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A NOBLE LOSS THAT WILL HURT FOR SOME TIME

“Baseball was designed to break your heart.”

– A. Bartlett Giamatti

The late commissioner of baseball, while an eloquent writer and orator, kept this one simple. And why not?  It’s all you need to know.  Look no further than last night’s punch-in-the-gut loss in Kansas City.  Twelve innings of drama, emotional twists and turns, and if you’re an A’s fan, a final dagger in the heart called a Salvador Perez game-winning double into the left field corner.

As I came into the clubhouse, there were only torn remnants of the plastic covering reserved for celebration remaining behind a large flat-screen TV that served as a reminder of how close Oakland came to advancing in the MLB derby to Anaheim tomorrow.  Instead, the Royals’ road runners have taken our seat at the table.  They’re a young, aggressive bunch of impressive athletes that will be a worthy entry.  Of course, that’s called “perspective,” something which I know is probably in short  supply right  now in the  East Bay—not  to mention in the A’s clubhouse after the game. You could hear a batting glove drop it was so quiet afterwards.  Long faces, teammate hugs and a collective disbelief of what just happened.

This will be a painful memory for a long-time.  It was a season that saw us spew out wins at a dizzying pace in the first half.  The national scribes were trumpeting the small-market A’s as the “team to beat” this year.  Six All-Stars, a run-differential in the stratosphere, and brilliant play despite five three-city road trips all suggested that, yes, this might be the year we have all waited for.  Of course, as soon as you think you’ve  figured out  this game, it throws you a 68 mile-per-hour curve.

I will spare you the recount of those last two nightmarish months.  Suffice it to say, we were humbled, frustrated and tortured, all at the same time.  Knowing how much your A’s mean to you, I suspect you took the same route as my son Luke in digesting our fall from grace.  Waiting for the bats to reawaken for that bounce-back series.  Concern creeping in.  Followed by denial.  Followed by panic.  Followed by, well, getting pissed off!  Then, you were reeled back in when we won the Phillies series and headed to Texas.  A Sonny Gray masterpiece soon thereafter and Wild Card game here we come.  Sighs of relief all around.

Which brings us to last night’s ulcerating loss, a heart-breaker for the ages.  While  I  understand  the  wound is still too raw, I must offer this observation:  could two teams play harder, show  more  will to  win, or leave  anything more on the field than the A’s and Royals last night?  It might be the greatest game I have ever been part of.  Tension and excitement from the first inning on.  Two aces on the mound, followed by shutdown relievers.  Home runs, bunts, stolen bases, untimely injuries and 40,000 partisan fans providing an ear-numbing backdrop.  The game really did have everything.  It’s these kinds of games where players on both sides almost collapse after the marathon battle.  Afterwards, there cannot be any regrets.  We gave it our best shot.  While I know that may have a very hollow ring right now, time and perspective will eventually take hold and we will realize it was still a noble effort.  Our guys played their hearts out.  We all feel bad we let you down and that the playoffs continue without Jeff Samardzija on the mound in Game 1 of the ALDS Thursday in Anaheim.  Like Commissioner Giamatti said, it’s a game that will break your heart.

From all of us within the Oakland A’s organization, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the great support you gave us this season.  Our best wishes to you and your families.  In the meantime, follow all our off-season news on athletics.com, Facebook, Twitter and our other social media outlets.  We’re less than five months from Spring Training.  We’ll be back and our goal remains the same.

BLUES, BASEBALL AND REDEMPTION

There’s a great old blues standard called “It Hurts Me Too.”  Many artists have recorded their own versions through the years, ranging from Elmore James, Junior Wells, John Mayall, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and more recently, Gov’t Mule.  As the lyrics go:

“You say you hurting, you almost lost your mind

The man you love, he hurts you all the time

When things go wrong, go wrong with you

It hurts me too.”

