The Heartbeat of Oakland

The A’s fans in Section 149 represent the spirit of The Town.


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Section 149 fans show their support.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Five flags unfurled and then whipped through the air of the Coliseum stands as Oakland Athletics slugger Josh Reddick sprinted to his customary spot in right field. After a few warm-up tosses, Reddick turned toward the band of rabid fans in Section 149, an area that is home to the “Bleacher Diehards,” also known as “the Fanily.” Reddick coyly flashed a patriotic salute. The fans in the right-field bleachers buzzed with excitement and appreciation for their favorite player.

The Bleacher Diehards are arguably one of the most famous group of spectators in Major League Baseball. Scenes of their wild, arm-waving homage to former reliever Grant Balfour are played repeatedly in video montages at the Oakland Coliseum and on the MLB Network.

In many ways, the Fanily represents both the spirit of the team and the residents of Oakland: often underestimated, often put down, and always loyal to The Town. And much like Oakland’s protest culture, the diehards are prone to acts of civil disobedience, directed especially toward the team’s ownership because of its ambivalence for keeping the A’s in Oakland and building a new ballpark here.

At many lightly attended weeknight home games during spring and summer, the joyous activity in the right-field stands represents a stark contrast to the sea of empty green seats around the Coliseum. Some of the 20 or so diehards bang out special drumbeats to correspond with the action on the field, while others track strikes with a quick tap of a cowbell fastened to a steel railing. “Nothing is planned. Everything is spontaneous,” said Dennis Biles, a longtime A’s fan who started sitting with the group in 2007.

During a recent contest, the front row of Section 149 rose in unison and began rhythmically chanting, “I believe in Stephen Vogt! I believe in Stephen Vogt!” in honor of the A’s catcher. The chant was a takeoff on a 2014 commercial supporting the U.S. men’s World Cup squad that implored, “I believe that we will win.” A designated chanter usually kickstarts it, said Biles. “After awhile, we become coordinated, but to us, it’s just the thing we do.”

During the A’s unexpected playoff run in 2012, it was another Section 149-created ritual that began as a joke, but later made the group famous. Will MacNeil, from Hayward, is one of the group’s longest tenured members. He recalls one nondescript game that year when he started bowing and maniacally waving his arm to the heavy metal beat that played on the Coliseum’s sound system whenever then-reliever Grant Balfour entered games in the ninth inning. The act became known as “Balfour Rage.”

“I was trying to get everybody to laugh,” MacNeil explained. “I don’t take myself very seriously, but then another person started doing it, and another, and it really started to get momentum.”

The playful atmosphere in right field also helps counter criticism of the team’s low attendance, said Biles. “For me, it’s kind of like showing the people who do show up that we really care a lot about the team,” he said.

Fellow diehard fan Ben Christensen added, “It’s one thing to just sit around and enjoy the game, but if you get yourself involved and cheer and come up with something crazy, you’re going to have a better time.”

In at least one instance, Section 149 is also like a singles bar. Michelle Hall met her future fiancé, Jorge Leon, while enjoying a game in 2013. They are due to be married in the off-season, said Hall, in a green and gold-themed wedding.

Perhaps no other member of the current A’s roster identifies more with this playful fraternity of fans than Reddick. “We’re like his band,” said Christensen. Between plays Reddick not only indicates the number of outs during the inning to his center fielder, but also to members of Section 149, who then heartily return the gesture.

Reddick has also reached out to some members of the group to share off-the-field passions. “I’ve got his number on speed dial,” boasted Christensen. Reddick has met up with some members of the group, he added, to watch pay-per-view professional wrestling events and engage in other activities.

Players from other teams have, at times, forged similar relationships with Section 149. On one occasion, the group brought bacon snacks to the game and started yelling at journeyman outfielder Jeff Francoeur. “We asked him if he liked bacon,” said MacNeil. The next day, Francoeur sent up a $100 bill wrapped around a baseball. It was signed, “Beer and bacon on me.”

However, the group’s interactions with unsuspecting right fielders have also become contentious. Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, for instance, is notoriously surly toward the group. “He hates us,” said MacNeil. And former Athletic Jose Guillen was so upset by the constant heckling that he once gave the group the finger behind his back while tracking a fly ball to end the game.

The forbearers to the Fanily can be traced to the early 2000s. A group of college-aged fans began congregating in the left-field stands. They banged drums and popularized the chant, “Let’s go, Oak-land!” What happened to the group is unclear. “They must have ended up getting families and moving away,” MacNeil speculated.

The former group also attracted scorn from ex-New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who once attempted to have the drummers removed from the stadium, alleging that they were violating league rules. A mere mention of the left-field group elicits deep respect from the current members of Section 149, in part because they, too, have faced resistance from A’s management following numerous public displays of opposition to team co-owner Lew Wolff and his attempts to move the team to San Jose.

Since 2008, Leon has periodically hanged anti-ownership signs in right field. One, in particular, read, “Wolff lied, he never tried,” in reference to Wolff’s claim that he tried but couldn’t find a suitable spot for a new ballpark in Oakland. The sign got Leon kicked out of a game, and it briefly became a First Amendment issue when then-Oakland City Attorney John Russo asserted that Leon’s freedom of speech was being violated at the publicly owned stadium.

Later, Leon started a “Lew Wolff sucks!” chant. Stadium security quickly escorted him out, which led to fans yelling, “Free Jorge!” Then, just last season, stadium management again removed Leon, this time for posting a sign that simply read, “Sell.” Leon held the placard not in 149, but while sitting behind home plate, in the direct sightline of TV cameras. “They tried to take my sign, and then I got body slammed to the ground,” Leon recalled.

Unlike other members of Section 149, Leon’s fiancée Hall said she’s in no hurry for the A’s to build a new ballpark in Oakland. “I’m in the minority,” she said. “I would just be happy if they stayed here. I don’t mind the Coliseum. It’s not the nicest place, and we don’t have sushi or beer gardens, but I like it.”

On a cool weeknight in late May, Reddick did his best to stem the tide of what ultimately would become a dreadful four-game sweep of the A’s by the despised Yankees. Reddick slammed a booming solo homerun that landed two sections to the right of the Fanily, igniting a round of high-fives and a barrage of frenetic drumming. But a few innings later, sadness struck. While sliding headfirst into second base, Section 149’s favorite player broke his finger. Reddick would miss the next six weeks of the season.

For his legion in right field, however, the beat would go on.

2016-07-21 11:26 AM

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