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The Athletics’ Sweet Smell of Victory



Jed Lowrie (8) after hitting a homer against Seattle in June. An opponent last year called Oakland’s enthusiasm “high schoolish.”

By JOHN BRANCH
Published: July 6, 2013

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Athletics do not stink. But their stadium did. On a Sunday last month, the A’s and the Seattle Mariners ended a game to find that sewage had backed up through the drains of the team clubhouses and the offices of coaches and umpires, who surely called it foul.

The swamp, a foot deep in spots, wrecked the carpet in the tiny clubhouses, and the A’s and the Mariners were moved upstairs to the football locker room of the Raiders. The umpiring crew left without showering. An A’s official later blamed the problem on “some kind of unidentifiable mass” found in the system.

To the easygoing A’s, cloaked in low-budget anonymity and cocooned in the embrace of a small but mighty fan base, it was just one more thing to laugh about in a wonderfully weird season bringing lots of joy to baseball’s little team that could — and is.

The A’s have baseball’s best record over the past calendar year. They passed the Fourth of July with a division-leading 50-36 record, fourth best in the majors and the franchise’s best start since 1990.

And what looked like a dud of an interleague series when it was placed on the calendar, Oakland’s three-game series in Pittsburgh beginning Monday is a possible World Series preview in a world where baseball is turned upside down and sewage flows uphill.

Last season, the A’s were 13 games out of first place in the American League West at the end of June. Behind an onslaught of home runs, a rotation temporarily featuring five rookies and a season-ending three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers, the A’s grabbed first place on the last day of the season. They lost the best-of-five division series with the Detroit Tigers in five games.

Now, with an offense No. 1 in the majors in walks and in the top 10 in home runs and on-base percentage entering the weekend, and a pitching staff with the American League’s best WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) and third-best earned run average, the A’s are not looking to surprise from behind, but to cling to the lead.

“The difference is that this team has been pretty good from the first day of the season,” General Manager Billy Beane said Wednesday. “Which is different territory for us.”

The territory is always different in Oakland. Beane’s “Moneyball” approach to one of baseball’s tightest payrolls means that the roster is relatively reshuffled every season. And talk about a new stadium, and the possibility of relocating 36 miles south to San Jose, is flowing more than ever because of the one-two surge of sewage and litigation.

Two days after the sewer blockage, the city of San Jose sued Major League Baseball for, essentially, clogging up the team’s proposed move for several years. The San Francisco Giants claim that San Jose is their territory, part of an agreement a generation ago when they threatened a move of their own.

The uncertainty has left the A’s in perpetual limbo at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — currently called O.co Coliseum — and cast the Giants as an uncompromising championship franchise that would rather have the A’s in Oakland (17 driving miles from the Giants’ waterfront stadium) than San Jose (48 miles).

The A’s have a payroll of about $60 million, ranked 27th among 30 teams. It is about one-fourth the size of the Yankees’ payroll and one half of the Giants’. To keep costs down, Beane typically discards rising stars and their rising salaries, replacing them with unfamiliar recruits. The A’s are in a never-ending youth movement.

Outfielder Coco Crisp arrived in 2010 and is among the longest-tenured players on the team. On Wednesday, he stood on the clubhouse’s new carpet and looked around, certain that a core group of A’s had been together for several years. He pointed toward second baseman Eric Sogard, who played four games as a rookie in 2010. And then he stopped, like someone who suddenly did not recognize his surroundings.

“Well, huh,” Crisp said, scanning faces around him. “I guess we have changed a lot. More than I thought.”

Crisp, 33, is the only everyday position player older than 30. Starter Bartolo Colon, resurrected after a 50-game suspension last season for testing positive for testosterone, is 11-3 at age 40, but the rest of Oakland’s starting rotation is 26 or younger.

