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Raiders Are Here, There, Everywhere : Playing in Oakland but Practicing in El Segundo Makes for a Surreal Existence

December 17, 1995|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Driving through Southern California recently, Anthony Smith passed a long-abandoned banner heralding the Los Angeles Raiders' coming season. It dangled from a post, its tattered remains blowing in the wind, a remnant of a lost civilization.

The Raiders, after all, had long since returned to Oakland, their ancestral home.

So why, then, was Smith, a defensive lineman for the Raiders, cruising the Los Angeles freeways? Easy. He was going to practice.

Truth is, the Raiders haven't left entirely. They still are living and practicing in the city they have renounced, traveling to their new-old city only for the actual games. It's the reverse of the situation in 1982, after the Raiders had announced their move from Oakland to L.A. Then, they practiced in Oakland and flew here for their home games.

The Raiders' decision in late June to return to Oakland didn't leave enough time to set up new training facilities and offices in time for the start of the 1995 season. To move the operation in midseason would have been disruptive, Raider officials said. So they have been training and conducting business from their El Segundo headquarters all season.

When teams move, there are always die-hards among the deserted fans who suffer from a sadness tinged with bitterness, perhaps as in a divorce.

For the Raiders, this season has been sort of like staying in the house in a spare bedroom after the split.

But in this case, the wife is not showing much sadness or bitterness. In fact, she is not showing much of anything.

What the Raiders have mostly encountered in their final months in Los Angeles is apathy.

In some respects, it's as if they were never here, as if the Oakland Raiders only took a long trip, with a 13-year layover in Los Angeles.

Local newspapers don't cover the Raiders much different from other West Coast teams, or even the Dallas Cowboys, a team every city seems to cover. Local television shows don't feature interviews with Raider coaches and players, as they once did.

The result is a weird sensation for the Raiders. They play a home game before a full house of cheering, devoted fans on Sunday afternoon in Oakland, then are back in Los Angeles by evening, their accomplishments, on the days they win, eliciting little reaction. To most fans here, they are only one of the winning teams on an NFL Sunday.

It is a deflating feeling, one that Coach Mike White has noticed.

"When we were doing really well, it hurt not to feel the warmth and the enthusiasm and the excitement of the fans after the game and see what was written about us," he said. "It's almost like we are in a vacuum. It's almost like we have to start all over after every game. So much of being a part of a team is feeling the emotion of the fans. Now, we're in a void."

Raider defensive tackle Nolan Harrison is looking forward to next season, when the Raiders will be out of the void and back in Oakland as full-time residents.

"I can't wait," he said. "Spending our time in the hotel or the stadium, we have never experienced the full fan support."

The Raiders, however, have also never experienced the full wrath of the Oakland fans. An involved community was something to be savored in the early days of this season when the Raiders got off to an 8-2 start. Now that they have lost four in a row, a quick exit is not such a bad idea.

"This helps insulate you when you are losing," White said.

The Raiders are not in Oakland any longer than the visiting team on home-game weekends.

For a Sunday game, they practice on Saturday afternoon at El Segundo before their 4 p.m. departure. They are usually in their Oakland hotel by 5:30. A second plane bearing family and friends goes up Sunday morning. After a postgame reception for members of the Raider family, the players are back on a plane by 6:30 p.m. and back at El Segundo before 8.

But still, all this travel figures to be wearing. When a team's shortest trip is to an away game, at San Diego for the Raiders, it is unquestionably spending way too much time on the road. Maybe that helps explain the team's four-game losing streak in the stretch run.

"Playing in Oakland outweighs the negatives," White said. "But all the travel takes its toll. It takes away from the guys' private life."

Harrison was the most vocal critic of the L.A. fans when the move was announced last summer. What's it like for him now in his private life to still be living among Angelenos?

"Some turncoats say things to me," he said. "But the true fans are really positive. They miss us, but they are really happy for us.

"L.A. will get another team. But then the city has to decide whether it will support that team. If not, that team will also leave after three or four years."

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