Josh Donaldson

Why red-hot A's still have work to do to captivate Oakland's home fans

Why red-hot A's still have work to do to captivate Oakland's home fans

OAKLAND -- Redoubtable and relentless, the A’s are four months away from being the only game in town, the most visible representative of a city that craves positive recognition.

They’re launching home runs at an astonishing pace, delivering the equivalent of baseball fireworks.

They’re winning, generally the first requirement of sports popularity, at a rate that keeps them in the thick of the race to the AL playoffs.

Despite these advantageous factors, fans are not flocking to the Coliseum. And, please, let’s not blame local indifference on the ballpark’s lack of freshness and charm. Too simple.

This is about emotional attachment. Listening to fans of baseball in general and the A’s in particular, some variation of that theme consistently surfaces. There are varying degrees of emotional scar tissue, and it has them in their feelings, making them reluctant out of fear of getting burned. Again.

It’s unfortunate, because what these A’s are producing is worth the time and money.

Here they are, surging into the postseason with the second-best record in baseball since the All-Star break and averaging 14,870 fans over three games this week. That included 16,714 witnesses Wednesday afternoon for a stressful 1-0 victory in 11 innings over the Kansas City Royals.

These A’s have something for everybody. Shortstop Marcus Semien, who is having an MVP caliber season, grew up in the East Bay, as did Stephen Piscotty. Mark Canha, who lashed the game-winning hit Wednesday, grew up in the South Bay. Third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson mash with their bats and sing tender ballads with their gloves.

If homers are supposed to lure folks to the yard, how is it that this club, which now owns the single-season franchise record, remains in a relative vacuum?

Mostly because too many local fans have too often been captivated by A’s teams of the past 20 years, only to feel victimized by the franchise’s cycle of assembling and disassembling, usually in the name of payroll discipline. Each time around, a few more folks stop coming and decide to observe, if at all, from the distance of living rooms and bars.

“I know if, knock wood, we’re able to get into the postseason, they would show up,” manager Bob Melvin told NBC Sports Bay Area on Wednesday. “Our fans are into it. They might not be here every night. And I’m not telling people how to spend their money. But it is a terrific fan base. When they’re ignited, and they come out and full force, we feel them like a 10th man.”

This has been true in the past and likely will be again. There is a bandwagon, but it sits in a distant corner, idling, ready to get into should the A’s reach the postseason.

Postseason baseball in Oakland is so vibrant it makes the Coliseum feel spectacular. And some are waiting for a playoff game to light up the yard. Even then, though, there will be holdouts who can’t overcome the scar tissue reminding them of old heartbreak.

Too many fans remember those engaging teams of early 2000s, when pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were rocking batters to sleep while Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye were terrorizing pitchers. Those clubs averaged 98 wins per season and made four consecutive playoff appearances, each ending in painful AL Division Series defeats over the full five games.

The core of that roster -- which drew an average of 2.03 million fans per season from 2000 through 2003 -- broke up and scattered.

Most remember the 2006 team, led by Frank Thomas and Nick Swisher and Chavez, with Zito taking the mound every fifth day. That bunch, which came 23,375 short of drawing two million, swept the Twins in the Division Series before being by the Tigers in the AL Championship Series.

Thomas, the most commanding clubhouse presence the A’s have had this century, left as a free agent and landed in Toronto. Zito, priced out of Oakland -- with, to be fair, declining effectiveness -- headed across The Bay and signed with the Giants.

Lastly, all A’s fans remember the 2012 (94-68) and 2013 (96-66) teams, both of which made quick postseason exits but generated enough momentum for the 2014 A’s (88-74) to draw more than 2 million for the first time since 2005.

Ever since the leader of those teams, third baseman Josh Donaldson was traded exactly two months after the 2014 season despite expressing a commitment to Oakland, attendance has been in decline.

The roster has, once again, been revived by team architect Billy Beane and his lieutenants. The A’s won 97 games last season and have 92 wins with nine games to play this season.

[RELATED: Treinen out 4-6 weeks with back injury; Bassitt to A's 'pen]

An A’s home game offers the best value in Bay Area sports, maybe the highest entertainment-per-dollar ratio in baseball. It’s quality ball at budget-friendly prices in a town that has lost the Warriors and soon will lose the Raiders.

But the breakups of the past have left too many scars. Only if this team finds its way deep into the postseason would those scars be easier to ignore.

POLL: A's Memorable Moments -- Braden's Perfect Game vs Donaldson's tarp catch

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AP

POLL: A's Memorable Moments -- Braden's Perfect Game vs Donaldson's tarp catch

PROGRAMMING NOTE: NBC Sports California is looking back at the A's 50 Memorable Moments since the franchise relocated to Oakland in 1968. Below are the next two moments you can vote on. Tune into A's Pregame Live tonight at 3:30pm to watch highlights of the two moments. After the A's and Blue Jays conclude, tune into A's Postgame Live to see which moment will move on to the next round!

