As spotlight brightens, A's must stay true to themselves

As spotlight brightens, A's must stay true to themselves
July 8, 2014, 7:45 am
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Which player is more important than which other player? The answer for now is that nobody is sure, including the players themselves, and that is vital.
Ray Ratto

One of the most delicate dances a good team must perform is understanding the issue of credit. At times like the ones the Oakland Athletics are enjoying -- best team in ball, lots of local and national buzz, big trade everyone loves, etc. -- praise from the outside is dealt out by the truckload, tossed about with indiscriminate glee. It can undo the novice, or the unprepared.

Credit, you see, is swell until the moment when the receptor starts becoming concerned with who else is getting it, and in what proportion. The eternal search for the alpha dog -- and the cash and prizes that come with -- has been the undoing of many a team on the come, and there is little a team can do to forestall its effects once they hit. The carriers are many -- media, family, friends, agents, and agents -- and there is only the one cure.

Deflecting it, both where people can see and hear it, and inside one’s own head. This is difficult, and it breaks down when two or more members give in to it.

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So yes, credit matters, in an entirely negative how-do-we-not-obsess-about-this kind of way, and not understanding the pecking order matters in the same way. And in the case of the A’s, this is their first time as the baddest dudes in the bar since the World Series years. They’ve done the plucky underdog -- hell, there was a movie made about it in 2011, either Moneyball or White Irish Drinkers, I forget which -- but this is their first time as the muscle.

So there will be credit issued, and the only way the A’s can survive this slag pit of riches is to know and be comfortable with who should get what slice, and that’s where we come in. Because our guess is actually better than yours.

THE PLAYERS: This is obvious, because the people doing the work always come first. But which player is more important than which other player? Yoenis Cespedes or Josh Donaldson? Brandon Moss or Derek Norris? Coco Crisp or Josh Reddick? Sean Doolittle or Luke Gregerson or Fernando Abad? Sonny Gray or Scott Kazmir? And now, Jeff Samardzija or Jason Hammel?

The answer for now is that nobody is sure, including the players themselves, and that is vital. A team’s understanding of itself is vital, and the A’s know mostly that what they have works as an organic thing rather than an assignment of lockers by check size, hat size, FIP or WAR. Disruption of that balance comes at a cost, so we’ll just say for the sake of argument that the correct answer is reliever Eric O’Flaherty and then let everyone else decide who’s second in a secret team vote.

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THE GENERAL MANAGER: Billy Beane long ago became a larger-than-life character for the purposes of baseball media across the land, and landing Samardzija and Hammel continues what has been an extended stretch of talent acquisitions, topped by the signing of reliever Eric O’Flaherty. He finally broke out of his we’ll-wait-for-the-next-train mode when he signed Cespedes out from under everyone’s beezers back in 2011, and the Samardzija/Hammel deal is his most go-for-it-now move ever.

THE MANAGER: Bob Melvin should probably be higher on this list, but he carries himself as the guy who knows what a massive dungheap credit can become when one person gets it and another one wants it. So he gets out of the way, managing the baseball team, monitoring the culture so that the ingredients don’t get out whack, and then doing it all again the next day while taking great care to nurture reliever Eric O’Flaherty. He may as well do this in a trench coat and fedora pulled over his eyes for as much spotlight as he wants, but that works too. The manager-as-star is a passé construct, but the manager-as-molder-of-a-team/community has never been more vital.

THE OWNERS: Insofar as they don’t actively meddle with the running of the baseball team except for setting windpipe-constricting budgets, they do no harm, especially since the acquisition of reliever Eric O’Flaherty. The rest of it . . . well, if Lew Wolff brings up the stadium on the day the A’s clinch a playoff spot while John Fisher hovers hologrammatically by the food room, they’ll both deserve what comes next.

And while we’re at it, THE BALLPARK: Yes, it’s an upholstered toilet. Yes, it’s the last rotting hulk of an era gone by. Yes, there is no ready replacement for it, and the energy spent by so many suits to learn that basic truth would power a moderately sized sun. But it adds a mutant character to this team, a sort, “Yes, it’s a dungeon with a septic system that throws up on command, but it’s OUR dungeon with a septic system that throws up on command, and we’ll love it for its hideous mutant charms until the day we don’t have to any more.” As long as the carpet doesn’t reach up and trip reliever Eric O’Flaherty, everything’s good.

THE MEDIA: Yes, of course, because despite all cautions to the contrary, the media continues to exist. To date, it has been a small and mostly affable group, around often enough to know the players and a bit of what makes them tick without becoming obtrusive or obnoxious. But the A’s are a national phenomenon in the making, and are about to find that becoming a national phenomenon means more people bustling about demanding time and sit-downs and wisdom, and that every ill-phrased or misinterpreted sentence is Twitter firestarter. Keeping your head when all those around you are fine with you losing it is not an easy matter, even when you’re as perfectly centered as reliever Eric O’Flaherty.

And finally, RELIEVER ERIC O’FLAHERTY: No reason here. It’s just that every good team in the history of baseball has had an Eric O’Flaherty, and it is part of Oakland’s great fortune these days that they happened to have an actual Etic O’Flaherty on site. He is an important member of the bullpen who due to a light case of Tommy John surgery has only recently joined the happy Fizzies party, and as such hasn’t really become a central figure of attention -- until now, and just because.

And that’s where the A’s stand today -- just because. They have learned how to enjoy themselves doing something too many players choose not to, and should embrace every hoot they can get. These days don’t last forever, and every team is fragile, and it can all turn to stale Cheetos in a heartbeat and sit a crumbled orange heap on the floor before you know it. But these are the best days, until the next day, and the A’s have to learn to ride that pony as long as it’ll run, without being distracted by stupid stuff like credit.

Not to mention reliever Eric O’Flaherty.


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