How the West Was Won As the season came to a rousing end, the fate of the young A's rested on the hot bat and cool influence of MVP hopeful Jason Giambi

October 08, 2000

Anyone who has tried to warn a youngster about the dangers of,
say, making a funny face ("It'll freeze like that!") knows
there's a fine line between gently impressing the importance of
something on a kid and scaring the bejesus out of him. Oakland
A's manager Art Howe learned that lesson in September 1999 after
he called a meeting of his callow team to stress the importance
of an upcoming three-game series against the Texas Rangers. At
the time Texas was 5 1/2 games ahead of Oakland in the American
League West, and with only nine games left it was do-or-die time
for the A's.

They died. Got swept. Were outscored 32-11. "Got beat like a
drum," says Howe. "This year I eliminated the meeting."

No meeting has meant no thinking, and no thinking has meant no
tension. The result: In a three-team race with the Seattle
Mariners (their rivals for the American League West title) and
the Cleveland Indians (their rivals for the league's wild-card
berth) for two postseason spots, the A's entered the final
weekend of the 2000 season in charge of their playoff destiny.
"The advantage we have in being young," said first baseman Jason
Giambi last Friday, "is that sometimes ignorance is bliss."

Almost as blissful as having someone like Giambi play first base
and bat third for your team. After two mediocre months Giambi
exploded in September, homering on an almost nightly basis and
catapulting himself into the thick of the MVP race. It's no
coincidence that his surge came at the same time the A's were
expected to wilt under the pressure of the pennant race. Though
he's only 29 and in just his sixth season, Giambi has at least
two more years of big league experience than all but second
baseman Randy Velarde and outfielder Matt Stairs in Oakland's
starting lineup. The player his teammates call G has become the
A's de facto captain, a role he embraces. Ask Howe which player
he looks to, and he says, "Giambi," even before he's asked what
he's looking for.

As the season wound into its final days, though, Giambi had led
his teammates into largely uncharted waters. Save for last year's
flirtation with the playoffs, he had never been so close to a
postseason berth. What exactly had G learned? "Everybody wants to
play so well right now," he said, "but sometimes trying harder is
worse than being relaxed. We're loose. We play music, laugh and
joke around. That's what makes it so exciting to come to the
ballpark, that Little League attitude. Sleep in your uniform,
come to the ballpark, swing from your heels and try to hit
homers."

Here then is a blow-by-blow account of the A's decisive weekend
series against the Rangers, as Oakland hoped to grab its place in
the playoffs.

Friday, Sept. 29: Oakland

Giambi sticks to his usual routine: Sleep late, eat lunch at
In-N-Out Burger, head to Network Associates Coliseum with younger
brother-housemate-A's outfielder Jeremy (a.k.a. Mini G) around
2:30, swing from the heels and try to hit homers. It pays off, as
G bashes his 42nd off former teammate Kenny Rogers. After the
blast, which cuts Texas's lead to 2-1, Rogers can't find the
plate. Oakland pulls ahead 3-2 in the fifth and holds on for a
7-5 win, reclaiming the division lead by a half game over
Seattle, which loses to the Anaheim Angels, 9-3. The Indians, who
are now a game behind the Mariners in the wild-card race, stay
alive with an 8-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

In the A's clubhouse following the victory, there are two
prevailing emotions: joy and confusion. Though all are pleased
with the win, no one seems entirely sure what it means. Stairs
sits on a couch and listens to a local sportswriter run through
the possible permutations of wins and losses by the contending
teams and what they all mean to Oakland. The lesson ends and
Stairs gets up, shakes his head and says simply, "Just win
tomorrow."

Saturday, Sept. 30: Oakland

The champagne is on ice. Mind you, Matt Lisle, 23, and Scott
Martin, 21, bought the two bottles of bubbly at a Safeway for a
few bucks, and they're storing them in a backpack--but the
champagne is definitely on ice. A win today, coupled with a loss
by the Indians or Mariners, would put Oakland in the playoffs for
the first time since 1992, and Lisle and Martin, operators of the
out-of-town scoreboard, are ready for it.

They've earned the right to celebrate, for this is
scoreboard-watching season, and the pressure of the pennant
race--to which the A's seem impervious--has found them. "Oh, we
feel it," says Martin, whose older brother, John, posts scores
across the Bay at Pac Bell Park. "Especially with Seattle
updates. Thirty thousand people are watching us."

The operators take their jobs seriously. This morning the two
showed up at nine for the 1:05 p.m. game to make sure they would
work the American League board in leftfield, as opposed to the
National League board in right. (The first out-of-town scoreboard
guys to arrive get to pick.) Last night, when the Angels' Bengie
Molina hit a three-run homer against the Mariners in the third
inning, Martin, who tracks games with a television and a
computer, had the runs posted before Molina crossed the plate. On
big occasions, like Molina's bomb, Lisle and Martin will shake
the score panel as they make the change to draw attention to it.
The crowd's response is their reward. "It pumps us up to hear
them," says Lisle. "We know we put that number up."

