Save the White Elephants!

Fathers, sons and one man's quest to bring the A's back to Philly

J.T. Ramsay says it’s the beauty of baseball. What other sport is there, where there’s an event every few seconds that can change the course of the game, without stopping it? Although, most of the time, it appears that very little is going on.

Oh yes, the grand metaphor for life: Everything rolls along for a while, nothing seems to be happening, and then … everything is different.

I get it. I’m a big baseball fan. But I don’t think that’s the reason J.T. has started a movement to bring the A’s—who once played in Philly but have made pit stops the last half century out in K.C. and now Oakland and maybe, next, in San Jose—back where they should be. Back to 20th and Lehigh, to Connie Mack Stadium. (Never mind that a fire ripped through it four decades ago and then the stadium was razed a few years later.)

As J.T. explains, “Sports ownership is a wacky thing these days. A bankrupt team just traded for Cliff Lee. The Astros will have a $30 million payroll next year and most of that will go to one player. There are some teams — teams with proud histories — that aren’t close to competing. No one seems bothered by any of those issues. What’s stopping us from bringing the A’s back home?”

But … why? Well, we have to back up, in a couple ways, to understand.

An uncle took J.T. to an A’s game, out in Oakland, when he was 12 years old, in 1989. Prime muscleman Jose Canseco was out that day, but Mark McGwire pinch-hit in the 10th inning, and clubbed a mammoth home run to win the game. Sitting at the top of the Coliseum, the world got a little larger for J.T.

I get that. I was 12 years old in 1966. My father drove me down Roosevelt Boulevard to 20th and Lehigh, to see the Reds and Phils play. I sat in the front seat flexing my baseball glove. As we passed the brick twins of the Boulevard, my father, a virtually silent man who chain-smoked Salems, cleared his throat and began speaking a foreign language. He said I should know how babies are made. He said that it is a wonderful thing, making a baby, and he described how that is done, though not in enough detail that I got a clear idea of what parts went where. I flexed my glove. Dad smoked. The deeds of men were alien and scary, but Art Shamsky of the Reds hit a home run that night.

J.T. himself is a family man now. There’s Helen and Charlie, 13 and half months. J.T. is an academic at heart, though to pay the bills he’s music editor at Comcast. At one point, J.T. got to thinking about a dissertation, which had him wondering about how the peaceful town of William Penn changed. It’s a long sordid story. J.T. stumbled on a pleasant part: When this city had two baseball teams. When, in fact, the A’s of Connie Mack were the big item in town, up there at 20th and Lehigh. “I went down the rabbit hole with that,” J.T. says. Since Charlie was born, especially, he’s been thinking: “What it must have been like back then, what those neighborhoods were like.” The future and the past, in other words, struck J.T. simultaneously.

Baseball, in its pace, in its commonness and explosions of action, seems suited for these heavy loads of meaning. One day in 1998, I took my two sons, Sam and Nick, to the highest reaches of left field at the Vet for batting practice, because Mark McGwire was in town. He was playing for St. Louis at that point, and he was chasing the single-season home run record; he hit unbelievably long ones in batting practice. My sons were 9 and 5, and they were awed by how far the big man could pound them.

Soon, we would be talking about something different. How McGwire—and others—took steroids, cheating their way into the record books. Sam, especially, took that pretty hard, how the sacred and profane could exist side by side.

So here’s why J.T. put out a feeler on a Facebook page a week ago, to see if anybody was interested in the A’s coming home. (So far, close to 600 have said yes.) J.T. and Helen and Charlie have a package out in the left field bleachers at the Bank, behind Raul Ibanez—Charlie is cutting his teeth early. And it’s got J.T. thinking back, not only to that game with his uncle when Mark McGwire hit the game winner, but to a time when men wore hats, walked to the ballpark, poured over the dailies and argued Jimmy Foxx vs. the Babe. He’s trying to discover a different time in his city. He’s trying to slow everything down, now that he’s a father. J.T. has set up a rally on September 18th, at Memorial Hall Field from noon until 4:30. Anybody who wants the A’s to come home, can drop by and say hello and watch Athletic B.B.C. take on the Chesapeake Nine in a vintage “base ball” competition.

J.T. and Helen and Charlie will be there.

ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.