Three hours before the game, the happy sound of chattering baseball players filled the A’s clubhouse, and that was a good thing.
They laughed and joked in the corner that outfielders Sam Fuld and Khris Davis share with catcher Stephen Vogt and his backup, Josh Phegley, who wore a “Vote for Vogt” T-shirt in support of the starter. You didn’t want to eavesdrop, and it would have been difficult if you tried, over the cacophony of conversation that ran up one side of the room and down the other. The place was loud and jovial, always a good sign when there’s an issue if a group of men from all over baseball America can come together to become a team.
In these early days of April, a top priority for the A’s is to establish the right tone in the clubhouse. They also need to find a way to avoid one-run losses to the Chicago White Sox. Hopefully, they’ll fix the problems of the first two nights – a key defensive blunder, giving up two-out home runs. At the same time, they need to know when to pump up the energy with each other and when to play it cool, when to push and when to console.
In the group dynamics of sport, it’s called chemistry, and observers say it is something the A’s lacked in 2015.
Its absence came as an oddity, given the recent history of the franchise. Over the past 17 mostly good years, the A’s achieved a mix worthy of a Nobel Prize. Who can forget the crazy home run celebrations shared by Nick Swisher and Milton Bradley? Any team that could keep the volatile Bradley happy had to have its ingredients right.
Stories about last year’s chemistry problems reported that one guy might have tried too hard and another was unhappy with himself when he didn’t deliver as hoped – little stuff, really, nothing like pouring bleach into a bucket of ammonia. The real problem with the A’s was the fumes of losing. They fell below .500 in their 17th game and for the next 145 they didn’t rise above the mark that separates winners from losers. You don’t have to be Walter White to know which of those groups is in danger of breaking bad.
“When you lose 94 games,” Vogt, a 2015 American League All-Star, said “you’re not going to have good chemistry.”
Vogt is in his fourth year with the A’s, which makes him a sage in the organization. Sixteen players are in their first or second year; they’ve got less time in Oakland than the folks who have flocked in from across the bay to escape the crushing rents.
Anybody can use a better deal on a loft, but if you spend your nights away from it playing baseball for a living with abject strangers, you could find yourself temporarily less than comfortable. Center fielder Coco Crisp, in his seventh year with the A’s, is the club’s senior man. He feels time is the crucial element to bring about familiarity between players, some of whom checked in just this year from Milwaukee, San Diego (two), Houston, Denver, Boston, Toronto, Chicago and Nashville.
“The previous years I was here, we were good – a bunch of young guys that had been here, and they were up and coming, and we had a good mix of guys,” Crisp said. “Last year was a little different because those guys that we’ve had for those four previous, five previous, years I was here, they got traded. So it changed things up.
“Sometimes chemistry can happen right away. Sometimes it takes a few years to build up, and I think our chemistry is much better than it was last year, not because of the players that we’ve lost, but because of the time together” they’ve had.
A little bit of selflessness also helps. It’s easy to be selfless when you are relatively faceless, as the A’s at times have been. But even when up-and-comers from Jason Giambi to Josh Donaldson turned into some of the biggest stars in the league, they still maintained the demeanor of the everyman. With them, and without them, the A’s of the 21st century have displayed a sense of fun and group support, while compiling a record of success.
“We haven’t always had the MVP, but we’ve had 25 guys who work together, who come to play together, who have each other’s backs,” said Eric Sogard, the second baseman on the disabled list who is No. 2 in tenure. “I think that’s been absolutely key to our success in the past.”
Can the A’s find the chemistry that fueled their winning seasons and playoff appearances? You look at their roster and you quickly deduce they have no other choice. Their biggest star plays only once every five days. They’ve got some ingredients to sprinkle around that ace, Sonny Gray, and it will be up to them to see if they can bring out the best of each other.