At 11 p.m. on Saturday, Bobby Tselentis parked his pickup truck outside the darkened gates of McAfee Coliseum. He wanted to be first in line for the following afternoon’s Oakland A’s game, which, at that point, was scheduled to begin in a mere fourteen hours. Tselentis and his friend “Ballistic Bill” are among the flag-waving superfans who populate the Coliseum’s left-field bleachers every home game. To make sure they earn their prized front-row seats in the general admission area, they usually arrive at the 66th Avenue entrance five hours before the game starts. But on bobblehead days, when the Coliseum attracts another type of fan en masse, they’re forced to show up really early.
“We learned back in 2003,” Tselentis recalled with some misery, “when they had Miguel Tejada bobblehead day, the first time. Things can get crazy around here and we didn’t want to take any chances. … These bobblehead fans.”
In this case, the A’s were set to give away ten thousand miniatures shaped in the likeness of Jason Kendall, the team’s veteran catcher. Kendall’s wobbling noggin included a removable catcher’s mask, thus making the object more valuable on the collectors’ market. The sporadic giveaway days are meant to pump ticket sales into otherwise stale matchups. If past bobblehead performances were any indication, ten thousand to fifteen thousand extra fans could be expected to show up for the day’s midseason game against the second-to-last-place Detroit Tigers.
When 2 a.m. rolled around, Tselentis and Ballistic Bill were joined by their pal Maurice. At 6 a.m. the teenaged Floyd twins, Kevin and Steven, arrived from their parents’ home in Sonora wearing A’s capes. By 7 a.m., still an hour and a half before the gates opened and a mad rush to the Coliseum’s front doors would ensue, a twenty-person party of green and gold had broken out outside the gates, all of them “real” fans sporting A’s jerseys, and all of them ready to squeeze out the “fake” fans who’d come for their toys.
At 8:30 a.m., nine and a half hours after Tselentis and Ballistic Bill arrived, the gates opened and fans stormed across the parking lot on foot to Gate D. Tselentis and his group were well organized. The slimmer and younger members made the dash on foot, while Tselentis and other drivers sacrificed themselves by getting held up in line while paying the half-asleep parking attendants. The runners reached the Gate D entrance first, threw down a blanket, broke out a CD player and folding chairs, and reached for the pack of chocolate doughnuts. Tselentis pulled his truck into the lot’s front row. The morning was still dark and chilly, but the sound of Ballistic Bill cracking open a can of Miller Genuine Draft echoed across the lot. “Today you’ll get 35,000 in paid attendance,” Tselentis predicted. “But only 25,000 will actually come inside. That’s how it works. They buy up five tickets, get their bobbleheads, turn around, and go home. They don’t stay for the game.”
In 2002, Tselentis recalls, he was “just your average fan.” He’d grown up in Oakland, but when it came to rooting for a particular team, he was a Bay Area generalist. When he reached his teens, he started hanging out in the Coliseum’s cheap seats regularly, where he was drawn to the Raiders Nation vibe that was brewing: Dressing in costume, waving a flag, banging a drum — all of it was appreciated. He’d caught the fanatics’ passion.
Three seasons and only a handful of missed games later (none last year), Tselentis has become the unofficial spokesman for about sixty hardcore bleacher bums. He’s also captain of the group’s softball team, which is currently preparing for a best-of-three series against the right-field bleacher bums. To look back and consider that he ever once supported the Giants “is still very disappointing to me,” he admits. “It’s a fact about myself that I’m not proud of.”
Tselentis is often caught on television wearing a green catcher’s mask with “510” printed on the sides, and A’s broadcaster Ray Fosse has taken a shine to him, calling him “The Masked Man.”
“People give me a lot of shit for those comments,” Tselentis joked. “That’s what I want — a Ray Fosse bobblehead!”
But today it is all about Jason Kendall, and by 9:30 a.m., the line outside the gate had wrapped twice. Hundreds of souls were waiting to get inside the chapel of baseball and collect their products on the way in.
“You’ll see,” Tselentis said as he hung out by his truck while the others held his place at the front of the line. “It’ll look like a Disneyland ride in a second.”
Finding a bobblehead fan at this hour proved difficult. Each person in line was adorned in green and gold, perhaps old jerseys dusted off in response to the team’s recent winning ways. Asking these men whether they were waiting to pick up a bobblehead went over about like asking them if they collected dolls.
One regal-looking woman in a folding chair reading the Sunday New York Times and sipping a glass of chardonnay looked like a sure mark. “I’m a Detroit Tiger fan,” she said. “What’s a bobblehead anyway?”
Ken Washington, one of the bleacher crew’s members, attempted to sniff out a bobblehead fan from afar. He’d seen plenty over the years. But he came up empty this time, then, in a moment of sudden recollection, led the way to a guy in the parking lot drinking a beer off his tailgate. The guy, Washington said, used to show off a whole row of bobbleheads in his car.
“I got rid of those,” the man protested at the suggestion. “I don’t do that no more.”
“Well,” Washington said. “I tried. But you’ll see them. They’re here.”
Tselentis gave away his Vida Blue bobblehead. “In my mind, he’s a Giant,” he added. But he has collected the others, proudly displaying them at home, he said. Even though bobblehead days make hell out of his efforts to be the first one in the Coliseum, he understands their place in the marketing universe. “If they bring more people out to the ballpark, that’s fine,” he said. “I understand that. Maybe it will make new fans. But if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have a bobblehead day.”
As the moment finally neared when the security guards would let them inside the park, Tselentis changed into his full regalia. He put on some bright yellow shorts, green socks pulled up to his knees, and a grey Athletics jersey with “510” on the front and “LF Bleachers” on the back. He drew down his famous facemask as if he were ready to play ball. “It’s not as bad as it used to be,” he offered as he looked at the parade behind him. “But now they’re giving away these figurine things, so you never know. It could get worse.”
When — and if — the playoffs come, it’s yet another obstacle for the bleacher crew. Their seats, suddenly prime real estate, become assigned seating, and while Tselentis and his friends attempt to buy seats next to each other, they often get outbid by eBayers, who, most likely, are hoping to enjoy the very rowdy and dedicated atmosphere that Tselentis and his friends provide throughout the entire year. “We’ll deal with it when we get there,” Washington shrugged before the gates opened. “It’s a whole ‘nother story.”
Meantime, the next bobblehead day is scheduled for a weekday night game that starts at 7 p.m.”That just means I’ll have to get here at 7 a.m.,” Tselentis said. “And we’ll take it from there.”