Welcome to the neighborhood
Baseball brought them together, but the bond among fans in section 135 extends beyond AT&T Park
This story appears in the July 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
LORD ALMIGHTY, this woman can yell.
The sound fills the air so completely that it's impossible to believe it's emanating from just one mouth. There's something strangely poetic in the cadence, though, and the more you hear it, the more lyrical it becomes. The tone and pitch are hard to pinpoint, somewhere between operatic contralto and irate Bronx truck driver. Right now the voice is aimed like a bazooka at Diamondbacks leftfielder Gerardo Parra.
"Paaar ... ra! Paaar ... ra! You're terrible, Parra!"
This voice -- this huge anvil of a voice -- pours out like lava from the stands near the leftfield foul pole at AT&T Park. Parra, like many before him, is intent on ignoring the voice. He has been dealing with it since he took the field in the bottom of the first, but the volume and intensity of it picked up exponentially after the Giants' Miguel Tejada successfully challenged Parra's arm in the bottom of the sixth and turned a base hit down the line into a double.
"Paaar ... ra! An old man ran on you, Parra!"
He's really fighting it now. Everyone in and around Section 135 is laughing, and Parra's body language is saying one thing: Who the hell is that? He's dying to look, and she's waiting for it. Lori Gruschka has gotten inside the head of men far more accomplished than Parra. This voice has hounded leftfielders for more than three decades, first at Candlestick Park and now here. She's dropped a Tootsie Roll Pop on the field for Luis Gonzalez (he ate it), worn a Manny Ramirez wig and held circus-size red scissors while hounding Ramirez (he laughed and waved). She organized a females-only heckling roundelay when journeyman Al Martin faced accusations of bigamy. ("No, I'm his wife." "No, I'm his wife.")
Finally, Parra can't take it anymore. You would have to be a Buckingham Palace guard to ignore this. The player turns his head ever so slightly toward the foul pole, hoping to catch a glimpse without making it obvious, hoping to glance quickly in her direction without her noticing and ...
Gruschka caught him. More laughter from her friends and co-conspirators. Parra kicks at the grass, turns toward center and pretends to have something to say to teammate Chris Young. Gruschka lives for this, for the moment when it's clear she has imposed her will on at least one member of the enemy. Her creativity is unquestioned but never profane. (Sample from the 1980s: "What's that smell? O-berk-fell!") "When they turn, they're in trouble," she says. "Then I know I've got 'em."
THIS IS A story about people and a place, and how lives can be altered by a common interest. Start with a wide-angle overhead of AT&T Park, the glorious stadium amid a beautiful city, next to the shimmering water, and narrow it down to about 30 seats just on the foul side of the leftfield foul pole.
This is where baseball feels right: away from the toque-topped chefs at club level and the waiters and waitresses at field level, close enough for true fans to feel like they're part of the action. Most of Section 135 has had season tickets in this corner of the ballpark since it opened in 2000, when the words "Giants" and "World Series" were merely taunts. These folks were complete strangers before baseball intervened; now they celebrate births, mourn deaths and mark the passage of time by baseball milestones. They're all veterans of Candlestick Park too, which tells you they're here for the game and not the garlic fries or trendy vibe.
Meet Bonnie Homan, a 58-year-old professor of information systems at San Francisco State. Depending on who's doing the describing, Homan is either the section's den mother, godmother or ambassador. She makes Giants-themed jewelry for members of Section 135 and organizes a dinner party every February on the day pitchers and catchers report. "You catch up on what everyone's been doing, then you talk baseball," she says. Homan's homemade "MVP" signs ended up on the front of the team's calendar in 2002 after the entire section held them up for Barry Bonds to see. Another sign -- "Burba Fever" -- commemorating the brief return of pitcher Dave Burba in 2004, caused Giants reliever Jason Christiansen to practically fall down laughing on a bullpen mound.
Homan's son Jeff, a 33-year-old Cal-educated engineer, is the guy who took a photograph of the view from his seat and then painted it on the wall of his newborn son's nursery, just to make sure it's the first thing the boy sees in the morning and the last at night. Jeff's wedding programs were designed like lineup cards. He and his mom go to the games; their nonfan spouses stay away from the park.
There's Dave McAdam, a software engineer who's been in and out of chemotherapy since 2009, battling stomach cancer. He missed Opening Day for the first time in 25 years and didn't make his first game until late May. McAdam, who was a high school teammate of Bonds', sits behind the Homans, about 10 feet to the left of Gruschka. Shortly after McAdam's diagnosis, Gruschka told his family, "You guys take care of the Catholic prayers; I've got the Jewish ones covered." Homan got Giants announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper to send well wishes over the air during one of McAdam's hospital stays. "That about blew me away," says the 47-year-old McAdam. Rumor has it, Homan also had a hand in managing to persuading one of his nurses to smuggle him a beer and a hot dog while he watched the Giants on Opening Day.
Arlene Farley is a mild-mannered 64-year-old retired schoolteacher who sometimes brings her homegrown tomatoes to the ballpark. She shocked everyone two years ago when she vehemently defended Gruschka against allegations of profanity after a drunken one-timer took offense to Gruschka's insistence that the interloper sit down. "She's here every day," Farley told security guards, vouching for the 49-year-old Gruschka, "and she's never cussed once."
Says Gruschka, a retired customer service representative, "The funny thing is, if I had been a student in her class, I would have been a nightmare for her."
