Outfield assist of another kind

In a sense, there has been an air of spring training atmosphere around September baseball in Oakland for a while now. Only without the hope part.

The weather is great. The games don’t really decide anything. And not too many watch them to start with.

So, when Jeff Francoeur and his 59-83 Royals rolled into town to take on the 64-77 Athletics last September, the world wasn’t exactly holding its collective breath.

But what the world was thinking didn’t matter one iota to the Oakland crowd, if you’ll excuse the loose use of the word. And why should it? In a waz, a September game that decides nothing is what baseball is all about.

It’s about watching a game with your friends, enjoying a slow-paced timeout from the pressures of the everyday life. It’s about hearing the crack of the bat, watching them run, slide and dive, knowing both your players and the opponent’s ones. It’s about jumping up and cheering during a rally, sharing a hope for a win, even if it’s only a 60th or 65th, with not too many more to come.

It is also about a certain sense of intimacy: being close to the other fans, but also to the players, like in no other major sport. Where else can you have a nice chat with a relief pitcher during a game or heckle an outfielder for hours?

Oakland’s “bleacher bums” can shout with the best of them. And they can drum. And they wave the flags, win or lose, against the Yankees and against the Royals alike. Say what you want about the overall attendance numbers, but the core is there, all the time, like a family. Or FANily, as they call themselves.

Jeff Francoeur heard them shout, just as he did in the previous visits. But unlike most players, he didn’t pretend not to hear the good-natured ribbing. Rather, he waved back and even engaged in an occasional exchange with the fans.

The message they had for him was simple – it was a Bacon Tuesday in the right field bleachers in Oakland.

Because, you know, everything is better with bacon.

They cooked and baked, from regular bacon to home-made chicharron with fresh cheese. All the way up to the chocolate-covered bacon. Seriously. They ate and they drummed, they shouted and had fun, they cheered and they ate some more. And when the game was over, there was a spare plate left for Jeff Francoeur.

Just like that. Because Frenchy is a nice guy, they said.

Francoeur seemed touched. He signed baseballs and ticket stubs, chatted with them, took the bacon, said thank you and left. But not before he made sure the same fans would be coming to the Wednesday game, too.

The next day, he walked out to his position before the game, carrying a signed baseball in his hand. He spotted the familiar faces, smiled and threw the baseball over the fence.

There was a hundred dollar bill rubber-tied to the baseball. And an inscription: “Beer or Bacon Dog on me. Jeff Francoeur.”

And then he strolled back to right field, fielded a sharp grounder by Michael Taylor and threw him out at first base.

Photo: Anson Casanares

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