Does it end here? Does it tonight? Does it end with Anibal Sanchez outdueling Brett Anderson, does it end with a packed house at the Coliseum left disappointed and wondering what if -- what if Brandon Moss' fly ball lands a few inches deeper in Game 1, what if Coco Crisp doesn't drop that ball and Bob Melvin gives Chris Carter an at bat against Phil Coke in the ninth inning of Game 2, what if...?
The Best Story in Baseball could end tonight in Game 3 of the Division Series between the Tigers and A's. Yes, it looks bleak in Oakland. The A's, of course, must win three straight games, first against Sanchez, who has allowed one run in his last two regular season starts; then Max Scherzer, who has a 2.07 ERA and 80 K's in his last 65 innings going back to the start of August; and then, of course, the great Justin Verlander. But you know how it is in the Division Series: one game can change everything -- if Anderson's amazing comeback story continues (the lefthander returned from Tommy John surgery just 13 months after the operation and has been pitching, in the words of a scout, "like an ace") and the A's pull out a win, then tomorrow everyone will be talking about how the A's magic is back, how the A's magic is undeniable, how the A's won three straight against the Rangers at the Coliseum just a week ago, how maybe, just maybe...
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Just the other night in Detroit, before Game 1, Yoenis Cespedes went to dinner with Ariel Prieto, his friend, housemate, chauffeur, baseball mentor, life coach, interpreter and fellow Cuban. The two have had virtually every meal away from the ballpark together. Prieto has been pushing Cespedes to try new things in the U.S., and mostly failing. "All he eats is steak," Prieto, sitting in the A's dugout at Comerica Park before Game 1, said, in exasperation. "So I took him out to an Italian restaurant last night -- pasta! Something different. So what did he get? Veal!"
Since arriving in the U.S. in February after signing a four-year, $36 million contract, the largest deal ever for a Cuban defector that instantly made him the highest-paid member of the A's, Cespedes has lived a simple life. After he returns from the ballpark to the Point Richmond home he shares with Prieto, he stays up late, often until five in the morning, Skype-ing with relatives in different countries (his mother is in the Dominican Republic, and he has a son back in Cuba) and watching Spanish soap operas on his laptop -- "he can watch five hours a day, easily," says Prieto. Cespedes doesn't like the fast food here. He's not interested in American TV. He's trying out some Rosetta Stone lessons online, though Prieto says, "He thinks they're boring."
Cespedes is a big reason why the A's are here, a big reason why they are Must-See TV: the 26-year-old outfielder just might be the most dazzling position player in the postseason, a future star the world is just beginning to get acquainted with this October. No one -- not even the A's -- really believed he would be this good, this soon. "Every day he does something amazing," says third baseman Brandon Inge, who arrived in Oakland in April. "I'd heard about his power, and how fast he was, but my first day here, I was playing catch with him in the outfield, and I was like, Are you kidding me? This guy has one of the best arms I've ever seen."
In Game 2, his team down a run, Cespedes singled to start the eighth, then stole second, then third, and then scored on a wild pitch. Then came The Kiss. There will be much talk tonight about Al Alburquerque fielding a comebacker from Cespedes and kissing the ball before throwing to first for the final out in Game 2. After the game, the A's weren't pleased. Josh Reddick was angry. "The baseball gods take care of that kind of stuff," outfielder Jonny Gomes told reporters. "Obviously, he doesn't believe in the baseball gods. I do."
On Monday, standing in front of reporters in Oakland, Cespedes responded to The Kiss by saying, "That's his problem. It doesn't bother me. It was his turn to win." And then, he added, perhaps ominously for Detroit, "Someday it will be my turn."
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You'll see something strange at the Coliseum when you tune in tonight. You'll see white towels and a loud and passionate home crowd, an official sellout, yes -- but you'll also see a tarp covering the upper deck of the crumbling multi-purpose stadium (the last of its kind), a reminder of the issue that still looms over the franchise: San Jose. The A's are still waiting for a resolution from Bud Selig on their new stadium -- they have the site and the money for the $500 million ballpark -- even though Selig's decision over what to do about the A's move has stretched on as long as President Obama's first term. The dangling A's are frustrated.
"We play in an outdated facility that does not in any way allow us to maximize our revenue stream," assistant GM David Forst told me earlier this year. "We certainly feel like if major league baseball allows us to be in a new facility in the next few years, that very much levels the playing field. It's well documented now, we just are having a hard time getting people to play in Oakland, in the Coliseum, thus the venture into the international market, rather than try to attract major league free agents that flat out don't want to come here."
And yet, here are the A's in the postseason, the Best Story in Baseball. There's Cespedes, and there's Anderson, who will take the mound tonight in the biggest start of his young and promising career. There's the reliever who until last year was a promising first baseman (Sean Doolittle), and a pitcher from Australia who was competing in South Korea just last year (Travis Blackley). There's Brandon McCarthy and Pat Neshek, and all they've had to endure this season. There's Dan Straily, who not so long ago was on a touring team from Berkeley and taking the BART to see A's games at the Coliseum. There's Josh Reddick, Grant Balfour and Jonny Gomes, the part-time player who has become the heart and soul of the team.
But the A's are more than just a fun story -- they're a talented team (they outscored teams by 99 runs this year) and, perhaps unlike the AL's other miracle team, Baltimore, they have a very good chance of being right back here a year from now, with much of the team returning in 2013 (Brandon McCarthy is the team's most notable free-agent-to-be). The rookie pitchers will be back and better, and so will Cespedes, a player who epitomizes the franchise's promise more than anyone.
Does it end tonight? Does it end with their Cuban sensation at the plate in a close game, late, staring down Al Albuquerque? Even if the night ends in Oakland with beer and champagne in the visitor's clubhouse, it still might not be the end of the story for these miracle A's. It might just be the beginning.