Whole new world for young, talented A's
July run of success representative of fresh outlook in clubhouse
OAKLAND -- The unwritten rules of clubhouse conduct are pretty straightforward for rookies and are enforced by their elders in the majority of Major League cities.
Sit in your chair, face your locker and keep quiet unless spoken to -- or so say these time-honored guidelines the A's are rewriting.
In Oakland, the rookies and youngsters are policing the sacred confines of the clubhouse. And the few veterans that are there, though not afraid to offer friendly warnings if need be, are encouraging it.
This very culture is a trademark of Bob Melvin's likeable managerial style -- "That young, loose style we have in the clubhouse, I think he kind of complements that," pitcher Travis Blackley said -- and has done wonders for baseball's surprise team.
At 51-44 with an off day on Monday, the A's briefly rested from an improbable run that includes a Major League-best 14-2 July and a 29-14 mark since a disheartening nine-game losing streak, including wins in 24 of their past 34 contests. After Monday's games, they were positioned alongside the Angels for one of the two AL Wild Card spots, and were six games behind the first-place Rangers.
The magic is found in their inexplicable knack for walk-off victories. The A's have six in their past 11 games, eight in their past 16, and they have 11 on the season, more than any other club. Moreover, 10 different members of the A's have played the hero role, a nod to the club's team play with a roster that lacks any of the game's big names.
The winning A's, fresh off a four-game sweep of the Yankees, are having fun, to put it simply. And it all goes back to the feel-good chemistry permeating through their close-knit Minor League-esque clubhouse.
On a recent afternoon, 24-year-old A.J. Griffin -- with all of five big league starts to his name -- controlled the music. Beside him, at a round table, the seasoned Coco Crisp engaged in a card game with rookie Derek Norris.
Crisp and Norris are separated in age by nine years. Six years is the difference between Jonny Gomes and Josh Reddick, who were at the far end of the clubhouse exchanging laughs, while rookie All-Star Ryan Cook playfully yelled nonsense across the room -- at a volume that veterans in cities not named Oakland would likely frown upon.
Gomes and Reddick have become fast friends -- "I'm being his filter because he doesn't have one," Gomes joked -- and their relationship is on display every day by way of matching robes that hang inside their neighboring lockers.
Custom bathrobes, complete with name and number on the back, have been a part of Gomes' getup for years. His newest is canary yellow with green lettering, and Reddick and Cook are among those who requested their own, while Gomes says even more are in the process of being made -- including one for frequent guest and Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, whose robe cuff will appropriately read "1406," representing his career stolen base total.
Gomes' impact on this club is far-reaching, yet for his teammates almost difficult to quantify, as it marks one of a bevy of intangibles filtering through a team that has employed a Major League-high 17 rookies this season. Ten are currently on the roster.
"He's a presence in the clubhouse," fellow statesman Brandon Inge said about Gomes, before pausing. "I can't even put a finger on why, but he is."
Inge, too, has played the big brother role since arriving in May. Don't expect to find a robe in his locker, for there isn't any room, what with a handful of hockey sticks crowding the Detroit Red Wings enthusiast's abode. But just like his advice, the sticks are shared -- and used on a daily basis, in the clubhouse and outside of it.
"It's a good warmup exercise," Jim Miller chimed in, laughing. "A good core workout."
Like Inge, Miller was not on Oakland's Opening Day roster. Nearly half the players that make up the current club, in fact, weren't on board the late March flight to Tokyo, where the A's opened the regular season against the Mariners.
Turnover marked a theme in an underwhelming first half and could have easily left the A's without any true direction. So, too, could have the platoons created out of these moves, with several existing at key positions, including first base and shortstop. Yet, no one has turned on a teammate out of frustration from lack of an everyday job. Everyone, it seems, is rooting for one another. Everyone is friendly.
"I think anybody who doesn't put the uniform on doesn't understand how important that is," pitcher Dallas Braden said. "Clubhouse culture is highly undervalued. Guys have lumps at home, guys have a bad day, and you have your 24 best friends here, 24 guys who are all pulling toward the same goal with you, and they're going to have your back. This is a sanctuary for a lot of people here, including myself."
"Think of playing on the sandlot, back when we were younger," Gomes said. "You have two captains, and you pick your teams. You pick your friends, you don't pick the best player. You get up here in the big leagues and get your head in the clouds and get caught up in big contracts, but at the end of the day you want to go to war with your friends."
The A's were fighting a different kind of war as recently as last year. The pile of losses grew under then-manager Bob Geren, who was dismissed on June 9, 2011, following a 334-376 record over four-plus seasons.
Under Geren, who fell under pointed criticism following public comments made by players regarding his managing style and lack of communication, the A's were not only losing games, but also confidence.
"In years past, it was almost like we had to just create fun for ourselves in spite of what was going on, in spite of the losing," Braden said. "We had to almost trick ourselves into having a good time. Now it comes naturally, and it's pretty sweet. It's very deserving. They're coming in, putting the work in and getting the results, and you should be rewarded with a free and easy clubhouse, with being able to be yourself."
