The world of sports is a strange place to look for heroes, and I’m not just talking about the money thing. I should be, but no – millions of dollars paid to a dude who can throw a ball really fast is none of my business. It makes a lot of money for some old men behind closed doors. To each their own.
Heroes are those that display courage and self sacrifice, accomplish impossible feats, and act as a sort of savior. In the structured mythology of heroism this last detail is the underlying key to it – something must be saved. Superman is a hero. The Man of Steel stopped countless bullets and pretty much kept the entire population of Metropolis alive. Firemen and police officers are known for their heroic deeds done daily.
Baseball players? Well, they can run really fast and hit balls incredibly far.
The colors green and yellow don’t mean much on their own. Toss them both on a white jersey, stitch giant letters across the chest that read ATHLETICS and then they mean something. At least to me. I started my bout with baseball fandom in elementary school and when you’re that young the concept of “hero” basically means anyone you see on television. Everyone I knew had their favorite player; a name you would shout out every time you were at bat. “Ricky Henderson!” Then you’d take Ricky’s squat batting stance.
This was 1987 in California’s east bay, where the Oakland Athletics were the local team. 1987, the year Jose Canseco played his first full season of professional baseball. In 1988 Mark McGwire came to Oakland. Both won the American League rookie of the year award and in 1989 Walt Weiss won, giving Oakland three in a row.
My friends and I were lucky. Had we grown up in Baltimore we’d be looking to the last place Orioles for local heroes. I’m not sure if it is in fact luck at all because if we had grown up in Baltimore we would’ve created a world that made Cal and Billy Ripken kings.
My first baseball games were at the Oakland Coliseum, that mammoth concrete donut positioned at the side of the freeway in the gray industrial sprawl of Oakland. Nearby San Francisco had Candlestick Park infinite glory in Willie Mays, earthquakes, and a glamorous version of itself but Oakland had grit. It was a city that threatened you to visit represented by a team that couldn’t lose. There was a rumor that Mark McGwire lived close to us, somewhere in Orinda. Or Moraga. Maybe Danville. Really, any time you saw a large house you always assumed, “Someone rich must live there.” As kids the richest people we knew were the Oakland A’s.
INTERRUPTING ASIDE: It’s always baffled me how sports teams work. It would seem right for your local team to be made up of locals. So if your team is the Oakland A’s, everyone on the team would be from the area. This would truly represent the spirit and quality of the people of Oakland. That’s not how it works and that’s a shame. The closest we get to that is in little league and I’m way too old for that.
It’s a strange phenomena we experience as kids. That feeling of excitement and joy when we see our favorite athlete or star. We look back and say those were our “heroes” but they weren’t really – they were just people who did performed a task very well. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire weren’t my heroes. They never saved me. In fact, they never did anything for me, personally, but to see them play the game gave me a charge that I still can’t explain. Even now, if I see an Oakland A’s logo there’s an eerie sort of pride I feel.
It has become an adult shame that I hold the team in my heart knowing that it doesn’t represent anything real or true about my home. It is, like all of sports, just a business. That was made clear in 1994 with the strike. I lost my love of baseball at that moment – the drug abuse, steroid charges, and general meathead posturing doesn’t phase me anymore. It’s expected now. Like Oakland, professional sports is threatening us to like it.
Maybe I had no heroes growing up and perhaps I still don’t, but it’s always nice to have someone to look up to. We like to romanticize our childhoods and the events that make them unique to us. We mythologize them as warm summers at baseball games and perfect Christmases, or we see them as a constant string of horrific events that we had to get through, so now it excuses our behavior in adulthood. I think of mine more like STAND BY ME. A bunch of friends roaming around the creeks. Good stuff happens, bad stuff happens. Friendships disappear and some remain.
Maybe I was lucky to grow up with a team as great as the Oakland Athletics at the end to the 1980s and the start of a new decade. They had spirit and talent. I have a feeling though, those kids in Baltimore would be saying the same thing about their hometown Orioles. You can’t escape the hearts desire to idealize, even when remembering a team that never left last place.