On December 23, of last year, I traveled through the Bay Area on my way to start a new job in Southern California. As I hopped on Highway 680, I tuned in to Rick Tittle on 95.7 the Game, the A's flagship radio station, to learn that the OaklandAthletics had just traded their best player and All-Star, Gio Gonzalez, to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects. This wasn't anything unexpected, but was frustrating. After the team already made clear they wouldn't bring back their first 30 HR player since Frank Thomas (Josh Willingham) and having traded top pitcher Trevor Cahill just weeks earlier, we knew this was bound to happen.
However, it was a tireless act that fans had grown accustomed to in the Billy Beane era. As many fans would say "Here we go again!"
There was nothing to give this team hope. Fans were spreading their distaste for the organization all over the airwaves. From owner Lew Wolff, to general manager Billy Beane, the general consensus was that this team didn't want to win. Even though in my mind, I thought the A's would lose 90-100 games in 2012, I had heard enough of the negativity. 5 losing seasons in a row had gotten to me. I called in to the radio show, and the person screening the calls asked what I thought of the Gio Gonzalez trade.
"I think it's a great trade," I told him. "The prospects make this team much better as they plan for the future."
The guy screening the calls was stunned anyone would ever say this. Even though I wasn't entirely sure if this is what I believed, (Gio had been my favorite player and ironically, the A's had traded my previous favorite player, Nick Swisher, to acquire him) I wanted to go on the air and give some optimism to A's fans. My chance never came. I waited on hold for about an hour while several other calls were taken. Eventually, the show came to an end without my call being taken and I was nearing Fremont and San Jose on my driver (after which I would eventually lose radio coverage from that station).
It wasn't until less than a week later, a few days after Christmas, that I wake up to find out the A's traded their one of their last few assets in Andrew Bailey for what I was told a 4th outfielder (Josh Reddick), and two low A minor league prospects.
With Willingham gone, the entire pitching staff traded away and and a makeshift infield and outfield, the season looked as bleak as ever. The only bright spot was Jemile Weeks, a player the A's held in such high regard, that even Billy Beane said he was untouchable in terms of trades.
The A's then started making small moves that seemed insignificant at the time. Ryan Cook was named as the 'Player to Be Named Later' in the Trevor Cahill trade; The A's acquired Seth Smith from the Rockies; They made an 11th hour re-signing of Coco Crisp; brought in Jonny Gomes; signed Bartolo Colon to fill out the rotation; and even gave Manny Ramirez a second chance at baseball.
Then they finished it off with a grand finale by doing the unexpected and signing Yoenis Cespedes to a 4 year contract...
Nobody knew who this guy was. All I knew was that we paid big money for him, he's from Cuba. and teams like theMarlins considered Cespedes and Pujols to be the top two free agent hitters on the market. But hey...the last time the A's got a player from Cuba, his name was Canseco and he led the A's to a World Series. Time for excitement? Well... then again, Canseco came through the draft, and developed in the minors. Cespedes was a big money signing that was headed straight to the big leagues and by Ozzie Guillen's account, "whoeever signs him is gambling."
They told us he was good, maybe a Raul Mondesi type player, but that he would strike out a ton and that he couldn't hit a curveball if his life depended on it, After all, that must be the only reason a player like him would choose to sign with the A's instead of the Marlins, Cubs, or any other team inquiring about his services, right? No big name free agent signs with Oakland.
So spring training came. Manny was Manny. New faces were in camp and for the first time in a long time, I had no desire to make the trip to Phoenix to watch the team play. Especially after hearing the news that the A's starting 3rd baseman,Scott Sizemore, would miss the year after tearing his ACL. Now the team had to play a catcher, Josh Donaldson, at 3rd. Wonderful. The nightmare had already started before the season had started.
I had talked with friends about how the A's would fair this year, spreading optimism for 2015, but predicting demise in 2012. I think I predicted the A's finish with a little over 90 losses and had convinced myself that you had to be bad in order to be good, After all, the bad teams get the best draft picks and the A's have only had one top 10 pick (Michael Choice at #10) since 1999. They were a team that was by my definition "stuck in baseball purgatory."
The A's opened the season in Japan at 2 AM in the morning, something that I was excited to stay up for despite the low expectations. Baseball was finally back! However, the A's local television affiliate, Comcast Sports, decided not to make the trip. MLB Network decided to show the game on a tape delay for some reason. And suddenly, I found myself paying for MLB.tv and watching the Mariners broadcast to open the season.
The top 3 hitters in the A's lineup were Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, and Coco Crisp.
"This was going to be a long season," I thought to myself. Yoenis Cespedes was in the 6th spot and Josh Reddick was the teams #7 hitter. Ugh....At least baseball was back though, As much as the A's have struggled, this is still my favorite sport. And who knows, maybe they can show some improvement.
The season started out much like the failed 2011 season. The A's were treading water. Hardly anybody on the team was hitting very well. The team had musical chairs at both 1st and 3rd base rotating out different players at each position. Meanwhile, Jemile Weeks, who everyone thought would be a superstar struggled early on, was showing that he may not be the franchise player many thought he would be. Yoenis Cespedes' moonshots reminded fans of better days when Mark McGwire and/or Jason Giambi anchored the middle of the lineup. However, he was still struggling and leading the league in strikeouts....Just as the critics said he would.
