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'You have to have optimism to play this game': How A's players, coaches keep showing up for Oakland

Amid the swirling uncertainty just outside the clubhouse, the Oakland Athletics are still playing baseball

NEW YORK — Tommy Everidge remembers the first time he went to the Oakland Coliseum. How could you forget when Mark McGwire tosses you a baseball? Everidge was 10 years old, a San Francisco Giants fan growing up in Sonoma, California. But Oakland A’s tickets were cheaper, so he and his friend Cliff (and Cliff’s dad) went to see McGwire’s A’s and sat so close behind the dugout that the slugger himself pointed right at Everidge and tossed a baseball that didn’t quite make it to the intended recipient, plunking a couple in front of him too busy kissing to pay attention to the action on the field.

“And McGwire was like, ‘Hey, give it to the kid behind you!’” Everidge remembered. “It was so cool.”

Sometime in the past three decades, Everidge lost that ball. Without a signature or any sort of authentication, he figured no one would believe it came from McGwire anyway, so he played catch with it until the ball disappeared.

In college, he and his friends went to the Coliseum for dollar Wednesday nights (a dollar to get in and a dollar for a hot dog). “I thought it was beautiful before they put up Mount Davis,” he said of the stadium.

But these days, Everidge goes to the Coliseum more than ever. Thirty years after that first visit, Cliff lives in Southern California and works at Lockheed Martin. Everidge is the hitting coach for his hometown Oakland A’s.

“I should probably try to get him out there [to see a game],” Everidge said.

He’ll have to hurry.

'They’ll let us know'

The A’s, as you might’ve heard, are leaving Oakland. The team that for the past few seasons has been trying harder to push fans away than to entice them with a winning product officially succeeded in alienating the city itself last month. The club announced an agreement to purchase land for a new stadium in Las Vegas, and even though that plan has now pivoted to a new site in Nevada, the city of Oakland suspended its negotiations with the team.

Maybe this is just the latest in a long-running saga, but it felt more final this time.

“I’ve just learned to shut it out because I feel like for the last three years, it’s always this big vote, and then you find out it’s, like, a vote to have a vote,” Everidge said. “I figure they’ll let us know.”

They will. But for now, no one is telling the guys in uniforms much of anything because, despite all the writing on the wall, the A’s are still in Oakland — for this year and likely at least a little longer. In fact, they’re still playing baseball.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the first dozen headlines anytime you search “A’s,” and you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the first 29 MLB teams, listed by winning percentage. From the outside, the 2023 Oakland A’s, currently 8-29, are more about bad vibes than baseball. The characters people care about are the owner, the team president and then possibly the fans with bags over their heads who still attend games to protest the first two.

But while the organization is an emblem of depravity starkly divorced from the day-to-day experience of sports, the team is still a bunch of dudes playing baseball, doing their best with the same goal as every other team in the majors.

“Ultimately, to compete in the World Series,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “If that goal is not accomplished, the steps that we took throughout the season to get incrementally better, especially from the young guys that are here trying to establish themselves, that those guys can solidify a place and continue to grow for their future and be a major part of this organization's success going forward — then that’s a success.”

Most likely, the goal will have to be the latter. On that front, Kotsay offers more than just platitudes. He praises Esteury Ruiz’s “innate ability to steal bases,” Ryan Noda’s “improvement in his range and his defensive metrics,” and the young pitchers who are striking more guys out relative to the walks surrendered and have started throwing four or five innings per start, rather than the two or three they were making it through at the beginning of the season.

When the result is still a loss three out of four nights, Kotsay understands that it’s his job to teach his players to see those signs of progress. “Talk to them about their confidence and their continued improvements,” he said. “If they don't have the necessary result they're looking for, look for a result inside of that.”

'Completely out of our control'

You don’t always have to dig quite so deep. For the first time in nearly four years, an A’s position player won AL Player Of The Week at the start of May. But even that doesn’t accurately reflect how bright a spot Brent Rooker, the slugging outfielder, has been for Oakland. So far this season, he leads all hitters in wRC+, a surprising turn of events for a 28-year-old on his fourth team in as many years who entered the season with fewer than 100 big-league games under his belt.

Rooker resists any line of questioning about what has changed to allow him to have such success. According to him, his swing is the same, and his approach is the same — he’s just seeing the ball well these days. “I think maybe it's just having more experience pays off at some point,” he said.

He’s not all that surprised at the results, either. Rooker has always believed this was possible. And if he ever didn’t, his wife, Allie, believed for him.

Allie used to be an emergency room nurse. When baseball shut down along with the rest of the world in 2020, Rooker was stuck at home while his wife worked 12-hour shifts at a hospital overrun with COVID patients.

“She was in there early on, when they didn't really know how to handle it or how to treat it or whatever,” Rooker said. “She lost a lot of patients, and it was tough on her, as I’m sure it was everyone in that field.”

That’s the kind of experience that’ll put baseball in perspective — as will having a baby, for much better reasons, which the Rookers did in September 2021. So yeah, the homers are nice, and swirling uncertainty just outside the clubhouse could be a bit of a distraction. But Rooker seems to have mastered the ballplayer cliche about controlling what he can control.

“And a lot of that stuff — or not a lot. All of it, as far as city, stadium and stuff goes — is just completely out of our control.”

'Nothing is 100 percent'

Like the hitting coach, Everidge, A’s reliever Sam Long grew up in the Bay Area rooting mostly for Barry Bonds but attending the more affordable games in Oakland. His friends were split between Giants and A’s fans, and so, after he spent parts of two seasons in San Francisco, they were delighted by his trade to Oakland earlier this year.

The trade came just days after the initial Vegas news broke. A’s fans in Long’s life reached out with a recurring sentiment: “Happy that you'll get to play for Oakland while they're there,” he recalled, “no matter what happens in the future.”

But, as Long points out, “nothing is 100 percent.” Let the latest news about the team’s efforts to relocate be a reminder of that. The Las Vegas plans have already hit a snag in securing the necessary public funding. The players can’t control that, either. And so, instead, they focus on what sometimes feel like equally long-shot efforts to win baseball games.

The Major League Baseball season seems like an especially punishing grind for A’s players emotionally invested in playing competitively and A’s fans wary of emotionally investing. How do you keep showing up when you know the end result is not going to be the outcome you’re after?

“You can’t know that it’s not going to be the outcome because resilience is optimism,” Kotsay said. “You have to have optimism to play this game.”