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Melvin glad to exemplify team-first mentality for A's

OAKLAND -- Bob Melvin is quick to downplay the details of his life, of his role in extracting hope out of a once seemingly hopeless A's team. He routinely turns questions about himself into answers about his players and his peers. And compliments, well they make Melvin a bit uncomfortable, really. He'd rather the front office field them.

So it was to be expected that Melvin was less than thrilled when told a story was being written about him.

"Hopefully you mean me as in my team?" Melvin asked.

It's a fair question, considering Melvin's low-budget team is arguably this year's best story in baseball. But to fully appreciate these surprising A's -- an 84-62 ballclub in contention for the first time in six years -- is to know the man who has brought them life.

Even if Melvin doesn't want you to.

"He doesn't like to talk about himself, because he'd rather be on the field working," A's bench coach Chip Hale said.

Hale knows Melvin well. The pair previously worked together in Arizona, where the D-backs won the National League West title under Melvin in 2007, a year in which he also took home the NL Manager of the Year Award for his work with a notoriously young roster.

The A's, too, are young. Babies, really, when considering that their roster currently entails 14 rookies. Four are in a steady rotation, while several others are sprinkled throughout a lineup that undergoes a makeover on a near-daily basis. Through 146 games, Melvin has employed 131 different lineups.

"There's obviously a method to the madness," Jonny Gomes said. "Things are always changing here, and to still be winning in spite of all that, that's not luck. It starts with Bob."

Consider Gomes the spokesperson of the platoon. Though used to sharing time at a position with another player through much of his career, Gomes has never seen so many do it on one team while breeding so much success until now.

At one point or another, the A's have utilized platoons at designated hitter, catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base and, when Yoenis Cespedes has been hurt, left field.

The right-handed Gomes has drawn 51 starts -- mostly at designated hitter against left-handed starters. When not playing, it's typically the left-handed-hitting Seth Smith in the starting lineup, where he's landed 83 times against right-handed starters. Together, Gomez and Smith have combined for 29 home runs and 89 RBIs.

Then there's Brandon Moss and Chris Carter, who have shared time at first base since the struggling duo of Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue was taken out of the big league picture. Count 32 home runs and 73 RBIs among them in 124 games.

It wasn't too long ago that Moss, the outgoing journeyman, was one of more than a dozen outfielders populating the A's Spring Training roster. Carter, meanwhile, was again destined for Triple-A, his fans questioning whether he really belonged in the Majors following three previously unsuccessful stints in Oakland.

Melvin believed he did, if given the right opportunity at the right time. Melvin thought the same of Moss, and he gave them just that. Suddenly, both are oozing confidence -- and power.

"He does a great job of mixing everyone together and making everyone feel like they're always going to be successful," Hale said. "I think he's gotten the most out of players who, in the past, haven't performed that well. He knows guys' personalities, knows when it's a good time to get them in, get them out and give them some rest."

"He's always had a good sense of looking at talent and putting it on the field in a way that's going to best enable his team of a win," added Phil Garner, a special adviser to the A's, who doubles as a friend and mentor to Melvin. "I've always enjoyed hearing his opinions, his advice, and a lot of times I would follow it."

It was Garner, a brief teammate of Melvin's with the Giants in 1988, who guided Melvin's return to baseball after he retired as a player in '95, following 10-plus seasons as a backup catcher. Garner, managing the Brewers at the time, convinced Melvin to write Milwaukee general manager Sal Bando, who hired him as a scout.

Bando soon promoted Melvin to roving instructor, then special assistant and, finally, bench coach to Garner in 1999.

Garner may be most deserving of telling memorable Melvin moments, given their well-documented friendship, and one of his favorites stems from their first year together on the same staff.

Out in Maryvale, Ariz., on the first day of Spring Training workouts for pitchers and catchers, Garner watched as Melvin attempted to keep the day's agenda in order and moving in a timely process. They had even rehearsed it.

"Our philosophy was to do everything on the clock," Garner said. "We had a relatively short workout that we tried to keep under two hours. About 30 minutes in, Bob's running over with watches and stopwatches and buzzers and alarms going off, sweating like crazy even though it wasn't even hot. And he asked me, 'How do you stay calm in all of this? I'm a wreck.'"

Garner offered him a smile and replied, "Well, Bob, the reason I can be this calm is because I have you. You're worried for all of us."

Melvin, who will turn 51 in October, still is.

"He's the consummate worrier," Garner said. "He's just conscientious. And if you're going to entrust your ballclub in a guy, you want someone who is like that."

