Zimmerman: Preserve Oakland’s finest

May 16, 2012, 1:30 a.m.

Five years ago, if I had made a list of the top American cities in which I would least like to run out of gas, Oakland may have taken the cake. I really knew nothing about the 510, other than that people from the Peninsula mocked it and that it was home to world-class rioters and high murder rates.

Then I met my girlfriend who resides in the East Bay, took a few classes that pulled my head out of the suburban Florida sand I had been stuck in for 18 years and slowly grew more comfortable making the trip over the Dumbarton Bridge and into one of the more undervalued multicultural hubs in the country.

Like any major city, Oakland has its flaws, but its infamous reputation has far exceeded reality. It’s home to things like gorgeous hiking trails and incredible places to eat, and having now driven though “the town” several times at night, it’s comical to think I was once afraid to park my car at any BART station.

In fact, the East Bay now feels a bit like a third home. As a displaced sports fan begging for a fresh start with a few unconventional teams, it’s no surprise that Oakland’s finest stood out. For the past couple of years, I’ve been loyal to the Warriors, Athletics and Raiders, but it’s been a difficult adjustment. These teams play in venues that are a far cry from the state-of-the-art Amway Center, the playing grounds of my hometown Orlando Magic. They’re not franchises you look to as models of effective management. And, most importantly, these aren’t bandwagons you hop aboard if you enjoy winning.

Never have I left a game in Oakland feeling as if a championship were on the horizon. I once saw LeBron James hit the first game-winner of his career, naturally against the Warriors, and that sort of other-team-moment has been all too frequent. Games are often attended to watch opposing players compete, and I’ve seen cheers for losses that improve draft position.

But I keep coming back, because there is something endearing about the cluster of stadiums directly off the 880, and something endearing about the people who migrate to them that is tough to put into words. Oakland fans are among the most passionate and intelligent in the world. That may be a hard pill to swallow when A’s games are regularly filled by fewer people than attended my senior prom, and Raider Nation routinely dresses like a group of teenagers headed to a gothic Halloween party.

It’s fair skepticism, but the regulars are more connected to their teams than just about any other fan base I’ve witnessed, and it is something that needs to be experienced in order to be understood. (As a bonus, parking is free and abundant at the Coliseum BART station. Good luck finding that at any other stadium in the country.)

Oakland’s teams, regardless of their recent history, are immensely valuable to a struggling city. However, they’re at risk of fleeing in the very near future. The Warriors are being actively enticed by city leaders in San Francisco to move back across the Bay to their previous home. The much-maligned Raiders have been rumored to be leaving the Coliseum again, this time for a potential stadium-share with the cross-town San Francisco 49ers. And the A’s, the beloved princes of the Moneyball era, have been mentioned in connection with places like Fremont and San Jose. Woof.

I’d be devastated to see any of the three depart, but my personal hurt would be nothing compared to Oakland’s. Mayor Jean Quan has suggested the possibility of building a sports wonderland in place of the current relics, allegedly with private funding, but the Warriors have a better chance at a championship than that happening in the near future. Different markets would undoubtedly garner more money and support, but it would kill one of America’s best sports cities.

So much of the hurry for relocation stems from outside pressures that see Oakland in the way that I used to see it. Sports are big business, I understand that, but there are ways to at least sustain the franchises without shipping them away to less deserving places. The city will never rival L.A., New York and Chicago in terms of financial potential, but knowledgeable and productive leadership can at least set things in the right direction.

The moral of the story is that things aren’t always as they seem. The Warriors, Athletics and Raiders are not second-rate organizations in a second-rate city. Oakland doesn’t need to go under the knife; it just needs a little makeup.

Considering that he drives the most stolen car in America, maybe Zach Zimmerman should reconsider leaving his Camry at BART. Send him safety tips at zachz “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter “at” Zach_Zimmerman.

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