For the majority of the calendar year way back when, Melendy’s bar in Santa Rosa served a mild-mannered, somewhat nondescript citrus drink.
But for a couple of months each summer, the drink took on a different identity.
“We always served a drink called the ‘Raider.’ It was grapefruit juice with a splash of soda,” said Rick Melendy, son of the late tavern owner Kenny Melendy. “But if it was for a Raider, it had more octane — a splash of vodka.”
Those were the high-octane days of the Oakland Raiders, a team that for years spent its training camp days at an ad hoc practice facility on the grounds of the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel and Bar on Santa Rosa Avenue and their nights at local watering holes ginning up varying degrees of mayhem.
It was in those years that many area football fans became Raiders fans, a group of supporters that has been jilted and dumped yet again after NFL owners voted Monday to again allow them to leave Oakland — this time for Las Vegas.
But when the Raiders were summer staples in Santa Rosa from 1963 to 1984, it was, for better or worse, a different time and certainly a different point in the NFL’s evolution.
The players would practice and train just beyond a low-slung fence that ran around the hotel grounds. Fans were allowed to hang out and watch. Those same fans, if they were of age, could see those same Raiders, guys like Kenny Stabler and John Matuszak, playing air hockey at Melendy’s or getting rowdy at other watering holes. There were tales of Raiders asking managers at Rosenberg’s department store to open after hours so they could load up on oversized lingerie to be featured in rookie initiation.
“My dad got me invited me to Daryle Lamonica’s birthday party. I think I was like 14,” Melendy said.
And Melendy saw plenty of the Raiders any night of the week.
“It was crazy, a party. They were loud, screaming, standing in the booths, yelling and cheering,” Melendy said. “It was always crazy fun. It was never negative.”
Byron Craighead, who spent nearly four decades in the Santa Rosa Junior College athletic training department, spent four years starting in 1971 assisting the legendary Raiders trainer George Anderson tape and treat the athletes. He’s too much of a gentleman to name names, but said the Raiders were quite the crew back in those days.
“After a fun night out it would come time for an early morning practice and they’d say ‘Hey George, we’ve got the flu,’ ” Craighead said. “And George would say, ‘No, all of you guys can’t have the flu. I’ll cover for a couple of you,’ ” with the promise that a miraculous recovery would occur before the afternoon practice.
“They were a motley crew, but they were a team,” he said.
He called his night at the annual rookie party “an eye opener.” On another occasion, a couple of players invited him for an after-hours beer at a tavern in Cotati. Something upset one of the players and Craighead remembers the guy showed his displeasure by ripping the wall-mounted jukebox from its perch.
The Santa Rosa stories ended in 1984 when the team moved its training camp to Napa where the facility had taller fences that looky-loos couldn’t see through. The most cataclysmic change, of course, came in 1982, when the Raiders, unhappy with their lot in the town that made them, decamped to Los Angeles, a town that didn’t need them.