Or in this case, when things go wrong, go wrong with the Oakland A’s, it doesn’t just hurt our players, it hurts our fans, too.  I have no doubt you feel our pain—as we do yours—when our team plays the way it has this past month.  Or more specifically, the way our team has hit (or not hit, as the case may be).  Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying.  In a past pennant race I was once involved in, the team hit the skids about the same time of the season.  I can remember our manager receiving a note from an old military war veteran.  He wrote about his battalion’s slogan that rallied the troops. It was called FIDO!  To clean it up a bit for our family audience, I will just say FIDO stood for “Forget It, Drive On!”  Of course, I’m not about to compare a simple game with war.  But the message did serve a purpose for the manager’s team, which finally fought through their woes and went on a winning tear.

J38A9916As you may already know, our players have a very special bond with fans like you.  How special?  Well, what other team would have their faithful show up outside the gates of the Landmark Airport terminal on a Sunday night to greet players who had just been embarrassed by being swept in a four-game series by the Angels in Anaheim?  Clad in green and gold and pumping their fists in the cold evening, there they were.  Simply amazing.  Of course, we have seen this kind of love from our fans all season long.  Freshly-baked cookies delivered to the clubhouse.  Personalized Darth Vader head gear, painted in team colors, given to our bullpen leader Sean Doolittle to insure “the force” would be with us.  I could go on.

Suffice it to say, our guys are not only playing for themselves or their teammates.  They’re also playing for you.  So we can flip the table on that old blues tune, because when our fans hurt, we hurt too.  If you could talk to Josh Donaldson or Doolittle, I think it’s safe to say they would echo the comments that Derek Jeter recently made at Yankee Stadium:  “I always felt as though it was my job…to provide joy and entertainment for you guys, but it can’t compare to what you brought me.  So for that, thank you very much.”

BAJ_0098As our new host on 95.7 FM The GAME, Damon Bruce, ends his show each afternoon, “sports don’t build character, they reveal it.”  When I look in our clubhouse and see the likes of Jon Lester, Donaldson, Doolittle, Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss, I absolutely see that character.  These have been lean times for the team and our fans, but the final chapter has yet to be written.  Our guys truly appreciate you and the phenomenal support you have given us.  Let’s all make this final nine-game homestand that starts next week a time to remember.  The momentum we’ll need to make the playoffs and then make a deep run rests on the collective shoulders of our players and our 10th man (woman?) in the stands.  Thanks for hanging with us during tough times.  I think you will soon be rewarded for it.

 

COULD THIS BE A SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER?

In baseball, a lot can happen in a month.  Just ask the Oakland A’s.  Their streak of 14 consecutive winning months came to an abrupt halt in August.  Their first-place standing in baseball’s best division ended. And their claim to the best record in the majors went out the window.

Of course, as A’s fans, I don’t have to tell you this.  You already know.   The hope here is that our club’s tailspin hit rock bottom in Anaheim.  After all, can we possibly play any worse?  So bad, in fact, that the usually moderate Bob Melvin “channeled his inner Billy Martin” in a post-game speech to the troops Sunday, according to one observer.

So, let’s get back to our earlier premise.  In baseball, a lot can happen in a month.  And that should provide some solace—and hope—for A’s fans, because as bad as the team has been, there are some positives to cite as we turn the page—thankfully—to September.

