such a big shot.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait until I get older so I can kick his ass…so Dave Hamilton for George Brett?”
Carmen was destined to become an A’s fan from birth, born and raised in Oakland, the child of a 60’s era, black leather jacket clad Huey Newton revolutionary/Berkeley professor and a teenage beauty pageant queen and Cuban refugee. The professor met Zoe at a small community theatre in Palo Alto where his future wife was performing as “Bianca” in Othello. He loved her adaptation and asked her to dinner where they proceeded to eat oysters and wash them down with a dry Cabernet. The oysters must have worked as Carmen was thrust into the world soon thereafter, not even a year later.
The girl became an A’s fan at a young age and would hang out at the Coliseum often on weekends with her high school clique. They would sneak in alcoholic lubricant, snacks and a transistor radio while loitering in the bleachers on lazy Indian summers; sunbathing while listening to the Talking Heads and giving the bleacher creatures something to gawk at between innings. Her favorite player was first baseman Chris Carter because “he was this absolute monstrous, beautiful black man blessed with a pleasant expression on his face and an easy, almost lackadaisical ambiance.”
In the unfit roads of adolescence there are bound to be a few bumps on the way, and Carmen felt these at the hands of the Oakland police. “I had a malleable mind at the time and some friends had influenced me to steal clothing and such. I got busted stealing some door-knockers (earrings) that had my name in the middle. It was so obvious.” When she was busted a second time for stealing art books it was “time for a re-examination of the program.”
Hard work and diligence paid off in 2008 as Carmen graduated with a degree in economics from SF State. She now works as an editor at the San Francisco Weekly. “The Weekly is often given to smart-ass editorializing that seems more geared to getting a reaction than making a concrete point, but it’s fun.”
“I’ve learned that we can be one person’s saint, another person’s genius, and someone else’s imbecile; and this is exactly why I do whatever I feel like doing every day without even an inkling of what anyone else thinks about it.”
As I pull this baseball card from the pile it takes me on a long forgotten trip back to the 1990’s and the bottomless pit of purgatory known as Jr. High School. Everyone was growing into themselves, girls were getting boobs, fashion was suddenly important, and guys were suddenly sporting the haircut that concocted the term “business in the front, party in the back.”
The mullet was a popular hairstyle in the early 90’s as it was worn by everyone from rock stars, movie stars, wrestlers and even baseball players. With the 90’s being the cultural dreg that it was, it seemed the perfect time for the white-trash aesthetic to finally be embraced by the mainstream. Celebrities who rocked the hairstyle included John Stamos, David Bowie, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Clooney. My cousin had his mullet for YEARS complete with an army style flat-top. I still give him shit for it to this day.
I remember a friend of mine from Jr. High, Michael, would constantly run a comb through his dirty blond mullet while wearing his ever-present Guns N Roses t-shirt complete with naked girl on the back. (seems a bit extreme for a Jr. High kid today, seemed normal then before Generation X started having children and treating them like snowflakes.) Michael was sort of known as the dick of the neighborhood and would always try to steal other people’s “valuable” baseball cards. He lived in a ramshackle house, his mom was slutty with a new biker boyfriend every other week, and his baby sister always looked dirty with a bunch of dried food on her face. It was depressing. I soon outgrew baseball cards and Michael.
The 1990 Oakland A’s were no exception to the rule as Storm Davis and Jose Canseco had flowy, rockstar-esque mullets. Back up catcher Ron Hassey and second baseman Glenn Hubbard had their weird, curly, seemingly permed neck-fro’s. I’ve got to believe thet the most famous baseball mullet of all time goes to the great pitcher and ultimately most white-trashy looking player of all time…Randy Johnson. Today’s players, being forever trendy yet always a step or two behind hip fashion sport the hairstyle in a “post-ironic” way; these including Nick Swisher and Tim Lincecum.
Junior High was a crazy, fucked up, depressing and confusing time for me. I got into my second fight (and third), added the first girlfriend to my repertoire and discovered heavy metal, porn and keg parties. Thank you Storm Davis for bringing it back. I had almost forgotten.
