Oakland general manager Billy Beane upgraded his pitching rotation in a major way when he acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel on July 4 in a six-player deal with the Chicago Cubs. Beane subscribes to the notion that a midseason trade can energize the clubhouse by showing players the front office has faith in them and supports them in their quest to win, and the trade sent a big, fat message to the players that he's in their corner.
Change cuts both ways, of course. Upon arrival in Oakland, Samardzija found a group of teammates who play the game with verve and pull for each other like crazy. He lobbied manager Bob Melvin to start as quickly as possible so he could hasten his sense of belonging and not feel so much like the kid who arrives at a new high school during his sophomore year.
It took Samardzija about 10 minutes to determine the A's are a "bunch of gym rats." He looked around and saw that every Oakland player had a smile in the clubhouse and a "mean face" on the field, and it made an immediate impression on him.
"Every guy is a gamer," Samardzija said. "Every dude's jersey is dirty by the second inning, and I've never heard so much baseball talk in my entire life. In the dugout or on the bus and the plane, guys are constantly talking about how to get the Angels or the Rangers or the Seattle Mariners out, or how to hit Felix [Hernandez]. There's a certain love for the game that I can level with. It definitely resonates through the team."
Togetherness is meaningless without talent, of course, and the results are as plain as the beard on closer Sean Doolittle's face: These Athletics can really play.
As the A's begin the post-All-Star Game portion of their schedule Friday night at home against Baltimore, their first objective will be fending off Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels in a competitive American League West. But they still have a major hurdle to clear in October: Two years ago, they pushed Detroit to the brink before losing to Justin Verlander in the fifth game of the American League Division Series. Last year, they made another spirited run only to suffer a repeat loss to Verlander and the Tigers in Game 5. It's been eight years since Oakland made it past that point in the postseason and 24 years since the A's played in a World Series.
This year, they emerge from the break with a 59-36 record that puts them in the company of some Oakland teams that were considerably more heralded. Only the 1971 Athletics (61-34), the 1975 squad (60-35) and the 1990 contingent (also 60-35) got off to better starts.
Scan the rosters of those teams, and you'll find names such as Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley, to name a few. The 1974 world championship Athletics gathered in May for a 40-year reunion at the O.co Coliseum, and members of the 1989 club will return this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their victory over San Francisco in the 1989 earthquake-interrupted World Series. Winning percentage notwithstanding, the 2014 A's are under no illusions about whehter they have the cachet to compare with either of those juggernauts.
"It's a really cool comparison," first baseman Brandon Moss said. "But at the same time, those teams had quite a few Hall of Famers and something else we don't have -- which is World Series titles. At the end of the day, it's all about, 'Did you win, or did you not?' The past two years, we've had really good teams, and we haven't even gotten past the first round of the playoffs. That's very frustrating."
Beane had a firm handle on what this team was all about in spring training, when he focused on the depth and functionality of the roster. The A's are fond of platoons and big on resilience, traits that helped them overcome potentially devastating elbow injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin in the Cactus League.
"The strength of our club is there are 25 good players," Beane said in February. "There are no bad players. There may not be any sort of stars, but we have 25 good players and depth beyond that. So we're sort of built for a long season."
Events since Opening Day have proved Beane correct -- though he might have underestimated the star power in his midst.
Earlier this week, the A's took a brief pause from winning games to send a major league-high 6½-man contingent to the All-Star Game in Minnesota. Third baseman Josh Donaldson was chosen by fans as the AL's starting third baseman, and Moss, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, catcher Derek Norris, starter Scott Kazmir and Doolittle also represented the A's, while Samardzija's allegiances were split between Oakland and his former employers in Chicago.
It's a likable group filled with fan- and media-friendly players and some inspirational backstories. Donaldson, the self-proclaimed "Bringer of Rain," is a WAR machine who plays the game with a fervor reminiscent of his high school football days in Alabama. Cespedes dominates Home Run Derbies and makes throws that blow up YouTube. Moss blossomed as a power hitter in Oakland at age 28 after putting up nondescript numbers in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Kazmir, a former elite prospect with the Mets and an All-Star with Tampa Bay, resurrected his career in independent ball in Sugar Land, Texas. And Doolittle, a converted first baseman, throws his fastball 86 percent of the time and walks a batter every other month, whether he needs to or not.
Doolittle is also entertaining off the field. During All-Star media day, he bantered with reporters about his fondness for pizza, his lack of rhythm and his perceived resemblance to the rapper Macklemore. When asked about the flight the A's took to Minneapolis, Doolittle joked that Donaldson, the team social director, had packed plenty of juice boxes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to go around.
