The World Series seems all but permanently headquartered in Oakland now, but when it first surfaced there three years ago the thought occurred to the more perceptive of network news analysts that the rest of the country knew so little about the city that the A's could as well have been representing Katmandu. Sophisticated television viewers might identify Oakland as the butt of Gertrude Stein's celebrated jape, "There is no there there," but to most everyone else it was simply that amorphous municipality across the Bay from San Francisco.
So the TV people doggedly set about educating their public. One team of interviewers descended upon Jack London Square, where they collared, among others, Boots Erb, a former University of California quarterback whose Bow & Bell restaurant has been a gathering place for the East Bay sporting crowd for more than two decades. Erb recognized the interview as a golden opportunity to dispel the popular misconception of Oakland as a kind of Buffalo of the West. Last week he wistfully recalled his network television debut.
"I was prepared," he said. "I was going to tell them all about the museum, the symphony, the Kaiser Center, Lake Merritt, the views from the hills. I started out by going on about Jack London Square, its history and all that. Then some announcer asked me, 'Well, what else is there to do in Oakland?' And you know, even though I had all those things I was going to say, I completely drew a blank. All I could say was, 'Uh...' and that's where they cut the interview off. So when it came on the air, you got the guy asking about what there is to do in Oakland and me saying, 'Uh...' and then nothing. It didn't do much for the city's image."
Alas, it pretty much is the city's image, for Oakland appears to be one of those communities, like oft-maligned Philadelphia and much-abused Cleveland, destined never to be taken seriously. That Oakland survived the great earthquake of 1906 virtually unscathed was cheerfully attributed by San Franciscans to the certainty that "there are some things even the earth won't swallow."
Oakland's reputation is a bad rap not even its superlative baseball team can ward off, for the A's, too, have had difficulty upholding their dignity in the Marx Brothers scenario their owner, Charles O. Finley, has come up with. Even when they are comparatively serene, as they were last week, something embarrassing will happen. On Saturday, for example, Catfish Hunter, their old colleague who now pitches for the Yankees, returned to drafty Oakland Coliseum to shut them out 3-0.
"He's not in our uniform," said Team Captain Sal Bando, bravely confronting the obvious. "It's just like a trade. Except we didn't get anything in return."
When Hunter was heckled by an Oakland fan while warming up, he suggested to his antagonist that he would be better advised to boo Finley. The A's would dolefully concur.
Hunter's shutout was the second the A's suffered during the week. Two days earlier, California's Nolan Ryan set them down 5-0, but these were only mild inconveniences for a team that, even without Hunter, seems fully capable of winning another pennant.
As three-time world champs, the A's should be Oakland's pride and joy. For purposes of identification, they are, for as
Columnist Bill Fiset has observed, "The favorite response of traveling Oakland people when asked where home is, had always been, 'I live near San Francisco.' Now they just say, 'I'm from Oakland,' and somebody will always come back with, 'Oh, where the A's are.' "
But the A's are hardly an integral part of the community, a condition evidenced by the team's perennially disappointing attendance. Last year, the world champions drew only 845,693—second-worst in the majors—and this year they should do about the same. The three-game Angel series drew a measly 12,045. Earlier in the week Finley had told the
San Francisco Examiner he did not feel the Bay Area could support two big-league teams, reviving rumors that next year the A's will be playing in New Orleans or Seattle or Toronto or Katmandu, binding stadium contracts be damned.