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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!

THE BIG THREE II, CARELESS WHISPER ALL PART OF A’S BASEBALL THIS SEASON

As long-time Oakland fans know, The Big Three is a cherished term in A’s baseball lore. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito arrived at the Coliseum with much anticipation and fanfare, and they did not disappoint.  Seemingly overnight, this young triumvirate became the talk of baseball as the core of a young A’s pitching staff that fueled four straight playoff teams from 2000-03.  Well, we may soon be talking about The Big Three II.  Don’t look now, but Sonny Gray (4-1, 2.17 ERA), Scott Kazmir (5-1, 2.28) and Jesse Chavez (3-1, 2.44) have risen from relative obscurity to form the best three starting pitchers on one team in Major League Baseball this young season, at least statistically.   Together, they have chiseled out a 12-3 record and 2.29 ERA.   That’s better than the Detroit Tigers’ trio of Rick Porcello (6-1, 3.22), Max Scherzer (5-1, 2.04) and Justin Verlander (5-2, 3.15), better than the St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (6-2, 2.11), Shelby Miller (5-2, 3.22) and Lance Lynn (4-2, 3.83), better than the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Hudson (yes, that Tim Hudson, 4-2, 2.09), Madison Bumgarner (5-3, 3.25), and Tim Lincecum (3-2, 4.78), and superior to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Buehrle (7-1, 2.04), R.A. Dickey (4-3, 4.53) and Dustin McGowan (2-2, 5.08).  Which begs the question:   If Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin had not succumbed to Tommy John surgeries, would they have surpassed or even matched the remarkable performances of Gray, Kazmir and Chavez, The Big Three II….

Just how big as the “Careless Whisper” walk-up song for Josh Reddick become?  Well, yesterday morning I got an interview request from James Montgomery, sports editor of Rolling Stone magazine.  Reddick’s peculiar selection of the old Wham! hit song has gone viral, and Rolling Stone felt compelled to chronicle the new phenomena that seems to have lit a fuse in Redd’s bat.   Of course, as I reminded him before yesterday’s game, he’s always in the middle of everything.  It wouldn’t be the Oakland A’s unless our whacky right fielder was creating a buzz doing something.

You have to love Bob Melvin.  Not only is he able to manage a bullpen by committee and make it work, but he also hasn’t missed the fact that our defense has committed 32 errors—tied for second most in the American League—despite the team’s 25-16 start.  He and his staff have conducted short infield practice sessions prior to batting practice during night games of this just-completed homestand.   And he presented it to his players not as a form of “punishment” but one of simply “helping” his infielders improve their glove work to reach a championship standard.  This is why this team continues to get better.  And it is also why Melvin has managed the A’s to the best record in the majors since the start of the 2012 season.

And speaking of Melvin, the former signal-caller, he must relish the fact that the Oakland A’s currently feature the most lethal one-two catching punch in baseball.  There’s Derek Norris, who is starting to look like the second coming of Thurman Munson these days.  He’s batting .415 (22 for 53) over his last 19 games and hitting .352 overall with four home runs and 20 RBI, and would be leading the American League in batting average by around 20 points if he had enough at-bats.  And on the left side, there’s John Jaso, who’s scorching the ball at a .307 clip with four homers and nine RBI, and is batting .444 (16 for 36) over his last 11 contests.  For those of you scoring at home, that means the A’s catching tandem has combined for a .330 average with eight home runs and 29 RBI this season. And to think that Stephen Vogt, one of our playoff heroes last fall, has just been activated on the Triple-A Sacramento roster….

If you want to see great, competitive baseball and also support the A’s, there may be no better stretch at the Coliseum than the next two homestands.  The Detroit Tigers (May 26-29) and Los Angeles Angels (May 30-June 1) visit later this month, while the New York Yankees (June 13-15), Texas Rangers (June 16-18) and Boston Red Sox (June 19-22) follow about the time school lets out in the Bay Area.  All five teams will figure in playoff races, so get your tickets early.  It promises to be an exciting time, just what we like if you’re an Oakland A’s fan!