It is a cold December night in 1972, and I am with Mike Epstein and his wife. We are exiting his cherry-red Ford Thunderbird and about to enter the Marshmallow Disco. The “Marshmallow” as it is called is in a dingy, industrial block of Manhattan. There are a group of homeless folks staring at us as we exit the car–a unwordly group with distorted faces that would make one either question their drug intake or the group’s relativity to the planet Earth. I feel safe as I am with a man who has a hulking presence and once kicked the shit out of Reggie Jackson in the locker room. Some would say that this dust-up has even overshadowed Mike’s baseball oeuvre. A drunk Puerto Rican woman approaches Mike and his wife shouts,
“Look, bimbo, he’s with me.”
The “bimbo” skulks off in a fit of hysterics and Mike growls,”Look, man, I don’t have time to hassle with that shit. I got my old lady with me.”
Mike steers his wife in the general direction of the VIP door. There are smokers gathered, sitting on high school cafeteria scratched iron chairs–their legs crossed, casting appraising glances every which way with primal, reptilian eyes. You can hear the O’ Jays and Sly and the Family Stone bumping inside. There is American dissolution in the parking lot as American decadence flails away in a cocaine-induced dopamine explosion inside. The alcohol turning once happy groups into an imminent decent of after-hours grotesque buffoonery. A woman grabs a man on the way inside.
“Every damn time we fuck I gotta listen to your bullshit after we’ve finished. Why don’t you let me enjoy my afterglow for a change?”
I am in the far-flung recesses of my mind, probably contemplating throw-away culture or how the scope of time is too vast for humans to comprehend when I stumble upon the fly strewn corpse of a baby raccoon. My eyes immediately shift too a rather large, honey sweet black woman in stained sweatpants; a mother, and she is giving her child a tongue lashing for being a malcontent. She has a beautiful smile and a confident demeanor, she transcended simple tackiness and wore it well.
“The world needs structure! Without structure there would be chaos!”
Why was this profound? Is baseball chaos, structure or both? I’ve heard arguments for both the former and latter but I can’t seem to argue the contrary– and how did this short walk turn into mental digressions and glorious abstractions? Do I need to see a pharmacologist to ease this mental psycho-babble?
I suddenly trip on the curb, my modus-operandi quickly shifting from faux-philosopher into incoherent boob. The mother chuckles. “You need to look where you’re going kemo sabe, it’s not good to look like a klutz.” I appreciated her simple candor, and she had no idea how profoundly I connected with her simplistic berating of a young ankle-biter. I made sense of the fog for a moment–I was a “klutz.”
I don’t have the affection towards Jeff “Shark” Samardjiza that I do for other former Athletics–he simply wasn’t in a Oakland uniform long enough for me to care, netting only 5 wins for the Green and Gold. Besides, once you slip on the pajamas with San Francisco stitched on the chest all bets are off. Affection can burn away as quickly as a love affair in a cheap Tijuana hotel room after coitus, an early morning coke hangover and a head full of regrets. I slop mustard on my hotdog and wash it down seconds later with carbonated, gut-wrenching goodness.
This is game 2 of the NLDS.
Samardjiza, long and lanky with long flowing hair akin to a 1980’s Sunset Strip hair metal band, the archetype of a “tall drink of water,” sauntered with that loose and easy gait toward
the bump with mythic and ghostly dimensions whispering through the ballpark–1908— and this former Notre Dame football star was standing in the way of mental and historical catharsis for Cubs faithful. Their celestial recognizance hanging in the balance of a 5 ounce sphere with a Catholic boy twirling it; their fathers and grandfathers never getting to see what they are hoping to see in the near future: a homo-erotic dogpile on the mound (say that once again without innuendo) and a lifting of the gold trophy.
Their collective vision crystallized after 6 months and 2, 106 games. Babe Ruth and his “called shot” be damned.
Samardjiza’s line: 2 innings, 4 runs, 6 hits, 1K, 1 BB…a clunker, a stinker, a garbage pile. Ex Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee used to say that sex robbed you of your stamina: “If you let a woman drain away your life’s essence you’ll never be able to go nine.” Does this mean Samardjiza had spent too much time in a Tijuana whorehouse? or was it simply that he couldn’t getting his breaking stuff over?