Melvin does well in hiding that worry, though. In fact, he was the calm in the storm that was a nine-game losing streak back when Oakland was playing to the tune of meek expectations that were placed on the club at season's start. The A's sat at 23-30 following loss No. 9. Since, they're 62-32, including a Major League-best 41-19 since the All-Star break, and are within three games of the first-place Rangers in the American League West, with just 16 to play.

The A's are having fun, what with walk-off pies and Spiderman costumes populating a clubhouse consumed by constant communication, which was often missing under Bob Geren, for whom Melvin replaced, first as an interim manager before assuming permanent managerial duties by way of a three-year contract, during a tumultuous 2011 campaign.

At the time of his temporary hire June 9 of that year, Melvin made one promise: "One thing I can tell you is that there's going to be energy, there's going to be passion for what they do, and we're going to play for 27 outs."

Sound familiar?

"That's us in a nutshell," Gomes said. "You see how we're playing, how hard we're running to first. There hasn't been one incident all year, which says a lot about our hustle. In order to succeed as a player, you have to learn to embrace your role and not play out of it, and it's so easy to do that for Bob. At the end of the day, he's who we're playing for.

"There isn't a person in here who hasn't talked to him almost on a daily basis, which is rare in this game. Communication is everything."

Melvin, who also managed the Mariners in 2003 and '04, learned that from Orioles skipper Buck Showalter. Over the weekend, the two sat in opposing dugouts, their hard-nosed clubs -- both in prime position for an AL Wild Card spot -- battling for three games. Back in 1994, Melvin went to battle with Showalter, for whom he played with the Yankees.

"He would tell me ahead of time when I was going to play against who and why," Melvin recalled. "I started learning more about myself, how maybe I handled a certain type of pitch or pitcher."

It's rather remarkable, the circle of managers who tutored Melvin: Frank Robinson, Johnny Oates, Sparky Anderson, Roger Craig. Robinson, Melvin said, made him grow up as a player and embrace a leadership role. Oates, meanwhile, could envision him in one.

"He had a lefty reliever in the game and took him out the next inning when there were three lefties coming up," Melvin said. "I asked him, 'Why didn't you at least let him go back out there and get a change in matchup before bringing in the righty?'

"He said to me, 'I think you have a future doing this.'"

"He's one of those guys that when you said, 'Anybody have any questions?' he'd raise his hand and you'd say, 'Oh, here comes a good one,'" Showalter said.

Melvin's grandfather, the late R.B. "Bud" Levites, introduced him to baseball via season tickets at Candlestick Park, and longtime Golden State Warriors trainer Dick D'Oliva, his godfather, made possible his frequent visits to the arena that neighbors the Oakland Coliseum.

Levites was instrumental in the Bay Area-bred Melvin's upbringing, and when his grandson was drafted by the Orioles out of high school, struck a deal with him to keep him close by -- and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, by whom Melvin had been offered a baseball scholarship.

Stay for at least a year, Levites told him.

"I didn't even know what a scout was until the end of my junior year of high school," Melvin said. "Senior year, they started coming out, and that's when I started thinking that maybe there was a chance down the road I would do something professionally. But I wasn't ready."

As a freshman, Melvin helped the Bears to the 1980 College World Series. In '81, he was again drafted, this time by the Tigers, and the two sides came to an agreement, one that would spark a decade-long journey as a player, involving seven teams.

Along the way, Melvin learned valuable lessons from behind the mask.

"As a catcher, you're forced to watch the game like the manager does," he said. "You're dealing with more facets of the game than anyone else."

"Bo has good insight into the game, which is typical of a catcher," Garner said. "He's got a keen mind, is very organized and has a good feel for the game. I thought he did as a player, and when he became a coach for me, it was better than I thought."

Melvin is often trying to help his players combat a constant mental battle. It's himself, though, who may fight it the hardest as manager, a job he describes as part lonely.

"Garner once told me, 'When you manage, you will always feel like you take a loss harder than anyone else,'" Melvin said. "No truer words were ever spoken. At the end of the day, a lot of the decisions come down to you."

Melvin, superbly conditioned, pushes himself in vigorous workouts to try to release some of that tension and pressure. He turns to superstitious acts when things are going well -- the pen he uses on any given day is carefully chosen, based on the previous day's events, as is the route he drives to the stadium and the seat in the dugout where he plops down to speak to media before games.

Melvin understands it sounds a bit whacky, but it's hard to discount his ways at a time like this.

"I thought this would be an OK team," Garner admitted. "I thought the pitching would be OK, but not as good as it's been. And I thought the offense was way better in Spring Training than it would be in the regular season. But I thought we'd have guys that would play hard. And I have seen guys that have willed themselves to win, despite not being as talented maybe as other players. That's Bob's doing. He's extracting that."

Oakland Athletics