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In the unlikely event that you run into a member of the A's, and in the almost equally unlikely event that you actually recognize him, be sure to throw a compliment or two his way. Tell him you enjoyed listening to the game the other night, even though you probably couldn't have found the team's radio station with a search party. Say something positive about Oakland's talented young pitchers, even though you probably can't name any of them. Do what you can to make him feel that the A's are not the most overlooked team in baseball, even though they are.
One more thing: Try not to mention that other team across the Bay. In fact, in deference to the A's and their fans, who have heard plenty about that other club since October, consider this column a G-word-free zone. Let that team in orange and black be anonymous for a change. You know the guys we're talking about—the ones whose World Series victory last season made them stars, complete with a reality series that premieres on Showtime in July. They are funky (pitcher Tim Lincecum), hunky (catcher Buster Posey) and a little less chunky (slimmed-down third baseman Pablo Sandoval), and they have a wacky closer/comedian, Brian Wilson, whose beard alone is a bigger celebrity than any member of the A's.
It's hard not to be drawn to the team whose name rhymes with clients, which is what makes it so difficult to be the A's at the moment. There are other two-team markets in which one team is clearly more popular than the other, but nowhere is the disparity as glaring as in the Bay Area. There are other teams with a lower average attendance than Oakland's 20,449, which ranked 11th out of the 14 American League teams through Sunday, but none of them have to live with seeing the team next door enjoying a lovefest. "I don't think about it as much as one might imagine," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane. That's understandable. For the A's, it's like having a sibling who's the valedictorian, captain of the football team and lead in the school play—who can compete with that?
Oakland deserves better. It's a solid team, with four starters—Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden—who had an ERA of 3.50 or less last season. The A's even have a touch of star power with new DH Hideki Matsui. But the club at the other end of the Bay Bridge has a postcard-pretty ballpark lapped by McCovey Cove and a waiting list for season tickets. The A's have 45-year-old Oakland Coliseum hard by I-880 and a tarp covering the upper deck to make their modest attendance look a little less so.
It seems as if every day at AT&T Park the team that Willie Mays played for is conducting some pregame celebration of last year's magical season. Already this spring it has raised a championship flag, awarded Posey his Rookie of the Year trophy and handed out plenty of World Series jewelry, all with great fanfare. There was a ring ceremony for the entire team, then a second one when a key player in 2010, infielder Juan Uribe, returned with the Dodgers. Stay tuned for possibly another, when Series MVP Edgar Renteria, who signed with the Reds in the off-season, is back in town. "How many damn rings can you give out?" asks Braden, who earned the A's some fleeting attention with a perfect game last season. "Can we wrap it up in one night and be done with it?"
The Oakland lefthander was smiling when he said that. He was, after all, a fan of the Bay Area's National League franchise when he was growing up in Stockton, Calif. But just as it's hard to blame the World Series champs and their fans for keeping the celebration alive, it's understandable if the A's and their supporters are a little tired of all the noise coming from the party. Sportscasters on the local news almost invariably lead with the team from the town where Tony Bennett left his heart, with just a quick nod to Oakland before they throw it back to the anchor desk. If you spent the day downing a shot of whiskey every time sports-talk-radio callers brought up the A's, you'd still pass a Breathalyzer test.
Even devoted fans discover it's not that easy to follow the A's. While the What's-their-names have KNBR, their 50,000-watt flagship radio station, blanketing the Bay Area with coverage, Oakland games have bounced among three stations over the last several years, and this season the A's didn't have a radio deal in place until 24 hours before Opening Day. They finally worked out an agreement with KBWF, 95.7 FM. Until the station switched from country music to an all-sports format last week, the team was sharing airtime with Kenny Chesney and Travis Tritt.
The A's and their fans might be the only Bay Area residents who are less than giddy about the success of the, um, team that plays in the same city as the 49ers. But they're not jealous. "We need to use it as motivation," Gonzalez says. They're also not asking anyone to feel sorry for them. They just want to know that they'll get the same treatment if they win big. "Our message is that although you are missing what's going on here, you're not going to want to miss it for very much longer," says Braden. "To continue to ignore us would be a huge mistake." Notice he didn't say giant.
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