IT’S TIME FOR #BRINGEROFVOTES: LET’S MAKE JOSH DONALDSON THE ALL-STAR HE ALREADY IS

We may be a small market team with a modest payroll. We may be overlooked because we play mostly in the Pacific Time Zone. Despite winning back-to-back AL West titles, we may not be considered the favorites to repeat in 2014 because we have no mega-contract players like the Rangers, Angels or Mariners.

But what we do have is one of the best all-around players in Major League Baseball.  His name is Josh Donaldson.  Of course, being an A’s fan who watches him patrol third base every night, you already knew that.

As you remember, J.D. was a voting anomaly last season.  He was not selected for the 2013 American League All-Star team, yet the Baseball Writers Association of America cast enough votes for Donaldson that he finished fourth in the American League MVP balloting. His 222 votes were more than Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado. 

Every team needs an anchor player, someone who leads with his production and clutch play. Every manager needs a player he knows he can write on his lineup card each game. Donaldson is clearly that man, a very strong athlete who thrives on playing every day. He may not always be 100% healthy—at times nursing leg strains—but there’s no doubt he is a firm believer of the school of strap-it-on-and-play. And while a very humble person who’s truly grateful for the opportunity the A’s have given him, Josh also brings that swagger on the diamond that can intimidate the opposition and embolden his teammates.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Donaldson has ranked among the American League leaders in most important offensive categories. He’s fourth in doubles, seventh in RBI and on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. And maybe more significantly, he ranks first or second in virtually every category among AL third baseman during that period. First in game-winning hits. First in OPS. First in RBI. First in runs scored. First in on-base percentage. First in slugging percentage. In games, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average and extra-base hits, he’s second.

Then add his remarkable range, arm and glove as a human highlight reel on defense—what other third baseman had a bobblehead designed as a diving catch over a tarp?—and J.D. is unquestionably the complete package.

So what is this leading to? We have clearly established that Josh Donaldson has always been there for you. Now, it’s time for you to be there for Josh Donaldson. We need to join together and create the buzz and excitement that will drive All-Star voting for Josh this year. It would be a grave injustice if he was denied that special distinction two years in a row. Luckily we have the best, most die-hard fans in baseball. We already have seen your social media power in propelling Eric Sogard to the championship round of MLB.com’s #FaceOfMLB competition.

Now, we need to show Josh how much we appreciate his play and how he gives everything he’s got in every game he plays. Starting today, we need to start the voting campaign. Fans around the world can cast their votes for starters up to 35 times here on MLB.com and athletics.com online and on your mobile devices. You will also have the opportunity to vote for Josh and the rest of your favorite A’s players at the Coliseum when in-stadium balloting begins May 6. The A’s haven’t had a position player named to the All-Star team since catcher Ramon Hernandez in 2003 and shortstop Miguel Tejada in 2002. We’re long overdue.

Use the new #BringerOfVotes hashtag, and we’ll feature the best ones on the team’s social media platforms. Create attention-grabbing signs and display them in the stadium for other fans and TV viewers to see. And encourage your friends and family to vote daily for Donaldson. We already know that Josh has played like an All-Star. Now it’s time to crown him with the honor, so he can make A’s fans proud when he’s introduced at Target Field in Minneapolis on July 15!

RANDOM THOUGHTS & OBSERVATIONS

Sometimes character and leadership on a team is more noticeable when the seas are turbulent. While there’s no cause for alarm when a three-game losing streak in April leaves you with a 13-8 record (now 14-8 following last night’s 10-1 win in Houston), I found it impressive how the A’s players responded to recent losses. Josh Donaldson, one of the best all-around third basemen in the game, took extra ground balls during pre-game infield after making errors in back-to-back contests. And after Tuesday night’s ulcerating 4-3 loss to the rival Rangers and a quick turnaround to a matinee game the following day, there was J.D. in the underground batting cage, taking dozens of hacks to ease his mind and refine his swing. When Sean Doolittle blew a save opportunity in Anaheim, he reacted like the team player—and leader—that he is. He was visibly happy in the clubhouse, telling reporters how great it was that the team rallied to win. It was the same Sean Doolittle, who after signing a new five-year contract, told his PR Director he would be glad to meet the media before the game but insisted that the session end a few minutes before the pitchers’ stretch on the field. He told me, “I just don’t want any of the guys to see me running late to stretch.” This, from a man who earlier in the day became a millionaire. Nick Punto, known to be a great clubhouse chemistry guy in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Los Angeles, demonstrated to his new teammates that if it will help the team, he would lay down a nifty push bunt to keep a rally aflame. And speaking of being a good teammate, it was heart-warming to see the subtle signs of support many players offered reliever Jim Johnson and outfielder Josh Reddick when they were scuffling during the first 10 days of the season. They were all small gestures that add up to a winning team….