  • dunnReinforcements are here…or will be shortly. Steve Vucinich has added extra lockers to the clubhouse this week, as expanded September rosters should incrementally strengthen the A’s.  Beyond Sunday’s acquisition of 461-homer man Adam Dunn from the White Sox, new/old faces spotted in the home clubhouse today include shortstop Jed Lowrie—back in the lineup with a healed hairline fracture of his right index finger—right-handed reliever Fernando Rodriguez (who fashioned a 1.13 ERA in six appearances earlier in the season), speedster extraordinaire Billy Burns (54 stolen bases in the minors this year) and catcher Bryan Anderson, a .320 hitter in the minors in 2014.  There’s hope that Coco Crisp’s chronic neck issue will subside and he’ll return to the lineup later this week.   Closer Sean Doolittle and his oblique strain are feeling much better these days, which may bode well in returning to his key role during the final month.  John Jaso’s concussion symptoms have improved and there are thoughts he might at least be a DH option in the days ahead.  Veteran utility man Nick Punto—a valuable leader with pennant race experience—is tirelessly working to get back in action later this month.  And this does not count pitcher Drew Pomeranz and first baseman Nate Freiman, who were just called up from Beloit today. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of new firepower.
  • Time is still on our side. Recent history tells you that a five-game lead is not insurmountable going into September.  Our 2012 club trailed Texas by four games on Sept. 1.  In fact, you’ll remember that we were down five games with only nine to go that season.  So, while it was painful to watch our slide in August, better then than it happening in September.  Hopefully, we will look back and be grateful.
  • The schedule may be an ally. While it guarantees nothing, the September schedule favors the A’s.  Oakland plays 14 of its final 25 games at the boisterous Coliseum, a place where they have won at a .657 clip.  The Angels, meanwhile, play 16 or their remaining 26 games on the road, where they own a .554 winning percentage this season and face the A’s three times Sept. 22-24 in Oakland.
  • samardzijaLeaders abound. When adversity hits a club, leaders are needed to right the ship.  And they can come from many places.  Among our starting pitchers, there’s the steadying influence of Jon Lester.  Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson do the same for the relief corps.  And veterans like Jonny Gomes, Adam Dunn, Nick Punto, Coco Crisp and established young star Josh Donaldson provide both spark and calm among the position players. Yet, perhaps the greatest leaders of all are GM Billy Beane and Manager Bob Melvin, one of the most respected tandems in baseball today.  Billy and his staff continue to compete to the finish line.  Think of the pieces they have added in the past two months in an effort to aid the cause:  Lester and Jeff Samardzija, two of the most coveted starting pitchers in the majors entering the trade deadline; another playoff experienced starter in Jason Hammel; former Rookie of the Year and All-Star catcher Geovany Soto and DH-first baseman Dunn, the 35th most prolific home run hitter of all-time.  And having to quickly mesh all these players into the team’s fabric is one of the best field managers in the game in Melvin.  No manager has a better feel for his clubhouse.  He protects players with the media when struggles occur.  Yet, when a tongue lashing is appropriate and meaningful, as it was Sunday in Anaheim, he has no qualms in lighting a fire under his club.  And because he has such a close relationship with his players, there’s no doubt that most of them took it very personally when the A’s skipper decided to take them figuratively to the woodshed.  Collectively, they feel bad, not only for letting their fans down, but letting their respected manager down.  That, as much as anything, can explain our five-run outburst in the first inning yesterday.

Now the real fun begins.  They don’t call it a pennant race for nothing.

A’S TRIP TO ATLANTA REKINDLES MEMORIES OF ANOTHER GREAT DIVISIONAL RACE

Hotlanta. Heat and humidity that’s almost suffocating. That’s what the A’s will be facing this weekend when they resume interleague play in the Capitol of the South.  In one of my better “veteran moves,” I opted to stay home this trip.  I mean, Kansas City and Atlanta in August?  I don’t think so.  Of course, Bob Melvin and his club have no choice but to embrace the challenge with salt tablets and courage.  Thankfully, Georgians Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick and Alabaman Josh Donaldson will feel right at home.

Twenty-one seasons ago, when I was in the midst of my first season as a Major League PR man, I can remember visiting Atlanta-Fulton County Coliseum in August of 1993.  The Giants and Braves were locked in a pennant race for the ages.  The dog days had arrived, with closers operating on fumes and hitters wilting under the oppressive air of the Deep South.  John Schuerholz had traded for Fred McGriff the previous month.  The kitchen in the stadium had caught on fire soon thereafter during a game, and figuratively, it was that night that the Braves were ignited.  McGriff and Atlanta went on a 28-8 spree heading into a late August series with San Francisco.  Two decades later, I still remember the tension of that series as baseball’s two behemoths went toe to toe in the national spotlight.  The reason I share this story is the A’s and Angels, owners of the two best records in the Majors, will be playing 10 games against each other over the final six weeks of the season, including three-game series in Oakland Aug. 22-24 and Sept. 22-24.

