June 2014

GAMES LIKE SUNDAY ARE WHEN FANS ARE BORN

I rode to O.co Coliseum on BART the other day and I’m glad I did.  As the A’s public relations director, I normally would drive to the ballpark much earlier than fans would.  But on this day, a family car issue arose and I opted for public transportation.   It gave me a rare glimpse of the pre-game routine and rituals of dyed-in-the-wool A’s fans.  As I stood at the downtown Berkeley BART station waiting for the Fremont train, there stood a solitary man.  He wore an ancient, almost colorless A’s cap, faded badly by countless day games at the Coliseum.  He held a white plastic binder in which he had slipped an Athletics’ 2014 schedule under the protective cover.  I had no doubt that he would be keeping score on one of his score sheets hidden inside.  My guess is he’s been doing the same thing since the days that Campy Campaneris and Rick Monday roamed the earth.  Across from this gentlemen were two teenage girls, their faces painted with green and gold and both displaying huge A’s We’re Number One foam fingers.  It was clear this was not their first Elephant rodeo.

Yet it might have been a family riding in my BART car that truly captured the essence of why going to an Oakland A’s game is such a special, time-honored activity.   Crossing multiple generations, there was a young boy—probably four years old—wearing a green-and-gold cap that was three sizes too large for him which made the cloth sides buckle outward.  With him were his grandparents, also adorned in Athletics gear, as well as his parents.  Squirming in his seat, it was obvious the young A’s fan was excited about the family outing to the Coliseum.   He was probably already envisioning the lush  green  expanse of the playing field, the smell  of freshly-cooked  hot  dogs,  and of course, the likely chance  that  sometime  during the game Stomper,  the A’s famous mascot, might pay him a  visit.  And if he is really, really lucky, he might even see a Yoenis Cespedes home run!  As the BART train left Fruitvale Station, the grandfather with the kind face decided to rev up his grandson even further.  “We’re almost at the Coliseum.  Look for the lights!  Look for the lights!  It’s almost time to get off.”   Wide-eyed and with a smile from ear to ear, the young boy raised his small right arm, and at the top of his lungs, he yelled, “Go A’s!”

For many years, I have good-naturedly jousted with my marketing counterparts at various teams in which I’ve worked for.  The debate centers on the merits of promotional giveaways and attracting new customers like this aforementioned boy.  As we saw Sunday at the Coliseum, the lines formed early as fans positioned to receive their very own Coco Crisp Gnome because as we know, a garden is not really a garden without one.  So we must certainly acknowledge that the giveaway formula works.  People love bobbleheads and gnomes.   They tend to boost attendance by 10,000 or more per promotion. Yet, I have always contended that the true goal of a team is to turn new customers into new fans.  If you can achieve that, they are hooked for life.  You can save your advertising money.  If they become fans, they check the box scores every day on their own.  They tune into the pre-game show on 95.7 FM The Game, hanging on every word by Troy Clardy.   They essentially become part of the A’s Family.  They begin following the team religiously, observing each pitching change and pinch hitter like they’re new characters in a summer-long soap opera.  So how do new customers become fans?  Something magical or unexpected unfolds on the field of play with them in attendance.  Every fan invariably has his or her story to tell when “it” happened.  A Rickey Henderson steal of home plate.  A Scott Hatteberg walk-off home run.  A Dallas Braden perfect game.  The comeback win over Texas on 2012’s final day which clinched the AL West.

I think it’s safe to say that one of those magical moments happened Sunday in Oakland.  Looking for all the world like the A’s were headed to a lackluster 6-1 defeat at the hands of the defending World Champions, something special took place in the  bottom of the  eighth inning with no  warning.  With two outs and the bases empty, Craig Gentry was innocently hit by a pitch.  A spark was lit.   A steal of second base later and the familiar chant “Let’s Go Oak-land” began to rhythmically reverberate in the Coliseum.  Hit after hit followed as a two-out rally had produced three runs.  Then venerable public address announcer Dick Callahan informed the crowd, “pinch hitting for the Oakland A’s, number 4, Coco Crrrrisp!”  Representing the go-ahead run at the plate, was it possible that Coco could become the hero for a third straight game, on this, his gnome giveaway day?   After working the count, Coco rifled a laser towards Boston shortstop Jonathan Herrera.  It tailed toward second base, and we all had visions of the ball rolling to the wall in left center field, scoring two runs and somehow tying the game.  Alas, Herrera snared the dart as he crumbled to his knees.  While the inning had ended down 6-4, the A’s faithful rose to their feet and gave their team a standing ovation.  The message was twofold:   they appreciated the never-quit grit of this 2014 club, and maybe even more poignant, they wanted their A’s to know that they still believed!    

