A's are finally drawing attention -- for all the wrong reasons

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OAKLAND -- In the past week, the Oakland A's have had a weird feeling.

Strange and unusual.

They were actually newsworthy.

The A's were the focus of headlines and online chatter. When they glanced up on the television screens in the clubhouse, there they were.

"It was the first time for me," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "It's been interesting."

All this interest didn't have much to do with how the A's were playing. It was a function of a dispute between manager Bob Geren and reliever Brian Fuentes, a disagreement that had former A's players weighing in and columnists taking shots.

But it shows how irrelevant and under the radar the A's have been for the past four seasons: This is the most attention the A's have gotten in Suzuki's major league career.

"New York and Boston, they get it every day," Suzuki said. "Little stuff for them is big stuff for us."

But what happened last week wasn't exactly little stuff, even for a high-profile team. Fuentes objected to how he was being used by Geren. Pushed into the closer role by the injury to Andrew Bailey, Fuentes didn't understand why Geren continued to summon him in late innings with the score tied. When asked how he thought Geren handled him, Fuentes said, "Pretty poorly." When asked how much communication he has with Geren, Fuentes answered, "Zero."

It was a rare instance of a player publicly calling out a manager. And it cracked open the seal on four-plus years of private gripings about Geren. Fuentes, who joined the A's in the offseason, hit the bull's-eye with of both his projectiles: The biggest issues with Geren have been his mismanagement of the A's bullpen and his communication skills.

Huston Street, who played under Geren for two years and is now with the Rockies, weighed in from the other league and another state. He sent a text to the San Francisco Chronicle's A's beat reporter saying, "Bob was never good at communication, and I don't want to speak for anybody else, but it was a sentiment reflected in many conversations during the two years I spent in Oakland, and even recently when talking to guys after I left.

"For me personally, he was my least favorite person I have ever encountered in sports from age 6 to 27. I am very thankful to be in a place where I can trust my manager."

No response yet from Street's evil kindergarten T-ball coach.

The reason this has become such a big deal for a nondescript team is that this year -- for the first time since Billy Beane tore his team apart following its appearance in the 2006 ALCS -- the A's are supposed to contend. They have a pitching staff that leads the major leagues in ERA, despite being beset by injuries. They added some offensive components (which have yet to produce). The only thing holding them back, in the eyes of many preseason analysts, would be Geren, who has been an underwhelming presence at the A's helm since 2007.

Before this year, Geren was operating with the safety net of precisely no expectations. But entering this season, the A's were expected to contend, changing the paradigm.

The public dust-up and the A's struggles to get above .500 have landed Geren on some "managers at risk" lists. Yet there's a belief that no matter if Geren fails miserably he'll never be fired, thanks to his friendship with Beane (he was best man at Beane's wedding) and Beane's philosophy that managers don't really matter. Geren's contract expires at the end of the season, which means he may not be retained in 2012, but that doesn't change the assumption that this is his season, for better or for worse. Both Beane and owner Lew Wolff came to his defense.

The story wasn't just about a player calling out a manager, another player weighing in from afar, a closed-door meeting to clear the air. It was also about cronyism and the frustration that Beane would entrust a young, talented team to an unpopular, ill-equipped manager.

The A's responded to their first taste of real controversy by playing their best stretch of baseball. They rallied to split in Anaheim with the Angels and then sweep the hapless Orioles in Oakland -- their first series sweep of the season -- and pull back within a game of first place.

"Bob's our leader, no matter what happens," Suzuki said. "We still have to go out and perform. It's not his fault if we don't hit."

But on Monday, the A's completed their roller coaster week with a pancake-flat performance, yielding meekly to the New York Yankees.

Despite playing in front of just their second home sellout this season (mostly comprised of Yankees fans), the A's were lifeless. The Yankees jumped on Oakland ace Trevor Cahill, and A's batters managed just four hits off the oddly youthful Bartolo Colon, who pitched a complete-game shutout at age 37, only fueling more discussion/speculation/intrigue about his shoulder and elbow surgery last season.

A sellout and making national news all in one week? No wonder the A's looked confused on Monday. Owner Lew Wolff's grand plan has seemed to be -- with the cooperation of Beane, who never saw a roster he wanted to keep intact -- to make his team utterly irrelevant and drive fans away. By doing that Wolff will prove to Bud Selig that he can't succeed in Oakland and get the OK to move to San Jose.

So far his plan has worked, save for the part about getting permission to move to San Jose (Selig's commission is in its third year of studying the matter). The A's have managed to be the least noticed team in baseball.

Until this week.