The Kids Hang in There 

Eric Byrnes and the Oakland A's hang tough -- and horse around -- in the AL West.

As the clubhouse stereo blared and the arcade-sized video game consoles whizzed and whirled like UFOs coming in for a landing, Oakland A's outfielder Eric Byrnes had to lean in a little closer to hear the questions. Byrnes had just driven in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eleventh inning to complete a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, and the A's clubhouse was rollicking.

But before Byrnes could speak, Oakland right fielder Jermaine Dye wove through the collection of reporters and cameramen and nailed him square in the face with a shaving-cream pie. In this era of the corporate world's pervasive intrusion into sports, where everything from the National Anthem to the seventh-inning stretch has a sponsor, the A's players still approach baseball as if it were, well, a kids' game. They celebrate madly after wins, gobble junk food like Little Leaguers, and abuse male grooming products like a group of Bad News Bears.

The A's, who return to the Coliseum after a disappointing 1-5 Eastern road trip for a twelve-game home stand this week against the Chicago White Sox (June 2), Toronto Blue Jays (June 3-6), and interleague opponents the Cincinnati Reds (June 7-9) and Pittsburgh Pirates (June 11-13), are clearly an anomaly in professional team sports.

"I think so. Just the fact we all came up together, you learn together and grow together," says Byrnes, who has enjoyed a great start, with a batting average above .300 most of the season.

Coincidentally, on the weekend that the A's honored Reggie Jackson -- one of the first of Oakland's superstar players to leave the club via free agency back in the 1970s, and a player who personified the bickering A's of that era -- today's A's kicked their winning ways up a notch by winning five-of-six games of a home stand against Detroit and Kansas City.

Despite getting an up-close look at the surging 2004 A's, Jackson had a hard time believing that the team was the kind of cohesive unit that's impervious to clubhouse rifts and tension. "I don't see how they can't feel some impact of losing their best players all the time," he opined. "You would think some of the excitement in the clubhouse would diminish. But if they keep winning, more power to them."

Though the A's lost shortstop Miguel Tejada to free agency, the slack has been aptly picked up by a number of players. After a dismal 2003, Dye has bounced back decisively. Catcher Damian Miller has been a steady receiver and also a solid hitter. After a slow start, third baseman Eric Chavez has been coming on strong lately, and rookie shortstop Bobby Crosby has shown some power and a steady glove. As usual, starting pitching has been a key to Oakland's success. Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson have been outstanding, and while starter No. 3 Barry Zito has not been so hot, the bullpen has been stellar.

Byrnes maintains that if the A's are going to be a success this year, the team concept will have to come first. "As long as you keep bringing up guys that are in the farm system as opposed to a bunch of free agents, then it's going to be a good situation," he says.

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