As the season wore on, Cespedes would get hurt along with key components of the pitching staff. Heading into the end of May and the beginning of June, the A's were riding a 9 game losing streak. Again, this was very similar to 2011 when the team lost 10 in a row and the team fired then manager Bob Geren.
However, even though the team was losing, there were bright spots throughout. Josh Reddick had 10 home runs in May, trying to make up for the production lost when Cespedes got hurt. The frequency of the home runs were alarming. Reddick only had 10 home runs to his career before joining the A's and he hit that same total in 1 month. Who was this guy? He looked like a mini-Jason Giambi in his #16 jersey. Maybe the critics were wrong. Perhaps the A's didn't just have a '4th outfielder.' Also, Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone (both key pieces in the Gonzalez and Cahill trades were showing promise as well.
Then there was Ryan Cook. Cook started out his A's career not giving up a single run in his first 23 innings of work. Where did we get this guy again. He was a throw in in the Cahill trade you say? What? How would Arizona let him go?
Maybe these trades weren't the worst thing after all? I mean...we don't look worse that last year despite losing our best players.
As the season moved in to June, Cespedes returned and the team started winning again, playing great baseball. Cespedes had started to mold into a different player. No longer would he constantly rely on the long ball and be a free swinger. The strikeouts stopped and his batting average continued to rise.
Somehow the A's had one of the best pitching staffs in the league as well. In the meantime, more surprises from unexpected places started showing up.
Brandon Moss started 2012 hoping to get an opportunity to just play overseas. He had an 'out clause' in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent after May, so the A's decided to call him up. One of the main reasons though, was that Moss asked his coach at AAA to allow him to start playing first base. In addition to that, new A's hitting instructor Chili Davis worked with Moss when he was a prospect with Boston.
Normally an open stanced hitter, the Red Sox closed his stance in Boston. Davis opened it right back up and Moss began to get comfortable at the plate. Not only that, but he was playing a solid first base and started helping the A's win games. The A's then got success at 1B from Chris Carter, the prospect that I bragged to people about 4 years ago and many thought was a bust. Carter started delivering and showing his power potential.
The Carter and Moss platoon combined to hit .267 with a combined 37 homers over only 483 at bats over the season. It was by far the best platoon in baseball. Putting things in perspective, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder hit 30 HR's this season, Paul Konerko 26, Mark Teixera 24, and Adrian Gonzalez 18.
Unbelievable. However, even more unbelievable was how this team dealt with adversity. When a starter or reliever went down, the A's always had the "next man up" philosophy. Travis Blackley did a remarkable job as a long reliever and spot starter for the team. Over the past two seasons prior to this, Blackley was pitching in minor leagues, the independent leagues, the Mexican Leagues, and the Australian Baseball League. Who would have thought he would be a key contributor?
When injuries hit the bullpen, the A's found a remarkable set-up man and future closer in Sean Doolittle....
Wait a minute...Sean Doolittle? The last time I heard his name he was a top 1B prospect for the team. Two knee surgerys later and he is in the big leagues, as a pitcher, throwing 95 mph fastballs as a lefty? Say Whaaaaat?
When Brandon McCarthy went down, A.J. Griffin, a 13th round pick by the A's in 2010 was unstoppable. When everyone learned that Bartolo Colon's "stem cell" surgery was actually steroids, the A's responded in kind by calling up Dan Straily. Wait...who? You know, that 24th rounder in 2009 that somehow led all of minor league baseball in strikeouts this year.
The A's kept chipping away, started believing in themselves, and in turn, revitalized a fan base that needed it desperately. Baseball writers would argue write that Oakland rekindled its love affair with baseball. And it seemed like every move that the A's made this year was the right one. Whether it was Bob Melvin filling out his lineup card, or Billy Beane making a trade or a signing. Everything seemed under the radar. The A's had 18 rookies on their team in 2012, most of any team in the majors and made the postseason with an All-Rookie rotation. Has that ever been done before?
I constantly heard on ESPN from all the analysts, but especially John Kruk and Jose Cruz, that the A's couldn't keep winning. That they were just a flash in a pan. The team kept fighting, would get close to Texas for the division, but until the last week of the season, it didn't seem to set in to most people that this team was for real.
Sometimes I still can't believe what I witnessed though, so I understand a bit.
The last week of the season was special. Beating Texas to win the AL West capped off one of the most improbable stories of 2012 and by far my favorite season watching as a fan (which says a lot). The A's looked like they were having fun again. From the walk-off wins, to the 'Bernie Lean', it was a great show to watch.
This was better than Moneyball. Unlike the Moneyball team, this team came from nowhere and has a solid foundatin in place. Many of these players aren't even close to hitting free agency. All the while, the farm is rebuilt and the future is bright.
While the A's lost to Detroit in the ALDS, I tip my cap to them. For one, they showed me that they aren't the same Oakland A's team as the past. This team fights until the very last play. When they were down 2-0 in the series, they could have easily mailed it in, but they didn't. When they were losing 3-1 in the bottom of the 9th on Wednesday, they could mailed it in as well. They kept fighting. And even though Justin Verlander got the best of them (twice) on Thursday night, that was one hell of season. They played like one of the best teams in the league.
The fans at the Coliseum did the right thing by giving the team a standing ovation and curtain call even after they lost the game. This team deserved. The Tigers were classy and saluted the A's for their hard fought effort, mainly I think because everyone on that opposing team knows that the A's played well and will be back again soon. Even now, 48 hours after the loss, I cannot wait for the 2013 season because I am excited about what this team can accomplish.