An Absolute Mensch: An Interview with Left Field Bleacher Creature Steve “Chili” Bowles
It’s a warm, short sleeved, sleepy Tuesday night at the O.Co Coliseum and the recently confusing A’s are hosting the lowly Houston Astros as my girlfriend and I take in a “sneak down” game. A “sneak down” game is of course a game in which you purchase the cheapest seat the Coliseum has to offer and then take advantage of the slow night and the corresponding under staffing the Coliseum provides on nights like these and sneak down closer to the action for a more desirable seat.
We settle on seats in the left field stands directly adjacent from the left field bleachers. We didn’t know it then but in the bottom of the ninth those seats would be the hotbed of action when Chris Young hit a ball just a mere inch or two from hitting the foul pole (and a mere 15 feet from us) which would have given the A’s a come-from-behind, walk off win. But right now it’s the third inning and the A’s aren’t looking too sharp… again. What’s saving us from anger at the sloppy and uninspired play on the field is conversation and Budweiser’s with left field bleacher season ticket holder, Steve “Chili” Bowles and his take on all things Athletics. “Chili”, in addition to being an ace photographer (seriously, the kid can snap something fierce. Check out his work here), master of the grill, season ticket holder who makes it to 70 or more games a year and all around helluva guy, was kind enough to partake in an interview on what it’s like being so ingrained in the culture at the Coliseum. Special green and gold thanks to “Chili” for taking the time out and helping uncover what it’s like to be a die hard A’s fan and a part of the “Left Field Bleacher Crew”: arguably baseball’s most dynamic, rabid, loyal and creative fans.
First off, Steve, tell us a little about yourself. Did you play baseball growing up? Where did you grow up? How long have you been an A’s fan? How did you become and A’s fan in the first place? What sorts of things are you up to now?
I played baseball for six years in Oroville, California, culminating in a rather uneventful senior season at Las Plumas High School in 1996. I am originally from the East Bay, having been born at Kaiser Hospital on MacArthur in Oakland, but moved upstate at age nine, and became an A’s fan not long after that, more or less a nod to my roots. After being a partial season-ticketholder since 2003, I upgraded this year to the full plan, and hope to renew that for 2014.
What are some of your earliest memories of coming to games at the Coliseum?
My first game was on May 11, 1990. I was pulled out of school early that day and met up with my dad at his job in Berkeley, and we drove to the game. I still have the ticket stub somewhere. We sat in section 103. Bob Welch threw a complete game, and McGwire went deep twice. The next month, I went with my grandparents and saw [current A’s pitching coach] Curt Young throw against the Blue Jays. I was in the second deck; perched above the A’s bullpen, that night in 1994 when Kirk Gibson faced Dennis Eckersley for the first time since the ’88 World Series [Gibson, then a member of the Tigers, flew out to Rickey Henderson to end the game].
My first game with “Mt. Davis” was in 1998, while home on leave from the military. I’ll never forget how that thing seemed to lord over us.
I can personally trace the origins of the phenomenon of the more modern day bleacher crews to security guard, “Ice Box”, dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA” in the mid to late 90’s during the 7th inning stretch as the Coliseum was being redesigned to accommodate football full-time. Gradually fans started to flock there to see him and join in but since then, we’ve had the “drummers” in the early 2000’s and for the last several years we’ve seen not only the left field crew but also the right field bleacher section grow in size and also intensity. Both the left and right field bleacher sections have become somewhat of cult figures throughout Oakland. It’s a small, tight-knit community for sure. What are some of your memories of the evolution of the bleacher culture at the Coliseum and how did you become associated with this band of bleacher brothers and sisters?
God bless the Internet. That’s how I met some of the bleacher crew back in 2001, through a message board (which no longer exists). However, just like the A’s roster, the bleacher roster has experienced turnover during the last dozen years, with folks moving on due to families, careers, school, etc. In the time since, we’ve been joined by an eclectic bunch of fun and interesting people who continue the tradition of making the Coliseum bleachers an attractive place to watch an A’s game from.
You guys seem to have certain cheers and rituals. Walk me through some of those.
We don’t have as many as we used to. There was a time where we had a drumbeat and a chant for every position player and some of the pitchers, but that’s not really the case anymore. Part of it is that we haven’t had fully active drummers in left field since about 2006 or so, and part of it, I’m guessing, is that the constant turnover in the roster has blunted those efforts. Why create unique, clever, individual chants for guys who won’t be here more than a year or two?
We still have the “Let’s Go Oakland” beat. That one isn’t going anywhere.
Take me through your typical A’s weeknight game agenda and how that differs from the weekend? What’s your schedule with work and how are you able to balance both and still have a life outside of the games?
Fortunately, I have a conventional Monday-Friday, 9-5 work schedule, which allows me to make all weeknight and weekend games. My life outside of the games is primarily when the team is on the road, on an off-day, or if it’s one of those midweek day games. I’m either working late, at the gym, or washing countless days’ worth of filthy clothes.
For the average weeknight, I’ll walk from my Hayes Valley office to Civic Center BART, and take the train to the Coliseum. I usually arrive around 5:45. For weekends, I’ll either catch BART from El Cerrito, or get a ride from my roommate/buddy, also an A’s fan and bleacher creature (he’s responsible for the “Respect Oakland Baseball” sign that sometimes flutters above the scoreboard). If it’s a Saturday night game, we get there early, barbecue, and drink copious amounts of alcohol (except for aforementioned roommate/buddy; he’s a [expletive] lightweight.
What are the major differences between the right and left field crew? I remember the left field crew being more intense last season (2012) and I think the right field has been more vocal this year? Am I right in saying that? Are there rivalries between the two sides? If so, were they ever Civil War like in scope? Has it now calmed down?
