OAKLAND — Compared to the big-market teams, the Oakland A’s do not have the nicest stadium, highest payroll or biggest stars.
But they are definitely having the most fun.
There are plenty of reasons to clench up. The world champion Astros are in town. This is the start of a crazy run of 20 games in 20 days. And the national media have finally discovered them. (Sports Illustrated embedded a reporter here for a week.)
But so far, the Athletics abide. In general, the players seem delighted to be in the bigs, confident of their ability and pleased to find their confidence has been validated against the best players in the world.
This is a happy ship.
When I was there last week, the Nerf basketball hoop over pitcher Sean Manaea’s locker wasn’t in use. But it must get some pretty heavy play because there’s been a need to post some rules:
“No throwing of tennis balls. No dunking! $100 fine.”
A couple of weeks ago an impromptu, 10-man Red Bull chugging contest broke out in the dugout. That went so well they staged another a couple of days later. And they did that because …
“We’ve got a ton of young guys,” says outfielder Mark Canha. “Everyone is embracing the madness.”
“This is one of the tightest groups I’ve ever had,” says manager Bob Melvin, “if not the tightest.”
Third baseman Matt Chapman, who surely must get carded on a regular basis, is in his first full year in the big leagues, but speaks glowingly of veteran players who include the young guys in team meals or even a trip to the beach.
Chapman has such swag he turned a postgame TV interview into a direct appeal to A’s fans, looking to bolster the sparse crowds. He didn’t sound mad, just kinda puzzled more people didn’t want to see this. The front office reportedly got a head’s up, but mostly Chapman just freestyled.
“I figured, what’s the worst that could happen?” he said.
Which I would like to nominate for this year’s team motto. What IS the worst that could happen? Now that this team is likely to make the playoffs, who knows how far they could go?
And if they are out early? Meh. It’s all good. This group isn’t just playing with house money; they’re getting dinner and a floor show.
Nowadays, no member of the team can walk 10 feet without getting The Question: Did you see this incredible run coming?
Former A’s pitcher Dallas Braden, who injects a jolt of energy to the team’s broadcasts (and wins best beard handily), has a simple answer.
“No,” he said. “And if anybody tells you he saw it coming, slap them in the face.”
Or, as Melvin says: “I’m not surprised now. The only surprise is who we started with and who we have now.”
You know the deal. The starting pitching staff was decimated. The team has cobbled together a group of starters with string and duct tape and then turns to the loaded bullpen to close out games. It takes some deft maneuvering by Melvin to manage the arms and the egos.