Much like the final Rangers series of 2012 is indelibly etched in A’s fans’ minds, these Oakland-LA showdowns promise to leave lasting memories.  Lester, Gray, Kazmir and Samardzija staring down the likes of Trout, Pujols and HamiltonDonaldson, Moss and Norris trying to catch up to Richards’ blazing fastballs.  Coco Crisp striding to the plate with the bases loaded in extra innings (“Here we go now, here we go now!) and delivering yet another clutch walk-off hit.  Trout leaping above the fence to rob some deserving hitter of a go-ahead home run.  And Bob Melvin and Mike Scioscia, this week rated as the top two managers in the American League by their fellow managers in a Baseball America poll, matching baseball wits pitch by pitch.

Looking back to that August night in 1993, what still strikes me most is the look of urgency on the players’ faces, that every play did matter.  Called “The Last Pure Pennant Race” by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson of the New York Times in his book, Pennant Races, the Giants won 14 of their last 16 games entering the final day of the regular season while the Braves claimed 13 of their last 18 games leading up to the last game.  Atlanta won the season finale against Colorado, giving Bobby Cox’s club 104 victories.  San Francisco lost their last game at Dodger Stadium and finished with 103 wins.  It was the last season that MLB would be without a wild card, so the Giants missed the playoffs.  Twenty-one years later, the A’s and Angels will not endure such an indignity if they continue to win at their current pace (Oakland is on pace for 99 wins, LA 95).  With two wild card spots now created, it’s not a certainty but it is a probability that both clubs could enter the postseason in 2014.

And if you’re a fan of either team, or even the sport in general, these final 10 games will be “must-see” baseball. Something tells me the A’s-Angels rivalry will only heighten after these games are played and history is written.  Enjoy baseball theater at its best.  It doesn’t happen every season.

WOMEN CONTINUE TO EXPAND ROLE IN BASEBALL

When I was 12 years old, I was already hooked on baseball.  Not only was I playing it in school, but I was an avid fan of both the A’s and Giants while growing up in Auburn, a historic Gold Rush town at the base of the Sierra Foothill Mountains above Sacramento.  As was the case in an earlier generation, my mother was a house wife.  While she had no real interest or knowledge of the game I loved, it was her love for a snot-nosed kid that led her to listen to Monte Moore or Russ Hodges on the radio during day games so she could report back to me when I returned home from school.  Eventually Monte and Russ became like family to mom, and she actually started keeping a scorebook while watering our garden in the back yard.  It was also my mother who would wrap my arm in a hot towel when it became sore from over-throwing and she would even re-lace my catcher’s mitt when it was needed.  While that’s my earliest memory of a woman who shared my passion for baseball, this past week was full of reminders that Abner Doubleday created a sport that belongs to both sexes.

During the 25-year celebration of our 1989 World Series Champions recently, an interested visitor to the festivities was Susan Fornoff, a pioneer of sorts as one of the first ever female Major League beat writers.  She covered that ’89 A’s club for the Sacramento Bee.  Walking into a baseball clubhouse in those days had to be a harrowing experience for a lone woman writer, but over time, she earned the manager’s and players’ trust, and a barrier was torn down.  Her early work paved the way for dozens of female writers to make baseball their careers.  Never is that more evident than here in Oakland, where Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jane Lee of MLB.com and Janie McCauley of the Associated Press comprise three of the four beat writers who cover the A’s regularly.  Kate Longworth, who has moved into the studio this year, has also served as an on-site reporter at the Coliseum for Comcast SportsNet California in recent seasons.   All four are some of the best journalists that cover our team.

