To begin to understand how the callow Oakland A's won a seat at the table of baseball's elite, take a long glance at manager Bob Melvin's patrician visage. Now ignore much of what you think you see.
Oh, Melvin's smooth vibe and genial manner are legitimate; he is affable, unflappable, and mellow as a distant meadow at dawn. But behind that facade is a competitor of searing intensity, his desire to win burning hot enough to be felt throughout the clubhouse.
Melvin, 50, is both respected and adored by his players -- he unifies and commands the A's as well as any manager in franchise history -- because he skillfully navigates terrain that often undoes middle managers.
The Palo Alto native is genuinely accessible and compassionate yet keeps proper distance.
He is a good listener and reasonably flexible yet maintains full authority.
He routinely accepts blame and deflects praise.
And one more thing, unique to Oakland, might be Melvin's greatest attribute: He seamlessly navigates the relationship with his boss, general manager Billy Beane, a vital and commanding presence now evolved into celebrity.
Oakland is in the American League playoffs largely because, like the men on its young and dauntless roster, Melvin flinches at nothing while standing up for his convictions.
"What we've done says a lot about this ballclub," veteran outfielder and designated hitter Jonny Gomes offers. "And it says an awful lot about our manager."
The A's have surpassed all rational projections. There have been surprising sluggers, such as Josh Reddick (32 home runs) and two rookie starters, Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, each winning 13 games. There's a budding star, Yoenis Cespedes, and stunning contributions from the likes of Brandon Moss (21 homers) and Chris Carter (16). The bullpen has developed into a potent force.
Oakland's talent, most of it young, has been more productive than anticipated, making easier the job of veterans such as Coco Crisp, Brandon Inge and Gomes.
But Melvin is the common bond between the roster and the record, between the rookies and the veterans, between the expectations and the reality.
"He's a pro, and he's been great for this team," Crisp says of the manager.
Melvin was hired in June 2011 to replace Bob Geren, who had been on the job for more than four years. The best man at Beane's first wedding, Geren lacked strong people skills and never overcame the perception he was a designated flunky.
The change provided a revived sense of unity and purpose. The team that was 27-36 under Geren went 47-52 under Melvin. Moreover, attitudes were being adjusted. Out went the despair, up went the energy and down went the figurative wall between manager and players.
"It was a different feeling," infielder Cliff Pennington said last year, shortly after the move was made. "Communication was better."
When Beane decided last winter to rebuild the team, trading away its last three all-stars for unproven players and prospects, the universal response was Oakland had raised a white flag.
Melvin never blinked, telling me during spring training that if this team could hit reasonably well, it could surprise people. Though he did not predict 94 wins and the playoffs, his assessment brimmed with optimism.
"I don't know what others think, but I want to win games," he said then. "The players are here to win at this level. I'll be disappointed if we don't."
Looking at his roster of veterans with modest résumés and youngsters looking to stay in the big leagues, my easy conclusion was that Melvin had been brainwashed by his silver-tongued boss.
But then, as now, the manager believed. Melvin had been in baseball for 30 years, playing catcher for 14 and spending the last 16 as a scout, coach, front-office executive or manager. He was the N.L. Manager of the Year in 2007 with Arizona.
Knowing he had nothing to lose, Melvin rolled up his sleeves and charged forward. It didn't matter he had to juggle his rotation, massage his bullpen and stitch together lineups, 145 in all, from pocket lint.
What mattered to him was that his players would do the same.
Athletes, like all reasonable adults, want to trust management and the A's appreciate Melvin's open communication and his velvet truth.
"We all know he considers every one of us," Inge says.
When veteran pitcher Brian Fuentes struggled as a closer early this year and was replaced by Ryan Cook, Fuentes could have griped. Under another manager, he might have. His respect for Melvin prevented it.
"Bob is a great communicator," said Fuentes, who was released in July. "That's all you can ask for, and I think it's a big part of the reason our bullpen is so successful."
When you see Melvin in the dugout, looking like a mild-mannered school principal, know that this is a man who bristled when Yankees third baseman Eric Chavez, the former Athletic, criticized the A's for celebrating too exuberantly during a recent series in New York.
Know that this is the man who in May, after a stinging loss to the Giants underscored by a disputed call by umpires, stewed and simmered for hours after the game.
The A's were 20-21 at the time. They were a tiny speck on the map of baseball. They were in second place, destined to fade. Or so we thought when they lost nine of the next 11 games.
Melvin never let go. Neither did his players, who responded by going 72-38 the rest of the way -- the best record in baseball.
Beane is openly campaigning for Melvin to win the Manager of the Year award. You could say, well, that's his guy.
Or you could look past Melvin's calm exterior, and behold the numbers. Behold the revelation that is the 2012 A's.