My summer of 1969 was dominated by the Seattle Pilots.
I lived 15 miles south of Sick’s Stadium, the antique dump that served as the Pilots baseball home. I listened to almost every game on my transistor radio. I talked constantly with friends about the team. I watched a half-dozen games in person. As the season ended, I wondered how my heroes could possibly have bumbled to a 64-98 last-place record.
I loved those Pilots.
If you’re a devoted student of baseball history, you know the vicious conclusion to my baseball romance.
The Pilots, buried in financial trouble, departed for Milwaukee in 1970 to become the Brewers. I’ll never fully recover from the anger and bewilderment when news arrived that the Pilots had abandoned us. I was betrayed. My friends were betrayed. Seattle was betrayed.
On Monday night, I talked with friends from Oakland struggling after a similar betrayal. Woody Square and Edward Mitoma are proud Oakland natives, and current Oakland residents, who grew up a few minutes from Oakland Coliseum. They are not the painted-up, bizarro Raiders fans you see on TV. Woody is a minister. Edward is a dentist.
They love – or loved – their Raiders, who are departing for Las Vegas.
“We have so much history,” Woody said. “We have so many fond memories.”
Edward and his father, uncle and brother used to mow the lawn at Raiders headquarters. The Mitomas often saw Al Davis, the greasy haired Godfather of the Raiders, strutting in and out of the offices. Later, Edward would become a devout fan, missing only three home games since the Raiders returned to Oakland from exile in Los Angeles in 1995.
“Before today, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a Raider fan no matter what,’ “ Edward said. “Even though I knew it was coming, that’s what I thought. I don’t even know now. I didn’t get in touch with my feelings until the 11th hour. I was in denial.”
I’ve heard from Gazette readers who wonder why anyone would moan about the Raiders departing Oakland. The NFL, these readers say, is a business. What’s the point in getting sentimental about a professional team? Why get angry when an owner chases cash?
That’s what owners do, the readers say.
These readers miss a precious truth about pro sports. Yes, it’s a business. I get that. But these teams build a genuine bond with fans. This is not through some fancy indoctrination by the masterminds of the NFL. This connection can be explained by family ties, with mothers and fathers passing along devotion and obsession to daughters and sons and the whole process growing and thriving and renewing itself generation by generation.
The bonds are genuine and deep and valuable, and when a greedy owner sizzles those bonds, a sting is left deep in the soul. Trust me on that one. My soul has yet to recover from the sting of 1969.
“Part of me, I still don’t get it,” Woody said. “This city has been so faithful and so forgiving. I feel there’s some disrespect to the city and to the people here and to the allegiance and commitment that people have given. It really, really hurts.”
Woody paused, remembering all the good times. Super Bowl titles. Big hits by Jack Tatum and Khalil Mack. Wins over the Broncos. Sunny autumn days at the coliseum cheering beside Edward, his friend and fellow Raider fanatic.
“We’re hoping it’s a dream,” Woody said of the Raiders imminent departure. “You know when you have one of those bad dreams, and wake up and realize it wasn’t real, that it was all just a dream? We’re hoping it’s one of those.”
It’s not one of those.