Business As Usual

The wild and woolly A's are doing it again: winning with a roster full of value players who thrive by just being themselves. Welcome to the O.comfort zone....
June 23, 2014

INSIDE THE lair of the best team in the American League are the young and the wizened, the mercenary and the homegrown, the potbellied and the sculpted, the clean-shaven and the hirsute. "Welcome to the freak show," says Sean Doolittle, a first baseman turned closer with the gnarliest beard this side of Westeros.

At first you may not be sure if you're in a major league clubhouse, a frat house or a grad school reading room: There are players sprawled over couches playing Mario Kart, and just as many others are at their lockers reading or studiously at work on a crossword. There is Luke Gregerson, the reliever with a criminal justice degree from Saint Xavier University who deferred law school admission, playing cribbage with catcher Derek Norris, the Kansan with a thick mullet-beard combo; Stanford grad Jed Lowrie playing backgammon with Georgia country boy Josh Reddick; hulking Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes having breakfast next to Eric Sogard, the slight infielder from Arizona State who, with his black-framed glasses, looks like he just finished a shift at the Apple Genius Bar. The walls are shaking to rap from Coco Crisp's playlist, but the music here will change in a moment. "Once in a while [Josh] Donaldson will sneak in some Elton John," says Doolittle, "and then it gets really weird."

"In clubhouses you have cliques, guys with similar interests," says Gregerson. "Not this one. Here, it's 40 guys with completely different personalities. It should be a disaster, really. But somehow it all works beautifully."

Every major league baseball team has its own identity. The Yankees are as corporate as General Motors; the Cardinals, with a culture rooted in their long history, are conservative. Oakland's renegade identity goes back to Jason Giambi and the Animal House clubhouse of the late '90s and early 2000s; back to Rickey, Eck and the Bash Brothers in the '80s; back to Reggie, Rollie, Vida and the Swingin' A's of the '70s. Forty years later the A's are a cocktail of combustible personalities, clashing cultures and customs, eccentricities and superstitions, assembled by general manager Billy Beane and his lieutenants—a front office with enough analytical brainpower to run a hedge fund—and steered by manager Bob Melvin with the serenity of the San Francisco Bay at dawn. You could say that these A's are a product of innovative roster construction and masterly in-season micromanaging—and, yes, given their eclectically assembled clubhouse (just two players on the 25-man roster are homegrown), maybe great chemistry. All of that is part of the story of these A's, and for good reason. But that's not the whole story.

How is Oakland doing it again? How does a team with a bottom-five payroll have the best record in baseball since 2012? How has a 30-year-old journeyman suddenly bloomed into one of the game's most dangerous power hitters? How has the third baseman gone from being one of the worst players in baseball to one of the best in just two years?

The answer may be a lot simpler than unearthing the next market inefficiency. It lies somewhere in the message that implicitly welcomes every player the first time they walk through the clubhouse doors: Here, all you have to be is who you are.

WITHIN THE front office at the O.co Coliseum, there's a word that comes up in just about every conversation about a ballplayer the team is looking to acquire: residual. The residual is the difference between how the A's perceive a player and how they think the industry perceives that player. Does player X have a positive residual? "Anything you can do to amplify the differences between your evaluation and those of other teams creates more opportunities to find value," says assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi. The team's success at finding value to outperform their small payroll was the core idea of Moneyball. Early on the A's found value in players who could get on base; now, with nearly every team embracing advanced metrics, finding undervalued players has become much more difficult. Oakland has had to take bigger bets (the ultimate high variance wager was the 2012 signing of Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal after he defected from Cuba) and become more creative, constructing a roster designed to take advantage of matchups and platoons. The A's—as seen with recent additions like pitchers Scott Kazmir and Drew Pomeranz and catcher John Jaso—are still as good as anyone at finding undervalued talent. What's often overlooked is how good the A's are at handling their players after they acquire them.

"Everybody here is put in a position to succeed," says Stephen Vogt, one-third of Oakland's three-headed platoon at catcher. As someone who struggles against lefthanders, he plays only against righthanded pitchers. "No one is asked to be someone they're not."

This season the Oakland offense has been powered by Donaldson and Moss, the 3--4 hitters against righthanded pitchers. Few tandems in the majors have more combined home runs (33), have driven in more runs (104) or amassed a higher WAR (7.1). Donaldson and Moss have become the Bash Brothers 2.0—and with Cespedes (12 home runs and a .799 OPS) hitting behind them, the A's have a heart of the order as dangerous as any in the game.

They are two gregarious Southern boys—Donaldson attended high school in Mobile and went to Auburn; Moss grew up outside Atlanta—and are among the loudest yappers in a clubhouse in which more insults get thrown than at a Comedy Central roast. "God forbid one of the guys doesn't get enough of a ball and it lands in the outfielder's glove at the warning track," says Doolittle, "because after the game all you'll hear is one guy complaining about how big the park is and the other guy ripping him because he needs to hit the weight room."

