Josh Rosenberg plays drums for the most wildly popular musical act in Oakland. He performs exclusively in a 50,000-plus capacity venue that hosts as many as six performances a week. He inspires levels of euphoric crowd response rock gods and rap stars would envy. He frequently has his picture taken by complete strangers and fields autograph requests from nubile young blondes, sometimes in midperformance. And he accomplishes all this with virtually no practice, little prior percussion experience, and very little in the way of original material.
His weapon of choice: one crapped-out, beat-up floor tom with an Oakland A's rally monkey dangling desperately from it.
Meet a founding member of the A's Drummers, a group of five young studs in their early twenties who perch in the Network Associates Coliseum's left-field bleachers armed with the remnants of an old drum kit, a religious devotion to Miguel Tejada, and a genuine desire to be the Loudest Thing on the Face of the Planet Earth.
In a mere four years, the Drummers have become semifamous stadium staples, their popularity peaking back in 2001 when the team's brass gave them all season tickets and even used them in a television ad campaign. The guys also had the pleasure of infuriating New York Yankees overlord George Steinbrenner during that year's A's-Yankees playoff series; The Boss maniacally attempted to boot the Drummers from the stadium lest they rattle his pitchers.
The whirlwind fame has subsided a bit since then -- the drummers no longer beam from TV sets or enjoy season ticket privileges. But they're still there, nearly every game, pounding loudly enough to raise Jose Canseco's career from the dead. "I think it's kind of cool," Josh says. "You start goin' like this -- whack! whack! whack! -- and thirty seconds later everybody's doing it."
Less than thirty seconds later -- whack! whack! whack! -- everybody is doing it.
Membership in the A's Drummers has fluctuated from year to year as folks go to college, move away, or get bored. But this year's roster -- Josh, his brother Ben Rosenberg, Eddie McBenttes, Julio Palacios, and Matt Burnaford -- proudly maintain their profoundly odd but profoundly successful institution, one that started on a bored stadium-bound kid's whim four years ago. "We just came and brought a drum one day, just messin' around," Josh says. "It was before terrorists, so no one was worried about bringin' weird stuff into places."
The concept soon blossomed into multiple dudes with multiple drums, but though clearly onto something, the Drummers endured some growing pains. First they sat in the upper deck behind home plate, but the visiting San Diego Padres radio crew stationed nearby nearly had a stroke. A few other scouted locations inspired similar bouts of rage from nearby fans.
And then they discovered Utopia. Left field, specifically. During a recent weekend series against the Yanks, Utopia is dominated by the most jovially psychotic group of spectators in all of sports: A group of guys old enough to have fathered the Drummers is hanging over the railing, waving giant A's flags, blowing giant bicycle horns, and bellowing giant-voiced insults at the Bronx Bombers. A few rows back sit the Drummers themselves, their instruments laid out on the seats of the row in front of them.
The Drummers mostly work while the A's are at bat. There's nothing prog-rock about this -- their repertoire consists of a simple three-beat "Let's go A's!" chant, a start-slow-and-slowly-get-faster runaway train effect, and a few other standard-issue stadium chants. The idea, after all, is to inspire the 40,000-something fans (well, for a game against the Yankees, anyway) to follow suit.
"We're doin' it for the team, for the fans," Eddie says. "It's really cool to be at the base of a cheer, to know you started it. You know you're making a difference, helping the team play a little better."
Three of the current Drummers also have a punk band called Friday Night, influenced by the Ramones and the Misfits. Josh plays bass, Julio plays guitar and sings, and Ben plays drums for real. They've been around for a while, playin' the Stork Club and whatnot, but their success and influence pales in comparison to what they can accomplish from the bleachers. Controlling the beat that controls 40,000 fans can be awe-inspiring -- a feeling of incredible power.
Their simple, cacophonous idea has inspired a complicated and diverse culture out in left field. These days the Drummers are often joined by Clinton, a ten-year-old kid whose stepdad brings him to games. Clinton took drum lessons for a couple years, he explains, until he got a baby sister and they ran out of money. But he has his own drum, and he merrily pounds away when he's not shouting random quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail or giddily explaining how great it would be if the A's hit a grand slam every inning.
Clinton is not the most immature member of this little clique. There's something poetic and beautiful about watching a middle-aged man dressed from head-to-toe in A's garb, brandishing a baseball glove, proudly sporting an American flag fanny pack, waving a giant Bob Marley flag in the air, punctuating his bursts of obscenities by pounding on a conga drum, and loudly commanding visiting Yankees fans of Japanese descent to go back to Iraq.
"It's mostly about havin' fun," Eddie says. "Makin' a lot of noise."
By now most fans are aware of this phenomenon -- aside from the Boss, no one protests or attempts to shush these guys anymore. Even those caught unawares when they take their seats soon learn to grin and roll with it.
"Hey, you guys hand out Vicodin or somethin'?" one guy asks early on during Saturday's Yankee game, shortly after the Drummers have executed their famed Miguel Tejada riff: (Extraordinarily loud drumming.) "Tejada!" (Extraordinarily loud drumming.) "Tejada!"
"So you guys do this the whole time the A's are up?" another woman asks pleadingly. "The whole time?"
"The whole time," the woman says, nodding slowly. "The whole time."
She considers this.
"But you do a great job."
It'll get to you after awhile. Sitting with these guys is the coolest thing in the world for about a game and half, and then you want to die. But hey, love it or leave it. No one's evicting this crew. A small group shows up several hours before the first pitch and immediately uses police tape to block off twelve seats -- two rows of six seats apiece. Even the ushers intervene if you try and steal a Drummer's spot. A paternal, protective organization has sprung up around them.
Tony Chavez, a longtime fan who turns forty this year, is one of these mentors, thrilled to sit in a vibrant section after many years stuck with boring, silent crowds: "I used to kick back with me and my family, and I'd bring my flag, and we'd be the only people here cheering, doing anything," he says.
But now, chaos reigns all around him. It's Friday night. The Yankees are in town. The Drummers are pounding furiously. The beer flows like water, the obscenities like beer. Two surly fans a few rows behind the action nearly get into a mid-game brawl, and everyone turns around to joyfully egg them on. Thankfully, some guy in a Raiders hat breaks up the fight. (Note: You will never read that sentence again.)
It's beautiful. It's baseball. It's America.
"You ain't gonna cross the Bay to a Giants game and see nothin' like this," Tony says. "It's not the same. It just don't got that extra get-up-and-go, that fan base. It's drama instead of action, like watching a drama movie instead of an action movie. Everyone just sits there and only cheers for one player. It's a different kind of fan base here. It's the East Bay."
It's also the bottom of the eighth inning. The A's are up, a man on second, with one out. Eric Chavez is at the plate. And the Drummers launch into that simple beat: whack! whack! whack! "Let's go A's!" The entire crowd instantly picks it up. It's an arena rock moment, a U2 moment, a rock god fantasy come to life.
"You hear that?" Eddie shouts proudly as he pounds away.
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