“There are market advantages that we have here that give us the opportunity to change direction very quickly, and we try to take advantage of that,” Beane said. “There’s things we can’t do. There are a lot of baseball decisions that cost a lot of money that we cannot make. But we’re also in a position because of the finances that we can’t make really bad financial decisions. If something is not working, we can try again. The cost of replacing an A’s player is much cheaper than, say, a Yankees player. And our market is a little more forgiving in terms of being experimental.”

Beane acknowledged that the constant overhauling could be exhausting — different from most places, where a nucleus of players might provide a window of championship opportunity lasting several years. But it does keep the A’s from being dull. In the hypercorporate, highly sterile world of professional sports, few teams have as much youthful exuberance.

Last September, the former A’s third baseman Eric Chavez, then playing for the Yankees, derided the enthusiasm emanating from the Oakland dugout during an extra-inning game. He called the cheers and clapping “high schoolish” — which, from a 34-year-old member of the Yankees, is akin to an old man shouting at children to stay off the lawn.

In late June, catcher Stephen Vogt got his first major league hit, a home run. He returned to the Oakland dugout and, as part of baseball tradition, was ignored. Finally, as Vogt sipped a cup of water, the A’s exploded in excitement.

“This environment is very conducive to being yourself and being original,” said reliever Jerry Blevins, who began his career with the A’s in 2007, which makes him a team historian. “And you’ve got so many young personalities that, on other teams where the identities are more established, wouldn’t be able to blossom.”

These are descendants of the big-personality A’s of Reggie Jackson and Rickey Henderson, of Jose Canseco and Nick Swisher, with some of interesting hair and little of the name recognition.

“Being in California allows that kind of atmosphere, and I think it extends itself to the clubhouse and the guys,” said Beane, whose usual attire is shorts and flip-flops. “I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously here.”

The stadium, strangely enough, is part of that.

“We don’t have a stadium that we can sell to players,” Beane said. “We have to create an environment that people want to be around, because there are a lot of things that aren’t up to the standards of other clubs.”

It is intriguing to imagine how all that might change if and when the A’s get a new ballpark, in San Jose or, as city leaders want but may not be able to deliver, someplace in Oakland, maybe on the water next to Jack London Square.

A new stadium, and the income it would bring, could rid the A’s of their excuses for thriftiness, if not dismantle their underdog persona. And is Beane’s system ...

“Transferable?” Beane said, completing the question.

“It would be fun to try with more finances,” he said.

But such reality is years away, so the plumbers will remain on call at the old coliseum, a charmless relic of the 1960s. In a retro age of brick and iron, like Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, overlooking the convergence of rivers and the city’s skyline, the main architectural elements in Oakland are concrete and chain link.

Almost all of the upper deck is covered in green tarps, to reduce capacity; rows of dismantled seats are piled high on the far edge of the parking lot. The one view out of the stadium, toward the Oakland Hills, was blocked years ago by Mount Davis, an imposing wall of luxury boxes plopped atop what had been a breezy outfield pavilion.

The replay boards suffer against the standards of today, like entering a hotel room with a small-screen television backed with a giant picture tube. The concession stands have the deep-fried sausage-centric selection that most stadiums expanded away from 20 years ago. Because it is the last of Major League Baseball’s stadiums to be shared with an N.F.L. team, the park-size foul territory is big enough, at least, for plenty of Frisbee tossing and picnicking.

It is a time capsule to a bygone era that most just want gone, a place of unintentional irony, but that somehow binds a fan base and its playful, nobody-cares-but-us vibe. A’s fans in the Bay Area are a vocal minority. The outfield seats, particularly, have the ambience of soccer games, with flags and horns and cowbells and the continual beating of drums.

They are happy fans, rarely happier than now — happy to have taken three of four games from the Giants, happy to sweep three from the Yankees, happy to win two of three recently from the St. Louis Cardinals.

The rest of the country may not recognize these particular A’s, but the fans do, and they recognize that this season has the makings of something endearing and enduring.

Besides, on the concourse level, at least, the trough-style urinals in the men’s rooms are working just fine. From up there, the old stadium does not stink. It smells of victory.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 7, 2013, on page SP1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Sweet Smell of Victory.

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