Yet another reminder of the role women have played in our great game unfolded at Cooperstown this past weekend.  Jane Forbes Clark, who has served as chairperson of the board of directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the past 14 years, once again oversaw the induction ceremonies as the highest ranking official.  And in an ironic full-circle twist, it was Slusser, a woman, who championed the cause of a 93-year-old male writer that proved the impetus for the great author Roger Angell to be inducted into the writer’s wing of the Hall as the 2014 J. G. Taylor Spink Award Winner.  It was Angell, a regular contributor and editor for the New Yorker magazine, who first inspired Slusser as a young girl through his eloquent and vivid prose about baseball.  Not long after that day, Susan knew she wanted to be a baseball writer.  She eventually rose to become one of the country’s most respected major league scribes, and last year became the first female president of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Over the years in this business, I have also seen more and more women accepted in my field. Dozens of female public relations specialists now hold high-ranking positions in baseball.  In fact, the senior vice presidents for club relations in both the American (Phyllis Merhige) and National (Katy Feeney) Leagues have been held by veteran women who have played prominent roles in the Commissioner’s Office for several decades.  Same on the club front, where ladies such as Staci Slaughter of the Giants and Bonnie Clark of the Phillies serve in executive roles as PR vice presidents and key advisors for their respective teams.

And closer to home, Debbie Gallas has worked in the A’s public relations department as the media services manager for the past 16 years.  In terms of issuing credentials, nurturing relationships with writers, broadcasters and photographers and overseeing many of the department’s administrative duties, she may be as good as anyone in the business—male or female—and the best compliment everyone gives her is this:  she gets things done!  Our baseball operations folks have also tapped into female talent.  Billy Beane recently penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal as part of their 125th year of publishing promotion that featured leading thinkers in the country.  Part of Billy’s futuristic theme was his prediction that Major League Baseball will become even more inclusive in the years to come.   It will matter less and less whether you have come from a traditional baseball background.  Brain and analytical power will carry the day, and gender or ethnic background has no bearing.  The A’s GM has already been practicing what he preaches, as evidenced not only with the brilliant hiring of MIT and Harvard graduates as assistant general managers, but also employing Pamela Pitts as his director of baseball administration, and Kate Greenthal as a scouting assistant.

This trend only should grow stronger in the years ahead.  So beyond passing the eye test when you look into the stands at a big league park, where women comprise half your fans, don’t be surprised if one day there will be a woman general manager or president of a team, or even maybe a league commissioner.  And if that does happen, it will make it a better game.

A SALUTE TO SIX A’S WHO COULD HAVE BEEN ALL-STARS

Just how far have the Oakland A’s come in the past few years?  Well, the days of Jack Cust, Bobby Crosby and Travis Buck seem like a distant memory, as do the five straight losing seasons from 2007-2011.  Beyond having the best record in baseball this year, the Athletics have also carved out the best record in the majors over the past three seasons.

As many of you loyal A’s fans know, there has also been a seismic shift in the team’s national profile this year.  Whether it’s Scott Kazmir’s remarkable comeback story or the hard-to-believe transition of erstwhile first baseman Sean Doolittle into one of the premier closers in baseball, many of our players have become household names seemingly overnight.  And with that notoriety—not to mention superior production—the A’s landed no less than six players on the American League All-Star team this season (seven if we count newly acquired pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a NL All-Star choice).

Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that our A’s only had one player chosen each season for the All-Star Game?  Almost always a pitcher for the AL bullpen?  Justin Duchscherer, Andrew Bailey, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook.  It was a banner year if we had two players selected in the same season.  Yet, this year, the A’s had an embarrassment of riches with not one, not two, but six All-Stars!  To truly appreciate just how far the team has come, consider this:  We have another six players on this year’s club who absolutely could have been our lone All-Star representative in those previous lean seasons.

Let’s start with right-handed starter Sonny Gray (9-3, 2.97 ERA), who ranks among the American League’s Top 10 in victories, ERA, opponents’ batting average (.228) and opponents’ slugging percentage (.320).  Not only that, but dating back to when he first arrived on the scene almost a year ago today (July 10, 2013), Gray has posted the eighth-best ERA in the American League (2.87).  And the A’s No. 3 starter Jesse Chavez has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league, registering a 7-5 mark and 3.06 ERA (11th in the AL), including 11 quality starts in 18 appearances.

