"It's pretty similar," Zito said Sunday before Oakland closed out the first half of the season in the finale of a three-game series against the host White Sox. "The '01 and '02 teams had a lot of crazy personalities, but this team here's right up there."
The list of real-life cartoon characters inhabiting the A's clubhouse in 2001-02 is lengthy, indeed. The 2001 team had first baseman Jason Giambi in his rock-star heyday leading the charge, with free-spirited, shoot-from-the-lip Johnny Damon and two-screws-loose closer Jason "Izzy" Isringhausen in tow.
That trio was gone by 2002, but there was no shortage of class clowns. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and reserve outfielder Adam Piatt were notorious pranksters, shortstop Miguel Tejada's impromptu salsa dancing put Crosby's electric boogie to shame, and backup infielder Frank Menechino was a constantly loud and versatile source of entertainment.
"Just hearing those names and thinking about some of the things they'd do makes me laugh," Zito said.
Oh, and 2002 brought the unintentional standup comedy routine that is outfielder Eric Byrnes on a daily basis, too. Byrnes, Zito, Eric Chavez and reliever Chad Bradford are the only four players on the current 40-man roster who have been with the A's since 2001.
"I don't really think it's ever changed," Chavez said. "The faces have, and maybe the music, but I haven't noticed anybody having any less fun in here."
Perhaps that's because general manager Billy Beane has a knack for bringing in guys who fit the fun-loving mold.
The mid-season trade for outfielder Jose Guillen added spice to the 2003 clubhouse, outfielder Mark Kotsay's dry, acerbic wit was a welcome addition in 2004, and over-the-top rookie outfielder Nick Swisher has brought a laugh-with-me-and-at-me quality to the 2005 team.
Veteran catcher Jason Kendall isn't one to hop up on a clubhouse table half-naked and perform a dance straight out of Chippendale's, as did Byrnes after a game in Oakland last week, but he's sneaky funny -- "People in the front row were buckling," he said recently of Zito's curveball -- and is at the top of the list of those who appreciate the A's rare blend of clubhouse chemistry.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Kendall, who spent the first nine years of his career with the Pirates. "I'm amazed by our clubhouse every single day. You just don't see what we have anywhere else. I talk to a lot of guys around the league, asking what it's like in different places, and from what I hear, it just doesn't exist the way we have it."
Zito expects it to get even better as newcomers such as rookie pitcher Joe Blanton, No. 3 starter Dan Haren and rookie first baseman Dan Johnson reach the level of self-comfort Swisher brought to the party from Day 1.
"I think there's some closet sickos on this team, just waiting to bust out. Even [rookie closer] Huston [Street]; you can't be a closer and not be a little off." Zito said. "Right now, you see flashes here and there, but not the full monty. I think we'll start to see more and more of it from the guys over time.
"Next year might be an all-out zoo."
Kotsay, Chavez join the cause: Chavez, who has the largest contract in franchise history, and Kotsay, who on Saturday signed a lucrative new deal of his own, are among the players who recently joined Zito's Strikeouts For Troops program, which donates money earmarked to provide some "comforts of home" and assist with family travel and housing expenses for wounded U.S. service members who are being treated at military hospitals.
"Number one, it's Barry's thing, and you always want to support a teammate whenever you can," Kotsay said. "Number two, it's a great cause. Whatever we can do to show our support for people putting their lives on the line on our behalf is a no-brainer."
Joining Kotsay and Chavez on the Strikeouts For Troops roster of contributors were fellow A's Kendall, Swisher, Byrnes, Street, Blanton, Kirk Saarloos, Rich Harden and Mark Ellis. Already on the "team" were Hudson, now of the Braves, Indians pitchers C.C. Sabathia, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and Nationals closer Chad Cordero.
"The list is growing," said Zito, who donates $100 for every strikeout he records (85 thus far in 2005). "It started as a thing for pitchers, obviously, but a lot of my friends in baseball are position players, and they've asked how they can help, so we've established a way for everyone to participate by creating a category for hits, RBIs and home runs."
Dribblers: A's manager Ken Macha, who will serve on American League All-Star manager Terry Francona's staff this week in Detroit, said he's looking forward to Monday's Home Run Derby. "It'll be cool to watch," Macha said. "Maybe I'll be one of those guys out in left field, shagging." ... Backup catcher Adam Melhuse got his second start in 19 games Sunday, with Kendall serving as the designated hitter. Macha said Scott Hatteberg, a converted catcher who has split time at first base and DH this year but did not start Sunday because he was 3-for-27 lifetime against White Sox starter Freddy Garcia, agreed to take over behind the plate in an emergency. ... Triple-A Sacramento outfielder Matt Watson, who has 10 home runs for the River Cats this season, will participate in the Pacific Coast League's All-Star Home Run Derby on Monday at Raley Field. John-Ford Griffin, a former A's prospect now with the Blue Jays organization, also will swing for the downs in River City. The contest will follow a celebrity softball game in which former A's Dave Stewart, Dave Kingman and F.P. Santangelo will compete.
Up next: After the three-day All-Star break, Harden (5-4, 2.53 ERA) will open the second half Thursday when he takes on All-Star lefty Kenny Rogers (10-4, 2.54) and the Rangers in the opener of a four-game series at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland.