A's historic run to AL West title reminds us why we love this game
You may not know it, but you are an Oakland Athletics fan. You are an Athletics fan because you are a baseball fan, and being a baseball fan means you believe desire is worth more than payroll.
You believe where you sit on your couch influences the baseball gods.
You believe in next year like you believe in your next breath.
You believe you would play this game for nothing and so you believe in those who look like they really do.
You believe the best seats in the house come with peanut shells around your feet, not a moat, a members-only restaurant and a $15 glass of petite sirah.
You believe there is nothing else in this country but baseball that so strongly binds strangers -- nothing else quite brings people, especially families, out of doors to share not just rooting interest but also the priceless open space for conversation -- that major metropolitan areas shrink warmly into Rockwellian hamlets.
And so because you believe in these truths you must believe in the A's. They are all the best reasons why we live and die with this great game, all wrapped up in green and gold.
Today the Athletics are the champions not only of the American League West Division, but also of hope. Maybe the last day of this season didn't give us the wall-to-wall drama of The Night of 162 last year, especially with the Red Sox having quit long ago.
But it gave us enough. It gave us the pure joy of the O.com Coliseum as Oakland, with a 12-5 neighborhood block party of a win, completed one of the five most prolific comebacks in pennant race history, having wiped out a 13-game deficit to the Texas Rangers, those poor blindsided foils who, thanks to the gaffe from center fielder Josh Hamilton, made this Oakland story good to the last drop.
Look at why we love baseball this way: the Athletics and Yankees both clinched the division title on the last day of the season. But the Yankees, burdened by the weight of money and expectations, merely survived. Whatever joy that came from victory was muted by relief.
The Athletics? They lived a dream. This is your team next year, or what you believe is possible for your team. They are why we love baseball, especially in this era when the talent, due to the international growth of the game and how well and widely it is taught, is distributed more evenly across more teams than ever before -- and that is why this sport surprises us more than any other.
There are 10 teams in the playoffs. Four of them had losing seasons last year, haven't won a playoff series in at least six years and haven't won the World Series in at least 13 years, if ever: Oakland, Baltimore, Washington and Cincinnati. On the night of the presidential debate, the end of the baseball season truly was a display of democracy at work.
In the 18 years under the wild-card format, 25 percent of all playoff teams had a losing record the previous season. In 17 of these 18 years there has been at least one Cinderella who jumped from a losing record one year to the playoffs the next. This year Cinderella comes to the ball with three of her sisters.
Four of the six division winners from last year did not repeat, including all three in the NL. Of the top seven payrolls in baseball -- and even with an expanded postseason -- more of them went home (Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, Marlins) than to the postseason (Yankees, Tigers, Rangers). And this comes in the year after the top nine payrolls in baseball won zero postseason series combined.
OK, and after all these surprises, now somebody wants to tell you exactly how this four-round tournament is going to play out? Just laugh at them if they try. And then sit back and watch the best month in sports play out, starting with a doubleheader of knockout games Friday night in which both World Series teams from last year, St. Louis and Texas, put their entire season in the line in one night.
We can't wait for what's next because this was an exhilarating regular season that surprised and tickled us at near every turn. The highlights included seven no-hitters, one of the best rookies ever (Mike Trout), one of the best teenage players ever (Bryce Harper) and the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 (Miguel Cabrera, who proved he is the best hitter in baseball and the better choice in a great race for MVP. Take out the Triple Crown for a moment; the dude separated himself from Trout, who is the player of the year, in April and especially September. He had more big moments down the stretch for a first-place team than Trout did for a third-place team.)
What lingers today above all else is the youthful joy bursting forth in the Oakland sunshine Wednesday. Nobody saw this coming -- not even the smartest people in the Oakland organization, especially not when the team as late as June 1 was eight games worse than .500 and hitting like some lousy team from the deadball era, scraping by at .208.
Last year Oakland lost 88 games, after which it traded three of its top four starting pitchers (Trevor Cahill, Gonzalez and Guillermo Moscoso) and its closer (Andrew Bailey) and put together a team stocked with rookies and never-weres with the smallest payroll in baseball but for San Diego while playing in the rent-a-wreck of ballparks in an age where driveway envy has fueled an enormous construction boom just about everywhere else.
The team was lousy from the start, but kept shedding players and adding others, whether because of poor performance, injuries or various maladies. The spring training plans included keys roles for Manny Ramirez, Bartolo Colon, Kurt Suzuki, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue, Jemile Weeks, Eric Sogard . . . all of them gone or insignificant by various means by the time the team was a September juggernaut sweeping the weirdly tight Texas Rangers.
The Athletics managed to get their team batting average up to .239 by the end -- which still makes this the eighth-worst-hitting outfit in franchise history, and the other seven in their company were downright awful, with none of them closer than 12 games to .500. But, hey, with home runs, walkoff wins, solid defense and a young pitching staff in which Oakland threw caution to the wind, who cares about batting average?
While the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown became a major second half story in Washington, the Athletics kept running young pitchers out to the mound with no governors. Jarrod Parker, who was born four months after Strasburg, has rolled up 202 innings -- way beyond his high of 136.1 last year. The A's also pushed Tommy Milone, 25 (190 innings, a jump of 15.2 innings), A.J. Griffin, 24 (181.2, +21) and Daniel Straily (191.1, +30.2).
Reliever Sean Doolittle, who never before had pitched as a pro, pitched in each of the last four games and 59 in all between the minors and majors. Rookie Ryan Cook was used eight times in the last 11 games, including five in a row to end the season.
The A's had been at the forefront of protecting young pitchers with the way they carefully developed Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder a decade or so ago. So closely did they monitor their work that they wouldn't let the pitchers throw to bases during fielding drills -- the better to save precious bullets. This year they blew up industry convention and just kept handing the ball to young pitchers. And it worked with a division title.
Who knows where this joyful madness goes? Last year Tampa Bay was the flavor of the month after that crazy win in Game 162 -- and yet the Rays were gone in a flash, losing in the ALDS in four quick games to Texas. Their inclusion in the 2012 postseason is hard to remember even just a year later.
Then again, St. Louis, another team that gained entry via Game 162 last year, won a world championship by nearly the narrowest of margins possible. They lost seven games, one fewer than the maximum possible for a championship, and three times survived being one strike away from elimination.
The only rule is that there are no rules this time of year. Momentum changes in the course of games. But no matter what becomes of Oakland, the Athletics -- and to some degree, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati, too -- already have inspired fans not just in the Bay Area, but also in places such as Toronto, Cleveland, San Diego, Kansas City, Seattle and Queens. You're never as far from the postseason as what we used to think.
Oakland's place in history already is secure, with the chance to grow it. The A's joined the 2006 Twins and 1951 Giants as the only teams never to hold first place alone until the last day of the season. And they did it on the 51st anniversary of when those '51 Giants took first for themselves on the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the iconic home run hit by Bobby Thomson. These are the moments that endure. These are the times that remind us why we love baseball.