And how about Coco Crisp?  Beyond his circus catches in center field, Coco is batting .291 and ranks in the American League Top 10 in both on-base percentage (.387) and stolen bases (16).  Plus, he brings unique pop to the leadoff spot, with seven homers and 31 RBIs.

Then look to the bullpen.  No argument in Doolittle representing Oakland’s relief corps in Minneapolis Tuesday, but there are clearly three other pitchers who could have very easily been tabbed as well.  The unflappable Dan Otero (7-1, 2.10 ERA), maybe the most versatile reliever in the game today, leads all American League relievers in wins, innings pitched (55.2) and pitches per inning (13.3).  Fernando Abad (2-3, 1.93 ERA) ranks fifth in opponents’ slugging percentage (.234) and opponents’ batting average (.161) among AL relief specialists.  And set-up man Luke Gregerson (2-1, 2.12 ERA) has been a workhorse in allowing only 39 hits in 46.2 innings and leading all AL relievers in appearances (45 games).

And we might have had a seventh almost All-Star if he hadn’t joined the team until June 1.  Stephen Vogt has arguably been the A’s best player the past six weeks.  We’ll give him an honorable mention.  Not only has he played five different positions (catcher, first base, left field, right field and designated hitter), but he has batted .376 with four home runs and 17 RBI in only 101 at-bats.  If he had enough ABs to qualify, he would be leading the majors in batting average and would rank fourth in OPS (.972).

So, while we can all agree that the A’s were indeed fortunate to have a major league-high six players elected All-Stars—seven counting Samardzija—it’s the next six “near All-Stars” that truly demonstrate how productive the 2014 Athletics’ have been as we near the Break.  Judging by the competitive race shaping up in the AL West—clearly the best division in baseball—we’ll need everyone on the roster to continue playing at a very high level to claim a third straight divisional crown.   O.co Coliseum should really be rockin’ the final three months of the season.

HIGHER EXPECTATIONS HELP KEEP EYE ON THE PRIZE

High standards and expectations are a good thing, right?  When you zoom to back-to-back seasons of 94 and 96 victories, respectively, and are on pace to win 98 games this season, new and higher expectations simply come with the territory.  It also made our just-completed series in Detroit truly maddening.  All three games against our AL Central nemesis were tense, hard-fought affairs, and while the A’s came up empty handed, each game resembled the type of playoff competition we’ve grown accustomed to when these two teams have squared off the past two years.

That said, Bob Melvin and his club know full well that they must still go through Motown if they hope to realize their goal of winning a World Series.  So it would be easy to say it matters whether you beat Justin Verlander or win a series at Comerica Park.  On some level, that’s certainly true.  However, our late August dismantling of the Tigers in Detroit last season—we scored 34  runs in claiming three of four games—didn’t seem to have much impact when we returned to Michigan as the leaves began to fall in autumn.

A linear thinker would probably conclude the A’s returned home content last night after a 4-4 road trip in which two  of  the  three teams  they faced are postseason contenders, and five  of the  games were played without a designated  hitter—a distinct  disadvantage to  any American League team.  Yet, the old adage that championship teams win at home and play .500 ball on the road doesn’t seem to have that acceptable ring anymore.  I know what you’re thinking:  We’re better than that! 

Well, when you’re flying high in Miami, then shot down in Detroit, it’s understandable that you are left feeling a little wanting.  No question, there are higher expectations this year.  It’s the price you pay for success.  And most importantly, there are higher expectations in the A’s clubhouse.  These remarkable players that have bonded together to post the best record in Major League Baseball continue to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize.

And to lend a little perspective, let me remind you that this A’s team has grinded out baseball’s best record despite a first  half that featured five straight three-city road trips—an almost unheard of gauntlet—against mostly upper-division opponents. After the All-Star Break, Oakland will not take even one road trip of more than two cities and seven games.  And only nine of the 21 series that they will play after the Break will be against teams which currently have winning records.  Of course, any manager will tell you it’s dangerous to play that game.  After all, it is baseball, where nothing is guaranteed.  What is guaranteed, however, are high expectations.  And that’s a good thing.  It tends to lead to even higher accomplishments.

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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