I went to the Coliseum today with the intent of taking in a game. But while I was watching what was happening today it struck me how things at the game today were different from recent games and recent years. As I sat there watching an enthusiastic crowd sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and singing along myself, one of the most obvious things was I could hear everyone else singing too. This isn't nearly a given. I don't usually sing the National Anthem because if I sing I can't hear anyone else sing. So while singing Take Me Out it strikes me that I can barely hear myself over everyone else. This crowd didn't just show up in droves, they're into it. And the crowd is this enthusiastic while it is still a close game (4-2).
Of course this wasn't the first moment I noticed that the A’s had a very healthy crowd. No, that would have been when I did my usual walk-up to the ticket machine to get a day-of-game ticket and found that about half the on-screen section buttons were missing. It seemed some sections had sold out. Unusually, there was no MVP Infield button at all, which surely meant the visiting bullpen was going to be subject to boisterous choruses of whoop-whoos. But that's okay, I'm in a good mood, I'll upgrade. So I punch the MVP Infield button, I'm worth it. Now I'll just… wait a minute! No seats available in this section either? Huh? This is just getting stranger and stranger.
Okay, I'll just click Field Level, no biggie. Seat comes up, row 38? Wheelchair companion ticket? What? Wait, I think these seats suck. This can't be right. Clearly this machine is just on the fritz. I quickly bounce over to the seating chart on the wall (helpfully on the other side of the entrance to the Westside Club) and see that yep, indeed those seats do suck. So I bounce back and select another machine, one which is presumably working properly.
Click. Click. Wait? This one only has two sections available: Loge seats and SRO! Now it finally sinks in. After weeks of great play fans are finally turning out to see the A’s play! The Coli is on the verge of selling out! I desperately run back to the first machine again to see if it still has a ticket for sale with an actual seat associated with it. It does, and I take the 38th row seat as if it were a trophy instead of a curse. The MBP Infield section, that sort of section so many teams see as the heart of their revenue, with their large group of season ticket sales; but that is actually an easy place to find seats day-of-game at the Coli is sold out!
I guess maybe I wasn't imagining it when it sounded to me like the scalpers at the entrance to the BART bridge actually did sound when they said "anyone selling tickets?" like they meant it instead of as cover for wanting to sell off the tickets they had. I remember also seeing that billboard on I-880 on the way to the park that had been absent for the past 2 or 3 seasons. The last time I remember seeing it it said "These guys can play" or maybe "Green collar baseball". Yep, it was that long ago.
Seeing games an on TV it was clear that this year the A’s were drawing thousands more than this time last year. Go check. Look up a clip for an A’s homerun in the first half of last year. This year on a sparse day the first 2-3 rows of the outfield seats will be filled. Last year at this time on a sparse day there were 5-8 people total sitting in any section of the outfield, if any at all. I think back to 2-3 years ago when the A’s seemed to value Matsui mostly for the Japanese tourists he would draw to the game, who would buy those high-priced Field Infield seats and load up on 55 Matsui merchandise for good measure. You could pick them out easily, as they would be in a troop in the first row (21) of the Field Infield. Of course for other teams, getting 8 seats in a row at the front of a lower bowl infield section is hard without a lot of advance notice, but not in Oakland, not in 2010!
Sure enough, I get down (ha, it's not even a step down because my seat is so far back) to my seat and you look around to the border between sections 108 and 109 and you can't see a difference between them. Looking across you can't see the border between 125 and 126 either. Normally, you'd see where people had avoided the more expensive infield sections but today it’s full all across. Indeed, it’s full everywhere. The SRO sections aren’t full yet, but those ticketholders are probably all at the beer stand. All the seats are sold and virtually everyone has shown up too.
Look around and there are many jerseys (purchased, not just giveaways) with current players’ names and numbers on them. From the guy in 109 who caught a foul ball in his white 52 Cespedes jersey to the fleets of 16 Reddicks, the lesser number of 4 Crisps (including mine) and the growing number of 20 Donaldsons. This was not the case a few years back when any on-field or replica jersey was almost invariably a 24 Henderson, a 53 Eckersley or a 34 Fingers (why so few 9 Jacksons?). All this from a team which one would typically expect may never retire another number because in order for a player to retire an Athletic, they first have to not be traded out of town a year before they become a free agent. And while you can see lots of current players’s jerseys now, what you don't see a lot of is BP caps for sale in any size similar to a normal human head. You see them on human heads all over the concourses, but the shop is busy rearranging all their 6s and 7-7/8ths in order to make it look enough like they have stock to draw in customers and try to sell them something else.
