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Friday, January 24, 2003
Working on mysteries without any clues

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

SAN DIEGO -- Where does a 43-foot Ford Excursion stretch limo bearing a huge Hooters logo and a dozen Hooters calendar girls park? Anywhere the driver wants.

"I've never had anyone tell me to move it," Carlos Ulloa said with a sly grin. "Look at it right now. It's in a no-parking zone and that's where it's staying."

Ulloa says the limo gets five miles per gallon, but that must be when it's parked in the garage with the engine off. And his Excursion was not the biggest, most garish vehicle on the road Thursday night. That distinction belonged to the Hummer stretch limos. That's right, multiple stretch Hummers. I could hear the ozone layer dissolving over downtown San Diego.

I wish I could say that I spent the evening riding with the Hooter's girls, but such was not the case. For one thing, I think riding in an SUV stretch limo is God's way of saying you ought to be drafted and sent to the Persian Gulf to personally fight for your decadent lifestyle instead of relying of the sacrifices of others. More to the point, there was as much chance of the Hooters girls asking me to join them as there was of Bill Callahan asking me to be his offensive coordinator for Sunday. Maybe less. When I introduced myself to the women, they looked at me as if I was wearing Spock ears and then turned away and giggled.

Thus, I instead spent much of the evening wandering the streets alone, ever vigilant for an assault from the hordes of silver and black-wearing Raiders fans swelling the city hotels. The San Diego media have been repeatedly warning us all week about these immoral villains invading the city and the hazards of living in a city that hosts the Super Bowl in general. Today's headline crawling across the bottom of the TV screen during the noon news: "Car crashes more likely on Super Sunday."

In other words, we're not safe at the stadium because of the Raiders fans. And we're not safe on the road because of all the drivers distracted by the Hooters limo in the next lane. Thank God I'll be watching the game aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis, where I'll be safe and protected.

Hummer limo
The only way to travel in San Diego.
"I'm surprised they haven't boarded up all the windows," San Diego resident and lifelong Raiders fan Steve Chavez said of the hysterical news reports.

Raiders fans are regularly portrayed as the meanest, roughest, most merciless gang of thugs in sports outside of Al Davis' team of lawyers. And they can be incredibly crude and intimidating inside the stadium. So far, though, I've found the fans here to be pretty much the same as fans everywhere else. O.K., maybe not the guy wearing the Star Wars storm trooper helmet or the guy walking around with skulls, but most everyone else.

Sure, there are some wackos -- one Raiders fans stabbed a Chargers fan at a game a couple years ago -- but the vast majority are just passionate fans with normal lives (other than for the fact that they paint their faces silver and black every Sunday, even during the offseason).

Chavez is a property manager. His friend, Manuel Nunez, is an accountant. Another fan I met was a customer service manager of a bank. Another fan was a three-year-old girl wearing a Tim Brown jersey and walking down the street with her family. Nobody pulled a knife on me and most everyone had a full set of teeth.

Then again, I might get a different impression of Raiders fans if I were to paint my face red and pewter, wear a Buccaneers jersey and dance in front of them at Sunday's game.

All this is driving San Diegans crazy. Chargers fans hate Raiders fans. Tired of seeing so many fans wearing the silver-and black-when the Raiders play in San Diego each season, the Chargers began a new policy. To buy a ticket to the Raiders game, you had to buy tickets to three other games, as well. "It didn't work at all," said Tony Ramirez, the bank customer service manager. "The Chargers season-ticket holders are still so afraid of Raiders fans that they sell their tickets to that game to us instead."

Now the hated Raiders will play for the Super Bowl championship right here and, every day, more of their fans are on the streets, wearing silver and black and rubbing it right in the face of San Diegans.

What I find most interesting about Raiders Nation is not the notorious badboy behavior at games, but that the team inspires any sort of devotion while showing its fans no loyalty whatsoever. The Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles two decades ago, built up another devoted following, and then moved back to Oakland. I wouldn't be surprised if Al Davis moves them again before kickoff.

Raider fans
Just a couple Raider fans taking in an A's game in July.
And yet these people remain passionate about "their" team. So passionate that Chavez and Nunez each paid $1,800 Thursday for a ticket to Sunday's game.

"They screwed us over. And I'm still a fan," Long Beach resident Joe Ludka said, using stronger language than screwed. "That blows your mind, I know. But I was a fan before they moved to Los Angeles, and then they came to L.A. and I was a season ticket holder for eight years, and then they screwed us over and moved again. I hated being their pawn. But I'm still a fan."

"The way I look at is, Al Davis was ahead of his time," Chavez said. "Moving teams is status quo in the league. What other team is any different these days?

"I live in San Diego, but even if I lived in Los Angeles or Oakland, I'd feel the same way. The thing about it is, when you're cheering for a team, you're cheering for the jerseys. I grew up in a family where everyone else was a Chargers fan. But I was rooting for the Raiders when I was 5 years old. Why? It must have been the silver and black."

Must be the colors.

Raiders merchandise is the NFL's top-seller, and everywhere you look here, fans are wearing silver and black jerseys, silver and black caps, silver and black T-shirts, silver and black jackets, silver and black capes and silver and black face paint. Why would they so proudly display the logo of a team that is the symbol of civic blackmail? Why would they wrap themselves in gear whose sales help enrich an owner who has consistently thumbed his nose at them? Why would, as Louis Goldberg, a fan from Orange County, told me in the team's hotel lobby, "true Raiders fan would feel naked if they weren't wearing a Raiders shirt at a game"?

Because to them, the silver and black are more than team colors. They are every bit as much the unifying colors of their nation as red, white and blue. Whenever they wear silver and black, Raiders fans know exactly where they stand, even if they might not always know where their team will be playing from year to year.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.