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Friday, October 2, 2009
Trivia, tailgating and a burning hibachi

By Tim Keown
Page 2

I guarantee you this: You won't find many people whose best tailgating memories include the 1982 Oakland A's.

In fact, you won't find many people whose best tailgating memories include baseball. Tailgating is a football thing, for the most part, and it's usually associated with coming-of-age rituals like figuring out how much alcohol can be consumed before the game becomes a swirling blur of helmets and scoreboard lights.

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So I apologize in advance for the sedate nature of this tailgate memory. It doesn't include hard liquor, accidental or intentional nudity or someone being locked in a trunk.

However, it does include the vision of Jim Rice hitting the hardest ball ever hit (high into the left-field bleachers, off A's reliever Dave Beard, gone before you knew it was hit), and that should count for something. At the very least it should count for more than an afternoon spent with a bottle of Albertson's Scotch.

My tailgate memories also include a '76 El Camino and a hibachi full of hot coals left underneath it by a bunch of 18-year-olds who didn't know any better. And as was the case with most occasions in those days, I believe AC/DC and Van Halen were also involved.

This was the summer of '82, and a group of us that graduated from high school that June decided to semi-adopt the Billy Martin-led Oakland A's.

I don't remember this being a conscious decision. More than anything, it happened because of a season-long contest the A's held that year. You'd call a number and an automated voice would ask trivia questions. If you answered three correctly, you were entitled to two free bleacher seats to a game.

I remember the contest becoming something of an obsession with me. Every pay phone was an opportunity to prove my superiority. Six, seven times a day I'd call. The tickets were secondary to the challenge. In this case, it truly was the journey and not the destination.

I knew way more as an 18-year-old than I do now, and by mid-June I could have wallpapered my room with A's tickets. I knew stuff it probably wasn't healthy to know, and undoubtedly more than the A's expected some kid from Napa to know. All that useless knowledge and sufficient access to a telephone made for a summer that included more Oakland A's baseball than any of us could have anticipated.

Rickey Henderson
Back in 1982, Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock's single-season stolen base record.

Now, where were we? Oh, that's right -- tailgating. So the sad truth of the matter was, we couldn't use all the tickets I'd collected. My haul was the equivalent of four or six season tickets, and since there were only five or six or us with an interest in baseball, and since I was the only one with an unhealthy interest in baseball, and since we could only go when we weren't either working (which seemed like always) or playing summer baseball at the California Veterans Home in Yountville (a place that remains the coolest spot for amateur baseball in the country, and I will listen to no other argument) we could only use my free tickets roughly once a week.

But when we went to the game, usually in Big Johnny's El Camino and -- if we needed two cars -- my '79 Dodge Colt, there was always plenty of available parking. Back then the A's featured a bad team with a great outfield (Tony Armas, Dwayne Murphy and Rickey Henderson), which means the only difference between that team and this year's team is the outfield. Anyway, we'd sit on the tailgate of the EC, listen to AC/DC or Van Halen and watch the meat cook on the hibachi. We'd rip on people we knew and made up stories about how great it was going to be when we got to college. We didn't know anything about anything, except baseball trivia, but on the tailgate we knew a lot about a lot of things. And the food was good. It helped that I worked in a butcher shop.

On our first tailgating experience (New York strip steaks, Steinlager), we realized the hibachi was too hot to lift into the bed, so we kicked it under the El Camino and went into the game. When we returned to the car after the game, the hibachi was behind the EC along with a note from the person who moved it. I don't remember the exact wording, but it had something to do with the overwhelming gratitude we should feel toward the person who did the moving, because that sweet El Camino probably would have exploded into the Oakland sky if they hadn't.

We didn't make that mistake again, but we made plenty of others. We were all heading off in different directions within weeks, and despite the cliché, these evenings in the Coliseum parking lot felt like a beginning and an end. And if pressed on it, we'll all admit we still have a soft spot for AC/DC, Van Halen and Dave Beard. And to whoever moved the hibachi, Big Johnny thanks you.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.