ANAHEIM, Calif. — Sitting with his father in the upper reaches of the decrepit Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and watching the dreadful Clippers play, Coco Crisp learned growing up what it meant to develop a bond with a team. The building might have been crumbling, the crowd was often sparse and the expectations were low, but if the Clippers were not the Lakers, then they were at least his team.
That childhood experience may have been a useful one for Crisp, the center fielder and catalyst for the Oakland Athletics, who are marooned in a rundown stadium and typically play before small crowds and in the shadow of the San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the past three World Series.
"The Lakers are like Hollywood," said Crisp, who now sits in the front row along the visitors' bench when he attends Clippers games. "You dress up, you go there almost like a club atmosphere. For the Clippers, you go there to watch the game. It's kind of like an Oakland type of a thing. The fans and the players are a lot closer. The fans are into the game."
Low budget and largely unappreciated, the Athletics are somewhat unexpectedly back in the playoffs, rolling past the star-studded Los Angeles Angels and the battle-tested Texas Rangers to win the American League West. They will reprise last year's thrilling division series with the Detroit Tigers, opening the series at home Friday night. Their story is part of a broader theme of the postseason: the presence of so many teams — Oakland, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays — that spent their small payrolls wisely, and the absence of profligate spenders like the New York Yankees, the Angels and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson may be the Athletics' best player and will draw consideration for American League most valuable player, but he was not popular enough to make the All-Star Game.
And the foundation of their success is a young, largely unrecognized pitching staff that has finished second in the American League in ERA the past two seasons.
But if there is a player who embodies the Athletics it is Crisp, and not simply for his colorful name, his evolving hairstyles (from cornrows to blown-out Afro to tightly cropped with a trimmed goatee) and his often elaborate celebratory handshakes, each tailored to a particular teammate.
The Athletics play the game much the way Crisp does, with the fervor of an underdog.
"The intensity in the way he goes out and plays, the intensity in his at-bats — he is in the at-bat — if you get one or two guys that are intense and focused, the younger guys are feeding off that," said Chili Davis, the Athletics' hitting coach. "He starts things and keeps them going."
Manager Bob Melvin said: "He's a sparkplug. When he plays well, we play well."
It is not surprising, then, that since the middle of August, the Athletics and Crisp have been rolling. Oakland, along with the St. Louis Cardinals, has been a baseball-best 29-14 since Aug. 14, and Crisp has hit as well in that stretch as in any other in his 12-year career. Over the past six weeks, he has belted 12 home runs — more than he hit in any of the previous seven seasons — and driven in 26 runs, while batting .293 with five stolen bases from his leadoff spot.