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AL MARTINEZ

Bang the Drum Slowly

June 27, 1995|AL MARTINEZ

The Cactus Room is closed now, Fast Eddie Levitt is dead and buried, and the Electric Shoeshine Man is nowhere to be found.

In addition to which, my silver and black jersey is too small, and my sister Emily has lost interest in football altogether.

Thirteen years makes a difference.

It has been that long since Al Davis dragged his Raiders to L.A., and now he wants to go back to whence he came, preferring beer and burgers to sushi and a little white wine.

We called them the Chardonnay Raiders when they came south to mingle with the show-biz crowd. They had their pictures taken with celebrities and popped up looking Hollywoodian at places where in people meet.

But we all knew deep in our hearts that they didn't belong in L.A.

There was never any spiritual affinity here for the guys in silver and black. They did not engender the kind of tingle you get when Heather Locklear walks by or when you see the face of the Virgin Mary in a tree trunk.

A football team has to generate that effect to survive, and that just didn't happen in the City of Angles.

"No matter where they go," Fast Eddie Levitt told me in Oakland back in 1982, "their brutal souls will always be right here in Fresno by the Bay."

And now, it is my pleasure to observe, their brutal bodies will be there too.

*

I am an Oakland boy by birth and by inclination and was working for the Oakland Tribune when the Raiders were born 35 years ago in a vacant lot behind the Civic Auditorium.

There was a contest to name the new team, and the name that won was the Oakland Seniors. It was meant to say the Oakland Misters, not the Oakland Old People, but we didn't have tildes back then, so they bastardized the Spanish.

The result was a roar of protest you could hear all the way to 98th Avenue, and the name Seniors was abandoned. Similarly into the toilet went the Oakland Estuarians, the Oakland Jack Londoners, the Oakland Towermen and the Oakland Downtowners, all elements in which the city took special pride.

Someone finally came up with Raiders, and that seemed to epitomize not only the team, but the team's swaggering spirit, and it stuck. The Raiders sacked, burned and sank just about every team they met, and Oakland loved it.

But then I came to L.A. 22 years ago and Al Davis, his heart broken at my departure, followed a few years later.

That was in 1982. I went to Oakland to see how the city felt about losing its team, its boys, its babies. I talked to Fast Eddie, who knew everyone in town, and to Clarence Blair, the Electric Shoeshine Man, so-called because he put the final shine on his customer's shoes with a plugged-in buffer.

I also went to the Cactus Room, a bar off Broadway, where owner Al Puncsak had turned the interior into a shrine for the Raiders. A Raiders shield dominated the room like a holy sacrament, and the jerseys of people such as Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff filled a wall.

Everyone said Oakland would cease to exist without the Raiders, that the town would vanish and there would be a bare place on the land east of San Francisco where Oakland used to be. And they said Al Davis could go to hell.

*

That seems a long time ago now. Eddie Levitt died of too many martinis a few years back, and the Cactus Room went out of business not long afterward, due partly, I feel, to the numerous martinis Eddie was no longer buying there. The Electric Shoeshine Man simply vanished.

I mentioned my sister Emily, who prays for me whenever there is a disaster in L.A. She called this time not to pray but to gloat. She went about it in a subtle manner by first telling me who died and who was about to die, and then wondering aloud if I'd heard that the Raiders were returning to Oakland.

There was, however, a subdued tone to her jubilation. It was not the kind of crowing I have heard in the past when, for instance, the face of the Virgin Mary that appeared in a North Hollywood elm tree turned out to be sap caused by a plant disease.

If the Virgin was going to appear anywhere, Emily assured me, it would be somewhere on East 14th Street near San Leandro.

Instead of the Holy Virgin, however, they will get Al Davis again, who is holy but not virginal, and they will see their Raiders smashing heads and breaking bones, like in the old days, before sushi and white wine.

I am not among the whining L.A. sports commentators who, like jilted lovers, are casting curses on a team they once fondled. I say goodby and good luck. Like matchmaker Dolly Levi, you're going back to where you belong. Maybe even my sister Emily will learn to love again.

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