Straighter A's A mid-May housecleaning toned down the club's personality, and by ignoring the threat of a strike, Oakland played its way to the top of the AL West

September 01, 2002

With the mid-afternoon sun shining directly into the visitors'
dugout at Detroit's Comerica Park last Saturday, it was hard to
tell what was going on with Art Howe's eyes. Was he tearing up or
was he just squinting? The normally stoic Oakland Athletics
manager sat on the bench, surrounded by a dozen reporters, being
pelted with the usual mundane pregame questions. The brim of
Howe's green A's cap seemed a little lower than usual, covering
the tips of his light-colored eyebrows. Clearly, something was on
his mind.

"Art," one reporter asked, referring to the Aug. 30 strike date
set by the major league players' union, "how devastating would it
be for you to have a work stoppage with your team playing so
well?"

When it comes to such questions, Howe generally crinkles his
forehead and offers a sound, if generic, reply. Not this time.
"You know," he said, "whatever happens, I'm a big boy. I've had a
lot bigger setbacks in my life than not winning a championship."
Howe paused for a moment, thought about what he was about to say,
and then in a quiet monotone told the story of his then
23-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who spent two days in a coma in
1995 after a near-fatal car accident. Though now fully recovered,
she struggled to regain her mobility and short-term memory. "When
you almost lose your child, you gain a different perspective,"
Howe added. "I think sometimes we...."

And there he stopped. Howe is not the sort to put his emotions on
display. Mid-sentence he nodded, rose from the bench and walked
toward the field, where his team--the hottest in baseball--was
preparing to win its 11th straight game, a 12-3 pummeling of the
hapless Tigers. The sun continued to shine, the reporters
continued to scribble, the A's continued to roll. They beat
Detroit again, 10-7, on Sunday and defeated the Kansas City
Royals 6-3 on Monday night for 13 in a row.

No team in baseball has more to lose from a work stoppage than
the Athletics, who were 81-51 and 2 1/2 games ahead in the wild
American League West, where the A's, the Seattle Mariners and the
Anaheim Angels are playing a furious game of musical chairs for
divisional supremacy. It is one thing to tell the downtrodden
Tampa Bay Devil Rays to pack their bags, go home and play golf.
But for Oakland much is on the line: the rejuvenation of a
once-moribund season; the continued support of a growing fan base
(just four years after attracting fewer than 16,000 fans per home
game, the A's are drawing more than 25,000 a game to Network
Associates Coliseum); the Cy Young candidacy of lefthander Barry
Zito; and the MVP run of shortstop Miguel Tejada.

Yet to a man, the A's swear that they have refused to let a
possible work stoppage become a distraction. "Man, you can't
worry about that stuff," says third baseman Eric Chavez, who
through Monday led the team with 30 home runs. "It does you no
good, just brings you down. All I think about is winning the next
game, and then the game after that. We're all pretty much that
way. Just put your head down and play hard."

That Chavez and company are maintaining their focus so well
brings bushels of satisfaction to Howe and Oakland general
manager Billy Beane, both of whom, early in the season, felt that
their players had become more interested in XBox tournaments and
beer-chugging than the fundamentals of baseball. Despite the
off-season defections of three free-agent stars--first baseman
Jason Giambi (who signed with the New York Yankees),
centerfielder Johnny Damon (Boston Red Sox) and closer Jason
Isringhausen (St. Louis Cardinals)--the A's entered this season a
sound, if flawed, playoff contender. On April 26, when Oakland
was 13-10, SI assigned this reporter to follow the A's for two
weeks and write a lengthy story on the most fun team in baseball.
At the time the A's clubhouse was part circus, part discotheque.
Mystikal's raps were loud, the XBox Halo wars intense, the food
slinging messy, the smack nonstop. Between the lockers of
starters Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder stood a life-sized cardboard
cutout of Britney Spears; LET'S GO BOYS! bubbled from her mouth.
It was a crazy place.

The only problem was, in the nearly two weeks I spent with the
team, the A's went 4-8, losing a series of lopsided, sloppily
played games to the Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. On May 8
SI photographed four Oakland players--Hudson, Zito, centerfielder
Terrence Long and second baseman Frank Menechino--in team warmup
shirts and shorts, sitting in a whirlpool bath wearing snorkel
masks. Howe, who was not informed of the shoot, was livid,
believing the picture made his club look like pathetic amateurs.
Others in management were equally disturbed. To some extent their
anger was moot: Because of the slump, the story was put on hold.

Shortly thereafter the A's traveled to Boston, where they lost
two out of three, and to Toronto, where a three-game sweep by the
Blue Jays dropped Oakland to 19-24 and 10 games behind
first-place Seattle. They were a bad act off the field, too. The
Boston Herald reported that several Oakland players were spotted
at a Beantown strip club. On May 19, after an 11-0 loss to the
Blue Jays in the final game of the trip, Howe surely expected a
subdued flight back to the West Coast. Instead, according to a
San Francisco Chronicle report from a team insider, outfielder
Jeremy Giambi put on a "drunken, obnoxious" performance.

Over the next three days Beane didn't just clean house--he laid
down an entire new foundation. Menechino, first baseman Carlos
Pena and reliever Jeff Tam were sent to Triple A Sacramento, and
Giambi was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for journeyman
outfielder John Mabry. The moves were shocking. Giambi was a
popular player having the best year of his career. While marginal
as a player, Menechino was the unofficial clubhouse leader--a
short, cocky New Yorker whose lips flashed faster than his bat.
The highly touted Pena, a rookie acquired from the Texas Rangers
before the season, was expected to be Jason Giambi's replacement.
(Frustrated by Pena's .240 average in Sacramento and his stubborn
refusal to make adjustments at the plate, the A's traded him to
Detroit in early July.)

