On Wednesday, July 2, and Tuesday, July 8, I attended baseball games at the world-famous Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, known affectionately as the Net Ass. It was two separate days and two separate displays of fantastic, fundamentally-sound, ass-kicking baseball. Unfortunately, these displays were put on by the Athletics' opponents, the league-leading Seattle Mariners and the league-trailing Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The first game was part of the ever-popular Double Play Wednesday promotion, where the A's offer two-dollar tickets and one-dollar hot dogs. Informally, this promotion is known as Two Dolla Wednesday, and it always draws a large, bargain-crazy crowd to the games. Last year it was Dollar Wednesday, but the A's have wisely decided to raise the bar to keep out the riff raff. They have also restricted discount seating to just the third deck, rather than the second and third decks, which I attribute more to cheapness than an actual marketing strategy.
Double Play Wednesday reflects the Oakland philosophy of keeping costs down, mantaining modest expectations, and cutting corners. They're the Southwest Airlines of baseball. You can see this on the field, where journeyman catcher Scott Hatteberg replaces MVP Jason Giambi at first base, and the team dreams of getting past the first round of the playoffs. You can also see it in the concession stands, where the woefully understaffed workers struggle to accomodate the large dog-hungry crowds. Buying dollar dogs is a lot like going to Ben and Jerry's on Free Cone Day: the marginal cost of waiting in line for multiple innings usually exceeds the bargain price of the food. As a final insult, Oakland also understocks their condiments. After two innings in line waiting for lukewarm hot dogs, the subsequent ten-minute wait for mustard and sauerkraut just breaks your spirit.
By the time we arrived at our seats, the Mariners had already taken a 2-0 lead. And it just got worse. The Mariner pitcher was young hotshot Joel Pineiro, whose first name is pronounced "JO-el", like he's from Krypton. He only gave up three hits in his eight innings of work, so maybe he did have some otherworldly powers. Perhaps the A's could defeat him if they didn't have to play on a planet with a yellow sun. After he struck out Jermaine Dye in the seventh inning, he may have even exclaimed, "Kneel before Zod!"
Meanwhile, the Mariners were hitting the hell out of the ball. Every player in their lineup had at least one hit, even the ones hitting below .200, and they all reached base at least twice. Through the sixth inning, Seattle already had seven runs and twelve hits, and it only got worse. Naturally, our interest moved on to drinking heavily, making up songs about struggling Oakland players ("Goodbye Ruby Durazo," about Oakland's DH, wondered "Who could hang an 0-for-4 on you?"), and rampant gambling. We bet on the Cap Dance. We bet on the BART train race. We bet on Dot Racing. And it goes without saying that anytime you overhear someone refer to the Red Dot as "that cheating motherfucker Red", you know Dot Racing Fever has become an epidemic.
The best wager came from Dustin Reed. After the A's had been meekly retired in the bottom of the eighth, Dustin bet that the A's would actually suck more in the final inning than they had the rest of the game. Given that it was currently 9-0, and only one Oakland baserunner had reached third the whole game, I thought this was a safe wager. But once Frank Menechino's throwing error opened the door for a four-run Mariner ninth inning, I had to hang my head and pay up. Not even my chant of "Greatest Comeback of All Time" could inspire the A's to get a single hit in the ninth.
Final totals: Mariners - 13 runs, 20 hits, no errors. A's - 0 runs, 3 hits, one error, zero pride.
The following Tuesday saw a promotion in which holders of Two Dolla Wednesday ticket stubs could exchange them for One Dolla tickets to go see the woeful Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Devil Rays are a major league baseball team only by the loosest possible definition of that term. I've only ever met one Devil Rays fan, which is the only time I've seen a Devil Rays cap not on the head of an actual Devil Rays player. The name of the team would be barely acceptable for a youth soccer team. I should know, as I used to play on the Li'l Devils back in 1984, a year where every team in the league attempted to choose the name "Goalbusters!", though in hindsight, the squad which picked "A-Team" had the coolest banner and theme music.
The Devil Rays also operate like a baseball version of the Island of Misfit Toys. When the Mets wanted to unload the overpaid Rey Ordoñez, Tampa Bay took him in. When racial theorist John Rocker was released by Texas, Tampa Bay gave him a minor-league contract. They signed Damian Easley after the Tigers released him (eating his entire $13 million contract), Julio Lugo after he was charged with domestic assault (later acquitted), and the entire right side of the Phillies' infield when they were released in the offseason. They also traded their lone All-Star player for a new manager. With stud pitcher Barry Zito on the mound, I had high hopes for Oakland's chances.
In the interval between games, the A's had some tough times. They lost a game against the Angels where their starting pitcher gave up only three hits. Later in that same series, their highest-paid player (the aforementioned Dye) injured himself in a collision with the Angels' catcher, unsuccessfully trying to knock the ball from his glove. Dye looked ready to break out of his season-long slump that day, with two hits, but ended up separating his shoulder on a play at the plate that wasn't even close. A visit from the worst team in the league was just what the A's needed.
Or maybe not. The Devil Rays scored three runs in the second inning, and added additional runs in both the third and fourth. This made it 18 straight runs scored by A's opponents on our watch. Meanwhile, the Oakland hitters were pathetic, swinging at first pitches and grounding out weakly to second or third. The fans were beginning to lose heart.
Particularly frustrating was Oakland's Mark Ellis, not so much for his play but for what he represents. Ellis is a light-hitting second baseman who makes just over the major league minimum salary, making him ideal for Oakland's budget-conscious team. Last season, the A's acquired Ray Durham at midseason, but inexplicably played him at designated hitter. Now, Durham is a fine hitter for a second baseman, but DH is traditionally the position for power-hitting mashers, guys who don't have to be able to play a position, just swing the bat. Settling for Ellis instead of a stronger hitter saved money, but hurt the Oakland offense quite a bit. If the A's are Southwest Airlines, Mark Ellis is the lack of an in-flight meal. Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U" plays before each of Ellis's at-bats, but the claim of "I'm a hustler, baby" doesn't seem to intimidate pitchers, or inspire Ellis to hit more than five home runs a year. In the words of Aaron "Docta V" Vinson, "You better be a hustler when you're hitting .240."
Oakland finally broke through with two runs in the fourth inning, no thanks to the Hustler, who grounded out during the rally. Ruby Durazo proved he can't be chained to a life where nothing's gained, hitting a home run in the fifth. Still, that was not going to be enough to overcome the potent Devil Ray offensive attack. Even though Tampa Bay managed just two doubles, they came up with an amazing seven infield hits over the course of the game, and 19 hits total. The final was 9-3, and we trudged back to BART, disappointed again in Oakland's ineptitude.
Even though the Mariners game was probably the biggest ass-kicking I've ever witnessed in person, the Devil Rays game was far more disheartening. It seemed somehow more legitimate for players like Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez to be terrorizing the Oakland pitching staff. The Mariners hit line drives down the line, screamers into the gap, and towering home runs. When Antonio Perez and Travis Lee were beating the A's on weak grounders and bloop hits, it wasn't just frustrating; it felt like a violation of natural law.
It wasn't until the next day, another Two Dolla Wednesday, that the natural order returned, and the A's managed to finally vanquish the Rays. At this point, the victory was more a cause for relief than actual joy, but it was still a win. In total, the three games were mostly pathetic, but at least the total cost was only $5.