OAKLAND, Calif. -- The big-screen TV at the back of the Oakland A’s clubhouse delivered a fuzzy facsimile of an NFL game on Sunday morning. In the swankier precincts of Major League Baseball, this tribute to rabbit-ears technology would be unthinkable. At the Coliseum, a rodent might have chewed through some wiring, or the cable box could have been traded for a water cooler and a year’s supply of sunflower seeds.
Anything is possible. For better or worse, the unfathomable always makes itself at home in Oakland.
The A's went into this week with one of the best records in the American League and a starting rotation that had lost its two ripest members in less than a month. On Wednesday night, Brett Anderson, a 24-year-old with the most MLB seniority of the remaining starters, appeared to become the third casualty of the month, falling down at the end of a delivery and leaving the mound in the third inning. The four others are rookies, now positioned to redefine "unfathomable."
Two of them began the season as Double-A teammates in Midland, Texas, sharing a home and a Hyundai.
“It’s very humbling to go from any level of professional baseball and come into a job where you count shoes every morning,” Dan Straily said. “It helped keep my head on straight.”
No one could expect the A’s to remain un-frenzied as 13 walk-off wins, tops in the majors, helped jolt them into contention. Like many teams before them, they celebrate with cream pies to the face of the player who delivered victory. Unlike any previous pie, one of Oakland’s came from the hand of an outfielder dressed as Spider-Man. Josh Reddick, one of the many revelations in this group, received his costume after scaling a chain-link portion of Toronto’s fence to pluck a home run out of the air in late July. And after Coco Crisp knocked in a run with a 15th-inning sacrifice fly on the next homestand, Reddick assembled both costume and pie almost instantly.
"That was the most impressive part about it,” said reliever Sean Doolittle. “He came and changed into the costume in about two seconds. It was like he had it on under his uniform.”
The 25-year-old Reddick swooped into right field from Boston this season. The deal to bring the Red Sox part-timer to Oakland required parting with two-time All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, and stoked disgust toward general manager Billy Beane and the club’s ownership.
Unloading Bailey, as well as All-Star starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, looked like a cynical wave of the white flag by a franchise that insists it must move 40 miles south to San Jose to be financially viable. Those three trades, however, yielded two starting pitchers, a regular catcher, a closer, a backup outfielder and the wall-scaling, power-hitting Reddick.
Looking back at quotes from the Boston trade is a bit like revisiting Y2K hype. Bailey told the San Francisco Chronicle: “Everyone knows what direction the A’s are taking and like I told Billy Beane today, I’ll always appreciate them giving me that opportunity out of spring training, but they’re trying to get younger, they’re rebuilding. I’m going to a proven winner. I’m excited to pitch in meaningful games in September, and the playoffs, hopefully the World Series.”
Through Wednesday, the Red Sox sat 17 games behind the A’s, thoroughly out of contention.
One could argue that the Beane genius -- inspiration for a book, movie and Brad Pitt Oscar nomination -- has never faded. “Moneyball” rides again.
Beane chose well in recent trades, and older deals are now bearing fruit. But this team is very different from the 2002 version that went Hollywood last year. Those A’s had Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito, the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner. They had Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder flanking Zito. They had won 102 games a year earlier and gone to the playoffs in both 2000 and 2001.
The 2012 A’s entered the season with minimal proven talent and zero expectations. Beane did manage to swipe Yoenis Cespedes, a Cuban refugee built like an NFL running back, from other suitors with a four-year, $36 million deal. But he also threw a Hail Mary pass on Manny Ramirez’s future after a second failed drug test. That experiment ended in mid-June, before Ramirez even got out of the minors.
No grand scheme could explain the emergence of Doolittle, who ranks as the most improbable story on a roster full of them. Drafted as a power-hitting first baseman from the University of Virginia, he endured two knee injuries that sidelined him for most of 2009 and all of 2010. As he tried to return last summer, a dislocation of his right wrist made hitting an excruciating experience.
But as a lefthander, Doolittle could still throw, and he began doing some long tossing -- “mostly to keep from going crazy,” he said. He had pitched successfully in college, so he proposed a career switch to the A’s.
Asked what happened on his first professional pitch, he said: “Ball 1.” Then he smiled. “But it was 95 [mph].”
Doolittle traveled through the minor-league system like a comet, getting the call-up from Triple-A Sacramento in early June. Traveling secretary Mickey Morabito asked whether he needed help gathering his belongings from Sacramento.
“He told me he didn’t really have any of his stuff there, because he wasn’t there long enough," Morabito said. “Most of it was still in Midland, and his car was in Stockton."
At some point this season, more than half the roster has done time in Sacramento, whether for injury rehabilitation, upward mobility or a temporary step backward. During the last homestand, someone posted signs in the clubhouse that read:
Please limit your AAA stories to one per day per person.