"People were starting to place too much of an emphasis on how
great the clubhouse atmosphere was and not enough on playing
soundly," says Beane. "And that's what we started to become known
as--a fun team. Well, that's great. But if you're a fun team that
loses, it defeats the purpose. We felt some changes were needed."

Clearly, Beane and Howe were right. After May 21 (the day many in
the organization now call Black Tuesday) through Monday, Oakland
went a league-best 62-26. The team that once roared into town
like a pack of wolves now enters politely. Hearty partyers like
Jeremy Giambi and righthander Eric Hiljus (who was shipped to
Sacramento on May 30) have been replaced by quiet professionals
like Mabry (.312, eight homers and 35 RBIs in 67 games), second
baseman Ray Durham (.282 since being acquired from the White Sox
on July 25) and lefty reliever Ricardo Rincon (0.90 ERA after
being picked up in a trade with the Cleveland Indians on July
30). "It's still a great, enjoyable clubhouse but not as insane,"
says Chavez. "Used to be eight or nine of us would go out
together. Now it's more like two or three. But as long as we're
winning, I'll take it."

Along with the shake-up in personnel, Oakland's turnaround has
been sparked by the best starting rotation in baseball, which
overcame a staggering start as well. (As late as May 31 the
rotation's ERA was a horrific 5.04.) When Hudson pitched a
complete-game eight-hitter last Saturday, it marked not merely
the Athletics' 11th straight win but the 11th straight by a
starter. The last team to accomplish such a feat was the 1956
Milwaukee Braves. "It's hard enough just winning four or five
games in a row as a team," says Hudson. "To have your starters do
it 11 straight times is pretty incredible." (Reliever Jim Mecir
got the win on Sunday.)

Lately, the most untouchable starter has been righthander Cory
Lidle, whose 32 2/3-inning scoreless streak came to an end on
Monday night when he gave up an unearned run in the second. He
allowed no more runs in his seven innings of work, giving him a
5-0 record with a 0.00 ERA in his last five starts. That string
came from a player who, during the roster shake-up, could have
been had for two diet sodas and a Ring Ding. Before his current
run Lidle was 3-9 with a 5.15 ERA--a soft thrower who was
consistently falling behind in the count. "He's the type of
pitcher who drives a hitter crazy, because he's tossing Wiffle
balls up there at 88 miles per hour," says Chavez. "You think you
should kill the thing." Opponents did so until recently, when,
Lidle says, he made a conscious effort to improve his focus. "I'm
at a mental level that I've never reached before," he says.
"After games I used to be physically tired; now my body and my
brain are tired. I'm not wasting pitches, and I'm not having
lapses. I'm always in the game."

The same goes for Zito, whose 18-5 record and 2.89 ERA through
Monday place him in a three-way dogfight for the Cy Young Award
with Boston righthanders Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. Zito was
brilliant in Oakland's 9-1 win over the Tigers last Friday,
holding Detroit to four hits in seven innings with his sweeping
curve, the best in baseball. He also remains one of the team's
delightfully kooky personalities, venturing out on the town in
funkadelic velvet jackets and butterfly collar shirts.

Combined, Zito, Hudson, Mulder and Lidle were 42-14 since Black
Tuesday. "They're the best pitchers I've been with," says Rincon.
"Bartolo Colon [the former Indians ace, now with the Montreal
Expos] was the toughest starter I knew. We have four Bartolo
Colons here."

Oakland also has one Miguel Tejada. Because he speaks limited
English and plays in a midsized market on the West Coast, the
26-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic is rarely
included in the company of Texas' Alex Rodriguez, Boston's Nomar
Garciaparra and New York's Derek Jeter--the American League's holy
trinity of shortstops. But not only do Tejada's numbers (.310, 27
homers, 109 RBIs through Monday) stack up well (chart, page 58),
they place him on the very short list (along with Rodriguez,
Jason Giambi, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano and
Minnesota Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter) for the league's MVP
award. The biggest bragging point for Tejada: Oakland desperately
needed someone to fill the void left by Jason Giambi, and Tejada
has.

Over the past couple of seasons, teammates say, Tejada's
concentration tended to waver, depending on game situations.
Sometimes he would be A-Rod-esque; other times he would misread a
grounder or throw the ball into the dirt. "He used to be erratic,
but no more," says Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "He hits for
average, he hits for power, he drives in runs, and he's an
athletic kid. He's got a great future."

But does Oakland? Can a team on such an awesome roll afford a
work stoppage? Can the A's shut down for, say, two or three weeks
and bounce back just as strong? On the other hand if the season
is not interrupted, will a September schedule that features eight
games against Anaheim and six against Seattle be too much to
handle?

We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the A's weren't thinking
about anything. They were simply playing baseball.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN ACES HIGH Erratic early in the season, Zito (left), Hudson (top) and Mulder had a combined 44 wins to lead a staff that was dominating the American League. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER TROUBLED WATERS In May, Howe boiled about the whirlpool photo of (from top) Zito, Hudson, Long and Menechino. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER DIVE BOMBER Though Tejada has made 17 errors, his glovework is catching up with his stellar plate performance.

Make Room for MIGUEL
Move over A-Rod, Derek and Nomar: The Big Three of American
League shortstops is now a Big Four. Offensively, Oakland's
Miguel Tejada compares quite favorably with New York's Derek
Jeter and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra--and when it comes to
driving in runs, he's even giving Texas's Alex Rodriguez a run
for his money. (Statistics through Monday.)

On Base Slug.
Player, Team Avg. HRs RBIs Pct. Pct.

Alex Rodriguez, Rangers .318 46 114 .404 .650
Miguel Tejada, A's .310 27 109 .352 .509
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox .312 20 100 .350 .535
Derek Jeter, Yankees .300 15 60 .376 .423

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)