If (admittedly unsustainable) history is any indication, the 2012 season should be – if not exactly successful – one to remember for the A’s.
A stroll down memory lane shows some remarkable things happen in Oakland when the year ends in "2". 1972: the first of three consecutive World Series crowns. 1982: a record-setting season for Rickey Henderson. 1992: the team’s fourth division title in five years. 2002: a 20-game winning streak highlights a third straight trip to the playoffs.
In the first of this four-part series, we’ll start with the most recent and work our way back, which means this might be one of those rare retrospectives where the reader remembers more than the writer.
Taking a page from the Moneyball script, there can be no mention of the 2002 A's without referring to the sour taste of the season before, when Oakland had the three-time defending champions down for the count. With a pair of impressive victories at Yankee Stadium, the A's headed home for two games, where they had gone 53-28 in 2001, including a 6-0 record against New York. The American League Division Series would return to the Big Apple for a fifth and deciding contest, if necessary.
It was necessary.
And as they had done in the series, the A's jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 5, only to see the Evil Empire strike back. Order was officially restored when Mariano Rivera retired Eric Byrnes on strikes, thus driving a stake into one of the greatest seasons in Oakland Athletics history.
Two months later came the kick to the groin, the insult to our already wounded hearts.
Our MVP, our leader, our star power, our Reggie, went to the dark side. Jason Giambi, who was so much a symbol of the A's-Yankee rivalry, a Hair to their Squares, decided to shed his Samson look for Steinbrenner's hard, cold cash. We had seen our heroes leave before. Reggie, Rickey, Jose. But all of them had been traded away. This was Catfish-like, but at least Catfish had just cause. No, this was a betrayal of the highest order, and rather than seal his newfound earnings with a kiss, Giambi kicked dirt on the team that had admired him, and the town that had supported him. In training camp, he told his new Boss, "Here we don't rebuild, we reload." And in an appearance on David Letterman, he gave his top ten reasons for skipping town, one of them being, "Have you ever been to Oakland?" Yeah, he was officially one of them now.
The A's would soon discover that life without Jason Giambi would not be that much different than life with the tattooed slugger. The key to their success remained in their pitching, namely Big Three starters Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Zito became the first "A" since Dennis Eckersley ('92) to win the Cy Young award.
At the plate, everything began and ended with Miguel Tejada (5.2 WAR). Miggy was as durable (he played in all 162 games) as he was dominant. Although he didn't work the count nearly as well as his former teammate, the free-swinging Dominican was positively Giambiesqe, with a .308 average on 204 hits (including 30 doubles and 34 homeruns) and 131 RBI's. And he had every bit of Jason's flair for the dramatic. Like Giambi two years before, Tejada earned his Most Valuable Player honors with plenty of late-season magic. He had some help, most notably from Eric Chavez, who tied Tejada for the club lead in homers, while driving in 109 runs. Chavy also earned his second straight Gold Glove following another stellar season at third base.
Any concerns about life A.G. (After Giambi) were squelched by an unusually fast start, as the A's went 15-11 in the season's first month. That was quickly negated by a poor showing in May. An awful (1-5) road trip through Boston and Toronto - Oakland was outscored 38-13, including 11-0 at the SkyDome in the series finale - was followed by a company shake-up:
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."
The changes did not have an immediate impact. After returning home from Toronto, the A's promptly dropped two of three to Baltimore, including an ugly 11-3 loss on May 23, leaving the last-place A's a season-high six games under .500 and ten games from the top spot where the Seattle Mariners resided.
Oakland went 83-33 the rest of the way. (Yikes.)
Yes, for a team under the weather - not to mention a game under .500 entering interleague play - better days were on the way in the form of one hearty spoonful of National League medicine. A 6-2 loss to the Giants on June 15 was the only blemish during a fifteen-game stretch as the A's sandwiched two seven-game winning streaks around that one defeat. After feasting on the Senior Circuit, Art Howe's club found itself twelve games to the plus side on June 23, and upon winning the first two of a three-game set at Yankee Stadium in the second week of August, the A's reached their peak (for the moment) at nineteen games over the .500 mark.
On August 13, the Oakland A's snapped a modest two-game losing skid with a 5-4 win over Toronto before 17,466 fans at the Coliseum.
The next afternoon, more than 40,000 sun-soaked spectators watched Eric Chavez spark a 4-2 victory with a three-run bomb in the first. After a day off, the Chicago White Sox came to town. Corey Lidle, fresh off back-to-back starts in which he didn't give up a run in fifteen innings of work, made Jermaine Dye's second-inning homerun stand up with seven more goose eggs in a 1-0 thriller. For a while it seemed as if Art Howe was pulling a hero out of a hat each night. Mark Ellis' three-run jack made a 9-2 winner out of Mulder (eight innings, five hits, one earned run), and Terrence Long helped finish off the Sox sweep with two homeruns in a 7-4 win. Chicago played six games at the Coliseum in 2002 and lost them all, while being outscored, 49-17. As the Green and Gold took to the road, another pending work stoppage loomed. But for the time being, there was just no stopping these amazing A's. Huddy stifled Cleveland, 8-1, and Chavy collected five RBI's with a homerun in the first and ninth innings. The third baseman was at it again the next day with another two-run shot in the first to spearhead a 6-3 win.
