Grade A's With shrewd trades, strong pitching and pop at the plate, low budget Oakland is making a startling run for the American League wild-card berth

August 29, 1999

In a goofy but endearing week in the American League wild-card
race, the Boston Red Sox indulged in clock watching as well as
scoreboard watching, the Toronto Blue Jays visited the gaming
tables of Reno in hopes of rolling seven or 11 somewhere other
than in their own ERA, and the Oakland Athletics were the Little
Engine That Could, fueled by a magic elixir of small payroll and
big home runs.

There was mad: Last Thursday, Red Sox ace righthander Pedro
Martinez blew a gasket at general manager Dan Duquette for
making him feel like a clock puncher at the foundry; Martinez
thought Duquette was lurking in the clubhouse to see if Martinez
arrived there the prescribed two hours before game time, because
Martinez had been late for--and scratched from--his previous
start. And there was madness: Last Saturday at Oakland's Network
Associates Coliseum, the A's gave up three runs before getting
an out and still whipped the Blue Jays. At the close of action
last Saturday, the wild-card standings looked like this:

W L PCT. GB
Oakland 67 56 .545 --
Boston 67 56 .545 --
Toronto 66 59 .528 2

"The chasers have become the chasees," A's rightfielder Matt
Stairs said. "In the standings, we have achieved the dash.
August 21, 1999, is a happy day for the Oakland A's."

After the A's split with the Blue Jays on Sunday and Monday,
they remained in a tie with the Red Sox for the wild-card lead
and deserved to admire the view: Oakland had won five of seven
from Toronto and split four games in Boston over an 11-day
surge. The A's hadn't been first in anything in August since
1992. After six years underground--"We had a hiatus and were out
of touch with baseball for a while," manager Art Howe says--the
A's, 25-13 since the All-Star break, were the new patron saints
of small-market baseball, their $22 million payroll (fifth
smallest in the majors) a testament to what can be done with
imagination, gumption and kismet.

As Oakland general manager Billy Beane replied when asked who
would be his closer after he'd dealt righthander Billy Taylor to
the New York Mets at the July 31 trading deadline: "For $22
million you don't get perfect." The A's are like a rambling
house with a leaky roof. In the past five weeks they've lost
veteran outfielder Tim Raines to lupus, leadoff hitter Tony
Phillips to a broken left leg and rookie third baseman Eric
Chavez to a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, and Beane has
only so many buckets to catch the drips. He won't stop the rain,
but if he shifts the buckets cleverly enough, he might not drown.

In a stunning series of four deals last month that actually
lowered the Oakland payroll by $100,000--money that would be
spent in acquiring outfielder Rich Becker from the Milwaukee
Brewers last week to play center in Phillips's absence--Beane
traded, in addition to Taylor, a disgruntled starter (lefthander
Kenny Rogers), a middle reliever and five minor league
prospects, and wound up with two frontline starters (including
prized righthander Kevin Appier), a regular second baseman and
bullpen depth. "We have to be a little more creative than other
teams," says Beane. "We have to take the guerrilla approach.
That's guerrilla with a u."

The A's began on July 23 by trading Rogers to the Mets for a
pair of minor leaguers. On the surface it appeared to be a
small-market reinsdorf, a depressing capitulation even though
Oakland was only three games back in the wild-card race at the
time. But Beane, who had called first baseman Jason Giambi
before the deal to make sure losing Rogers would not upset
clubhouse chemistry, was adding by subtracting. "He told me he
needed a week but that other stuff was going to happen with the
money we saved [half of Rogers's $5 million salary]," says
Giambi. Indeed, six days after dealing Rogers, Beane landed
righthanded starter Omar Olivares and second baseman Randy
Velarde from the Anaheim Angels for three minor leaguers.
Forty-eight hours later he sent Taylor to the Mets for relievers
Greg McMichael and Jason Isringhausen, and packaged righthanded
middle reliever Brad Rigby and two minor leaguers to the Kansas
City Royals for Appier, stealing the righty from elite suitors
such as the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians. "When we heard
[the A's being linked to] Appier, it was like a kid on welfare
asking for a new bicycle at Christmas," Giambi says. "You want
that brand-new Mongoose and Mommy and Daddy are trying, but it's
not looking very good. But when we got him, it was unreal. I
looked at the names in the clubhouse that day and said, 'We're
something to be reckoned with.'"