The pair embodies Oakland's outside-the-box thinking—both players were converted to their current positions by the A's. (Third baseman Donaldson was a catcher when he joined the organization, first baseman Moss an outfielder.) They share this, too: Two years ago, in the summer of 2012, both hit rock bottom.

Moss was 28, was on his fourth organization and was firmly affixed with the dreaded Four-A Player label—too good for Triple A, not good enough for the Show. His prospects were so dim in 2012 that he considered everything from playing in Japan to dropping baseball altogether and working as a fireman in his hometown in Georgia. It had been a long, hard 10 years for Moss (who was drafted in 2002 by the Red Sox) and his wife Allison, with Brandon working odd jobs through the off-seasons to supplement his minor league pay. "It's one thing to be young and single and a minor leaguer," he says. "It's another to be old and have a wife and kids." He worked in the kitchen at Sonic, behind the register at a gas station mini mart and in the kennels at a veterinarian's office. "Put it this way," he says. "Those days I was making $8.50 at Sonic and working nights at the kennel, I was raking it compared to what I was making as a minor league player." In 2012, Moss finally gave himself an ultimatum; if he wasn't in the majors by mid-June, he'd accept an offer to play in Japan.

It was then that Moss began to rediscover who he was. During his three-plus years bouncing around the Pirates' and the Phillies' systems, "the teams had an idea of the player they wanted me to be," he says, "more of a line drive, go with the pitch, not strike-out-a-lot kind of guy. That's not me." But when Moss signed with Oakland before the 2012 season, the message was clear: Be who you are. "That's our philosophy," says Zaidi, "on and off the field—especially with a guy like Brandon who's been around. The idea of taking a guy with a couple thousand minor league at bats and changing his approach didn't make a lot of sense."

Moss began producing at Triple A Sacramento, and Zaidi, seeing improved numbers in peripherals like fly ball--ground ball ratio and isolated power, became his biggest advocate within the A's organization. He sent so many emails supporting Moss's promotion that Beane now calls Zaidi's chain the Moss Manifesto. Moss was called up on June 6, hit five home runs over a four-game stretch a week after he arrived and has been raking ever since.

That same summer Donaldson was beginning to see the writing on the wall too. His struggles could be traced back to his time in the Cubs' organization, in which he never lived up to his potential as a 2007 first-round pick and was dealt to Oakland in '08. One afternoon in May '12, "we were playing San Francisco, and I looked at my batting average [on the scoreboard], and Barry Zito was hitting higher than me," says Donaldson. "I was hitting about .080." Donaldson was sent down to Triple A, his sixth demotion since '10. He is two years younger than Moss, and though he was "not quite yet to being the journeyman, where Brandon was at," he says, "I was definitely getting very close."

But while Donaldson had struggled in short stints at the major league level, he turned things around that summer in Sacramento. "Part of what we see as the residual with Donaldson and Moss is our faith in players' ability to make the jump from Triple A to the big leagues when they've showed a certain level of production in the minor leagues," says Zaidi. When third baseman Brandon Inge went down with a shoulder injury late in 2012, "it would have been just as easy to go out and pick up someone from another organization that we may have perceived as a safer bet," says Zaidi. "At the end of the day it was Josh's talent and his belief that he could come back and perform that made the difference. Once he came back up, he hit the ground running."

In Sacramento, Donaldson had made an important change in his swing, adding a leg kick that helped his timing, but he also says he was eventually able to thrive because his personality was more of a fit in the A's culture. The Cubs, he says, "didn't want you to have facial hair, we had to wear our socks up, a bunch of stuff I believed to be eyewash," says Donaldson, whose hairstyle—part mohawk, part mullet, with a rodentlike tail in the back—is unclassifiable.

"This organization, they just want you to be yourself: They tell you from day one, we're not going to restrict you, so take ownership of who you are. Before I got here, I'd been waiting a hell of a long time to hear that."

THREE HOURS before first pitch at O.co Coliseum the dusty RVs and beat-up Corollas start rolling into the ocean-sized parking lot for early tailgating. A dude in a yellow '70s jersey and baggy green-and yellow Zubaz pants is throwing a football to a man in a green wig. Surrounded by freeways and abandoned warehouses, the crumbling Coliseum feels like a ruin. The A's perennially rank near the bottom of the American League in attendance, and this year is no different. A tarp covers the upper deck, as it has since 2006 (small crowds, the thinking goes, look better when compressed into smaller areas), and the stadium boasts less than state-of-the-art amenities, starting with the two main video scoreboards, which are the size of your living room TV from 1995.

