Is there an irony that baseball teams representing Detroit and Oakland—both cities poster children for economic decline—have played two decisive games in Oakland’s “Coliseum,” a name evocative of the grandeur that was the Roman Empire? Perhaps that’s not as strange as it at first seems.
The Roman Coliseum was completed in A.D. 80 by Emperor Titus, on the site once home to the palace of Emperor Nero (he of the fiddle-playing while Rome burned). Nero’s legacy was, as you might imagine, a past that stadium-planner Emperor Vespasian (Titus’ father) wanted to flush down the memory hole. So he arranged for the building of an edifice even more imposing than Nero’s palace. In the Coliseum, some 55,000 spectators might witness humans fighting one another, mock sea battles, or animal hunts. In the inaugural games, over 9,000 wild animals were slain.
The humans involved—both gladiators and many of the spectators—might well identify with today’s citizens of Detroit and Oakland. After all, these were Rome’s underprivileged: slaves and prisoners of war filled the gladiatorial ranks, while plebeians were encouraged to spectate lest they decide that time might be better spent in rebelling against Rome’s 1%.
Oakland’s O.co Coliseum (the name is a trademark of retailer Overstock.com) is home to both the Oakland Raiders football team and the Oakland Athletics baseball club. The field and stands are regularly reconfigured to suit the type of event scheduled—meaning that it can hold some 35,000 baseball fans and 53,000 football watchers. Completed in 1966, the Coliseum is one of the older American stadiums. And its location would not be likely to attract many Roman Emperors—the O.co Coliseum stands alongside the noisy and truck-laden Nimitz Freeway. Although the Coliseum has enjoyed many successes, including three World Series victories for the A’s and memorable concerts by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin, it fell into disrepair quickly after its construction, earning it the unflattering nickname of the Oakland Mausoleum. Today, in the words of one local columnist, the O.co Coliseum is “a concrete husk with few amenities and zero charm, a place most famous this year for the overflowing of its dugout toilets.”
The players on all the sports teams involved are the usual collection of healthy, young multimillionaires. But just who are the fans? Lots are ordinary folks, but among the followers of the bad-boy Oakland Raiders are gangsta wannabes who like to sport the club’s Long-John-Silver-in-a-football-helmet coat of arms. Rebels without a cause might gravitate to both the Raiders and the A’s owing to the rambunctiousness of former owners Al Davis and Charlie Finley, respectively. Davis repeatedly sued the National Football League; Finley wanted to use orange baseballs and once hired future rapper M.C. Hammer to be his club’s executive vice president. The A’s also enjoy a certain amount of geek-appeal, a residual effect of their early-2000s association with smarter-than-the-average-statistician “sabermetrics” expert Billy Beane, celebrated for his ability to recruit under appreciated ballplayers.
Detroit’s fans tend to be a more reserved lot. When Boston’s mayor said he’d like to visit Detroit in order to “blow the place up,” most Detroiters seemed to take the remark in stride. “Well, we do need a fresh start,” one Tigers fan remarked.
Meanwhile, the cities themselves continue to rot. In Oakland, the unemployment rate this year has hovered near 12%, twice that of San Francisco. Your chances of experiencing violent crime in Oakland are double that of New York City. Detroit, of course, famously declared bankruptcy in mid-July. That city has come to epitomize urban blight: Just take a look at such recent documentaries as Detropia or the Motown scenes in Searching for Sugarman. One of the brightest ideas there seems to involve turning blighted urban spaces back into farmland.
Altogether, it’s enough to make one wonder just what Nero might say. (We’re talking about a man who had his mother executed and who burned Christians in his garden as a source of light.) Maybe—two thumbs up?