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A's following Coco Crisp's lead into playoffs


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.

"It's just one of those years," said Crisp, who received a cortisone shot in his left wrist in mid-August. "Next year I might hit one home run and steal 100 bases. Well, probably not, but you just never know from year to year what might happen. This is just one of those years. I can't explain it."

In the process, Crisp, who turns 34 next month, appears to be making the Athletics' decision to pick up the $7.5 million option on his contract next season not much of a decision at all.

"I had a friend who came to a game, and the only players he had heard of were Bartolo and Coco," said Athletics' owner Lew Wolff, referring to pitcher Bartolo Colon. "He asked, Who's the rest of the team?"

That Crisp has found a home in Oakland is unlikely on several fronts. Growing up, he attended four high schools in four years in the Los Angeles area, then two colleges in two years before beginning his journey in professional baseball. He spent three full seasons in Cleveland and Boston, but there was never much security in either place. He helped the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series, but lost his starting job to Jacoby Ellsbury during the playoffs.

When the Athletics signed him after an injury-plagued 2009 season in Kansas City, it looked like another of general manager Billy Beane's low-risk deals for veterans: If Crisp returned to form, he would either help the Athletics into contention or serve as a trade chip for prospects. But neither happened: The Athletics did not win those two seasons and Crisp stayed put. And Beane and Crisp saw enough that they liked about each other that Crisp became the rare Athletics veteran to re-sign with the team: a two-year, $14 million deal with a team option for next season.

Melvin said that before he arrived in Oakland three years ago, he might have frowned upon Crisp's weak throwing arm and .330 career on-base percentage, well below par for a leadoff hitter. Now, he takes a rather un-Moneyball-like view, appreciating subtle qualities.

"You watch him play and he does intrinsic things that maybe don't show up in the stats," Melvin said. "Even though he's not a .360 on-base guy, he's on base at the right time and he's had as many big hits as anybody on our team."

Before Donaldson hit a game-ending single to beat the Angels last month, Crisp kept the inning alive by fouling off four two-strike pitches and earning a walk after falling behind in the count, 0-2. Jed Lowrie, who had been intentionally walked in front of Crisp, called it the at-bat of the season.

Crisp delivered a more prominent at-bat in the playoffs last year against the Tigers. He capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally with a game-ending single that sent the series to the decisive fifth game. That series also helped cement a relationship between a core of fans and the Athletics that Crisp says is unique.

"It was a little different than fan and athlete," Crisp said. "It was like we were in it together and that carried over to this year. It definitely makes it a lot more electric. And it just kind of happened. You can't make it happen."

The transformation is not unlike the one that has occurred with his favorite basketball team. Crisp's wife poked a little fun at him by buying him a Clippers cap with "bandwagon" printed on the back.

But that ride may have to wait. For the moment, Crisp is driving a bandwagon of his own, one that, if he and the Athletics continue their recent form, might just end up riding in a parade.