OAKLAND, Calif. -- Baseball's purgatory, the Oakland Coliseum, lives another day. The place deserves to stick around for Thursday's ALDS Game 5 every bit as much as its impossibly hardy team. Between the thoroughly underestimated A's and their allegedly moribund audience, the crowds now have the shock-value edge.
For one thing, they are actually crowds. The team that drew the fourth-lowest attendance in the majors, despite tying for the fourth-most wins, has become a hit in a way that transcends front-running. The noise during Wednesday's three-run ninth-inning revival to beat the Tigers started at concert-level frenzy and elevated to Texas-sized college football pandemonium.
"It was really loud; my ears were hurting a little bit,'' designated hitter Seth Smith said about the at-bat that produced a double and the two tying runs. He soon got around to discussing the pitches he saw from Jose Valverde and how his bat connected, but he began with very un-technical commentary about noise.
The cacophony is unfamiliar here.
Empty seats dominate the Coliseum for most games, unless the visiting team has drawing power. On a typical night, the joint has a singular pulse. It throbs out in Section 149 above right field, the gentler baseball equivalent of the Raiders' Black Hole. The area is always full, and rarely vacated until the final out.
The regulars there consort with right fielders foreign and domestic.
They prompted the Angels' Torii Hunter to send up six boxes of chicken this year, honoring a promise to bribe the gang out of heckling him. Jeff Francoeur of Kansas City built on rapport established last season by having pizzas delivered this year. (Hmm, why would a Royals player revel in a pocket of passion in a place known as The Mausoleum?)
Then there's Josh Reddick, an Athletic for just one season yet beloved like a child of Oakland. He has asked a clubhouse kid to deliver an assortment of gifts -- pans of bacon, a belt representing his love of wrestling and a box of T-shirts, also wrestling-related. He has also taken to tossing up some unusual souvenirs.
"He threw wads of his bubble gum up into the stands tonight,'' said Mike Liedtke, 51 and a longtime right-field denizen. "These two guys caught them, and without hesitation, they put them right into their mouth. That's a real bond.''
In case there's any doubt, some other regulars clarified that the wads had already been chewed by Reddick. "A girl caught one the other day and put it in her mouth,'' said Jon Blackman, who has been walking from the family home to A's games for most of his 35 years. He sits with his younger brother, Abdul, in Section 148 and says the Spirit of 149 has migrated there.
This crew insists that the Coliseum always hasn't just sprung to life after years in silence, like a baseball Brigadoon. "Three thousand people here sound like 30,000 anywhere else,'' Blackman said. "It's never dead.''
It can get rather sleepy, though. The last three games here -- the regular-season finale and the first two home playoff games since 2006 -- have been extraordinary. I've been going to the Coliseum for 17 years, for numerous playoff games and the 20th straight win of the 2002 "Moneyball'' team. Nothing has been quite like this, not even when the stadium had the upper deck filled, instead of tarped off so that the ownership can fake a scarcity of seats.
A group of fans dedicated to keeping the team in Oakland delivered a petition to the team this week, demanding the rollback of the tarps so that more people could attend playoff games. The issue remains unresolved, although there have been hints that an ALCS engagement would re-open the upper deck. The sentiment behind the petition thunders through the stadium with every chant of "Let's Go Oakland," believed to be the only geographically oriented, as opposed to mascot-centric, cheer in American pro sports.
The chant predates the current ownership's ardent longing for a new home in San Jose, the urban heart of Silicon Valley. But now it seems imbued with special purpose, answering the accusations that Oakland cannot support a successful MLB franchise and holding tight to something beloved all the more because it could be gone at any time. The economics and politics of the Oakland vs. San Jose debate defy an easy solution. The Coliseum truly is a dump, its amenity shortage undoubtedly attributable, to some extent, to friction between the municipality that owns it and the roving-eyed tenants.
On Wednesday night, though, its dumpiness had majesty to it. Fans refused to leave until ushers politely maneuvered them to the exits.
The corridors, so gray and charmless as to be unfathomable to anyone accustomed to the chic-ness of newer parks like the Giants' home across the Bay, almost shook with the sounds of chanting and hand-slapping. The scene matched the giddy pile of bodies on the field after Coco Crisp's game-winning single and the pie-in-face ritual he endured a few minutes later.
Would this brand of madness be possible anywhere else? In the clubhouse, A's players couldn't really answer that. A happy numbness had settled in, exactly what they need to maintain their game faces for Thursday.
"I didn't know I got cut on my eye,'' Reddick said, when a reporter asked about a red gash below his right brow. He ran a finger over the mark. "On this side? Huh, probably happened when I got trampled down in the celebration. There was a few of us … I think, that got knocked down. I remember getting my toe stepped on and getting my elbow scraped up a little, but it's well worth it.''
He showed off the elbow scratches, which hinted at a bad encounter with a large cat or a football player's rash from artificial turf. His enjoyment of the gross hit its limit when he learned the ultimate destination of his gum.
"I think that's horribly disgusting in one manner,'' he said, "but whatever floats your boat.''
In Oakland right now, that means embracing the beauty of the moment, crowding into an unlovable place and fervently hoping to be there through October.