And their belief was soon rewarded, as two-thirds of the Oakland Catching Cartel provided ninth-inning heroics with solo home runs inside the right field foul pole. First, it was the scalding-hot Stephen Vogt  with one out in the inning,  then it was pinch-hitter John Jaso,  who went  down to get a low Koji Uehara  fastball  to deliver a shocking, two-out,  game-tying homer that sent the  game  into extra innings. With flame-throwing Fernando Abad in 10th inning relief and Athletics fans roaring, leave it to David Ortiz to toss a cold dish rag on the festivities. He Big-Papied a fastball that caught too much of the plate and sent it soaring over the center field fence. Boston led 7-6.  But A’s fans—god love ‘em—were not dismayed.  In fact, the moment I will remember most came at the very end.   After Uehara retired the first two batters in the bottom of the 10th, Bob Melvin was forced to send up Sean Doolittle as a pinch hitter with his bench exhausted.  After seeing the count go  to no  balls and  two strikes, on a relief pitcher making his first ever  Major  League appearance as a  hitter, A’s fans rose  to their  feet again and began  the chant  anew….”Let’s Go, Oak-land,  Let’s Go, Oak-land!”   It was their way of telling the Red Sox, as well as reminding the home team, that you should never count out the Oakland A’s, even in such dire straits.   There was no quit in Melvin’s club when they faced an almost insurmountable 6-1 deficit with only four outs left in the game.  As they will tell you, there is no time clock in baseball and a game is not over until you make 27 outs.  Or in this case,  until a  hitting neophyte  named Sean Doolittle  became the 30th and final out of  a  10-inning loss that  felt a  lot more  like  a  48th victory—especially to those Coliseum patrons who may very well have been transformed into A’s fans on this very memorable Sunday  afternoon.

BRANDON MOSS: THE ULTIMATE ATHLETIC?

Brandon Moss may be the ultimate Oakland Athletic.  He’s someone who has persevered and proven his critics wrong.  After years of cameo appearances in The Show, he not only has stuck with the A’s but has blossomed into an authentic star.  Since the 2013 All-Star Break, the raw-boned Georgian has driven in the most runs (96) and launched the second most home runs (30) in all of baseball.  Did you hear that?   Our guy, the erstwhile platoon player with a penchant for strikeouts, is arguably the top slugger in Major League Baseball in what amounts to almost a full season.  He’s already hit two grand slams this year—including one yesterday in Baltimore that may have sealed an 11-1 win—and appears headed toward a monster season.  Yet, it may have not been his bat but a fielding play in right field in Yankee Stadium last week that told me more about Brandon Moss as a winner.  In the series finale, it was Moss who misplayed a ball that skipped past him in left field for an unearned run that contributed to a 2-1 loss to the Yankees.  A night later in Baltimore, Moss, now in right field, faced a split-second decision that might have frozen some outfielders.   With Nick Markakis as the potential winning run at second base with one out in the 10th inning of a 2-2 game, the gifted Adam Jones stroked a single past Nick Punto.   Moss, who had been embarrassed by his miscue the day before in New York, knew the only way he might throw out Markakis at home plate would be the charge the ball in a full sprint and make an accurate throw home.  He also knew that it was a do-or-die play with a high degree of difficulty.  But anyone who knows Brandon knows he’s “all in, all the time.”   While a more selfish player might have played it a little more safely, so not to risk committing costly errors in back-to-back games, it was quite clear that the only thing on Moss’ mind was he had to stop the Orioles from winning the game, right there, right now.   He made a spectacular pick up of the ball and an even more spectacular throw to cut down Markakis to prolong a game that was eventually won by the A’s in 11 innings.

Of course, to truly wear the badge of the ultimate Oakland Athletic, Brandon Moss must also be a character.  It’s a franchise tradition.  And Mossy may have more personality than some MLB clubs combined.  He’s always the instigator in the clubhouse.  A chatterbox non-stop.  Before Saturday’s game in Baltimore, he spent a good 20 minutes trying to convince whatever teammates would listen that he was the second tallest position player on the team.  “Except for (Kyle) Blanks, I’m the only one who’s a legit six feet tall!”  Jesse Chavez was a wonderful catalyst in the discussion, disagreeing with Brandon’s assessment as he shook his head.  Unbowed, Mossy proceeded to ask one of the visiting clubbies if he might have an official measuring device.  The best the clubbie could come up with was an 18-inch ruler.  This did not dampen Brandon’s spirit, as he promptly walked to the nearest wall in the clubhouse.  “C’mon Jesse, measure me!”  Back to the wall and head erect, Moss began to raise his voice so that his teammates would turn his way from their lockers to bear witness of his height claim.  Once Chavy had marked a line above his head on the wall, Brandon quickly turned around and from the floor upwards, he began measuring his height, 18 inches at a time, until he reached the top mark.  Acting like a 12-year-old whose mom just informed him he had hit a milestone, Moss quickly shouted with glee, “See, see, I am six feet tall!”  The under-six-feet club, the likes of which are Callaspo, Sogard, Cespedes, Norris, etc., could only shake their heads and return to watching the Stanford-Vanderbilt NCAA baseball playoff game on television.  “See, I’m a legit six feet!”