Meanwhile, David Justice, acquired from New York during the off-season, sprinkled a little Yankee aura on for good measure. As legend has it, the right-fielder kept telling his teammates before each game something to the effect of, "We can't sweep the road trip if we don't win today." Not wishing to disappoint the veteran leader, the A's kept on winning. And Justice did his part, too, with a sixth-inning, bases-loaded triple that put the finishing touches on a 6-0 masterpiece by Lidle. The Hollywood-born started gave an Oscar-like performance, allowing only a single and a walk (both with two outs in the first inning) to run his scoreless streak to 31 innings. Mulder finished off the four-game dusting of Cleveland with a 9-3 win. On to the Motor City. For the second time during the streak, Zito was the beneficiary of a two-homer game by an A's player not necessarily known for his pop. This time it was John Mabry turning the trick in a 9-1 romp at Detroit. Ten in a row and showing no signs of slowing down. Homeruns by Chavez, Justice, and Long provided ample support for Hudson the next day as the A's scored four in the first, four in the second, and three in the third. The juggernaut rolled on, 12-3.
When the Detroit Tigers jumped out to a 7-2 lead after four innings on Sunday August 25, it looked like Defeat had finally come knocking on Oakland's door. But the A's left her standing on the porch, as they struck for nine runs over the final three innings and escaped town with a 10-7 win and their streak intact. In Kansas City, Lidle saw his scoreless stretch snapped but he was still plenty strong (seven innings, one run, three hits) in a 6-3 taming of the Royals. With Mulder on the hill, Justice hit another homerun and rapped out three hits for the second straight game as the A's won 6-4 for their fourteenth straight win, tying the '88 club for the longest run in Oakland history.
The streak officially became "The Streak" on getaway day when Zito took advantage of a six-spot in the first and carved out a 7-1 gem. Miguel Tejada (yeah, you were waiting for his name to pop up again, weren't you?) gave a glimpse of what was to come when he hit his only home run of the road trip. Up to this point, Miggy had somehow avoided the spotlight; while his teammates came up big in crucial spots, he "quietly" hit .413 with fourteen runs and nine RBI's during the three-city tour. As for the A's, they made good on the challenge set before them by David Justice: an absurd ten-game sweep away from home and a team record fifteenth consecutive win. Coming back home, one had to wonder if they had anything left for an encore.
When the first-place Minnesota Twins arrived at the Coliseum on Friday August 30, they must have thought it was October, with the amount of media that had set up camp there. It wasn't just the opposition that wanted a piece of the streaking A's. Both teams scored a run each in the first and second innings but Chavez came through with a two-out single in the fifth to plate Ramon Hernandez, and back-to-back doubles by Ray Durham and Scott Hatteberg sealed the 4-2 win for Hudson. The next game, a rare Saturday night affair, showcased some of the drama that had been curiously missing during this incredible ride. Me and my cousin Scott watched this one at home as the A's scored two in the first, went up 3-1 on Chavy's seventh-inning blast, then fell back into a tie when Minnesota rallied for a pair in the eighth. The A's mounted a threat in their bottom half, and when Tejada was intentionally walked to load the bases, Chavez came through once more. His sizzling single up the middle scored two, and while 42,000 fans went nuts at the Coliseum, me and Scott delighted in Art Howe's reaction on TV: pointing excitedly to Chavez at first base. What a scene. The 6-3 win put the final touch on an eye-popping 24-4 August.
As the calendar turned to September, The Streak stood at seventeen games, which tied the 1931 Philadelphia Athletics for the most successful stretch in franchise history, and the longest since 1953, when the Yankees rattled off 18 straight on their way to an unprecedented fifth consecutive World Series title.
And on that first day of the ninth month of 2002, the family got together at Abel's house in Tracy for Vanessa's baptism. Miggy started things off with a two-run jack in the third. Torii Hunter touched Mulder for a two-run job in the sixth to tie it. Undeterred, the A's got the lead right back when Mabry led off the bottom half with a homerun. An insurance run was added that inning and the 4-2 lead held into the ninth. Then disaster struck. Not once, not twice, but three times. Matt LeCroy and Corey Koskie hit back-to-back homers and in the blink of an eye, the game was tied. Billy Koch replaced the beleaguered Mulder and quickly got two outs. We breathed a little. Then Michael Cuddyer sucker-punched us with a rocket into the bleachers to make it 5-4. The only thing heard amid the horrified silence at the Coliseum were the Twins celebrating their unfathomable comeback.
