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.