Melvin is 98-97 since assuming the helm, with improvements coming both on the field and off despite the loss of a trio of All-Star pitchers in the offseason in exchange for a crop of unknown players -- the same ones who are largely responsible for proving the pundits wrong.
There's Reddick, he of the flowing locks and young Jason Giambi-type traits with a love for WWE wrestling, who already has 21 home runs to his name. There's the young duo of rookies Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, who have combined for 17 wins for a pitching staff that owns the league's best ERA at 3.37. There's Cook, the storybook All-Star who quickly found a home in the closer's role, giving up runs in just four games all season.
Outside of the trade circles, Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes has lived up to billing by way of a .306 average, 13 home runs and 45 RBIs, always one swing from doing damage.
"You've got all this kind of talent, and then clowns like me," Inge joked, "and it just needed a little direction. Then you've got Bob Melvin running it all, and that's probably the key. He's soft spoken. He treats you like a grown-up, not a little kid, like a lot of guys do who treat you like they're above you."
"They have taken it upon themselves to win, no matter what happens," Braden said. "They have taken every piece that you can put into the equation, and taken it out and inserted naivety and aggression and talent.
"Now you have guys that are high-fiving and just staying loose, doing what grown men playing a little kids' game do to stay loose. And the results, as we're seeing, are competitive at-bats, competitive games. Guys are picking each other up left and right. It's just because we're all comfortable here. No one is looking over their shoulder, and everybody has a pretty good idea of where they're at, what role they have. That's been huge."
Though just 25, Reddick knows a thing or two about clubhouse culture. The last one he occupied was a breeding ground for headlines that attempted to expose the negativity oozing from the borders. The Red Sox's infamous September collapse gave reason for such attention, and though Reddick insists much of it was inaccurately portrayed by media, he did recognize the differences found in the clubhouse.
The wrestling chair that sits in front of Reddick's current locker wasn't even allowed at his space at Fenway. It remained hidden in a back room, at a veteran's request. The outfielder was to use only a Red Sox chair.
"Obviously there are a lot older, experienced veterans in there, so the thing is, most of the things guys do in here, they wouldn't have gotten away with there," Reddick said. "The younger guys aren't allowed to do certain things, so for me, it was just sitting at my locker a lot, doing a whole lot of nothing, unless I was going upstairs to eat. Here, I can be loud and yell and jump around with everybody, whereas somebody would have shut me up and quieted me down -- not in a rude way, but just out of respect for what was expected."
It was a similar experience for Inge when he was brought aboard to the Major League scene in Detroit, and for Brandon Hicks, too, while still with the Braves. Blackley also remembers his first callup with Seattle, where he didn't feel like himself until he was sent back down to Triple-A.
"As a young guy coming up, you want to be careful what you say, what you do, how you go about your work, because you feel like they're looking at you all the time, just waiting for you to do something wrong," Hicks said. "You're always on eggshells in a way. I've heard that's how it is at a lot of places, too."
Not in Oakland these days, as Hicks can attest to. Less than a month into his stay with the A's, who claimed him off waivers in March, the infielder said he feels "like I've known everyone here forever." Such a dynamic, he concluded, translates into success on the field. And while there's no way of knowing how much, Chris Carter is fine propaganda.
The first baseman, described by Braden as an "uber-prospect since the day he picked up a ball," found himself lost in an 0-for-33 stretch to start his big league career in 2010. He entered 2012 with four stints in Oakland behind him, owner of a .136 career average and .174 OBP. Yet since his June 29 callup, Carter is hitting .313 with a .436 OBP, not to mention five home runs in just 12 games.
What's the difference? Look outside the lines.
"I'm a lot more confident," Carter said. "Everything's a little bit easier. The last couple of times I've been up, we lost a lot of games. There was a different mood, different vibe, down and kinda depressed almost. No one was really having fun. It was kind of like a dead clubhouse.
"This one is a lot looser, a lot more fun. Even games we lose, we still have a good vibe, and you kind of feed off that at the plate."
"Winning is the ultimate mood changer, the ultimate relaxer," Gomes said.
Oakland's surge is creating a special type of feeling unfamiliar to this club since perhaps the historic 20-game winning streak in 2002. Just a week ago, they were encouraged to seek excitement in knowing they were within striking distance of the second Wild Card spot. Entering Monday, they were tied for the first spot.
No longer are the A's seeking to be a .500 team. They're playing better than that, and they only plan on continuing a run that many still deem to be something of a fluke.
"We're a better team than people know, and we like it that way," Inge said.
"We're young and just dumb enough to not understand, to not realize what we're doing," Braden said. "Everybody has lined up to tell us how terrible we are going to be. Everyone has lined up to tell us what we're not going to do. And we have listened and moved past that and put out there what we're going to do."
The second-half darlings -- or the "Green Machine," as Alex Rodriguez referred to the A's after his club dropped four straight to them -- will embark on a six-game road swing that will take them through Toronto and Baltimore beginning Tuesday.
And if the script continues as it has gone so far, more fun will be had.
"I'm having more fun this year than I've had in a long, long time," Inge said. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me, as far as my career goes. It's a really good place to be."