One of the greatest things about receiving a press pass is the on-field access that comes with it.
Since I'm not allowed in the clubhouse—the Oakland Athletics were extremely gracious to extend the credential to Bleacher Report and (indirectly) me in the first place, but they didn't take COMPLETE leave of their senses—the time on the field before the game is my only chance to soak in a perspective of Major League Baseball that most aficionados never get.
The press box is definitely cool, but it's not all that different than watching a game with some of your most critical/passionate buddies.
In truth, I actually think the pre-game field experience is preferable to the locker room—that is the team's territory and I never like trespassing where I don't belong even when invited.
Plus, it's kind of like a zoo where the attractions are on display and they know it.
Even the most genuine interaction feels a bit artificial and the responses carefully calculated.
Granted, my exposure is limited to my first visit at the Oakland Coliseum when the powers-that-be forgot to eliminate my clubhouse access and I wandered through it accidentally (that might sound preposterous, but the tunnels all look the same and it was my maiden voyage—I walked up some stairs and was suddenly in a carpeted locker room).
By comparison, the diamond is more of a middle ground.
Yes, it belongs to the men in uniform, but there are enough interlopers roaming the grounds that ownership can't be considered exclusive (until the first pitch, that is).
More importantly, the field is like a safari—the stars still know they're on display, but the remoteness of the observation allows for a more comfortable and organic experience.
And it reminds me of all the reasons I absolutely love Major League Baseball.
If you ever played baseball as a kid and loved it, the combined odor of a watered-down infield and grass that's recently seen a mower can't be beaten.
And it looks pretty cool, too.
Can you imagine getting to shag fly balls with big leaguers when you were a kid? Throwing on an official uni and walking out onto a pro field every day?
Sounds alright to me.
Those of us who remember the A's and San Francisco Giants waging war for the hearts of the Bay Area in the late '80s and early '90s will remember a pesky little second baseman with slick leather.
Oakland's Mike Gallego was never known as a prolific batsman, but he could pick it clean at the keystone and hang a tough AB on your pitcher at just the wrong time.
In short (yep), he was David Eckstein before there was a David Eckstein.
Even though I'm firmly in the Black and Orange camp, seeing Gallego hit grounders and chatter periodically is like watching nostalgia come to life.
There is something endearing about a finely tuned athlete, who possesses a gift with which so few are blessed, acknowledging he is at the mercy of Lady Luck just like the rest of us.
And Major Leaguers own the pole position in the sporting world's superstition race.
Whether it's wearing the same undergarment as long as a hot streak lasts, never stepping on a foul line, repeating the same pregame ritual, or some other idiosyncrasy, you don't have to search high or low to find guys counting their lucky charms.
For instance, every single time I've been to the yard, Oakland's second baseman Adam Rosales is sitting in the same folding chair right near the players'/media entrance chatting on the phone.
I can't promise you it's a nod to the Fates (and I'm not gonna risk the hex by asking), but I wouldn't be surprised.
There's a theory that says you can progress through the lower levels of professional baseball on sheer talent and possibly even graduate to the Bigs, but you MUST truly love the game to stay in the Show.
The game is too hard and too monotonous to endure the 162-game marathon while sustaining a minimum level of play unless you're willing to put in the work.
That's where the love comes in because, as much fun as it might look to you and me, any steady diet can get tedious.
Well, the theory goes double for coaches. Possibly triple.
You can see physical evidence whenever some broken down ex-ballplayer-turn-coach can't resist throw batting practice or slapping on a mitt for a game of catch.
The Athletics' manager, Bob Geren, is a perfect example of the phenomenon.
You watch the former catcher lumber around his charges while they warm-up or toss his customary round of BP and you know you are watching a man do what he was born to do.
It's oddly reassuring.
At every game I've been to so far, there has been a group of lucky fans brought onto the field and amassed behind home plate where they get to meet an Athletic or two.
Prior to Tuesday's tilt with the Seattle Mariner, right fielder Ryan Sweeney was apparently on duty.
Everyone wanted a picture and he was happily obliging. At one point, he took a photo with a young girl and what looked to be her father. To say the pic made her day would be the understatement of the year—her smile was so wide, it looked like it hurt and it was still there 10 minutes later when I headed up to the press box.
I'll cop to it—I've grown more cynical as I've gotten older and I'm not alone.
It was refreshing to see that girl's unadulterated joy; happiness is underrated.
The novelty hasn't worn off the experience yet, so each trip to the park is still a tad surreal.
But covering a baseball team is a job like any other—that much is clear from watching the beat writers, reporters, and other media personnel.
They are there with a specific agenda, they knock it out, and then they could be mistaken for a cubicle worker in any generic office in America. Forget about the batting cage and infield reps being taken, I've heard conversations about "Lost," "American Idol," social conquests, food reviews, and every other subject under the sun.
Baseball even pops up occasionally, but shop talk is generally reserved for the shop.
Ever since I was old enough to grasp the difference between professional sports and real jobs, I've been staggered by just how fortunate the athletes are to call what they do work.
I'm beginning to understand that applies to the people covering the games, too.
If you go to a National Football League or National Basketball Association game, you don't see men. You see physical freaks of nature, you see behemoths who can move like lightning and ripple with muscle that looks like it could stop a bullet.
Baseball certainly has some of those guys and Oakland's got its share.
Closer Andrew Bailey is a beast, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff's arms are a heroin addict's dream, and thumper Jack Cust looks like he'd get the better of a collision with a small car.
However, most of the ballplayers don't give themselves away as such without a bat or ball in hand.
Which makes the game seem more equitable.
By "professional hitters," I don't mean your average pro—I'm talking the guys who came out of the womb with maple or ash in hand. Every batter in the Bigs can put on an impressive show abusing batting practice fastballs, but there is always the special lumber and it's not difficult to spot.
For the A's, the loudest trio has to be Jack Cust, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ryan Sweeney. Eric Chavez puts a nice swing on the pill every so often while Kurt Suzuki, Daric Barton, and Adam Rosales spray frozen ropes to all fields, but the heaviest hitters are the aforementioned triplets.
All three produce eyebrow-raising cracks off the bat and Cust, in particular, hits some majestic fly balls the likes of which I've not seen since Barry Lamar Bonds.
Each one is a sight to behold once he gets locked in and you better be paying attention if you're beyond the outfield walls.
The pregame is stripped of most of the trappings that accompany modern professional sports.
The crowd (such as it is in Oakland) hasn't filed in, the live cameras aren't rolling, and the real money isn't on the line yet so the atmosphere is generally relaxed.
At that moment, the Athletics might as well be any baseball team in America.
They stretch and get loose down the foul line, break out into hitting groups, shag flies, and horse around like Little Leaguers. Some guys delight in sprinting around the outfield and others subtly drift around the positions more interested in shooting the breeze than catching pearls off it.
Peels of laughter and friendly ribbing are constants.
The familiar controlled chaos makes it easy to forget these men-children are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and Major League Baseball has become such big business.
And it's a beautiful thing.