At a time when "development from within" is a baseball-wide mantra, starter Sonny Gray and Doolittle are the only players on Oakland's active roster who were acquired through the draft. The rest of the roster was diligently cobbled together through trades, waiver pickups and relatively modest free-agent signings. On Opening Day, the A's ranked 25th in baseball with an $83.4 million payroll, and they have only six players (Cespedes, reliever Jim Johnson, Kazmir, outfielder Coco Crisp, shortstop Jed Lowrie and reliever Luke Gregerson) making more than $5 million.
Nevertheless, the A's check all the boxes. They rank second in the AL with 466 runs scored, even though they play in one of baseball's least hitter-friendly venues. The rotation sports a league-best 3.13 ERA, and the bullpen is third in ERA (3.01) and has issued the fewest walks in the league (80). The A's are second to Baltimore among AL teams in defensive runs saved and second to Washington in the majors with an 81.8 percent stolen base success rate. Their run differential of plus-145 is the fourth best since 1940 by an American League team at the All-Star break. Only the 1969 Orioles, 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners were better.
The A's have a perpetually underrated pitching coach in Curt Young, a hitting coach (Chili Davis) who has made a big impact in a short time and a manager (Melvin) who pushes all the right buttons.
"The best part about Bob is his calm demeanor," Norris said. "He's never yelling at players or putting us down. He's always encouraging us, and he keeps things simple and lets us be who we want to be. He doesn't overmanage or micromanage, and guys respond real positively to that. It leads to success because we're comfortable in our own skin."
Norris and Doolittle conceal that skin beneath gnarly beards that would have made them comfortable fits on last year's World Series winners in Boston. The A's also elicit some comparisons to the 2010 San Francisco Giants, a collection of players who embraced their designation as "A Band of Misfits." Fate -- with a big assist from Beane and assistant general manager David Forst -- helped bring them to a place where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
"It's part of our team character," Doolittle said. "Everybody took this weird, circuitous route to the big leagues. And everybody plays with a chip on their shoulder, like they shouldn't have been passed over and they have something to prove. It's a big part of why we've been successful as a team."
Home, sweet home
Amid protracted lease negotiations and calls for a new ballpark for the Athletics, the O.co Coliseum's reputation on a national stage is secure. It's the place where toilets overflow and modern amenities are virtually nonexistent. When Selig called the park a "pit" during a radio interview this past fall, he differed from the conventional wisdom only on the semantics: Most people refer to the place as a "dump."
The A's haven't drawn 2 million fans in a season since 2005. But the Coliseum still rocks when 30,000 people show up, and the Oakland players embrace it in all its dilapidated, run-down glory. They use the park to their advantage when Donaldson hurdles the tarp to make another acrobatic catch, or Josh Reddick plays the right-field corner with aplomb, or Doolittle feeds off the crowd's energy to close out a save with a 1-2-3 ninth. As the A's win series after series, they revel in the knowledge that the opposition can't wait to leave town.
"No opposing team likes playing in the Coliseum," Moss said. "It's a great place to pitch, but it's an awful place to hit. It's big, it's cold, and the foul territory goes for two miles, so you don't even get rewarded for battling and fouling pitches off. There are only two places that have a crowd like we do, and that's San Francisco and Oakland. Our fans can be really overpowering when they get into it. When the place is packed, it's the most fun place to play. You feel like you're at a college football game."
Samardzija has been with the A's for two weeks, and he already understands how the home environs contribute to the team's "grinder" mentality. It's tough to get fat and happy when the commissioner is comparing your home park to Shea Stadium.
"I think if you ask all 25 guys, the attitude is, 'This is our dump,'" Samardzija said. "You own it and use it to your advantage. I remember being over on the visiting side, and it's not that bad. At least when it floods, it floods both locker rooms. So it's all equal."
Over the past two and a half seasons, the A's have a home record of 132-75, or a .638 winning percentage. That's a big incentive for them to finish with the AL's best regular-season record. But they still have that major demon to exorcise in October. They're .500 or better against 15 of their 17 opponents this year, but 6-7 against Seattle and 2-5 against their nemeses, the Tigers. Although it might have been a bit presumptuous for Verlander to say the A's were focused on Detroit when they made the Samardzija-Hammel trade, that thought must have crossed Beane's mind.
Until the A's lock down a playoff spot and Samardzija lands on a bigger stage, he'll concentrate on pitching well and making new friends. He had barely walked through the door when his fellow A's began quizzing him on his dual football-baseball background and his days as Brady Quinn's favorite pass-catching target at Notre Dame. NFL fantasy league insights will come next, but he's already warned them how that works.
"I charge a steep price for fantasy tips," Samardzija said with a smile, "so we'll get to that once [NFL training] camp starts."
With a postseason share on the horizon, Samardzija might be willing to cut his new teammates some slack on the football commissions. No matter which route they took or how long their tenure in Oakland, the A's are all in this together.