A few seasons ago (indeed only 1.5!) a common refrain was that the A’s were intentionally trying to under-draw in order to plead poverty and make a case for a new stadium in a more high-tech town. And indeed even as a fan it was hard to dismiss the allegations. But now things just seem a lot different. Sure, there are a lot of people here, but is that why it’s easy to dismiss the allegations or is it just another effect of a change in ways by the team?
To me it feels natural. The team is looking forward. Everything used to be about how many times the team had recently made the playoffs. Or the streak. Or the Big 3. But the team was getting worse and worse each year. Results were declining, but the team seemed to be throwing in the towel too. To understand it you hardly need to look at more than one person in the dugout. Bob Geren. It was really hard to see Bob Geren as an investment in the team and really easy to see him as a placeholder.
Strangely (perhaps ironically) the turning point seemed to center around 2011. The season was full of anticipation of the release of the movie Moneyball. This was going to be the franchise’s opportunity to really cash in on its recent past. The movie was timed to release near the end of the season. All the A’s had to do was be in the playoff hunt to maximize the positive impact of the movie. But the season started out slowly and took a dive from there. After a 9-game losing streak, Bob Geren was cut loose on June 8th (game 63) and Bob Melvin took over. Melvin and the team didn't exactly turn it around on a dime and when the movie premiered on September 19th, the A’s were 19 games back in the AL West. The A’s finished the season 14 games below .500.
The offseason brought some obvious changes, with the A’s seeming to give away what they had and held dear and began looking to the future. Moneyball had come and went twice, once as a popular novel and once as a surprisingly well-received movie. Sure, the awards were nice but the team hadn’t been to the playoffs in 6 years and it was becoming harder and harder to pretend there were any laurels left to rest on.
In the off season, Beane traded away the pitching duo of Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and the 28 wins between them. And to make it worse, the only semblance of a long-term franchise player the A’s had, Mark Ellis, had been traded away in the stretch in 2011. Whatever 2012 was going to be, it wasn’t going to bear much resemblance to 2011. Beane was again cursed by many for trading away the farm for a group of mostly-prospects who may end up never amounting to anything more than mostly-prospects.
And it certainly didn’t. 2012 brought a new look and eventually new results. Beginning with a shocking signing of Cuban question mark Yoenis Cespedes and with the help of the core players received in the off-season Beane moves and some assistance from veterans and unlikely pickups Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes the A’s brought a new look and new success. A success which allowed the A’s to stop talking so much about the past and concentrate more on what they were putting on the field.
And the results are of course fantastic. Not only is the team doing better, but the fans are responding. They are showing up in greater numbers and taking a bigger interest in the team on the field. The crowd is eager to cheer Reddick on as he battles back to form from a slow season start and a self-imposed injury. And who can blame them? Last year when Coco and Cespedes were on the DL and the A’s were in a dark stretch Reddick was putting on a show at the plate and in the outfield. If anything, Reddick’s cheers are bigger than those for Coco Crisp, who went from over-the-hill to superfluous (signing of Cespedes) to playoff goat to superfluous again (signing of Chris Young) to popular frequent sparkplug who the fans now to seem to mostly just wish could play more often.
But today, he is playing. And he’s delivering as usual. And so is new-look Reddick. And Cespedes is chiming in too, to cheers of sí Cespedes from the crowd. Donaldson is continuing to baffle, in such a breakout fashion that one has to wonder if somehow Billy Beane traded that other Josh Donaldson for this one offseason in a kind of mirror of the previous year’s Sweeney-Reddick trade. And in case you were thinking of forgetting about them, Seth Smith and Brandon Moss (last remaining holdover of the all-Brandon era) made doing that a lot harder with their long bombs in the late innings while the seagulls circle impatiently overhead, waiting for this team to tire of showing the baseball world how much they have to offer.