By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. — Center fielder Coco Crisp strutted back into the Bay Area with puffed-up hair and a retro-style beard. Red-headed right fielder Josh Reddick slicked back his locks and added even more inches to his bushy beard as part of an ongoing competition. General manager Billy Beane still had his hair combed clean but picked “a terrible time,” he said, for a sun spot to be removed from his nose.
The Oakland Athletics are back, and with plenty of new looks.
In front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 fans at neighboring Oracle Arena, players and coaches returned to Oakland on Sunday to drum-up support before heading to spring training in a few weeks. FanFest, the meet-and-greet event the team canceled for three years until holding it again last January, swelled with so much support the team had to turn people away.
After an improbable run to the AL West title last season, attention on the low-budget club could be greater this summer. Unlike a year ago, the A’s aren’t sneaking up on anybody.
“It’s better than having no expectations,” Beane said.
Players said they started to realize their newfound fame during the offseason.
Reddick spent time back home in southeast Georgia. He bought his first house in Guyton, Ga., and a new English Bulldog named Murray — after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
“Felt like it was right,” he joked.
Reddick said people recognized him more no matter where he went, and he even hosted his first charity event — a home-run derby to support his hometown of Rincon, Ga. Same went for several other players, whether they stayed in Northern California or returned to home for the shortened down time.
All of it was the result of Oakland’s surprising success.
The A’s played a video montage to start FanFest that highlighted the improbable run: They finished 94-68, capturing the AL West title on the final day of the regular season over Texas for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2006 and became the only team in major league history to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than 10 to play.
After losing the first two games in the division series at Detroit, the A’s rallied at home to force a decisive Game 5 at the Coliseum, where Tigers ace Justin Verlander pitched a four-hitter in a 6-0 victory.
“Expectations haven’t changed,” Reddick said. “We have firm belief we can do it again this year.”
Reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin grabbed a microphone on stage following the video and team introductions. He quieted the roaring crowd of A’s fans and took a few seconds to savor the moment before asking, “What’s up Oakland?”
Typical Bo-Mel, as players call him.
“My job is to get everybody with the right mindset, the right focus, knowing that we have to try to build on last year, create the momentum, understand what we did last year but know that each and every year is separate,” Melvin said later. “And that we have to work even harder, focus just as much, not worry about the distractions, outside things, whether that’s expectations or anything like that and just focus on what we were good at last year in playing for that day.”
Creating the same clubhouse atmosphere could be tough.
The A’s playoff berth came with a payroll of $59.5 million — lowest in the majors — and 12 rookies. They did it with significant injuries to their starting pitchers, and they did it after losing right-hander Bartolo Colon to a 50-game suspension in August for a positive testosterone test. Oakland then re-signed him in November.
Most of the team remains intact, with the notable exceptions of outfielder Jonny Gomes, pitcher Brandon McCarthy and shortstops Cliff Pennington and Stephen Drew. The A’s dealt Pennington to Arizona in October in a three-team trade for outfielder Chris Young. Melvin said Young will be part of a five-man rotation — that includes designated hitter — with Reddick, Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith.
Crisp and Reddick, the team’s most vocal leaders left, said this year’s club will have to find its place. Some of the bonding even started at FanFest. New Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima said Young taught him his favorite new American idiom: “For real?”
Crisp some changes might include tweaking the pie-in-the-face celebrations and the “Bernie Lean” dance that became staples last summer. He joked that Pee-Wee Herman’s old routine is one possibility.
“Things are going to change up a little bit with our chemistry,” Crisp said. “I think that’s the main thing, that’s what made us so good last year was just our chemistry was perfect pretty much. That’s going to be something we’re going to have to work on in spring training and figure out our new identity.”
The A’s once again will be underdogs in the AL West. The high-priced Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton away from hard-hitting Texas, and both division rivals could threaten Oakland’s crown.
Players said money didn’t matter last season, and they don’t think it will this time around either.
“Other teams made a lot of improvements. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a similar or better season than last year,” Cespedes said in Spanish. “We just have to put in our heads that we’re a good team together and to go out and enjoy the game. Don’t put so much pressure on ourselves.”
The team’s architect agrees.
“The one sort of narrative I never really bought into was that we snuck up on anybody last year,” Beane said. “I don’t think you sneak up on somebody in 162 games.”