What will A's do for an encore?

What will A's do for an encore?
February 20, 2013, 11:00 am
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Now comes the hard part – consolidating the gains of 2012 while keeping that rogue impishness. (AP)

PHOENIX -- This is how anal retentive Bob Melvin is: While the Oakland Athletics were trying to figure out to make the best of a rainy day in spring, the players were in the clubhouse . . . waiting. Cards were played, bats were taped, conversations were held, but mostly they waited.

And, frustrated by the iffy weather, Melvin finally decided to call their waiting, “Rain delay training,” as though playing hearts while eating breakfast requires practice. What is more, he smiled as if to say, “See? I’m on to something here.”

He wasn’t, of course. He had a full day scheduled, hoping against hope that the forecast for the last several days would turn out to be some sort of meteorological deception, and it took several visits from several coaches to convince that there was only so much that could be done under such conditions. Some pitchers could throw in the cages, and that was really about it.

So he devised what he described as Plan C (even though alphabetical integrity requires that we say it was closer to F or G) with coaches Chip Hale and Curt Young, and described his new principal job as “keeping the smirks off the position players’ faces.”

See? That’s how anal retentive Melvin is. He always has a job to do, even if he has to invent one for others. Learn to wait out bad weather by sitting around attentively . . . wipe that I-got-the-day-off smile off your face . . . toil remorselessly for the greater good of our corporate overlords.

On the other hand, he also runs what might be considered the new Wackiest Ship In The Army, and he has the wisdom to leave the reins nice and loose for that reason. Be it the postgame pieface, the insidious-turned-tedious-turned-stupid Bernie Lean, or the general tenor of a clubhouse that knows when to combine work, play and improv theatre, the A’s are slowly but surely positioning themselves as the new cool kids’ party . . . with the obvious corollary being the Giants as the staid old grownups’ party.

This is largely a matter of individual perception, of course, but the A’s 94 wins had a looser and more jocular feel to them than the Giants’ 94 wins. The Elephants had the advantage of being the surprise team rather than the expectations team, so everything seemed newer, fresher and just plain zanier.

Put another way, Brian Wilson’s beard gave way to Josh Reddick’s beard, and Reddick’s was a lot less self-conscious.

2012, therefore, marked what ought to be the prime selling point differences between the Giants and A’s.

The Giants are a grand old firm, with the smart, stolid Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy running a team of smart, stolid players who know how to win, having done it twice in the past three years. Their franchise face is Buster Posey, with Matt Cain as backup, and even the one-time free spirit Barry Zito being recast as the best multimillionaire teammate ever. Their eccentricities (Wilson, the Freak Era Tim Lincecum, Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell) have been cleaved away, and they are now the establishment team. They seize upon nicknames as marketing purposes, and there’s a show before every game.

They are, in short, Disneyland in all its rigid glory. And it works for them, because we’ve seen the attendance and profit figures.

The A’s cannot beat the Giants at that game, and for the bulk of the last decade they played the unconvincing “woe is us and our stadium” card, to the point where people were plain sick of it, and them. They were the underdog as victim, and there’s no fun in that.

Last year, though, they won lots of games, and did so at the right time of the year – September. They shocked the world, and they did it with maniacal smiles on their faces and props in their hands, all provided through the simple organic process of players being players. The pies were Reddick’s idea. The Bernie Lean originated with Jerry Blevins, was midwifed through Brandon Inge and Coco Crisp, and eventually became an overplayed annoyance – but at least it didn’t come from the marketing department. The lineup itself became the Island Of Misfit Toys, with an outfielder at first, a shortstop at second, a catcher at third, and a pitching staff dragged from the pages of random high school yearbooks. 

And Jonny Gomes starred in the role of Jonny Gomes, Grant Balfour played Grant Balfour, and Yoenis Cespedes was the cartoony look-what-he-just-did hook that made you want to watch the game for the hilarity that ensued.

The A’s embraced their youth, their newness, their nonconformity, and made a positive weapon of their crypto-orphan status. They essentially gave Bay Area baseball fans an off-brand option to the Giants’ more button-down stylings. They counterprogrammed brilliantly.

Now, though, comes the hard part – consolidating the gains of 2012 while keeping that rogue impishness. What the A’s had cannot be manufactured now. The Bernie Lean should be retired, and the pies should be replaced by éclairs, or maybe a tri-tip. Their fun should be tweaked and sanded to reflect a new clubhouse with new players, with an eye toward poking at their more staid neighbors across the water.

And it should be advertised as such, perhaps with slogans like, “THE A’S: WE FLAT DOMINATE RAIN DELAYS,” “WE WORK, AND WE SMIRK, SOMETIMES SIMULTANEOUSLY” and best of all, “WE DON’T CARE WHERE WE PLAY, EVEN AT HOME.”

That last one might irk Johnny’n’Lew in the corner offices, but they either have to let the kids be kids, or they can go buy a bank and see how much fun that is.

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