PHOENIX – Among the four, one got engaged, one got married, two gave up their side jobs as shoe salesmen, one fought a hellacious marlin in Cabo, one put on eight pounds using a food delivery service, one put on at least eight pounds with no good explanation and two, on Thursday morning, switched off on a single pen while signing their Major League Uniform Players Contracts on a clubhouse table usually meant for card playing or breakfast.
Speaking of half of them, their manager said, "If they came over and introduced themselves, I wouldn't have known who they were last [spring]."
The other two did briefly introduce themselves last spring.
Those four – pitchers Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin – left the season of their young lives with something like satisfaction and returned for the next season with stories to tell, and on this Thursday morning mixed quietly and easily in the Oakland A's clubhouse. A year ago, two (Parker and Milone) were here and asking directions to the men's room and the other two were in minor league camp, really, really hoping for a shot at Double-A.
Now they're all part of the argument against the A's having been sneaky, fluky, providential, bottle wielding lightning catchers, better-baseball-through-clubhouse-chemistry devotees and just plain lucky in 2012, when sometimes it seemed the greener the A's got – and the crazier their season went – the more they won.
They're part of the reason these A's don't think those A's – their 94 wins, their AL West championship, their electric division series against the Detroit Tigers – did anything they can't replicate. Postgame cream pies don't win baseball games, certainly not 94 of them. A dancing dead guy doesn't sweep the Texas Rangers, or steadily finish the Los Angeles Angels and push the Tigers into a fifth game where they had to burn their ace, Justin Verlander.
The A's did all of that, day after day, for six months, or certainly the last three, and because they didn't spend Angels money or boast recent Rangers pedigree, it seemed unreal.
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"We thrived in that role last year as underdogs," Milone said. "No one thought we were going to keep going. And we did."
They're back for more, some of them in the wake of piles of innings they'd not experienced before, and all of them in a more familiar place, where the names fit the faces and the men's room is right where they left it. After a half-decade in which the organization had settled at anywhere from 74 to 81 wins, Billy Beane, Bob Melvin and the fellas found 20 more wins in '12, sure because of many reasons, but a lot because Parker and Milone each won 13 games, because Griffin went 7-1, and because Straily, a 24th-rounder three years before, made seven mostly presentable starts. The A's won five of those. Before the season began, the four had pitched a total of 31 2/3 major league innings, none for the A's, all but 5 2/3 of them by Milone for the Washington Nationals. By the end, they'd made four of the A's five starts in the division series, the other going to Brett Anderson, who, at 24 and with parts of four big league seasons behind him, was veteran by comparison.
Nearly five months later, Parker, Milone and Griffin appear set in the rotation behind the staff ace, Anderson. Straily could pitch for the fifth spot against Bartolo Colon, and at minimum make one early regular-season start while Colon serves the last of his performance-enhancement drug suspension.
The future, turns out, is scattered in a clubhouse in Phoenix, where the drama of last season survives, as does the bittersweetness of how it ended.
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The boom box bumped, the omelet guy cooked, the clubbie toiled, Coco Crisp shuffled, Colon pedaled and some guy with crazy blond hair danced oddly. It is good to be here. It is better to belong. That is where the young A's pitchers restart, having already felt the ballpark full, the games meaningful, the wins like something out of their Little League dreams. They played alongside these guys. Contributed, even. They were part of it.
At 23, 24, 25 years old, that changes everything.
"They at least found some kind of identity toward the end of that season, all of them," Melvin said. "By the end of the season we didn't feel like they were rookies. They didn't pitch like rookies."
Melvin looked away, began to address a different topic, then doubled back.
"Having said that," he added, "you have to go out and prove it every day."
That's the thing about an experience like they had last year, the first like it for many of the A's. It becomes a piece of them and at the same time has no bearing on this year.
"It raises the expectations within our staff," Parker said. "I expect a lot more of myself. Tom does. Brett does. What we did last year was kind of the tip of the iceberg for us. There were stretches we could've done better. My thought is to balance that out, to ride a smooth wave."
With his palm flat and downward, Parker swept his hand across the room. Out there, men, mostly grown men, readied themselves for another day, for another season. Maybe people believe in them, maybe they don't. What's important is the A's know who they are. This time around, no introductions were necessary.
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