OAKLAND — During the winters, when fall ball is over and winter break takes players away from campus, college baseball fields get little use. Unless it’s Cal’s Evans Diamond. During the offseason, a lone fielder takes 100 groundballs, hit by assistant coach Noah Jackson, almost every day from October to February.
“Marcus is out there every day,” said former Golden Bears assistant coach and closer Matt Flemer. “If he’s not here, he’s at the Coliseum.”
Oakland Athletics MVP candidate Marcus Semien — a Cal alum and Bay Area native — has lived in the East Bay almost his entire life. Born here while his father Damien was a wide receiver for the Golden Bears, he has a deep understanding for what playoff baseball means to the community. He’d just never witnessed it in person before he and the A’s hosted Wednesday’s winner-take-all wild card game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I never was fortunate enough to go to a [playoff] game here,” Semien said. “This will be my first experience in this building.”
Semien comes into the game with arguably one of the most dynamic offensive seasons Oakland has seen in decades. Once a strikeout-prone defensive liability, he set team records for home runs (31) and RBIs (84) by a leadoff hitter, and in Major League history, the only players to equal or surpass his totals in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, walks and stolen bases in the same season are Babe Ruth (1921, 1923) and Lou Gehrig (1927).
He’s gone from a ghastly .947 fielding percentage in his first season with the A’s after a 2015 trade from the White Sox to the 15th best fielder in the Major Leagues (regardless of position) according to the SABR Defensive Index, which counts for 25% of the Gold Glove tabulations.
“It’s amazing, where he’s come from and where he is now,” manager Bob Melvin said earlier this season. “I’ve never been around a big leaguer who’s come this far.”
If Semien were playing in New York or Los Angeles — or even across the Bay in San Francisco — he’d be an MVP frontrunner. His highlights would be on ESPN, his face a constant fixture on the MLB Network. But, he plays in Oakland. In the most dilapidated stadium in baseball, with sewage leaks, an opossum infestation and electrical issues.
When he played at Cal, it was the only Pac-10 stadium without lights. The 30-year-old scoreboard frequently malfunctioned, and at times, just turned off without warning. Even during an improbable run to the College World Series, he and the 2011 Golden Bears regularly played in front of literal 10s of people, maybe triple-digits on a Sunday. Players had to run down to the end of the grandstand between innings to relieve themselves.
Evans Diamond has lights now, and a video scoreboard, but the structure is still 86-year-old concrete, and the grandstands are lopsided. The turf and dirt where Jackson works him hasn’t changed. He still returns every October for the Alumni Game. This year, he brought his oldest son, Isaiah, onto the field, where he swung a foam bat behind the home dugout railing and was fawned over by his father’s former teammates. It’s still home. Just like the Coliseum. Except that Evans Diamond never hosted 55,000 fans.
Isaiah and his mother, Tarah, will be among those in attendance on Wednesday, as will Semien’s parents and a raft of other family members for Oakland’s first home playoff game in six years.
“Isaiah’s kind of getting into baseball himself, so it’s kind of cool for them to be able to see what Dad’s doing,” said Flemer, also Semien’s teammate at Berkeley-St. Mary’s. “This is a moment he’s looked forward to for a long time. To have his family, all his immediate family, his relatives and stuff, all of his teammates and everybody who’s played with him be able to be there or watch it, to be local, it’s big for him.”
The laconic shortstop said simply that hosting the game was “important.”
“Being at home, it’s easy,” he said. “Guys on the other team get on base and they talk about how loud it is here compared to other places compared to their home field. And that means a lot. If this place is packed, it can be louder than any place in the league.”
With horns and drums an incesant noise and a playoff-starved fan base with an inferiority complex, Oakland is sure to make an impression.
“It’s big for our fans to see this caliber of game,” Semien said. “For us, we’re excited to play in front of them. Any time we do something good, we have cheers on our side. Last year, you saw what the Yankees did.”
It’s Semien’s chance, too, to shine in front of a national audience. It won’t get him any more MVP votes, though. Those have already been turned in, and he cares more about the process — working the Ron Washington drills early every game day — than the accolades. This game, this day, it’s for The Town.
“I think every time he gets to represent in front of family and friends is huge for him,” said Jackson, himself a former Marin Catholic and Cal star. “When you are born and raised in a city and accomplish as much as he has, it’s a source of pride for everyone.”