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Fan Tales: 119 and counting...

How an old record and a Rickey Henderson poster ignited one fan’s imagination

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A Fan Tale by Marc Marshall, edited by Kevin Urquhart

My fandom started before the internet age, which, I suppose, makes me an old-timer. The year was 1982 and I was eight years old. I’m from Boise, Idaho, which has no professional baseball team, of course. The closest team geographically was the recently added expansion franchise, the Seattle Mariners. To an 80s kid in Boise, Seattle may as well have been the moon. I remember the World Series from that year; the Cardinals and Brewers went the full seven games and I took a liking to the rough and tough, long-haired and mustachioed Brew Crew. They did lose, however, which caused my childish loyalty to waver.

That Christmas my uncle, who lived in the Bay Area, sent me a package that contained a collection of Oakland A’s trinkets and memorabilia. There was a bright yellow winter beanie that said “A’s” with a green and gold pom pom at the top, a duffle bag with the team logo, an Oakland A’s magazine with pictures of the players and articles to read. I still have all of these items today!

Also included was a plastic audio record with a catchy upbeat little jingle about “Billy Ball.” Yes, a record, like most kids today have only seen in a museum. The song was in reference to the manager Billy Martin, several years before Billy Beane. In 1982, “Billy Ball” was an exciting marketing opportunity for the A’s, because he had been a World Series winning manager of the New York Yankees. I played the record so many times it was scratched up, creased, and damaged.

The crown jewel of the gift set was a poster of a player named Rickey Henderson. Man, did this guy look cool. He had a cleat slung over his shoulder with lighted spikes. The poster read “119 and counting.” My dad explained that Rickey had set the all-time stolen bases record the past season with 130 stolen bases and that he started his professional career with Boise’s minor league team. What!? Even at eight years old, I had an understanding that baseball had been around for more than 80 years at least. The Oakland A’s had one of the greatest players to ever play the game? And he was from Boise, Idaho? Are you kidding me? I understand now that Rickey was not FROM Boise, but at that time it made no difference.

I considered my allegiance sworn to the Oakland A’s. I hung the poster in my room and couldn’t wait until baseball started back up again. I was so fascinated by the cleats with the lighted spikes that I imagined Rickey diving into second base with only the sparkle of his spikes visible to the crowd. Of course, Rickey did not wear lighted spikes in games. That was a marketing gimmick on the poster, but again, I was eight. I couldn’t wait to see for myself the man who wore lighted spikes

I would like to believe that my uncle meticulously picked out each item that was included in the collection, but I came to learn that he was a season ticket holder of the Oakland A’s. Looking back, the items were more likely a random collection of promotional gifts given to “the first 10,000 fans.” He was a bachelor and, like any bachelor, probably waited until the last possible minute before shopping for Christmas gifts. In a moment of anxiety, he likely saw a pile of A’s stuff sitting in the corner and thought, “Perfect.” It truly was perfect.

I did have a one lapse of fandom. In 1985, I found out that your favorite player doesn’t always play for your favorite team forever. Rickey had moved on to the Yankees, and that fall, I found myself glued to the World Series between the Royals and Cardinals. The Royals prevailed, and for a short time, I traded in my love of the A’s for a shiny new George Brett T-shirt. I hope you can forgive.

The following year, however, an exciting young player named Jose Canseco emerged in Oakland. And one year after that, 1987, the legend of “The Bash Brothers” began as a tall red-headed rookie named Mark McGwire started hitting home runs at a record pace. By this time, I had seen the A’s play on TV for the first time in my life and I was cutting box scores out of the newspaper and saving them in a box. Something special was happening. I didn’t know it yet, but a very special first was just around the corner.

My uncle was not just a great gift giver and season ticket holder of the Oakland A’s; he was a sales manager of a car dealership. My parents purchased a new car from him that summer, so, for the first time in my life, I flew in an airplane. We landed in sunny California in June. I was so excited to fly and to see the new car that I hadn’t even checked to see if the A’s were going to be in town during our visit.

To my surprise and excitement, my uncle asked us if we would like to go to an A’s game. To be at the ballpark was truly remarkable and I soaked it all in walking down the steps to our seats. I was in heaven. Today, we take for granted that we can get live pitch-by-pitch gamecast results practically anywhere in the world delivered to us almost instantaneously, not to mention video highlights and streaming capability. Back then, I could rarely even see my heroes on TV and now I was seeing them in person — Canseco, McGwire, and Carney Lansford. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Late in the game, my uncle called my attention to a batter strolling to the plate and asked if I knew who he was. The batter was Reginald Jackson. Everybody knew who Reggie Jackson was. My uncle explained that he was likely retiring after the season, and I considered myself lucky to see him play. I don’t remember much from that game, but I vividly remember watching a Reggie Jackson shot sail over the left-center field wall.

My fanhood was born during a legendary age for the A’s – days when Rickey, Reggie, and the Bash Brothers dazzled the Oakland faithful. As we all know, they won the World Series a couple years after I saw my first game there in ‘87. Now, more than 30 years later, I’m telling my story and watching a new generation of A’s heroes play on Rickey Henderson Field, hoping that Oakland will soon be hoisting the trophy again.