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Noah Frank: Ken Korach, mothers, and ‘If These Walls Could Talk’

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Noah Frank reviews the book by Susan Slusser and Ken Korach

Photo courtesy of Independent Publishers Group

The following was written by Noah Frank, a good friend of Athletics Nation. Noah is the Digital Sports Editor for WTOP in Washington. He is a lifelong A’s fan, and he interned for the team during his younger years.

Ken Korach, mothers, and ‘If These Walls Could Talk’

by Noah Frank

Many baseball stories, “Field of Dreams” in particular, offer the game to us through the prism of fathers and sons. But baseball families take all different sorts of shapes. Our relationships with the game are unique to each of us, as are the communities we form from them.

My mom was the one who introduced me to baseball, took me to my first game, kept score at my Little League games. We attended one game each of the three straight World Series in Oakland, including McGwire’s walk-off in ‘88. She also struggled with mental health most of my life, something which baseball offered us both a reprieve from, until it didn’t.

It’s one of the reasons why, despite reaching out months ago to Alex Hall with the offer to write this piece, about Ken Korach and Susan Slusser’s book, it’s taken me so long. But this week, I’m traveling to Chicago to watch the A’s play the Cubs and the White Sox, and to stay with my best friend. The one who jumped out of his seat in unison with me as Scott Hatteberg’s home run sailed past our seats in the last section of the upper deck down the right field line. The one who shivered along with me in the second deck of Mount Davis as Marco Scutaro cleared the bases and signaled we were safe to believe we’d finally won a division series.

He’s the other kind of baseball family — the one you make through the game along the way.

Korach may not quite be family, but he’s been as close to a mentor to me as anybody in my professional career. I’ve known him half my life, now, since I interned for the team as an 18-year-old and we bonded over his alma mater, which I was set to attend that fall. Sometimes we’ll go years between talking, but we had the chance to sit down in Baltimore this spring to discuss the A’s edition of “If These Walls Could Talk,” which he co-wrote with Slusser.

Books like these (and the other Triumph Books edition, “100 Things [insert your team here]’s Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die”) run the risk of being a bit too color-by-numbers. But Korach says he and Slusser were given total freedom in their approach, which shows by the surprisingly personal result.

“They were very supportive of whatever we wanted to do,” he told me. “They never interfered at all. They trusted us to do the book.”

The result is an exploration of the grit and minutiae of both Korach’s and Slusser’s day-to-day grinds, illuminating their work for both fans and aspirants alike. It also shines a light onto members of the organization many people might overlook, from groundskeeper Clay Wood to team travel guru Mickey Morabito, who’s been at the job longer than I’ve been alive.

There’s manager Bob Melvin on leadership after losses, team president Dave Kaval on tough business decisions, longtime A’s development guru Keith Lieppman on books he’d recommend to coaches.

“We decided that the interviews were so compelling that we’d run them as Q&A’s,” said Korach, which wasn’t the plan going in.

*** Click here to order “If These Walls Could Talk” from Triumph Books! ***

They even interviewed a Pixar animator and die-hard A’s fan, Jonas Rivera, who talked about the East Bay mentality that runs through the team, its fans, and that concrete bowl along the highway, that certain something that separates A’s fans from those of other teams, about which I specifically asked Korach.

“He actually talked to us about this very thing you’re talking about, this kind of funky vibe in Oakland,” said Korach of Rivera. “Not in a pejorative way, in a really positive way, like this renegade sense of Oakland being kind of gritty, how that’s helped spawn this great studio.”

But the most impactful parts are about family, particularly Korach’s fraught, tragic relationship with his mother.

“I really wanted to write a little bit about my mom and her suicide, because I was hoping that maybe, without preaching — I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives — in some small way it might have an impact,” he said.

But he never really felt like he had a way to do so until this book, and until a unique moment in baseball history unfolded before him.

“When (Dallas) Braden threw his perfect game, it gave me a framework,” he said. “Braden’s perfect game kind of frames that, and Mother’s Day, and that kind of magical day that we all experienced.”

Braden, of course, had his own complicated relationship with his mother, who died when he was in high school. He celebrated his emotional moment with the grandmother who raised him, Peggy Lindsey.

I have my own Mother’s Day connection with the A’s. While Korach and Slusser both list their favorite games in the book, along with a number of fan submissions, my game isn’t on the list.

