The Oakland Athletics, who are hosting the Angels this weekend with first place in the American League West on the line, just might have the happiest workplace in all of baseball, maybe all of professional sports.
I've reached this decidedly unscientific conclusion after hanging around big league clubhouses for a few decades. I've seen plenty of happy teams, too.
For instance, the Orioles of the '70s and '80s were enthusiastically in love with the idea of being Orioles. Their players were largely homegrown, and because they'd had so many common experiences in terms of farm clubs, instructors, etc., before getting to the big leagues, there was a strong bond. They were teammates in spirit before they were actual teammates.
In the best days, Eddie Murray would stroll through the clubhouse and chortle, "It's great to be young and an Oriole."
He'd laugh when he said it, but in his heart of hearts, he absolutely believed it. He had teammates -- Cal Ripken, Mike Flanagan, Al Bumbry -- who were as close as family members.
When Don Baylor, who was an Orioles draft pick and in ways large and small the kind of man the franchise prided itself on having, learned that he had been traded in 1976, he sat in front of his locker and wept.
Anyway, that loving feeling was lost in Baltimore in the 1980s as the farm system fell apart and management began bringing in aging free agents by the truckload. To say Eddie Murray came to hate what the Orioles became would be an understatement. Thus, his demand to be traded was granted after the 1988 season.
Funny thing is, it might be a lot like the old days now around Baltimore. These Orioles resemble those other Orioles because they have tremendous clubhouse leadership (Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, others) and one of the shrewdest managers on the planet (Buck Showalter).
The Tampa Bay Rays also have a unique thing going. In the last decade, the Rays have transformed from a team players hoped they'd never play for to one that is at or near the top of a lot of lists.
Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't fret about dress codes or facial hair or stuff like that. He cares about playing hard and playing smart. He cares about teammates taking care of other teammates. Maddon makes sure the environment is fun and energized and completely positive. When the Rays speak of "the Ray way," it sounds a lot like the thing that used to be called "the Oriole way."
Let's pause here for a footnote of honesty: It's impossible for any of us on the outside to completely understand the inner-workings of a clubhouse. If you are not one of them, you can't completely understand all the dynamics.
But it's obvious that it works a lot better in a few places. For instance, the Astros of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. They played together for 15 seasons, and after the second or third year, they emerged as undisputed leaders.
It wasn't just that teammates leaned on them for their leadership. Managers did, too. Biggio and Bagwell enforced the rules, took care of disciplinary problems and led the Astros to their greatest run of success -- six playoff appearances in a nine-year stretch between 1997 and 2005.
Plenty of diverse personalities -- Randy Johnson, Jeff Kent, Carl Everett -- played for the Astros in those days. All of them were accepted for what they brought to the table, and if they were a bit different, so be it.
"If a guy can knock in 90 runs, we'll take that," Biggio said. "As long as he plays hard and respects the game, he won't have a problem here."
During the Barry Bonds-Jeff Kent era in San Francisco, there was a widespread feeling around the game that the Giants had an unhappy home. That might not have been true. Their manager, Dusty Baker, was so brilliant at uniting the various personalities into a common goal, and isn't that all that matters?
Anyway, back to the A's.
What seems unique about them is that they've had a special vibe for a couple of decades now. So it's not about one group of players or one manager. General manager Billy Beane is the only common thread running through all those clubs.
Yeah, his genius extends past evaluating players better than almost anyone ever has and being a transformative figure in the game by essentially reinventing the way players are evaluated through the use of analytics.
There's a looseness around the A's that's simply not there in a lot of other places. You can see it on the faces and hear it in the voices of players. The A's love wearing that uniform. They know it means something. They dine together and support one another and do all the things that winning players absolutely have to do.
OK, OK, I know what you're thinking. Who would dare complain about playing Major League Baseball for a living?
Here's the deal with the A's: They're different. Their payrolls are usually among the five lowest in baseball. This season, they've got the fifth-lowest payroll and the second-highest winning percentage. Their ballpark is not one of baseball's best, and that's phrasing it politely.
Once upon a time, the Oakland Coliseum -- or as it's known these days, O.co Coliseum -- was a spectacularly beautiful place to play baseball. It had Ice Plant growing in the outfield mezzanine and a breathtaking view of the mountains.
And the A's did everything right. Great music. Great concessions. There weren't many better ways to spend an afternoon than watching the A's play a home game in those days.
That beauty was lost in 1995 when the stadium was enclosed to expand and upgrade the place to make the Raiders happy. Since then, the Coliseum has not been a good place for baseball. Now the place is falling apart, and the A's are working furiously to get a new stadium.
Still, the A's love their little home despite the occasional raw sewage flowing into the dugout. Rather, they love what they've created there. They've created a winning atmosphere. They appear to accept one another regardless of their differences. They don't sweat the small stuff.
It's not just about one player or one era, either. Jason Giambi loved playing for the A's in the 1990s in the same way Josh Donaldson loves it now.
He played six years in the big leagues. He joined the A's front office shortly after his playing career ended in 1989. He may gravitate toward a certain type of player, but his attitude about what should be expected of players is unshakable.
"We don't have a lot to offer in terms of bricks and mortar," he said. "But we treat players well. We allow them to have fun and enjoy themselves."
Beane may have the perfect manager to carry this attitude forward. Bob Melvin is one of those rare people you never hear anyone say a bad word about, and that decency plays well during the grind of a regular season.
Melvin's players know he has their backs in good times and bad. They know all he cares about is winning games, and that all he asks his players to do is trust him to keep his focus on the big picture.
And there are the players.
Because the A's can't spend huge sums of money on payroll, Beane has to do things a certain way. No general manager is better at finding value in players almost no one else wants. For instance, outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss played for three other organizations and was so discouraged that he'd applied to be a firefighter back in Georgia when the A's offered him a minor league deal.
Beane saw value in Moss' power and versatility. That Moss would go from considering retirement to being a member of this year's American League All-Star team makes him the poster boy for how the A's do thing.
Right-hander Jesse Chavez is another guy who has found success in Oakland after facing the end of his career.
"We get the label of castoffs a lot," Moss, who has 23 home runs, told MLB.com's Jane Lee. "For most of us, we were just in situations where there just wasn't an opportunity, and we end up here. That speaks to our front office and the way they recognize talent."
Chavez had spent all or parts of nine seasons in the minor leagues and been with five big league organizations when Beane purchased him from the Blue Jays.
Regardless of what others thought of Chavez, Beane believed he had the stuff to succeed in the big leagues. He gave him the 2013 season to pitch in relief and establish his confidence, then watched him win a job in the starting rotation this spring. He has refined his cutter and gained confidence in it, and has a nice 3.34 ERA in 27 games. Donaldson was a minor league catcher with the Cubs when the A's acquired him. He was asked to take some ground balls at third. He didn't just take to the position. He might very well be baseball's best defensive player at his position. He, too, was a member of the 2014 American League All-Star team.
Donaldson's competitive fire on the field and easygoing nature off it is a huge part of what Oakland has going. But there are guys like that all around the clubhouse. As closer Sean Doolittle told the San Francisco Chronicle, "This is a loose clubhouse. That's been a staple of the last few years. The energy is still upbeat and positive."
As baseball approaches the most interesting month of the season, the A's are attempting to win the American League West for the third straight season. Along the way, they're doing a really good imitation of a bunch of guys having the time of their lives.