Source: USA TODAY
OAKLAND – Josh Donaldson tried to suppress his personality when he arrived in the majors with the Oakland Athletics, thinking that as a rookie he was better off being seen and not heard.
It wasn’t until his second recall from the minors last season, midway through August, that Donaldson decided to let go with his outgoing, sometimes-brash nature — a key component of his success — figuring he had nothing to lose after batting .153 over his first 28 games.
Turns out he need not have worried in the first place. Individuality is not only accepted but encouraged in Oakland’s famously loose clubhouse.
The A’s are up to their goofy antics again, adding a dugout canopy of arms as greeting for home run hitters to their previous assortment of Bernie Leans, hijacked mascot cars, hallway hockey contests and general wackiness.
More important, and once again most improbable, they’re back among the best clubs in baseball. With Donaldson leading the way offensively in a breakout season, the Athletics’ low-budget collection of role players will take a three-game lead in the American League West into today’s opener of a four-game series against the second-place Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas.
“Our identity is a bunch of goof-offs who play the game hard and don’t care about the stigma of some things that we do being portrayed as bush league,” says Brandon Moss, a seven-year veteran on his fourth team who platoons at first base. “We just have fun. It’s a game, and winning has made it 10 times more fun.”
They’ve done plenty of that. Oakland has a major league-best 99-55 record since July 1, and it has won 22 of its last 29 games to again climb to the top of a division that was supposed to be dominated by the deep-pocketed Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. Both had opening-day payrolls roughly twice the size of the Athletics’ $60 million.
The club relies on young pitchers — four of the five starters were rookies last year — and platoons at designated hitter, catcher, first base and the second base-shortstop combination.
Manager Bob Melvin said that didn’t rankle his players: “They’re not a bunch of prima donnas who think they should play every day.”
The A’s don’t necessarily win because they might pepper the stands with 3-wood drives before a game, fly remote-control airplanes on the field or wear tiger-striped green-and-gold pants in the clubhouse.
Those have been hallmarks of recent clubs, but so has a strong pitching staff, which ranks third in the AL with a 3.64 ERA and has reduced that number to 2.60 in the last 28 games.
However, no less a figure than Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson thinks the playful environment helps.
“It carries on to the field that you’re relaxed,” says Henderson, a spring training instructor with his longtime club. “By relaxing, you play better. We put enough pressure on ourselves as it is.”
After wresting the AL West crown away from the Rangers by winning the last six games of the 2012 season, the A’s figured to regress to the mean. And yet the stat-savvy originators of the Moneyball revolution don’t seem to understand that concept.
‘Green collar baseball’
The completed a sweep of the New York Yankees on Thursday by outlasting them 3-2 in 18 innings, becoming the second team ever to win two home games of at least that length in one season. The A’s beat the visiting Angels 10-8 in 19 innings April 29.
Last year’s Athletics led the majors with 14 walkoff wins, and the marathon victory against the Yankees gave them five this season, tied for second in the AL. They’re 14-8 in one-run games, another example of what the A’s tout as “Green collar baseball.”
“They’re about as scrappy a team as you can find,” said Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells, who witnessed his share of the Athletics’ moxie the previous two seasons while with the Angels.
“They never seem to be out of games. Last year it was like clockwork. If it was a close game at the end, they were going to win it one way or another. You could see there was the makings of something special there. It’s a team of guys that truly enjoy being out there.”
That’s clearly the case with feisty Donaldson, a converted catcher who has developed into an outstanding defensive third baseman. Donaldson, 27, batted .290 with eight homers after his August call-up and started from the get-go this year.
He leads Oakland with a .307 batting average and 43 RBI, and his .878 on-base-plus-slugging percentage ranks third among AL third basemen, a stellar group that includes Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado.
Donaldson said letting his personality come out allowed his talent to blossom, although becoming more selective at the plate — he has doubled his walk rate while reducing his strikeouts — and matching his swing plane to the pitch have also helped.
“I didn’t feel like I was being myself, as far as being outspoken and having fun and showing it, because I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Donaldson said of his hesitant initial days. “For many years, way before my time … I feel like this organization has given the players the freedom to express themselves.”
Even if it means yelling at the opposing pitcher for having the temerity to strike him out with breaking pitches. That’s what Donaldson did May 21 against the Rangers, when their overpowering ace, Yu Darvish, twice got him to chase sliders.
Donaldson was irked that Darvish, who faces Oakland again Tuesday night, would not challenge him with his heater and shared his thoughts from the dugout.
“I like that, because there is that fight in him,” said hitting coach Chili Davis, who lauds Donaldson’s improved approach and situational hitting. “Instead of sitting on the bench and hanging your head, get mad, but don’t lose your awareness.”
Stadium not state-of-art
The A’s are aware of their status as baseball’s forgotten children. They rank 24th in the majors in attendance (21,556 average) while playing in O.co Coliseum, the only facility in the majors that doubles as an NFL stadium in the fall.
Their quest to move to San Jose, which has turned off many of the local fans, has been stalling in committee for more than four years as MLB avoids confronting the San Francisco Giants on the issue of territorial rights to the South Bay area.
Sunday, a flood of sewage drove the A’s to the Raiders’ locker room to shower, and clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich said the carpeting would have to be replaced.
But the A’s won’t stand for an outsider taking shots at their place of business, as CBS Sports columnist Jon Heyman did when he bemoaned that the home-and-home series in May between the A’s and Giants wasn’t exclusively contested at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
Some Oakland players responded via Twitter, with the snarkiest — and most clever — retorts coming from reliever Sean Doolittle, including one that said, “I can see why you don’t like it. We have a strict No High Horse policy at (the Coliseum).”
“Trust me, we recognize the shortcomings of this place, and we know we don’t have the best stadium by any stretch of the imagination,” Doolittle told USA TODAY Sports. “But I think it gives us a little bit of character, and we kind of play off that.”
The Athletics’ plethora of young players, underdog mentality and relative anonymity — second-year outfielder Yoenis Cespedes qualifies as their biggest star — contribute to a loose clubhouse vibe that traces back several years and gained fame during the Jason Giambi frat-house days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The 1970s A’s, of course, broke with all decorum rules under late owner Charlie Finley, growing mustaches, sporting white cleats and wearing colorful uniforms.
And Henderson, who served four stints with his hometown team, recalls manager Billy Martin in the early 1980s telling players, “‘You can have as much fun as you want to, until you’re done winning. If you’re not winning, then you can’t have fun.”
Heck, when your iconic general manager (Billy Beane) can show up to work in shorts and flip flops, you know the atmosphere is not going to be terribly businesslike.
That was the word Moss and Josh Reddick used to describe the clubhouse in Boston, where both played before coming to Oakland. Reddick says he found the difference jarring but soon adjusted.
After the third or fourth walkoff win last year, Reddick delivered his first pie in the face to the unsuspecting game hero, and since then the Gold Glove right fielder has handled such duties.
Saturday, he and hyperactive Aussie closer Grant Balfour made off with the cart typically piloted by Stomper, the A’s mascot, and took it for a joy ride around the Coliseum field during batting practice.
“Everybody’s goofy in their own sort of way, and everybody shows off their personality,” Reddick says. “In Boston it wasn’t like that. Everybody was quiet, went about their business; a lot of veterans did their thing.
“Here we are letting everybody be themselves. And that’s what works for us.”