Where else can you find camaraderie like this? Where else can people gather and share this much life? In your neighborhood? Chances are, the folks next door and across the street are too consumed with their jobs and their kids and their bills to sit around together for three hours 81 times a year. At the office? It's unlikely that corporate hierarchies and petty infighting could ever be dropped long enough to foster the kind of egalitarian bonhomie found in and around 135.
When Farley's son, career Army air traffic controller Milton Farley Jr., was dispatched to Afghanistan last summer, Homan asked for his address and secretly organized a care package. Everybody contributed. A month later, they did it again, even though none of them had met Milton. "When I think about it," Farley says, "it brings tears to my eyes."
Axel and Shane Broome, 13-year-old twins and hecklers-in-training from Oakland, attend Giants games with their attorney parents, Greg and Shannon, and 9-year-old brother Rudy. When the twins had a Little League playoff game three summers ago, Homan picked up Gruschka and drove about 50 miles to the East Bay from their homes south of San Francisco.
"Please don't heckle," Shannon told Gruschka.
Gruschka looked at her funny and said, "Did you really think I'd heckle Little Leaguers?"
Diane Sundberg, who sits directly behind Homan, lives in the section of San Bruno that was devastated by a gas-pipeline explosion last September. Her home was one of the few that were spared, and the Giants' title run became her refuge. "My neighborhood was empty, and coming to the games helped me feel normal," says Sundberg, a 68-year-old receptionist. "My ballpark family got me out of the house."
Together they're a collection of Everybodies -- professors and lawyers, retirees and Little Leaguers -- who come together during every homestand to become a collective Somebody. It started with baseball and spilled over into life beyond the ballpark. Technically, they're not all inhabitants of 135 -- some are in the 134 wedge with Gruschka -- but 135 is the epicenter, and Gruschka is the featured performer. Nobody can believe how much she sees for someone who's legally blind. She has no vision in her right eye and has tunnel vision in her left as a result of a condition that causes pressure on the optic nerves. "I could call balls and strikes from here," she says. She underwent brain surgery in 2004 to insert a shunt. She scheduled it during a Giants road trip and worried she wouldn't recover in time to see Barry Bonds hit No. 700 at home.
He hit it in her first game back.
Whenever Gruschka skips a game, she gets three or four calls from her friends in 135. A missed Dodger series last year nearly caused the crew to put out an APB on her. (Her dog needed surgery.) "Without baseball, I'd probably never get out of bed," she says. "And without these people, baseball wouldn't be the same."
Gruschka used to carry a Swiss Army knife in case someone decided a beach ball was a good idea. She welcomed veteran outfielder Dave Roberts to the team in a parking-lot conversation in 2007. "Really?" he asked. "You sure haven't been nice to me when I've been standing out there all these years." And there was the time Marcus Thames, playing for the Tigers, thought Gruschka's taunts were so entertaining that he told her to come down by the dugout, where he introduced her to manager Jim Leyland during batting practice and gave her an autographed bat.
Her section mates have their favorite Lori stories, and the most oft-repeated concerns bridesmaids, tiaras and the wave. Gruschka hates the wave, of course, and everybody who engages in it, so she broke up the wave-making revelry of a bachelorette party by yelling in a tone usually reserved for a Dodger leftfielder: "Bridesmaids! Bridesmaids! We don't do that here. Briiiides ... maids!"
Every ballpark has a few fans like Gruschka, semi-famous for their antics. Early on, the folks in 135 didn't quite know what to think of her. "They kind of freaked out when they first got a load of me," Gruschka says. (Ditto the AT&T ushers. "This is a ballpark," she reminded them, "not church." And now? Her friends in the stands jokingly collect money for Lori's Bail Fund, just in case. Back in the Candlestick days, as Gruschka tells it, she and a mangy bleacher dude known as The Dog started a taunting cheer that has become a staple at AT&T: "What's the matter with [insert outfielder's name here]?" "He's a bum!"
There are unintended consequences to such activities. Laura and Eric Lamison, who share season tickets with the Broomes, also have a boy who plays Little League. When their son Luke was 4, he would chant,"He's a bone!" at Giants games because he was unfamiliar with the concept of a bum.
While Gruschka continues to abuse Parra, a section regular named Eric Lindquist says he's happy she sits in front of him. "This way, she's not screaming in my ear," says the 31-year-old accountant. Gruschka and Lindquist then begin a spirited discussion about which Giants defectors they should or shouldn't boo.
"I'm not going to boo Uribe," Gruschka says. "But don't tell me I can't boo Renteria."
"Renteria made it all square with the home run," Lindquist counters. "You win the final game of the World Series with a homer, you're square with me. I forgive you, Edgar."
Gruschka practically spits in disgust: "For $18 million? I'm booing."
Lindquist laughs. "You do what you want," he says, yielding to this force of nature.
HERE'S A SAD but good story to end with:
Bonnie Homan was the only nonfamily member to attend the funeral for Dave McAdam's father, Ray, 10 years ago. Homan organized the Section 135 gang to purchase a plaque in his honor in McCovey Cove. But while Ray was still hanging on in the hospital, Homan came straight from a Giants game one night to give him the rundown. He was in the intensive-care unit, so when the desk clerk asked Homan if she was family, she thought for a split second and then said, "Yes ... yes, I am."
Homan walked in, sat down and told Ray about the game. She makes no apologies. It didn't feel like a lie then, and it doesn't feel like one now.
Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN The Magazine: July 25, 2011