Christmas in March? Not So Much for A's Fans Hankering for Baseball

John Hickey

For most of us, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hasn’t impacted Christmas. At least not yet.

For some members of the rabid core of Oakland A’s fans, however, having opening day taken away this week was on par with losing Christmas.

“Opening Day is like a holiday for a lot of us,” Bryan Johansen said. An engineer at Tesla, Johansen can be found at most A’s home games in the left-center field bleachers. “It’s a lot like Christmas. You haven’t seen relatives all year, and now you are getting back together with them.”

If you think of the Coliseum in terms of noise, the cowbells mostly come from the bleachers in left-center near Johansen’s favorite sets, a place the regulars call “The Hamptons.” The drumming comes from section 149 in the right-field bleachers.

“We all know each other; we use apps and social media to keep in touch over the offseason,” Nina Thorsen said. An editor and producer at KQED, she’s one of the up to one dozen drummers that can populate the right field bleachers. “We have a really well-developed community, and not being able to go out and meet up with all these friends you haven’t seen for months is really hard. For us, baseball is a very social activity.”

And this is a time of social distancing, A’s fans want baseball back, but not at the cost of anyone’s health. They talk about the need to do their bit in trying to tamp down the spread of the novel coronavirus, and if that means no baseball, well, that’s just the price that has to be paid.

That doesn’t mean the paying isn’t difficult. Just ask Will MacNeil.

Known to one and all as Right Field Will, MacNeil is a hotel desk clerk when he’s not at the Coliseum. He’s almost always getting to the Coliseum not when the gates open, but before that, when the parking lot opens. He tailgates, and then he heads to Section 149, where he religiously saves three rows of seats for the right field bleacher creatures, including the drummers, who show up on their own schedules.

“I admit it; I need a baseball fix,” MacNeil said. “Thank goodness for YouTube and sports live features. I’ve been watching Japanese and Korean baseball. I’ve been watching a lot of that when I can. I was able to see (former A’s starter) Dan Straily pitch the other day.”

Straily, who was with the A’s from 2012-14 and who had a tough year with the Orioles in 2019, is another man needing a baseball fix. He’s trying to get his game back by pitching for the Lotte Giants in Busan, South Korea. Korean baseball is going through a spring training after having shut down for a while because of the coronavirus threat.

Even by the standards set by rabid A’s fans, MacNeil is a little over the top. He calculates he saw 192 baseball games last year, including those played by the Class-A Stockton Ports, the University of California-Berkeley, Cal State East Bay and Chabot Community College, among others. He drove to the Phoenix area in October to see the Arizona Fall League, taking in a couple of games a day.

“I just love the sound of a baseball game; it’s one of the greatest things,” he said. “Baseball is relaxing. Just listening to (A’s radio voice) Ken Korach, that’s the sound of summer to me. I’ll go anywhere for a game. I probably put 30,000 miles on my car last year doing that.”

How closely bound are these A’s fans? Well, James Sanos, sometimes known as Right Field James, had MacNeil as one of the groomsmen at his wedding. Speaking of weddings, Sanos is a professional DJ, and business is way down with gatherings like weddings being called off.

“There are usually between 20 and 50 of us in Section 149,” Sanos said. “We are all friends, so it been weird, really, really, weird, to not see them. My wife and I took the week off to be able to go to the ballpark, and then we’re sitting at home. And the other day it totally hit me – my birthday is next week, and I’ll be stuck at home again instead of at the ballpark.”

While most of the A’s fans we talked to are self-isolating, not all are. Chris Ady is a supervisor at Costco, and that’s been deemed an essential industry. He can be found in left field, in right field, in the Treehouse or elsewhere depending on the game.

For Ady, the loss prompted by the MLB shutdown went beyond missing the opener. His 11-year-old son, Jackson, plays for a Pony League team. Dad was going to watch his son play on Saturday rather than go to the Coliseum, but the day after MLB shut down, the Pony League schedule was put on hold, too. No baseball.

“He’s gone to a lot of games with me the last 10 years,” Ady said of Jackson. “He loves the sport, loves to play it, but I feel maybe I love baseball a little bit more. We were both bummed to lose out on a spring training trip. We were going to meet up with my dad March 13-15, so it would have been three generations down in Mesa.”

Ady was at Dallas Braden’s perfect game on May 9, 2010, and he cued that game up on video this weekend to keep baseball around.

“I think we all understand that the postponement and the self-isolating is important if it can help stop the spread of disease and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed,” Ady said. “Baseball is important, but keeping people alive is much more important.”

Dennis Shanahan, who has to drive from Sacramento where he is a weatherman and reporter at FOX-40 when he watches the A’s, misses the drive, as long as it is. He wonders if baseball will lose its allure for people if things are shut down too long.

“Not knowing when and if baseball will return, it’s hard to keep up the level of excitement I had before the season was delayed,” Shanahan said. He said he isn’t watching reruns of games on television or YouTube, but he’s reading everything he can about his favorite sport.

“Sports news right now is just about as important as it’s ever been,” he said. “I will read about anything baseball, just hoping baseball will come back. I’m very hopeful they are continuing discussions that can bring baseball back.”

Johansen, whose 3-year-old son, Brayden, is a huge fan of A's center fielder Ramon Laureano, and will tell anyone who asks, has lived a life where baseball is never far from his mind. 

“After my family, baseball is everything for me,” he said. “It’s been a way of life since I was 4 years old. I played T-Ball and I played baseball all the way through college. If I wasn’t playing, I was at the Coliseum or listening to Bill King on the radio.

“I completely understand the shutdown, but for me, just watching it on TV isn’t enough. You can only watch so much old baseball on TV. When you aren’t at the park, you don’t hear vendors shouting about peanuts or pizza. I love those sounds; they are part of baseball and its romance.

All of the interviewees were optimistic that baseball would get going sometime this summer. But Thorsen said she worries about the A’s future should the season be lost entirely.

“The awful thing would be if this ends up greatly delaying or ending the push for a new stadium,” she said. “If we’re back in June or July, there will be a lot of pent-up demand for baseball. But if it’s 18 months, will sports survive?

“We have to keep it in perspective that people are dying all over the world, and people are risking their lives to care for them. It doesn’t behoove us to be complaining. It’s a small thing in the overall chaos of what’s going on.”

Sanos said that when baseball returns, “it will be joyous.”

“When that happens, I am going to be so happy to finally get back to the ballpark that I won’t care about the score,” Sanos said. “This will be the first time ever that the A’s could lose on opening day and I’d still be happy.”

Until then, these A’s fans will stay away.

“Baseball is doing the right thing right now,” Shanahan said. “They had to shut it down. I wouldn’t want to go to a game and risk it. I might be OK, but I have a mother who’s in her 80s. I wouldn’t risk passing this on to her.”

Let’s leave it to Right Field Will to wrap it up.

“There are more important things in the world,” MacNeil said. “But man, I miss baseball.”