The last game I ever saw with my mom at the Coliseum was on Mother’s Day, three years before Braden’s perfecto. In the middle of an otherwise nondescript season that saw the Green and Gold finish under .500, a mythic figure emerged in the person of Jack Cust. He’d bounced around on the fringes of the big leagues for a few years, and just 10 days earlier the A’s had purchased his contract from the Padres.

He made his Oakland debut the Sunday before Mother’s Day, with two hits and a home run. In his first six games, he’d hit five dingers and become the talk of baseball. He’d doubled and scored in the Mother’s Day game, but the A’s trailed the Indians 7-5 heading to the bottom of the ninth, and after the first two batters quickly made outs, it didn’t seem he’d have another chance for glory. But Eric Chavez poked a single through the right side against Cleveland closer Joe Borowski, and Milton Bradley launched a homer inside the foul pole in right to square things at 7-7 and bring the Coliseum to life.

Dan Johnson singled. Bobby Crosby singled. And suddenly, there was Jack Cust, as if mandated by the script, strolling to the plate. What came next felt simultaneously impossible and preordained, an opposite field three-run, walk-off blast over the crooked double-fence in left field.

I’ll always remember Jack Cust. But that final exhilarating Coliseum trip wasn’t the last baseball game I’d see with my mom. That one was a lot less fun.

After her health deteriorated, she would still travel once a year to the east coast so we could go to Baltimore together to watch the A’s. As she got worse, so did those visits. By the last one, we were pushing her in a wheelchair, reduced to full-time caretakers. It was not fun, and honestly made me resent her for forcing us into that position when she clearly wasn’t in any position to be traveling across the country.

One time I said something to that effect in a text message to my wife. Or, at least, I thought it went to my wife. Until I realized I’d sent it to my mom.

That last visit, the last game, came in 2015, the A’s having fallen out of contention after a string of playoff appearances. They had been walk-off victims the first two games of the series, and we entered Camden Yards on a hot, August Sunday to watch Oakland get blistered 18-2 in a game that would see Ike Davis pitch the ninth inning.

I wouldn’t make it to another A’s game in Oakland until July 1, 2017, a late home loss to the Braves on a spotless day at the Coliseum. We were visiting California on a long-ago planned trip. By happenstance, my mom had been admitted to the hospital the night before, but we were told it wasn’t serious, that we should go enjoy the game Saturday and come visit her Sunday. By the time we arrived at the hospital Sunday morning, she was non-responsive. She died that afternoon.

Anyway, I think this was supposed to be a book review.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a baseball fan — an A’s fan, especially — and what it means to raise your kids to be one, too. I want to be able to pull my future child out of school for Opening Day, something every American should be able to do with their kid at least once. But I know that’s not something everyone can afford, for many reasons, but especially at Opening Day prices. I still remember my mom taking me to day games at the Coliseum, because some things were more important than that day’s history lesson, like the chance to see Nolan Ryan pitch in person.

I don’t want to force my A’s fandom on my future kid, but I want them to understand what it means to be an A’s fan and why it’s important. Why we’re the type of fan base to whom a broadcaster can share one of the darkest moments of his life, one loaded with social stigma, and be received with open arms. Why that’s not out of place in the least in a book about the A’s. Why none of this is shiny, but it’s ours.

My best friend and I are both married now, both at that point in life where kids are the next step. Unfortunately, his dad — who was with us for a lot of those memories, including Game 20 — won’t be able to make it to Chicago this week. But baseball and family doesn’t always take the forms of fathers and sons. Sometimes it’s about mothers and sons, grandmothers and grandsons, fathers and daughters. Sometimes it’s about brothers, both those biologically attached to us and those that become family along the way. Sometimes it’s not perfect, not full of happy, storybook endings, just about the way the interleague schedule came together to give you the perfect excuse to see each other and watch a few innings in the sun.

If you share those feelings about the game, about what it means to be a baseball fan and an A’s fan, you’ll probably appreciate Korach and Slusser being open to sharing their personal stories. And if you’re in Chicago this week, stop by the bleachers and say hello. It’s always nice to meet another member of the family.

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Noah can be reached on Twitter: @NoahFrankWTOP

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Click here to order “If These Walls Could Talk” from Triumph Books!

Photo courtesy of Independent Publishers Group