During a recent week long excursion to the Windy City of Chicago, I found myself physically removed from my favorite team the Oakland Athletics. While this was far from my first departure from the Bay Area nor will it be my last, I usually try my best to avoid traveling during the baseball season as I hate being unable to follow the local broadcast of my favorite team. The progress of modern technology has now allowed me to bring the fine radio team of Ken Korach and Vince Cortroneo with me as I travel. Still it is not a sufficient substitute for being able to cheer on my team in the comfort of my own timezone. But I digress.
In retrospect, with the A’s in the midst of what would be a 9 game losing streak I found myself comforted by a city that didn’t care and didn’t rub it in. Oh they love their baseball, dont get me wrong. The Cubs more or less have a neighborhood completely devoted to them in Wrigleyville, and the surging White Sox are not without their share of representation either. The fact that I didn’t have to hear about baby giraffes, melk men, and how awesome Pac Bell Park is while waiting for the subway was a breath of fresh air to this envious A’s fan. Then it happened. During a street festival outside of Wrigley Field, a young man wearing an A’s hat came into my sight of vision. Now it was safe to say that the hat was nothing more than a fashion statement, simply an accessory to match his custom Jordans. However, it made me smile. And it made me think. The A’s popularity has taken quite a hit in the past few years, as is common with teams that are going through losing seasons in a small market. But with Moneyball hitting the silver screen last year, pop culture has never quite turned her back on the old elephants. Let’s take a look at the A’s and their impact within popular culture over the years.
A good portion of my early childhood was spent trying to be cool. Part of attempting to be cool was following the latest trends, fashion, and music. Somehow fitting into all three categories was the legend that is Oakland native M.C. Hammer. A former A’s batboy, Hammer or Stanley Burrell as he was known back then, first caught the attention of A’s owner Charlie O’ Finley by breakdancing outside the Coliseum during the early 1970’s. Impressing Finley with his intelligence and skill, Burrell would become an official employee of the Oakland Athletics filling in as a clubhouse assistant and batboy. Earning the trust of Finley, he became his eyes and ears in the clubhouse essentially becoming an informant for his boss. Given the moniker “Hammer” for his resemblance to Hank Aaron, Burrell would complete 7 years of service with the Athletics before leaving for the Navy and returning to start his music career upon his discharge. Hammer would showcase his love for the A’s primarily in the 2 legit 2 quit video.
During a period when the medium of music video was in it’s prime, Hammer impressively showcased celebrities and athletes such as A’s slugger Jose Canseco in the video, and even outfitted his dancers in matching A’s jackets as they boogied to the beat. It was a shout out to his team, before anyone knew what a shout out was. The career of Hammer would rise and fall in a glorious inferno of parachute pants, cartoon overexposure, and bankruptcy. However his love for his hometown team would never waver, and in 2011 he was honored with his own bobble head day at the Coliseum.
Another staple of my childhood, The Simpsons has both directly and indirectly referenced two very different versions of the A’s in reason years. In the 2006 episode “Regarding Margie” a humorous homage to the 1974 World Champion A’s is presented by Homer after refusing to let Bart finish painting the Simpsons home address on the curb leaving a 7 and a 4. When quizzed by Lisa about his refusal, Homer simply states that he “wanted to tell the ’74 Oakland A’s how I felt about them”. Members of the championship team then pull up in a convertible cadillac straight from Charlie Finley’s own fleet and Homer is thanked by Captain Sal Bando himself.
In the 2010 episode “MoneyBart”, Lisa takes over as coach of Bart’s little league team and begins using her intelligence to apply advanced sabermetrics ala Billy Beane and “Moneyball” to help his team win at a furious pace. When Bart rebels against the newfound strategy, preferring the old school traditional form of the sport it drives a wedge between brother and sister. By episodes end, they find a compromise to save their relationship through the love of baseball. Not quite on par with the squabbles of Billy Beane and Art Howe, the cartoon provides an interesting light hearted twist that dosn’t seem that far removed from reality.
Reality is of course a matter of perspective. When acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh set forth to adapt Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, an inside look into Billy Beane and the use of sabermetrics as the root of success for the financially challenged Oakland Athletics, I naturally, raised an eyebrow at exactly how this would be accomplished. After all, it’s a book essentially about undervalued statistics and players, a failed can’t miss prospect turned general manager, and Scott Hatteberg’s attempt to play first base. Throw in a 20 game winning streak, an incident of furniture abuse and I suppose you have something closer to a documentary then a drama. There is no hero, no villain and no real plot as it’s a pure detailed work of non-fiction. Fascinating and well written, the book is a must have for A’s fans and lovers of sabermetrics and the changing thought process in baseball. When the film went into pre production, I followed the project intently on all matters from casting to location scouting. It was all so surreal and intriguing to me. As Brad Pitt took the challenge of signing on to portray Beane, and comedian Demetri Martin a curious choice as assistant GM Paul Depodesta the movie began to take it’s form. Then Soderbergh, threw a curveball. He would cast Hatteberg and former A’s player David Justice, central figures in the book as themselves. Joining them playing himself, would be manager Art Howe, who as most A’s fans know was about as charismatic as a blank piece of paper. Suddenly the film became some horrific crossbreed of a drama/ sports movie/ documentary and for reasons untold Soderbergh filmed interviews with Beane’s former Mets teammates Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, and Darryl Strawberry respectively. With the film mere days away from it’s first day of filming, the bigwigs at Sony pulled the plug on Soderbergh before he could film a single reel. Apparently, they were upset by the constant changes he had made to the original script and there were concerns about the budget and direction of the film. Rightfully so.
With Soderbergh out of the picture both literally and figuratively, Director Bennett Miller took over the reins with a new script by Academy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin, and the project was back on it’s way to becoming a reality. Excitement would build over the Summer of 2010, as Miller and Sony invited authentic A’s fans to be a part of the filming at the Coliseum as they reenacted the 2002 season. It was a nice touch. As the 2011 season approached, I thought to myself that this had the chance to be an amazing year for the organization. As the team disappointed in the field, I took solace in the notoriety and promotion of the movie and the team leading up to the release date. Watching the film for the first time was an out of body experience. Miller was wise enough to cast actual actors, many of whom had baseball experience instead of relying on ex players playing versions of themselves from nearly 10 years ago. Mixing in real highlights from the 2002 season, helped add credibility and realism that I felt was integral to accurately portraying the book. Although some liberties were taken such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s laughable, pudgy take as the film’s antagonist Art Howe and the complete omission of the “Big 3”. The movie didn’t disappoint me. It was surreal and maybe not as inspiring as say Major League, but it didn’t make me ashamed to be an A’s fan. It made me proud to root for a blue collar team, whose creativity and ingenuity became the subject of emulation from many teams with resources beyond our wildest dreams. It made me long for them to win that final game of the season, and it made me believe in an allegiance to the team that is unbreakable. Although the A’s will never be in the same state of reverence as the Yankees or the Red Sox, their impact on pop culture is evident. After all, how many teams have a movie based after them?