Yet there is no denying the unique, vibrant energy of the crowd at A's games. There are cowbells and drums and banjos, flags and banners, chants and more singing and dancing to the walk-up music, from Marilyn Manson (Norris) to Wham! (Reddick). In section 149, in rightfield, you'll hear the loudest roars and the most creative heckling of opposing players. Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton ate a Butterfinger candy bar tossed down to him from the rightfield seats on what fans deemed Josh Hamilton Appreciation Night, commemorating his dropped ball that helped the A's take the division from the Rangers in 2012.

"Blue-collar," Melvin, who went to high school in Menlo Park and was a catcher at Cal, says of A's fans. "You see a lot of the new ballparks where the energy isn't what it used to be. The old Yankee Stadium, you kind of felt like you were in a bit of danger, because you still had a lot of the diehards there. We still have them in Oakland. When they come out in force, there's no bigger party."

But how long can the party last? The A's have always been brutally realistic about their windows of opportunity: Beane likes to tell the story of how, after being eliminated in the 2001 Division Series, he stood at the airport baggage claim and said to assistant GM Paul DePodesta, "This is a great team, and unfortunately it's not going to be back."

Says Zaidi, "One thing we've learned, we can't look at every trade acquisition like we're trying to maximize future expected value—a win today versus a win three or four years in the future, where we frankly don't know how competitive we're going to be, those things can't necessarily be treated equally," he says. "I think we've increasingly been cognizant of that in the way we operate. Ultimately the goal isn't to maximize dollars per win—it's to maximize wins."

The A's have reached the postseason seven times since 2000 but have won just one series, in 2006. Everyone in Oakland, from the front office to the players, understands that their time is now. "In 2012 it was like the NCAA tournament Cinderella story," says Norris. "Last year right out of the gate we played well, and it was almost like justifying the talent level. I think over the winter it hit a lot of guys like, 'Damn, we lost two years in a row in the playoffs. That's not good.' That keeps us pissed off."

It has been 40 years since Reggie, Vida and Catfish helped lead the A's to a third straight championship. That was a group of volcanic personalities who sparred, bickered and brawled all the way through their run—before Game 1 of the '74 World Series, Rollie Fingers and Blue Moon Odom were throwing punches in the middle of the clubhouse. This team may be as compelling, though there are no Jerry Springer moments. Before a recent game at Yankee Stadium, holed up in the visitors' clubhouse during a rain delay, the players grabbed bats and baseballs and turned the room into a miniature golf course. They kept score on the dry erase board and got through four rounds of knocking baseballs around couches and chairs and into lockers.

Said one player: "You think Jeter and the boys are playing bat golf right now?"

These A's are not a Cinderella story anymore, not after two straight division titles, and they are not a team of unheralded nobodies. But the players in Oakland do share this: "Nobody did it the conventional way," says Doolittle. "All up and down the roster there's guys that have maybe been to the big leagues, but they had to pay their dues to fight to stay in the big leagues. You can tell that there are guys who appreciate every minute here and don't take anything for granted. They found themselves here. They finally found a home."

"It's 40 guys with completely different personalities," says Gregerson. "It should be a disaster, really. But somehow it works."

"The old Yankee Stadium, you felt like you were in a bit of danger, because you still had a lot of the diehards there," says Melvin. "We still have them in Oakland."

WILD WEST

Oakland's long tradition of being non-traditional

1970s

Charlie Finley's Mustache Gang

1987

Canseco and McGwire: The Bash Brothers

2000

Jason Giambi's pre-Yankees flair

2002

Wackiness reigns, in the whirlpool

2003

Moneyball creates the legend of the front office

2013

Josh Reddick goes a bit further than the Mustache Gang

PHOTOPhotograph by Michael Zagaris for Sports IllustratedTUNNEL OF LOVE Donaldson is a typical A's turnaround story: Two years ago he was one of the worst players in baseball: Now he's celebrated as one of the best. PHOTOTHEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOTHEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGESMIRROR IMAGES Moss and Donaldson each struggled for years before finding themselves, and their swings, in creaky O.co Coliseum. PHOTOOTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (DONALDSON)[See caption above] PHOTOBRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (COLISEUM)[See caption above] PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CRISP)FACE/OFF Crisp took a break from other popular clubhouse activities like cribbage and improvised golf to do his best Donaldson impression. PHOTOFRED KAPLAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FINGERS) PHOTONEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FINLEY) TWO PHOTOSBRAD MANGIN (CANSECO, MCGWIRE) PHOTOV.J. LOVERO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GIAMBI) PHOTOPETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WHIRLPOOL) PHOTOW.W. NORTON & COMPANY (MONEYBALL) PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (REDDICK)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)