The Oakland Athletics have officially announced Sonny Gray as the Opening Night starter, but the news is that the A's will be trying a "Sonny Siders" Field Level section that's akin to the "King's Court" held for Felix Hernandez starts at Safeco Field for several years or "Keuchel's Korner" for Dallas Keuchel starts at Minute Maid Park. Each ticket holder on the Sonny Side is entitled to a medium or extra-large t-shirt and cheer card. It's $50 and fees for opening night, though the price will move around dynamically, I'm sure, for future Sunny Siders games.
When a big section is set aside for a franchise ace like Hernandez, it looks amazing in pictures and on television. For example:
Photo credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Even Houston's first year trying Keuchel's Korner was a good effort:
In theory, this is a great idea for a franchise ace. Felix Hernandez has reached his popularity after 11 seasons in Seattle, a popularity that can overcome 14 years of not going to the postseason. Dallas Keuchel was in the middle of the AL Cy Young campaign and the Astros are going to have huge amounts of money to lock him up now that they're at the end of their teardown phase. But there's no credibility to the idea that the A's will make Sonny Gray a franchise player, because the A's don't have franchise players anymore.
So what are the A's really trying to create here? On this point, I turn my thoughts to two particular moments where Sonny Gray was being more than just his ordinary special self, he was pitching his way towards truly remarkable pitching feats. The first was Game 2 of the 2013 American League Division Series, where Sonny Gray outdueled A's-killer Justin Verlander to a 1-0 win. Sonny exited in the eighth to the crowd chanting "Son-ny! Son-ny! Son-ny! ..."
The second was at the end of Sonny Gray's no-hit bid on Opening Night 2015. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud him, of course, but then they carried out, and the chants of "Son-ny! Son-ny! Son-ny!" were cried out once more:
Can the A's create a critical mass of fans dedicated to supporting Sonny Gray that can generate these sorts of moments? Will the entertainment staff be able to put their own spin on these events to create not just an opportunity to sell a t-shirt and a ticket, but create a community dedicated to supporting their ace?
There's no harm in trying to make this work, and I hope it does, but it'll be up to the A's event staff to find a way to make this more than just a block of yellow t-shirts, and pull that off against the A's fan fear of becoming too attached to their franchise stars.