Appier dominated in winning his first two starts for the
Athletics--"I think these guys had respect for my ability when I
was with Kansas City, but seeing it in a different uniform is
more meaningful," he says--and after losing 9-4 to the Blue Jays
on Monday, was 3-2 for Oakland. But his impact has been no more
profound than that of any of the other new A's embraced by a
team unspoiled by money, success or a fan base. (The Athletics
were averaging a measly 17,984 at home through Monday.) On
Sunday, Velarde drove in the winning run with two outs in the
ninth on a bloop against tough Toronto closer Billy Koch. That
hit gave him 32 in 101 at bats for Oakland. Neither Isringhausen
nor McMichael had allowed a run in a combined 16 1/3 innings;
Becker had a .478 on-base percentage; and Olivares, who overcame
the gloomy start in the 8-4 win last Saturday, had a 3-0 record.
Even Chavez's replacement at third base, Olmedo Saenz, stepped
up on Sunday with two stunning defensive plays and a home run,
part of the A's gorilla approach. (That's gorilla with an o.)

At the All-Star break Oakland was batting a puny .244 and
averaging 4.98 runs a game. In the ensuing 38 games through
Monday, the A's batted a robust .282 and averaged 7.05 runs.
Suddenly Oakland was second in the majors in home runs with 181.
The team leader with 29 (including 12 since the break) was the
unheralded 31-year-old Stairs, who developed his uppercut swing
three years ago while marooned with Triple A Edmonton. A
combination of off-day libations and a spot of sunstroke during
a road trip to Tucson left him with a case of bottle fatigue; he
was simply too tired to hold his bat high in his customary
Geronimo Berroa-style the following night. Instead, Stairs laid
the lumber on his shoulder, and he has been a consistent run
producer ever since, with 83 RBIs this season.

Like Stairs, whose career has sent him meandering through
Montreal, Japan, Boston and Mexico, the A's are not easily
discouraged. After blowing a two-run lead with two outs in the
bottom of the ninth in Boston on Aug. 16, they won 12-1 the next
night even though their most productive hitter, Giambi (.317, 25
homers and 94 RBIs), was out with a banged-up right knee. A 7-4
defeat followed, but then, last Thursday, Oakland ambushed
Martinez, the best pitcher in baseball, behind rookie Tim
Hudson, a 6'0", 160-pound righthander. Hudson struck out
Boston's All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to end the sixth
inning and then stared him down like a gunfighter. "I was out
there talking to Nomar at second, and he asked me if Tim was an
a------," Giambi said. "I told him, 'No, just real
competitive.'" The 6-2 victory over Martinez gave the commanding
Hudson--who started the season at Double A Midland (Texas) and
who possesses a splitter for an out pitch--an 8-1 record and a
2.72 ERA. Finally, after getting hammered 11-0 last Friday by
the Blue Jays (who had spent their off day on Thursday in Reno),
Oakland took two of the next three to close out their 11-day gut
check. "I admire the way they play," said Toronto catcher Darrin
Fletcher, whose own team had lost nine of 11 through Monday. "It
looks like they're not thinking too much, just reacting and
playing the game."

The $22 million question is: Can the A's keep it up? Many,
including Appier, will be playing the first truly meaningful
games of their careers in the next five weeks, but enthusiasm is
a powerful tool. As they say around Fenway Park, only time will
tell.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN THIS RIVER KEEPS ROLLIN' ALONG In building an 8-1 record through Monday, rookie Hudson has shown a scintillating splitter and no mercy to Nomar. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER LEATHER AND LACE Flashy young shortstop Miguel Tejada robbed the Jays' Willie Greene, while Stairs (right), with 12 homers since the All-Star break, kept clearing the bases. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]

"I looked around the clubhouse and said, 'We're something to be
reckoned with,'" says Giambi.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)