Back at my brother's house, some talked of finding a way to get Tejada up again. Me and Scott agonized in the kitchen. Facing closer Eddie Guardado to start the ninth, Ramon Hernandez worked a walk, and Ray Durham followed through with a single. The pacing in the kitchen increased, with quick, nervous glances at the TV. Olmedo Saenz struck out, and up to the plate stepped Miguel Odalis (Martinez) Tejada.
Yeah, like Reggie before him, Miggy had some Martinez in him. On this day he had some Reggie in him, too. With a 17-game winning streak on the line, Tejada homered deep into the left-field bleachers, turning the baseball world on its ear and transforming Vanessa's baptism into a family hug-fest.
After the first walk-off home run of his career, Miggy considered his off-season movie queue:
"Every year, I take all my tapes back home (to the Dominican Republic), and I show them to my dad," Tejada said. "This one might break. I'm going to watch it every day."
It would have been crazy to think that the A's could continue their winning ways in such improbable fashion, but that's pretty much what happened the next two ball games. The lowly Royals were next and they jumped out to a 5-0 Labor Day lead off of Zito. Meanwhile, the A's appeared to be going through the motions after riding the tidal wave for nearly three weeks. But that all changed in the bottom of the fifth when Dye took exception to a high-and-tight pitch, promptly singled, and came home on a Justice homerun. The sleeping giant had awakened. Justice again delivered the big hit in the sixth, a two-run single to give the A's a 6-5 lead. After KC had tied it in the eighth, Long tripled to lead off the ninth, win number nineteen just ninety feet away. Two intentional walks and a force-out at home brought us back to Tejada, and he singled home Long for the game-winner.
Strangely, the schedule makers planned a day off for the two teams between Monday and Wednesday, which gave the A's extra time to ponder their place in history. As it was, they had tied the American League record, held previously by the 1906 White Sox and 1947 Yankees. The one-day delay also allowed them to step out of the circus tent and catch their breath. Wednesday September 4 was the culmination of a dream run. Before a regular-season record crowd of 55,528, the recharged A's made it known from the start that Number 20 would be theirs, sans the last-minute heroics. A six-run first led to an 11-0 lead after three innings. If this was a boxing match, they would have stopped it right there. But somehow the Royals got up off the canvas and delivered some heavy blows of their own. They scored five in the fourth and- shockingly- five more in the eighth to close within a run. Then in the top of the ninth, the comeback was made complete as Luis Alicea stroked a two-out, RBI single off of Koch.
To illustrate the A's penchant for late-inning wizardry, the goateed closer was credited with eleven wins in 2002. And he would be a winner this night, too, compliments of a one-out, walk-off, history-making homerun by Scott Hatteberg. After blowing an 11-0 lead, the A's reached back for one more bit of magic and sent the partisan crowd home with memories to last a lifetime. Unbelievable.
Indeed, the A's impossible streak ended on Friday night at Minnesota by a 6-0 score. The run left them thirty-seven games over .500 and with a three-game advantage in the American League West. And they followed up their first defeat since August 12 with impressive back-to-back shutouts at the Metrodome. In the series finale Zito won his 20th game with seven innings of three-hit ball.
For the third straight season, the A's finished strong (18-8), and they secured a playoff spot with a 4-2 win over Texas on September 20. Six days later they beat Seattle 5-3 in ten innings for their 100th victory and their second division title in three years. It marked the first time in Oakland history that the A's reached the century mark in consecutive seasons. Only Giambi's Yankees won as many games (103) in 2002. And yet for all their achievements, the A's could not rest on their lofty laurels. It was playoff time again, this time the Twins.
As was the case in the previous two seasons, the A's fell excruciatingly short in their bid to advance to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1992. Once again they held a series lead, only to drop the last two games. Against the same team and on the same field where they achieved perhaps their most memorable victory of 2002 (Tejada's walk-off in Win 18 of the Streak), the A's fell 5-4 in the fifth and deciding game. Score another one for the purists:
The A's again proved to be pretenders to the Yankees' throne. Over the last three seasons they have played six postseason games with champagne on standby and lost every one of them.
But for those of us emotionally invested, the 2002 season wasn't about another October heartbreak. It was about the "have-not" A's keeping up with the "have's". It was about the A's losing their best player, and winning more games than the season before. Most of all, it was about one wild, record-breaking, three-week ride when the amazing A's could not - and would not - be beat.
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their 20-game win streak, this year's promotion schedule includes a team reunion and Scott Hatteberg bobblehead on Saturday August 18, and a t-shirt giveaway on Sunday August 19.