Top 4th: Baseball giveth and baseball taketh away. Starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has to leave the game with forearm stiffness after an Angel Pagan (this is the best example of a dichotomy in the baseball universe. Both names butting heads against each other with the former in a perpetual battle for the souls of the denizens of earth and the latter practicing polytheism and prancing around the forest in their birthday suits.) line drive nails him. Travis Wood, the reliever, proceeds to hit a home run in the bottom half of the inning. Baseball giveth again. The rest of the game is filled with a menagerie of relievers shutting down the Giants dreadful lineup, shots of Bill Murray chuckling and partying with fellow fans, and Bob Costas struggling for a heart-felt metaphor. He even mentioned beloved (well, excepting Pete Rose) commissioner Bart Giamatti’s “elegant” poetry at one point.
I watched an A’s game for the first time in over a month yesterday; valiantly attempting to push aside the oozing slime of human conduct from leaking into my baseball brain. Why, you ask? Well, let me put it simply: in the past 25 years income has gone down for 18-35 year olds and student loan debt is at an all time high. We had 3 trillion in bailout money, income inequality and the homeless problem are greater than ever and the general public at large feels scammed by the political system. We, as a country are facing a financial and social crisis and sometimes all we have is a few leisurely hours of escape watching the game that we love–and as Oakland fans even THAT was taken away.
We as A’s fans have been reduced to watching a downsized and dispossessed baseball team. Our hopes are pulverized, our ambitions starved because of despicable ownership, led by Lew Wolff, who have no interest in giving us respite from the social ills that I have spoken about above. This is not only an inferior product, but one molded by the hands of the elite in order to maximize profit. They laugh all the way to the bank while we blindly pledge allegiance. You can see this as holier-than-thou ballyhoo or an insidious prediction on our future, nevertheless I leave you with the immortal words of Joe Strummer, singer of The Clash as a message to Athletics’ ownership, “Go straight to hell, boy.”
I see him almost everyday hanging out in front of the taco stand. He is an old man, probably around 70 years old with a funky sort of style. Today he is wearing gold crushed velvet pants and a fluorescent orange cowboy hat. When I first saw him I thought he was homeless, but his wardrobe is much too vast for that to be true. He defies authority and that is a beautiful thing.
“That Oakland ball-club has been kicking the Giants ass,” he said.
I was a little taken aback–I had never spoken to the man besides a “hey” or a slight nod of the head. I suppose he had seen me wearing the green and gold on numerous occasions. Apparently I wasn’t the only person that noticed small details.
“Sure has,” I said and gave him a smile.
Sure, the A’s still have a terrible record of 35-44; but we made the Giants look foolish in a 4 game series and I can take respite in that.
“Little things seem nothing, but they give peace, like those meadow flowers which individually seem odorless but all together perfume the air.”–Georges Bernanos
Say what you want about Mr. Jackson and his brash attitude and high strikeout rates, yet without my grandfathers’ fondness for the man I would have never found my love for the game of baseball and the Oakland Athletics.
This page before you would have never existed.
To me Reggie was ALWAYS a legend, and a mystifying one at that since he was retiring just as I was learning to love and appreciate the game. He was a Ruthian figure; and honored by someone who I loved– which made me open my eyes to try to figure out just what made this guy so special.
When my grandfather died I watched from a distance, sadly, as his children argued and bickered over his possessions. I decided then, because of their behavior, that I didn’t need an earthly remembrance of this man who was the biggest father-figure in my life. A couple of months later my grandmother came to me and handed me an autographed Reggie Jackson ball. I knew it well as it had once had the most prominent spot in the case where he kept his baseball memorabilia. It was the gem of the collection.
“I saved this for you,” she said. “grandpa would have wanted you to have it.”
I love when the baseball existentialists come together to sing their anthems of praise about the serene rhythms and mystic qualities of the game. It gives me a warm feeling. And as much as I love and adore the game, sometimes I feel as if these are all illusions because of a time and an innocence that I miss and cherish — and that I’ll never see again.