The folks at Sony were nice enough to send our public relations office some complimentary “MLB 14 The Show” PlayStation 3 video games this week. I brought my copy home and gave it to my son Luke, a college student on spring break and avid gamer. After playing the new edition that night, he told me he really enjoyed the new version. However, he also informed me that the Oakland A’s were listed 24th in overall team rankings. “Dad, that’s a PR problem. Kids don’t play teams ranked that low.” After digesting what he said, I told him I agreed with him and would make a call to my Sony contact and ask her why a team who has won consecutive division titles and more games than any other in Major League Baseball since the start of the 2012 season would be ranked so low. She was very cordial and responsive, saying that the programmers who do the rankings base it on a rather complicated formula which includes an analysis of each team’s top 80 players on both the Major League roster and in the minor league system.   Not to be mean spirited, but I almost asked her who the programmers thought played for us, Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I guess we’ll have to keep earning it….

There’s something really unique—quirky really—about the bowels of the Coliseum, places that fans never have the opportunity to see during our home games. As you step off the elevator on the ground level, there to your left are these tall metal contraptions on wheels that are used to haul luggage in and out of the clubhouses. They appear to have once been painted, but now look so worn that you think they probably should be on display in a museum. If you can believe it, they actually look older than the Coliseum does. Perhaps they originally were transported when the team moved from Kansas City. No, actually they look even older than that. More like some type of torture device or maybe a medieval chariot used by the Romans. No, really. And when you walk straight ahead out of the elevator, there are five high hurdles lined up neatly as though the starter’s pistol might be shot at any minute. Michael Henriques, our strength and conditioning coach, had Jim Johnson, Drew Pomeranz and other relievers lined up the other day, with each being asked to lift their left leg up and over the hurdles in a swinging motion.   I assume the purpose is for strengthening and flexibility. In passing, I asked Johnson if he was in the 110 or 440 event.   It’s also quite common to see players from both teams stretching or rolling over a foam cylinder on the same floor outside the clubhouses. While newer venues have specific space or rooms dedicated to such undertakings, the Coliseum does not. So media or other players routinely step over or around the players working out. It’s the Oakland way! Editor’s note: It should be acknowledged, however, that the JPA has installed brand new carpet in and outside the clubhouses, as well as in the press box. Nice improvement….

At age 30, Jesse Chavez has every right to feel proud of his early-season accomplishments as a shining member of our starting rotation. Prior to his last start Sunday, there he was leaning on the padded barrier outside the dugout, soaking up the sun and his good fortune. But his road to the majors was filled with unexpected detours and disappointment.   But anyone who observes the Slender One can see why he has persevered. First, he is a talented pitcher with a wide assortment of plus pitches. Second, he has a sense of humor and nonchalance about him that keeps him on a positive path. It may not be quite as pronounced as the one worn by singing sensation Pharrell Williams, but Jesse usually swings through the clubhouse doors with a Bolero style brimmed hat that does his Mexican heritage complete justice. The brim of the hat is twice as wide as he is. And his wicked sense of humor is on full display after most A’s wins, as he sneaks into the crowd of reporters interviewing the starting pitcher, usually holding a salt shaker or bottle of hot sauce as though it’s his microphone, and making funny faces in an effort to crack up his teammate. However, when Chavez toes the rubber, he’s all business. He’s an assassin in cleats. In other words, he fits right in with the other Athletics, loose clubhouse and all….

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