Of course, that was the pre-game show Saturday.  Yesterday before our final game at Camden Yards, it was hard rock day on the clubhouse sound system.  Normally, it’s the starting pitcher choice of what music to play.  Whether Scott Kazmir requested it I’m not sure.  But no matter, Brandon Moss found himself compelled to jump in.   I think the song blaring had some reference to a sweet fragrance.   Every time the lyrics would hit a crescendo about the smell, Mossy would enhance the experience by spayinging an aerosol can of deodorant in the middle of the clubhouse while mimicking the words.  If you ask any of his teammates, many of which previously played with him at Triple-A Sacramento, about his antics, they probably would simply say, “That’s normal for Brandon Moss.”

One thing that is not normal about Brandon Moss is his offensive statistics this season.  He currently ranks second in the American League in RBI (53), fifth in home runs (16) and has played three positions with aplomb as well as DHed.  So, while he may be the Man Who Keeps Us Loose, he’s also fast joining Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes as the key Men in the Middle of one of the most productive lineups in Major League Baseball.  While neither Moss nor Cespedes appear within range of finishing atop their position vote, let’s make sure to make a strong statement for their candidacy so we might land more than one position player on the All-Star team.  If our wishes come true and Brandon Moss writes another chapter to his amazing baseball story, I can only imagine what Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera might think when they see Moss in their AL All-Star clubhouse.  Hopefully it will be a few other A’s, most notably Donaldson, who can try to explain that his behavior is actually normal.  We love Brandon Moss.  I’m sure they will too.

DONALDSON, MOSS & CESPEDES FORM TOP RBI TRIO IN BASEBALL

Prior to Sunday’s game at the Coliseum, I was sharing a table in the Press Lounge with a group of writers.  One of the Angels’ scribes brought up a recurring subject, one that has tried my patience in recent weeks.  Despite carving out the best record in the majors for the past two-and-half years, there still seems to be a prevailing feeling that our lineup is filled with “no name” castoffs that have mysteriously managed to finish ahead of mega-payroll teams loaded with “superstars.”  Well, I wouldn’t say that I snapped, but I did find myself gradually raising my voice as I emphatically told my writer friend that if he thinks we still have no-name players and are baffled by how we continue to win, then the blame is on him!   We have played over 400 games since the start of 2012, which I would think is an ample sample size.

And, while we continue to employ the same winning formula—depth and interchangeable parts, platoons, defense, teamwork and pitching—there may be a transition underway this season.   Some of our cornerstone players, the ones who were called overachievers in 2012 and 2013, have blossomed into bona fide stars this year.  Certainly Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez and Sean Doolittle have made profound statements on the hill.  But where the A’s have made the greatest strides is with their every-day players, many of whom have become legitimate 24-carat stars.  Look no further than the middle of our lineup.  While national media seem fixated on the usual big-salaried suspects—all of which are deserving—it’s Josh Donaldson (48) and Brandon Moss (46) who are the top tandem in all of baseball with 94 combined RBI.  Better than Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.  Better than Albert Pujols and Mike Trout.  Better than Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig.  Better than Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis.  Better than David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.  Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion (50) and Jose Bautista (40) are the second-most productive duo with 90 RBI.  And if you want stretch the comparison to the best threesome on one team, again, it’s the Athletics with Donaldson, Moss and the mercurial Yoenis Cespedes (37) driving in a Major League-leading 131 runs at this juncture of the season.   The next closest are the Blue Jays’ triumvirate of Encarnacion, Bautista and Brett Lawrie (31) with 121.   And if you’re wondering about who the premier MLB home run trios are, it’s Toronto with 42 (Encarnacion 19, Bautista 14 and Juan Francisco 9) and Oakland with 38 (Donaldson 15, Moss 13 and Cespedes 10).

It’s this kind of production and star power that tends to inspire nicknames.  The Bash Brothers.  The Blake Street Bombers.  Harvey’s Wallbangers.  The Big Red Machine.   Maybe it’s time for us to take suggestions for this year’s most prolific one-two punch in the majors.  The Mash Brothers?  The DoMo Mojo?  Or maybe we should celebrate the A’s fearsome threesome of Donaldson, Moss and Cespedes.  DoMoYo?   The Oaktown Three?  Clearly I need help.  Send me your ideas.   Who knows, you might make history!

And speaking of history, what may have gone unnoticed last weekend was the fact that Moss set a new Oakland record for most extra-base hits in the month of May with 19, surpassing the old record of perennial All-Star Jason Giambi.  Recently, A’s Manager Bob Melvin referred to the left-handed slugger as one of the best power hitters in baseball. He couldn’t be more right.  While we were heartened to see J.D. lengthen his lead in the All-Star third base balloting this week, it was disappointing to see Brandon fall out of the top five in DH voting.  Let this serve as a reminder that we need to continue to cast our votes for Donaldson, Moss, Cespy, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie and all our favorite Athletics as we enter the final month of All-Star balloting.   Our first-place A’s absolutely deserve multiple All-Stars this season, and it all starts at home with your great support.  Let’s do it!

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