If your college fraternity ever fielded a team in the major
leagues, it would be the Oakland Athletics. Their clubhouse is
Delta House, only with the clothes hung up. Two hours before a
game against the Rangers in Texas last week, the typical scene
included players sprawled over various pieces of upholstered
furniture, eating from oversized troughs of popcorn while
watching an action-comedy, Rush Hour, on the giant-screen TV.
Other players, in Skivvies, whooped and hooted over games of
cards, chess or their absolute favorite, trading insults. No one
paid any attention to four smaller screens showing major league
games--not Miggy, Huddy, Baby Huey, G, Chavy or Ralph Malph. The
gang's all here. "You're so small," outfielder Jeremy Giambi
said to infielder Frank Menechino, "you can't even get on some
of the rides at Disneyland."
"You're Ralph Malph," Menechino said, likening his teammate to a
character on the old sitcom Happy Days. "You've got the whiny
voice, the red hair, the freckles, and you don't shut up. Every
time you open your mouth, you complain, and you've got that
voice that drives people nuts."
Two weeks ago Oakland manager Art Howe did his best Dean Wormer
after a loss in Anaheim, lecturing his team for playing without
the proper focus or intensity. Howe later told reporters, "This
isn't Club Med." That news bulletin nearly sent confused players
running to their travel agents for rebooking.
"What's so great about this team is we're all very similar,"
says first baseman Jason (G) Giambi, Ralph Malph's
shaggy-haired, All-Star big brother. "We're young and dumb and
Nearly 30 years ago owner Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's won
three straight world championships with one of the most complete
teams in baseball history. These A's, built on a shoestring
budget, aren't nearly as balanced, but they're having just as
much fun. Even the brand of baseball they play flouts the
establishment. A Department of Motor Vehicles office exhibits
more speed than the Athletics, they treat defense as a way of
killing time between at bats, their pitching is mostly mediocre,
and their hitters have about as much interest in manufacturing
runs as they do in making license plates.
So how in the world did Oakland, 48-38 and a mere three games
behind the first-place Seattle Mariners in the American League
West, reach the All-Star break with a 1 1/2-game lead over the
Toronto Blue Jays for the wild-card spot? The Athletics have
done it with an offense built specifically to exploit the two
most obvious changes in postexpansion baseball: the lively ball
and diluted pitching. Home runs and walks--both easier to come
by than ever before--are Oakland's weapons of choice. (For the
record: When the A's homered, they were 39-26; when they didn't,
they were 9-12.)
"We are the masters at getting seven runs on three or four hits,"
says pitcher Tim (Huddy) Hudson.
At the All-Star break the Athletics were tied for 12th in the
league in batting average (.268) but second in runs (522). That
is possible because Oakland had hit the fourth-most homers in the
American League, 131, many of which followed bases on balls. The
Athletics (428 walks) and the Mariners (434) are on pace to
easily join the Boston Red Sox of 1948 and '49 as the only clubs
to draw 800 walks in a season. (Oh, yes: Oakland also had struck
out a league-leading 635 times.)
"Even when they're ahead in the count, when you think they'll be
geared up to take a rip, they'll take a pass if the pitch isn't
exactly in that small zone where they're looking," Texas
righthander Rick Helling says. "They did that some last year, but
what really impressed me was that now the young guys in the
lineup are doing it too. They'll take that 2-and-0 pitch on the
corner and just spit on it. They'll take strikes to get a better
"That's us," Jason Giambi says. "Sit around and wait for the
three-run Jimmy Jack." Pafiltes is what shortstop Miguel (Miggy)
Tejada calls home runs, a word that he loosely translates as
"Pow!" Oakland, which held the wild-card lead last year as late
as Aug. 29 before fading, is making itself heard.
One executive from an American League rival, however, injects a
note of caution: "You can beat up on second-line pitching that
way, but the problem is you see much better pitching in the
postseason. I think they'll be in trouble."
Oakland general manager Billy Beane built his team this way out
of necessity. Though he would prefer the old
pitching-and-defense model, he says, "This is the most
cost-effective way. You can get hitters for 50 cents on the
dollar relative to pitchers. So we're going to try to outscore
Beane has expertly patched together a contender on $32 million,
the sixth-lowest payroll in the majors. He has been able to keep
costs down thanks to a productive minor league system that has
graduated 10 of its players to the current roster. But the A's
success owes as much to shrewd acquisitions as to a bountiful
farm system. In three deals over eight days last July, Beane
stole second baseman Randy Velarde, centerfielder Terrence Long,
starting pitchers Kevin Appier and Omar Olivares and All-Star
closer Jason (Baby Huey) Isringhausen for seven spare parts and
lefthander Kenny Rogers, a pitcher he knew he could not afford to
Beane also has struck gold in recent years with unwanted players
from other organizations, such as designated hitter John Jaha,
outfielder Matt Stairs and pitchers Gil Heredia, Doug Jones and
Jeff Tam, plus Menechino, a minor league free agent Beane coveted
because--surprise!--he takes pitches and gets on base. "It worked
for the Yankees," Beane says. "If you make the pitcher throw
enough pitches, you get him out of the game quicker and get into
the other team's bullpen."
