Due north from Los Angeles on your way to Oakland, just after Interstate 5 meets 580, you know you've officially arrived in northern California upon seeing the windmills of the Altamont Pass.
And to be an Oakland Athletics fan these days—facing a cruddy present and confronting a sullied past—is to be someone tilting at those very same windmills, hanging onto the flimsiest hopes for the future ("Anderson looks great this month! Weeks has been tearing it up lately in Stockton!") or living in what untarnished good is left in that past, like the famed man of La Mancha (not to be confused with the former A's skipper, La Macha).
To make things worse, right now is simply the worst of times for the City of Oakland, on and off the field.
While Detroit gets all the bad publicity as the great symbol of the fallen American city, Oakland—another formerly great industrial town that built itself through the ports like Detroit did on cars—finds itself completely moribund these days.
Unemployment is at a staggering 17 percent, which puts it neck-and-neck with Detroit among the worst in the nation. Like its state did earlier this summer, the city of Oakland is facing a budget crisis.
Gertrude Stein's famous derogation is more apt than ever.
But during the first weekend in August, no such glum talk would be accepted, for Aug. 1 was "Rickey Henderson Day" in Oakland, the same day the recent Hall of Famer would have his number retired at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. (If nothing else, we can at least credit the city and country's economic woes for returning the local stadium's appellation to a kind of non-commercial purity.)
In fact, the Oakland City Council proclaimed all of August "Rickey Henderson Month."
April, you've been a symbol of a great calendar month, but this year, August is the greatest!
Some of Rickey's old friends and teammates were there with the fans to mark Rickey "losing that number," 24, to the left field wall, including possibly his best friend, pitcher Dave Stewart, who called Rickey a "great friend," a "good fisherman," and the "greatest baseball player of all time."
It left one to wonder which was the greatest compliment to the former superstar.
Rickey's mom, who "do knows best" was also present for the ceremony. There should have been a special round of applause for her, as it was her fear that little Rickey, then an Oakland schoolboy, might get hurt playing football, that started the journey that ultimately ended in Cooperstown rather than in the elephant graveyard of Al Davis's defensive backfield.
For a man who seemed to have resisted retirement with the ferocity of, well, a relentless Surf Dawg, and who many thought would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into Cooperstown, Rickey appears to have finally embraced his baseball mortality with equal parts good cheer and trademark flair.
“I don’t know if I can keep going. I’m tired, you know. I just don’t know if Rickey can stop."
What Oaklander—especially those 17 percent unemployed—can't sympathize?
No one could ever accuse Rickey of not having an eye or ear for the spotlight throughout his 30-year journey to Cooperstown. Even while abstaining from any popular Rickeyisms when being enshrined into the Hall, he fell back on his grade-A material and applause lines for the hometown folk during the jersey retirement:
"Rickey has tears in his eyes. Rickey has love in his heart for you. Rickey is so very, very, very humble."
Ditto, Rickey, ditto.
And one couldn't help but feel chills when the crowd of 35,067—of course, bidden by Rickey himself—urged the Hall of Famer to "run, Rickey, run," repeating the chant over and over.
One almost hoped Rickey would take the opportunity to show that the Man of Steal could still fly, but Rickey maintained a sense of decorum befitting a man who had just joined the game's finest for eternity.
The game itself after the ceremony was of no consequence, like just about every game Oakland's played since May. The A's had a chance to send the unnaturally augmented crowd home happy with a win, but Toronto's fill-in closer, Jason Frasor, caught Ryan Sweeney looking on strike three, "ring him up," as broadcaster Ken Korach would say.
In the silence after Sweeney's sitdown, if one strained their ear, the echo of the happier times before the game could be heard.
The happier times before back-to-back (-to-back?) 86-loss seasons and double-digit unemployment. The happier times when everyone thought the Bash Brothers were merely freaks of nature. The happier times when one could lose oneself in a single moment of beauty and have it be a joy forever.
"Run, Rickey, run!"
"Run, Rickey, run!"
"Run, Rickey, run!"