UPDATE, 3:50pm PST -- PROGRAMMING NOTE!
Look for an "AN exclusive" player interview, due to be posted Saturday morning, with one of the guys who figures to be a key piece to the A's long-term puzzle... -Nico
Sticking to the end-of-the-decade theme, here is one young man's (ha) thoughts on a mostly successful period in Oakland A's history (sorry, the contract calls for me to say "history" at least once in every post...that is, when I actually, um, post).
I think in many ways 2000 was my favorite year, mostly because it put Oakland back on the map after a brief spell in baseball purgatory. So pardon me if I spend a little too much time on this particular season. In fact, I can see this turning into a multiple-post topic. With less newspaper clippings.
All Saenz pointed to an A's revival.
The A's got off to a slow start, something that would become as much their trademark in this decade as their scorching summers and their autumn heartbreaks. They began the season 8-12, and owned a losing record (at 25-26) on May 29, with their next two games at Yankee Stadium. New York had rediscovered the magic that had been missing since the late 70's, having won the two previous World Series. But the A's stuck it to the champs, winning two straight at the Babe's Crib, and avoided the wrong side of the .500 mark for the remainder of the season.
Take note, boys and girls; this is what we call a "turning point". Oakland used its two victories against the Yankees to kick off a nifty 20-4 stretch. During that span, they scored ten runs or more six times, including a 21-3 football romp at Kansas City. There was no shortage of swingers on these Swingin' A's. Only these guys didn't swing at each other. Hardly. Theirs was more a frat house than a clubhouse, with blaring music and remote-control car races. Still, some of them surely looked the part of their 70's namesakes. Jason Giambi adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The New Face of Baseball"; his scraggly hair, bulging muscles, and full-length tattoos for all the world to see. Jason might not have been the kind of guy you brought home to meet the folks, but he was plenty adored by the home folks. His 43 homeruns led this new band of bashers, and his cohorts followed suit; Miguel Tejada (30), Ben Grieve (27), Eric Chavez (26), and Matt Stairs (21) hit twenty or more round-trippers.
(Photo courtesy of SI Vault)
Art Howe's underpaid overachievers cooled off as summer heated up, but they did manage to avoid a sweep at Pac Bell Park with a 6-2 win in the series finale on July 15. The Giants' new home drew rave reviews in its first year of existence, but as A's ads cleverly pointed out on billboards throughout the Bay Area, "While they were building a stadium, we were building a team." One of the key pieces to Oakland's architectural plans was Barry Zito, who won big in his big-league debut (10-3 over the Angels) on July 22. Another was Mark Mulder, who threw seven shutout innings at the Halos the very next night. Not to be outdone, Tim Hudson beat Seattle three nights later to run his record to 11-3. The trio quickly formed a friendship off the diamond; on the field, they fed off each other's success. All the while they drew the attention of adolescent girls everywhere (and a few adult males, too). Chicks may have dug the long ball, but apparently they dug guys who kept the ball in the park, too. And thus was born the Big Three.
The A's went through one more touch stretch: a six-game losing streak in August, in which they were outscored 56-17. But from there, they went on a tear, winning thirty of their last forty-seven games. It was all so unexpected, which is what made it so damn exciting. In later years, you just waited for the A's to get hot; you knew it was coming, you just didn't know when. But that season, it came out of nowhere. On August 12, they were looking up at the Seattle Mariners, owners of a seven-game lead in the AL West. But the M's swooned as the summer came to a close, and the A's, despite going 8-10 to finish August, entered the stretch run just 2-1/2 games out of first. Then Jason Giambi did what crunch-time players do: he took over. On September 2, the slugger embarked on a thirteen-game hitting streak. He homered seven times during that stretch, with a pair of two-homer games. Against Tampa Bay on September 15, he went 3-for-4 and collected seven RBI's. In the last eight games of the season, Giambi hit five homeruns. He raised his average fourteen points in September from .319 to .333. Simply put, the dude strapped the A's on his back for a month, and earned himself the league's Most Valuable Player.
Tim Hudson proved to Giambi's equal as the A's found themselves involved in two pennant races, the division and the wildcard. Huddy was lights out starting on August 28 when he tossed a stirring one-hitter at the White Sox. I remember watching this one on TV, and as Hudson masterfully set down the Sox, announcer Greg Papa was going nuts in the booth. He loved calling Hudson by his nickname and that night Papa put a little extra on it. "The Stinger has got it going on tonight!"
To say our boys were clicking on all cylinders would toe the line of all-time understatements. Pitching and hitting came together like a scrumptious combo meal. Super sized, of course. In September, the A's won games by scores of 8-0, 10-0 (twice), 11-0, 10-3, 12-3, and 17-3. In their last road series of the season, they went into Seattle for a crucial four-game set, and left town having won three of four. Quite possibly the division was won right there. Back home for seven games to close out, the A's won six; their only loss a 14-inning defeat. On that last Friday of the season, I was there to see Giambi hit his 42nd homer ("M-V-P!") as we inched closer to the playoffs with a 7-5 win. The next day I took Don Jr. to the Halloween store instead of the game, but my brother Abel beeped me on his Nextel with some news that was positively frightening. Well, for the opposing team anyway. The first four batters had reached base in our half of the first, and from there, Abel kept me informed as the A's played ring-around-the-Rangers. Terrence Long hit a bases-loaded double to make it 7-0, and Randy Velarde followed with a two-run homer. Nine runs in the first! Abel called again after the last out. "I'll let you hear the fans." I actually had people stop and look at me in the store as the roar of the crowd filtered through my Nextel. Chillsville. The A's weren't even close to finished; they struck for five in the fifth and eight in the seventh en route to an astounding 23-2 shellacking. A loss by Seattle that night would clinch the division for the A's but I secretly hoped the Mariners would win (they did) to set up Hudson on Sunday. A game I wasn't about to miss.
And there we all were in one place, three generations hooked on A's. That day at the Coliseum, Sunday October 1, were my three brothers, my youngest sister Tricia, Uncle Dan, my cousins Scott and Nick, my nephews Ernie III and Patrick, my nieces Christina and Stephanie, Scott's son Emilio, and Don Jr. The Stinger was on the hill going for a rare double: his 20th win and an A's title. I don't know if Scott or Nick or Christina realized it at the time, but they were about to discover what it was like to have Catfish or Stew in a big game. Hudson was brilliant, just brilliant. In eight innings of work, he gave up four hits, walked two, and struck out ten. The A's got one in the seventh thanks to the lesser known Giambi. Jeremy doubled and scored on a Ramon Hernandez single. When Velarde and Saenz did some eighth inning yard work to make it 3-0, it was only a matter of time. Jason Isringhausen came on to close, and the next thing I knew, my brother John had his arms wrapped around me. It was one of my biggest thrills as an A's fan, watching this little-known, low-budget team win the West, and to be surrounded by so much family made it even sweeter.
The season ended with a hard-fought, five-game playoff defeat to the New York Yankees, who got all they could handle and more from the upstart A's, before going on to win their third World Series in succession. (In hindsight, had Oakland not needed Tim Hudson to clinch the West, he'd have pitched twice in the ALDS. Sigh.)
Said Billy Beane during that division series:
"We think this will be our worst club over the next five years. You'd better beat us now."
In the next four seasons, not many teams did.