That philosophy is preached throughout the Oakland organization.
Minor league players are taught, for instance, that they had
better have one walk for every 10 at bats. No Oakland minor
leaguer is eligible for an organizational award, such as player
of the month, unless he has the right ratio of walks to at bats.
"So even if you hit 30 home runs in a month, but you don't walk
enough, you will not be considered," Beane says.
Third baseman Eric (Chavy) Chavez is a proud graduate of
Oakland's academy of hitting. When he signed as the A's
first-round draft pick in 1996, he says, "I had no patience at
all. I was just up there hacking, swinging at everything."
In his first pro season at Class A Visalia, Chavez walked only 37
times and had 520 at bats. The Athletics' instructors drilled him
on being more patient. Coaches would throw pitches to him in the
batting cage on one bounce--forcing him to concentrate harder on
what was a good pitch to hit and what wasn't. Sometimes during
games they ordered him not to swing through an entire at bat,
making him track the ball into the catcher's mitt. "I'm so much
better than I used to be," Chavez says. At the All-Star break he
had 38 walks and 261 at bats.
Chavez, 22, leftfielder Ben Grieve, 24, and Tejada, 24, are
blossoming stars who at the break had combined for 44 home runs
and 170 RBIs, batting behind Jason Giambi and picking up the
occasional scraps he leaves them. Jason, at 29 four years older
than his brother, sets the tone for this team; his personality in
the clubhouse and approach at the plate are infectious. The
longest tenured Athletic--the only player with the team since
1995--Giambi says his patience comes from having played with Mark
McGwire, the former Oakland first baseman, who tutored and
befriended Giambi. Last season Giambi attended the All-Star Game
in Boston as McGwire's guest. This year he and McGwire, now with
the St. Louis Cardinals, were voted starting first basemen in
their respective leagues. The two buddies chat at least twice a
week by telephone.
"When he was [in Oakland] is when people started talking about
his at bats per home run and how amazing it was," Giambi says. "I
learned from him how important it is to wait for your pitch and,
when you get it, to slam it. It's an approach where you have to
be confident. You don't always want to be in a hole, 0 and 2, but
you have to know, Hey, I can hit with two strikes."
Giambi has learned well, as evidenced by the steady climb in his
full-season walk totals: 51, 55, 81, 105 and--if his pedometer
keeps clicking away at its current rate--an Oakland-record 147
this year. At the All-Star break Giambi also had a team-leading
22 homers. Moreover, he ranked first in the American League in
walks (78) and second in on-base percentage (.474), was tied for
fifth in RBIs (78), was eighth in slugging percentage (.624) and
was 10th in batting average (.334).
He's been so steady that he hasn't been kept off base in two
consecutive starts all season. Giambi has also been a .347 hitter
with runners in scoring position and a .384 hitter from the
seventh inning on. Then again, the Athletics refer to batting
averages about as often as they do their actual names.
"Overrated," Jaha declares. "Getting on base and getting runs in
are what it's all about."
When it was suggested to him that Oakland should be the first
club in baseball to post on-base percentages and not batting
averages on their home message board as each player comes to bat,
Jaha beamed and said, "Hey, I'm all for that!" Jaha's woeful .175
batting average at the break, for instance, camouflaged his solid
.398 on-base percentage.
Even when they pull themselves away from the card games and the
big screen for on-field stretching exercises, the Athletics work
their tongues more than their limbs. "I played in Kansas City,
and [Royals manager] Tony Muser was bigger on discipline," Jeremy
Giambi says. "We had to have nice, straight lines for stretching.
Here, we just kind of go where we want. It's a different way of
Different? The Athletics are quite unlike anything the game has
seen before--baseball's version of Phi Slamma Jamma. They don't do
nuances well, executing the sacrifice bunt once every two weeks
and stealing a base once every three or four days. Happiness is
as simple as a good flick, five walks a night and the frequent
three-run Jimmy Jack.
Best of Both Worlds
At midseason the Athletics had hit the fifth-most home runs in
the majors (131), while their pitching staff was tied for fourth
in fewest dingers allowed (92). The A's ratio of homers hit to
those surrendered was 1.42, the best in the majors. The Twins,
on the other hand, had hit the fewest homers and had the lowest
Highest Ratio HRs Hit HRs Allowed Ratio
A's 131 92 1.42
Giants 127 92 1.38
Blue Jays 147 111 1.32
Mariners 111 87 1.28
Indians 132 106 1.25
Lowest Ratio HRs hit HRs Allowed Ratio
Twins 73 130 0.56
Royals 93 146 0.64
Rockies 85 126 0.67
Phillies 81 110 0.74
Devil Rays 91 122 0.75