Those lucky enough not to be there this year
“My guess is that’s Gomes,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Jonny Gomes wouldn’t take credit for posting the signs, but if he wasn’t directly responsible for the mischief, he was behind it in spirit. He and Brandon Inge, cut by the Tigers and claimed by the A’s early in the season, have been credited with incubating this young team. (On Sept. 1, the final day of his season, Inge dislocated his shoulder on a throw in the top of the third inning, doubled in two runs in the bottom of the inning and then left the game.)
Gomes brought the sensibilities of a man who spent random nights in homeless shelters as a youth and endured a heart attack a month after his 22nd birthday. Joining the A’s put him close to his hometown of Petaluma the same year it sent a team to the Little League World Series. Gomes doted on the kids, raising money to send their families to Williamsport, Pa., hosting the players at the Coliseum after their third-place finish, and taking a pie to the face from Inge as he celebrated one of the wins.
Gomes, 31, copes well with his part-time status, eagerly jump-starting his bat for some of the A’s best rallies. He sets the perfect example for a team that requires extreme elasticity at most positions.
The gutting of the starting rotation should have leveled the A's a while ago, mentally as well as physically. Anderson returned from 13 months of surgical recovery at almost the very instant that Bartolo Colon was banned him from the sport for flunking a drug test. Then a line drive caromed off the side of Brandon McCarthy’s head, fracturing his skull and sending him into surgery.
If the A’s must replace Anderson, who reportedly strained an oblique muscle, the leading candidate would be Travis Blackley, an employee of the Kia Tigers in Korea for 2011.
Every infield position has turned over at least once. Third baseman Josh Donaldson considered himself a catcher until late last season. Four players have started at least 20 games at first base. Rookie Chris Carter and Brandon Moss share the job now, making it the source of power it’s meant to be.
From 2009 through 2011, the position yielded a total of 35 home runs. This year, with 12 games to go, first basemen had produced 30 homers for the A’s.
Melvin appears to be the ideal overseer for this group. As the Diamondbacks manager in 2007, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he wrote the first postseason starting lineup ever to include four rookies. His 2012 team, if it holds onto a playoff spot, could easily top that. Beane hasn’t typically placed much emphasis on hiring the ideal manager, but after a mini-revolt last year, he fired Bob Geren, his friend and the manager for almost five feeble seasons. Melvin, a Bay Area native, made himself a presence in the clubhouse, in the infield during pregame warmups and on the mound as a batting-practice pitcher.
“We’ve got a staff that I feel interacts with us a lot more than they did [in Boston],” Reddick said.
The roster’s revolving door creates all sorts of special challenges. The hotel the team uses for new arrivals has rarely seen so much green-and-gold traffic. A lot of players simply stay there, rather than sign a lease they may have to break when Sacramento crooks its finger in their direction again.
“I’ve never had so many guys residing in hotels,” Morabito said.
“I bet if I went down an address list, at least half the guys are in hotels right now.”
Cespedes, not surprisingly, is bypassing the typical rookie experience. He shares a townhouse with Ariel Prieto, who left Cuba to pitch for the A’s 17 years ago. Now he works as an interpreter and minder for Cespedes, who has already thrived in ways that Prieto never could.
The former shoe salesmen are flourishing in different ways. Straily just came back up from the farm, and he hasn’t decided where he will go when his free nights at the hotel run out. He may return to the accommodations he used during his first stretch in Oakland -- in an extra bedroom at his agent’s house. It’s a complication he will see as a luxury.
A.J. Griffin reached the majors in early June, and the Nike salesman immediately looked more like a Nike endorser. All he lacked was the sponsorship.
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention them too much,” he said in as dry a tone as you’ll ever hear from a 24-year-old.
Griffin had a 6-0 record and a 1.94 ERA before the Tigers unleashed Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder on him Tuesday night. The current road trip takes them through Detroit, New York and Texas, a decidedly treacherous path.
Will these final days weigh down the most buoyant team in baseball?
The A’s in the bullpen will keep up the sorcery of “starting the fire,” waving their arms up and down in a pattern originally set by, of all the things, the fountain display at Coors Field. The relievers pretended they were orchestrating the rise and fall of the water. When they worked out the details, they decided they weren’t controlling a friendly element -- they were creating a dangerous one.
“We swept that series, so now, it’s sort of our good-luck thing,” Doolittle said. I guess it’s working.”
In addition, virtually the whole team has now paid homage to the 1989 movie “Weekend at Bernie’s.” There is an A’s dance video set to a song about Bernie, with Crisp in the lead role. The Coliseum hosted a “Weekend with Bernie,” and fans received Bernie masks. The man who played Bernie, 73-year-old Terry Kiser, threw a ceremonial first pitch.
A year ago, a critically acclaimed movie saluted an A’s organization that appeared to be crumbling. Now, the team, as relevant and fresh as any in sports, obsesses over a movie about a corpse passed off as alive.
Well, why not? This is Oakland, and anything is possible.