Over the last couple of years, RFB has gotten a lot of the attention, especially due to Bacon Tuesday (last year) and Bacon Friday (this year), and a nice array of signs hanging from their railing. For a long time, LFB has gotten a lion’s share of the attention, but we’ll happily cede that over to them.
One difference, at least among the regulars of both crews, is that in left field we’re a little older. We have the higher concentration of folks age 30 and over, while the vast majority of right field is in their twenties.
I wouldn’t say there’s a rivalry these days. Early on, we had a rivalry softball thing going on throughout the summer months, and there would be shouting and arguments and stuff like that during the games. It’s died down considerably over the last three years.
Who are some of the more accommodating outfielders from visiting teams you’ve dealt with in your time at the Coliseum? Who have been the more difficult?
Kevin Mench was an absolute mensch. (See that ridiculous amount of Yiddish I just dropped on you?) He played for the Rangers in the early 2000s. He was probably one of the more accommodating – he would flash us the number of outs, turn around and wave, smile and laugh when we’d “heckle” him (I use “heckle” lightly because he was so cool, I don’t remember us getting on him too badly).
Mike Trout strikes me as the happy-go-lucky type who loves interaction. A group from the bleacher crews traveled down to Anaheim to see the A’s play there after the All-Star Break this year, and got Trout to do the Bernie Lean.
Off-hand, I can’t think of any opposing outfielders who were particularly boorish to us. We’ve had some A’s outfielders to deal with; I’ll leave it at that.
Do you guys congregate in the off season What sort of activities do you guys get into when you’re not at the Coliseum?
We do, quite a lot. A number of us are also Warriors and/or Sharks fans, Cal football or basketball fans, and fans of alcoholic beverages. We’ll meet up at pizza joints or sports bars from time to time. And, of course, we’re always bantering back and forth on social media.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this community? Do you feel appreciated by the A’s organization for being such dedicated fans and being out there for all those extra-inning games and even that 19 inning game this year? Or, is that secondary to what you get out of being a dedicated fan?
I love it and wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even for some Double-A prospects. I’m not crazy about the owner [Lew Wolff] because of his ballpark-related machinations, but I don’t let it affect my enjoyment of watching the product on the field, nor the time spent with friends from both bleacher sections.
What is it about the A’s that keeps you coming back and being such a die hard?
I think it’s because I’ve been a fan for so long, that it’s a huge part of who I am. From a young age, I listened to Bill King, Lon Simmons, and Ray Fosse on KSFO (we actually could get KSFO 560 up in Oroville), and would picture the action in my head. Bill was a master at enabling this, and I was sad when he died, like a piece of my childhood had suddenly vanished (even though I was 27 at the time). As far as going to the games: a big draw — especially during the terrible Bob Geren years — has been a good group of wonderful friends that celebrate victories together and commiserate losses together (boy, we sure did a lot of the latter during the Geren days). Now we have a competent on-field product to get excited about.
Onto the politics of the game, how do you feel about current A’s ownership, management and the direction (or lack thereof) of the franchise? Thoughts on the infamous stadium situation?
I could go on and on, but I won’t, mainly because I’ll go bat-[expletive] insane and my medication has run out. Just the more valid points:
Lew Wolff has succeeded in painting himself into a corner with his San-Jose-or-bust, no-Plan-B tactic. There are three lawsuits pending that are holding up the process, including a complaint that San Jose filed against MLB that is shakier than a canoe full of epileptics. The Giants refuse to cede the MLB-imposed territorial rights (Article VIII, Section 8 of Major League Baseball Constitution), and they are under no legal obligation to do so. The owners can force them to do it with a 75% affirmative vote, but now that San Jose has sued MLB – and by extension, the owners – if that suit fails, the owners will be far less inclined to have that vote. And who can blame them?
Oakland has pitched Howard Terminal as a site for an A’s ballpark, after a brief flirtation with this “Coliseum City” concept, which as of now is primary Raiders-centric (though I believe it’s still considered an alternative to Howard Terminal for the A’s). The Port of Oakland has won a settlement with SSA Terminals, paving the way for the shipping company to vacate the site and for the Port to cease maritime operations there. The big draw, besides the close proximity to Jack London Square and downtown, and the lack of pending legal action, is that the site is 100% controlled by the City of Oakland. The same cannot be said for the Diridon site in San Jose, where 5.5 acres potential-ballpark land had to be returned to the “successor agency” to the SJ Redevelopment Agency (California redevelopment agencies were dissolved in February 2012). In addition, AT&T owns an additional five acres, which, according to a November 11 Mercury News article, they would sell for the hefty sum of $150 per square foot. That projects out to over $32 million for the whole parcel. Good luck with that.
It would behoove Wolff and the ownership group to consider Howard Terminal as a viable site, even if as a Plan B. Maybe, at this point in time, and behind closed doors, they finally are. But publicly, that’s not the vibe they’re giving off.
Are the respective bleacher crews aware of the cult like following and status they have around the town? Do you guys get recognized when you’re out and about?
I think we’re aware, to what extent I can’t really say. As far as I know, we don’t really get recognized when we’re out and about. At least I’m not, which is just fine with me. I can’t speak for everyone else.
Well I love you guys! Steve “Chili” Bowles thanks so much for your time and more importantly your dedication to the green and gold. I’m sure it’s not always easy being out there on those cold nights when the team seems to be flat and the stadium feels pretty empty but your fandom keeps things fun and interesting for sure.
Ready for Prime Time: Steve “Chili” Bowles on T.V. taking in a game and having a ball.
Be sure to check out his photography here