This is an especially big day, because today's Blue Jays-Indians
game, which starts at 10:25 a.m. local time, isn't available on
TV. So unless you are like Oakland general manager Billy Beane,
who follows the game in real time on a pager, you've got to rely
on the board if you want to see what the Tribe is doing. Not many
of the A's do. "Me, I don't watch the scoreboard," says rookie
outfielder Terrence Long. "I figure we can only control what we
do." Instead, most players lounge in the clubhouse watching the
Illinois-Minnesota football game.

Giambi was glued to the tube until 3 a.m. after last night's win,
but nonetheless got six hours of sound sleep, which is a good
night's rest for him. Batting practice is scheduled for 10:45
a.m., but it's optional and Giambi skips it. "At home I don't
take BP on the field anymore," he says. "I take it in the
[indoor] cage. It keeps me focused on my swing. A lot of times
batting practice on the field turns into home run derby." He hits
in the cage at 12:20.

It may be an unorthodox approach, but it works. By the fifth
inning Giambi has a pair of RBI singles and a mammoth solo shot
to center. As he steps to the plate in the sixth with the A's
ahead 15-1, the crowd doesn't break out in the "MVP! MVP!" chant
with which it has lately been serenading him. If the voters
haven't figured it out by now, the fans seem to be saying,
they're never going to. Giambi walks and is lifted for a pinch
runner--Mini G--bringing to an end a spectacular September: 13
homers, 32 RBIs, a .400 average and an .853 slugging percentage.
More significant, the team, his team, went 21-7 for the month.

But the boys in the scoreboard bear bad news. Cleveland and
Seattle both win. Nothing has been clinched. As for the
champagne, it goes into the little refrigerator inside the
scoreboard in leftfield, where it will remain corked for at least
one more day. A win over the Rangers tomorrow, and the
celebration can begin.

Sunday, Oct. 1: Oakland

Saturday wasn't special only because the 23-2 win over Texas gave
the A's their second-biggest margin of victory in franchise
history. It was also Mini G's 26th birthday, so the whole Giambi
clan--the brothers, their mom, Jeanne, their dad, John, and
various other relatives--spent the evening celebrating. Everybody
talked a little baseball, but, says Jason, "mostly we just
laughed and told stories."

A loss today, however, would mean that Oakland will have to fly
to Tampa to make up a game against the Devil Rays tomorrow.
Unlike his teammates, Jason doesn't bring his luggage for a
potential trip with him to the park. "I wanted to come with the
same bag I always do," he says. He leaves his luggage with his
parents, and should he need it, he'll get it from them at the
airport.

For six innings it looks as if he's going to need it. Rangers
righty Ryan Glynn, owner of a 5.84 ERA, is peskier than expected.
He holds the A's to three hits and refuses to give in to Giambi,
walking him three times. But Giambi still makes a contribution.
In the top of the fifth, with no score, Oakland starter Tim
Hudson gives up a leadoff single to Mike Lamb and then hits Scott
Sheldon, giving Texas two base runners for the first time all
day. Giambi walks to the mound and says a few words. Hudson gets
out of the jam unscathed.

Offering encouragement to a 25-year-old pitcher who's making the
biggest start of his life may not seem special, but Giambi is
doing more than spouting a few cliches. "I've had long
conversations with G about how to help get our pitchers
refocused," says A's pitching coach Rick Peterson, whose rotation
for much of the second half also featured 23-year-old Mark Mulder
and 22-year-old Barry Zito. "He took the initiative to say,
'Rick, what do I need to say to each of those guys?' I only have
one trip, so you'll notice he takes many trips and has a nice,
calming effect."

Finally, in the seventh, Oakland draws blood when Jeremy Giambi
doubles and scores on a single by catcher Ramon Hernandez. Two
more runs in the eighth make the final 3-0, and as the A's
celebrate their division championship, no one is as emotional as
Jason Giambi. His voice cracks as he takes a microphone to
address the Coliseum crowd, and he nearly breaks down when he
gets on a chair to toast the A's in the clubhouse. The tears
welling in his eyes are his way of telling his teammates what
they mean to him. Their response tells him what he means to them.
"MVP!" they chant, with fists pumping. "MVP!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN LED TO SLAUGHTER Lamb tried to put the Rangers ahead in Sunday's game, but Hernandez's tag preserved a scoreless tie.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN G FORCE Giambi's key numbers in September: a .400 average, 13 home runs, 32 RBIs and a 21-7 record for the team he carried.

"Trying harder is worse than being relaxed," Giambi says. "We're
loose. We play music and laugh."

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)