The Athletics lost more games and attracted fewer fans than any
other team in baseball last year--and still made money. Was it a
successful season? "No, not at all," says president Sandy
Alderson, though he acknowledges that being in the black is
important. "We're a team trying to compete on a businesslike
basis. It's important to remove the pressure of losing money
because that creates fear of a team relocating and other
negative components. We have to keep the financial pressure off."

In other words, you won't find Oakland overextending itself
financially to pursue the pennant. Its philosophy is simple:
Stick to a budget that at worst leaves the club with a balanced
ledger and maybe, just maybe--or as Alderson says, "if we get
lucky"--be competitive. So they make do with one of the five
lowest payrolls in baseball. Lots of luck.

The Athletics have taken this approach the past two years,
overachieving before a late-season collapse that left them with
78 wins in 1996, then sinking to 65 wins last year. They drew
only 1.2 million people in '97, actually a slight improvement
over '96.

"When you don't have a lot of veteran talent or leadership, the
results tend to be more volatile," Alderson says. "You get the
highs and the lows. We've experienced both extremes. And it's a
heck of lot easier to go from 78 wins to 65 than the other
direction--from 78 to 91."

So, through trades and free agency, Oakland changed overnight
from a bad, young team to a suspect, old team. They took the
$13.4 million in salaries they unloaded and spent the money on
pitchers Kenny Rogers, Tom Candiotti and Mike Fetters,
outfielders Rickey Henderson and Shane Mack, and infielders Mike
Blowers and Kurt Abbott (the only one of the bunch younger than

The curious bottom line: They will pay their 40-man roster $18
million, $100,000 more than they spent last year--a little more
money for a lot less long-ball excitement than they had before
they dumped Mark McGwire, Geronimo Berroa and Jose Canseco.

What the Athletics hope to gain through those deals, besides
stability, is sorely needed help for their pitching staff. "Last
year we had people guaranteed a spot in the rotation whether
they pitched good or bad," says DH-first baseman Dave Magadan,
who led the American League with 13 pinch hits in '97. "We
didn't have anybody else."

Oakland's retread-laden lineup takes some of the burden off a
corps of talented prospects, including catchers A.J. Hinch and
Ramon Hernandez, shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielder Ben
Grieve, a franchise player in the making. Grieve, 21, hit .312
in 24 games with Oakland last year while ensconced comfortably
in the number 3 spot.

"He's the best young hitter I've ever seen," Magadan says. "He's
got power to all fields, he hits for a high average, and--what
really sets him apart--he's got a great eye at the plate. He's
the real deal. Plus, he's got this quiet confidence that I
really like. He doesn't go around telling everyone how good he

Even with Grieve, Oakland's short-term future is hardly
encouraging. The Athletics are locked into a lease through 2004
at the expanded Oakland Coliseum, which is a football stadium
masquerading in the summer as a ballpark. To generate the
revenue required to increase their payroll, the Athletics need
their young players to blossom together, the way it happened for
Montreal in the mid-'90s. "We're not going to front-load the
process the way [Wayne] Huizenga did in Florida," Alderson says.
"What we need to do is stair-step it, to improve gradually. It's
a stair-step to heaven."


COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/ALLSPORT LOOK WHO'S BACK What few thrills the A's provide should come from the aging Henderson, on his fourth tour in Oakland. [Rickey Henderson in game] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Kenny Rogers]

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