1. Dallas Braden's Perfect Game on Mother's Day 2010 (Two-time winner -- Defeated Mark McGwire's walk-off home run in Game 3 of the 1988 World Series)

(From Dallas Braden)

Well, they haven’t taken it away yet so I guess it might not be a dream after all. It’s still insane to think that on such a special day for so many people, my teammates and I were able to etch ourselves into the hearts of A’s fans everywhere.

In the moment, I had no clue. At the same time, I was fully aware. Completely focused and emotionally distracted at the same time. Hell, I talked myself into the wrong count in the last at-bat of the game. The 27th out. In that moment I had no clue. No clue I’d become the vehicle for such an emotional moment shared between mothers and their families across baseball that special day. I do believe that’s what I was -- merely a vehicle to connect people through our beautiful game. My mom, along with the baseball gods, and Landon Powell, I guess, all steered us down the path of history and to be able to share and relive those special moments and memories is a blessing a young little leaguer can only dream of.

I hope that through my passion for the game you feel the same love I, myself, my wife, baby girl, and grandmother have felt from each of you, the fans of the Green & Gold. We couldn’t be happier to share this Mother’s Day and every Mother’s Day from here on out, TOGETHER! It’s a perfect fit if you ask me.

VS.

2. Josh Donaldson's catch on the tarp in 2013

(From Ben Ross)

On September 3, 2013, Josh Donaldson took on the tarp and won. The A's third baseman chased down a David Murphy pop up into foul territory and made an incredible diving catch over the tarp, holding up his glove the entire time to show the umpire he had the ball.

The play was so memorable, the A's made a bobblehead to commemorate it.

Donaldson became a fan favorite in Oakland, thanks in large part to fearless defensive plays like this one. He finished fourth in the American League MVP voting in 2013 and made his first All-Star Game in 2014. Incredibly, he has still never won a Gold Glove.

The A's traded Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2014 season for Kendall Graveman, Franklin Barreto, Brett Lawrie, and Sean Nolin. Donaldson won the American League MVP award in 2015.

VOTE HERE:

Donaldson does damage to the A's once again as Jays avoid sweep

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Donaldson does damage to the A's once again as Jays avoid sweep

OAKLAND — The A’s roster has turned over, multiple times, since Josh Donaldson was traded after the 2014 season.

The link remains for the three-time All-Star however. That gets reinforced every time he returns to the Coliseum and sees familiar coaches, familiar faces in the stands.

It doesn’t stop him from inflicting damage on his old team. The 2015 American League MVP had been relatively quiet for most of three games at the Coliseum. But it wouldn’t feel like an A’s-Blue Jays series if he didn’t factor into a storyline, would it?

The moment came in the 10th inning, when Donaldson launched a pitch from A’s reliever Frankie Montas high and deep into the afternoon sky. It finally landed, barely clearing the elevated wall in left-center to snap a tie score and send Toronto to an eventual 7-5 victory.

“I didn’t know (if it was out) because of how high that I hit the ball,” Donaldson said. “I’ve hit many balls in this stadium that were like that and kind of got knocked down by the wind and the air.”

This one had enough distance, and it ruined an afternoon that had been growing more encouraging for the A’s by the inning. Down 4-1 after Jharel Cotton allowed four runs in the second, they began chipping away at that deficit. Cotton steadied himself and got through six innings with just the four runs. John Axford and Liam Hendriks combined for three scoreless innings and leadoff man Rajai Davis provided a spark in the leadoff spot that’s been missing most of the season.

But they couldn’t complete their first home sweep in more than a calendar year. Donaldson, who now has 15 RBI in 15 games against the A’s since they traded him to Toronto, had been 3-for-8 with an RBI over the first two games of this series. He hadn’t done anything to alter a game until the top of the 10th Wednesday.

Donaldson may get less familiar with the A’s roster each time he plays them, but he still has relationships with manager Bob Melvin, hitting coach Darren Bush (who managed him in the A’s farm system) bullpen coach Scott Emerson (who Donaldson worked closely with while he was still a minor league catcher) and others.

“There’s a lot of guys on the coaching staff that are really good people and that I had a lot of great conversations with that helped me get to the point where I am today,” he said. “I won’t ever take that for granted.”

The A’s, as they prepare for a six-game road trip that begins Friday at Tampa Bay, hope that Wednesday’s game can help ignite Davis’ season. He came in hitting just .198, struggling enough for Melvin to drop him to the bottom of the order many games. But he went 4-for-5 with four runs and fell just a homer short of the cycle.

“Just eliminating extra moment with my lower half, trying to use my hands,” Davis said when asked what he’s working on. “That’s my thing. Use my hands and trust that my hands will get to the ball.”

Trevor Plouffe homered in the fourth to snap an 0-for-25 streak. Then the A’s tied it 4-4 after Davis tripled and scored on Chad Pinder’s sacrifice fly. Davis doubled in the first and score the A’s first run on Khris Davis’ two-out double off Francisco Liriano. He scored again after singling and coming around eventually on Davis’ fielder’s choice grounder, then added his fourth run after doubling in the 10th and scoring on Matt Joyce’s single.

“Definitely it helps when the leadoff batter gets on,” Davis said of his own duties. “With those guys mashing in the middle, we just want to have some runners on for them so they can drive in some more runs.”