OAKLAND, Calif. — This place is still a dump. And I love it.
This is where Reggie Jackson hit his first tape-measure homers and where Ken Stabler dodged Sugar Bear Hamilton. It’s where Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers were Red Sox for a single day in 1976. It’s where Charlie Finley and Al Davis made their big league bones and where Brad Pitt came to make a movie. The ancient (1966) stadium is attached to the worst gym in the NBA — a hardwood palace where Larry Bird could never find his rhythm. And it’s where the low-budget Oakland A’s (27th in overall payroll) once again are in first place in the American League West.
Welcome to the Oakland Alameda Coliseum, today officially known as O.co Coliseum (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). The A’s this weekend are the gracious hosts of your Boston Red Sox and the Nation that travels with the Boston ball club. It’s a pre-All-Star break showdown of the best two teams in the American League.
The A’s roster is peppered with ex-Red Sox — guys who played in Boston during the golden age of Tito and Theo. Coco Crisp, Boston’s center fielder until Jacoby Ellsbury came along, is Oakland’s oldest everyday player. The A’s home run leader is Brandon Moss, who was part of the defending champion Red Sox team that toured Japan in 2008. The A’s last year year were led by Josh Reddick, who was dealt to Oakland in December of 2011, one of Ben Cherington’s first major transactions. The A’s this year are led by Jed Lowrie, who was Ellsbury’s closest friend in the Sox clubhouse from 2008-11. Oakland’s ace is Bartolo Colon, who pitched seven games for the 2008 Sox before quitting and going home to the Dominican Republic.
Oakland’s lineup against John Lackey on Friday featured Crisp leading off, Lowrie batting cleanup, Moss in the sixth spot, and Reddick batting seventh. All were cheered madly by the ever-present Sox fans in the other team’s ballpark.
“I remember that from my time there,’’ said Moss. “With the Red Sox, every game, home or away, was a home game. We were America’s team.’’
Playing in Oakland is nothing like playing in Boston and the ex-Sox are experts on the differences.
“The biggest difference is the freedom,’’ said Crisp, who never really hit his stride at Fenway. “Here you can walk around the city. Back in Boston, you are always getting approached.’’
“There was definitely more intensity and media and PR in Boston,’’ remembered Reddick, who was part of the Sox’ epic collapse in September 2011 (to his credit, Reddick hit .271 in 20 games that month, but the Sox always believed Ryan Kalish would be the better big leaguer). “Everything was noticed there and you had to look over your shoulder to make sure no one was writing something down if you were just talking to your teammates in the clubhouse.’’
“Everything in Boston was more magnified,’’ remembered Moss. “If somebody sneezed, it was news. I think there’s expectations to win in both places, but in Boston it was more of an intolerance for losing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s just more freedom here.’’
But freedom comes at a price and the price is the relative anonymity and disrespect that is part of the Oakland baseball experience. The A’s are off to their best start since 1990. They have been one of baseball’s premier teams for the last calender year, but they don’t get much attention. They rank 11th in the AL in attendance, wedged between Kansas City and Houston. There are no network television trucks parked outside the Coliseum for this weekend’s matchup of league leaders. The A’s have the second-best record in the American League, but will send only one player (El Guapo II, Colon) to the All-Star Game in New York. Every team gets one All-Star — even the Astros. But it’s a little absurd that the A’s don’t have more than one.
Playing at the Coliseum is a daily reminder that the A’s are not big-time. The place is dismal. It makes nearby Alcatraz look fashionable. Stylish green tarps cover the entire upper deck and the view beyond center field is obstructed by a monstrosity Davis ordered when he was holding the Oakland city fathers hostage. The lowlight of this Oakland season was a getaway day against the Mariners when the Coliseum’s sewer system backed up and flooded both clubhouses. While plumbers went to work, the A’s and Mariners had to share the Raiders’ locker room upstairs.
“We do what we can with what we have,’’ said Reddick.
“The fans here are so dedicated,’’ said first baseman Nate Freiman, a former Globe All-Scholastic who grew up in Wellesley. “They bring instruments and play in the stands and they have choreographed chants. It’s pretty cool.’’
“I had fun in Boston, but the most fun I ever had playing baseball was here last year,’’ said Crisp. “The fans who do come out have a lot of fun and they’re great fans. We just go out and play and have fun. I don’t care about any of that other crap.’’
Amen. When one of the first-place Oakland A’s tells you he doesn’t care about “any of that other crap,’’ he really means it.