What defines success for the Oakland Athletics? Is there any reason to believe, given the playoff heartbreak A's fans have experienced throughout the past 14 years, that things are going to change anytime soon?
Two days ago, the A's lost to Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in Game 5 of the ALDS, being handled absolutely dominant fashion by the former Cy Young winner. After the final out, the Tigers celebrated on the field at the Coliseum in front of a stunned, packed house that had been making waves on nearby seismographs until moments earlier.
And yes, everything about that paragraph applies to both 2012 and 2013. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.
It would be easy, at this time, for an A's fan to lose faith in Billy Beane. Given the way the team has fared in the playoffs since 2000, one could (and many will) argue that "his stuff," or "Moneyball," or whatever you want to call it, really, just doesn't work in the playoffs.
From an objective, logical standpoint, is there any reason to believe that a system that's clearly effective in the regular season simply stops working come October? No. Of course there isn't. Analysts talk about how the playoffs are different, and how teams have to find ways to "manufacture runs", and how small ball and dominant starting pitching are the two biggest keys to winning in the playoffs.
Here's the thing, though: it's still baseball. There are still nine men on defense and nine men in the batting order. There are still three outs in an inning and you still need to take four balls to earn a walk. The team that scores more runs still wins. A bases-empty walk is still effectively the same as a single. The crowds are bigger and louder and the lights are brighter, but it's the same game.
Winning in the regular season isn't some anomaly that becomes irrelevant in October. If anything is a fluke, it's what happens in a five-game sample, the equivalent of 3.08% of the regular season.
But looking at the raw data, it's hard to stay optimistic about the A's prospects of making a deep playoff run, considering the current constraints the organization faces in terms of its home venue and payroll, arguably the two most important selling points for ballclubs in the free agent market.
The A's have made the playoffs seven times since 2000, or every other year. Oakland has advanced past the Division Series only once. The clinching ALDS Game 3 against Minnesota in 2006 remains the only A's playoff win I've ever been present for. Having witnessed Tuesday's carnage, I'm now 1-4 in postseason games. All four of those losses have come at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.
I'll say it again: this idea that whatever makes the A's so successful during the regular season suddenly becomes inapplicable to the playoffs is completely asinine. Baseball games are baseball games, and there's really nothing different about baseball in the playoffs other than the fact that there are more people paying attention. And unfortunately, they're paying attention to TBS and FOX announcers like Tim McCarver push their anti-innovation, "sac bunts and shutouts win playoff games".
The only plausible explanation for A's having lost six out of the last seven playoff series is this: the playoffs are a crapshoot. The regular season is 162 games long for a reason. The worst teams in baseball are capable of winning streaks and the best teams are capable of losing streaks - it's simply not accurate to judge a team's true ability in a five-game set.
I don't mean to say that the Tigers didn't deserve to win the ALDS this year; between Max Scherzer's start on Monday night and Verlander's starts in Games 2 and 5, the A's would have had to play mistake-free baseball and then some to win the series. They came close, but it wasn't enough. The Pirates and Rays couldn't find it, either.
I also don't mean to say that all teams enter the playoffs as equals. I do think, honestly, that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are a better baseball than the 2013 Oakland A's. My point is simply that the outcome of a five-game series between two teams does nothing to confirm or deny that one team is better than the other. Rather, it confirms which team is best in a five-game span, and in my mind, that's akin to flipping a coin to deciding which team should advance.
But the bottom line is that the A's were a team that won more games in the regular season, and they demonstrated that they can beat the game's best (Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, St. Louis). It's all for naught, but the Red Sox or Tigers could've just as easily tanked in the first round, too.
Seven years isn't a statistically significant sample. To boot, the A's have either come within one game of advancing or gone on to the ALCS in each of those seven years. Billy Beane keeps dealing Oakland excellent hands in the postseason; one of these years, the River card will turn up in favor of the green and gold.
It would be easy to lose faith in baseball altogether, as these "Cinderella" stories keep falling short of actually being "Cinderella" stories. The low-budget A's and Pirates couldn't make it out of the Division Series in 2013, and the Rays couldn't finish the job and take the 2008 World Series. Is it really noteworthy if well-run, low-budget teams make the playoffs and then almost always get bounced in the first round, with little or nothing to show for their efforts?
The past five World Series winners have all been big-budget, somewhat traditionally minded organizations: the Giants (twice), Yankees, Cardinals and Phillies. We're in for more of the same this year, as the last four teams standing are Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, and St. Louis - three of those teams are in the top five in spending.
Baseball is an amazing game, but it's nice to be able to think that the Major Leagues are something more than a glorified spending competition. The A's, and to a lesser extent, the Pirates and Rays, have provided that glimmer of hope over the past decade, the Davids can take on the Goliaths and beat them - unfortunately, the better metaphor there is David sneaking in a punch or two before Goliath gets it together and takes care of business.
It would be easy to wonder whether there's any reason to keep investing your time, energy, and emotions in this team. Watching the Tigers celebrate two years in a row (three, really - they clinched the AL Central title at the Coliseum in 2011) on your home field makes you wonder if Beane's innovative, cutting-edge philosophy will ever trump the brute-force, big-money approach of a guy like Dave Dombrowski.
At this point, there isn't a single A's fan out there who would tell you that he or she is content with the way things have ended lately, from the Jeremy Giambi no-slide to the Terence Long strikeout with the bases loaded to the Magglio Ordoñez walk-off grand slam to Justin Verlander making the A's look like a high school team in Game 5 of the ALDS twice in a span of 366 days.
At the same time, it's hard to be mad that the A's haven't won a World Series since 1989, on multiple levels. First off, assuming that there's perfect parity in Major League Baseball, each team should win a championship every 30 years. Even though (in my opinion) the parity in baseball is actually quite impressive, it's far from perfect, and the A's have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to competing with big market teams. Expecting even one in 30 might be a bit optimistic.
Beyond that, the A's have exceeded expectations throughout the past decade by leaps and bounds. In a league where 26.7% of teams make the playoffs (now it's 30% with the addition of the second Wild Card teams), the A's have made the playoffs 50% of the time in a span of 14 years. There's not much to complain about there.
There was even a book written about it, and the book was subsequently Hollywood-ized, complete with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Is it reasonable to be angry that the A's, whose payroll-to-wins ratio has been lower than any other team's throughout that time period, haven't won a championship since the 1989 Bay Bridge Series?
Objectively, no. The A's are a small-market team that's been fortunate to win 4 championships in 45 years in Oakland - even the first three came back-to-back-to-back, that's still an average of roughly one ring per decade.
But given the context and recent A's playoff history, frustration surrounding Oakland's playoff woes is more than understandable. What's most frustrating, obviously, is the organization's continual inability to escape the opening round of the playoffs, and in particular, the inability to show up for winner-take-all games. But the fact that the A's have made it to Game 5 in every ALDS they've lost since 2000 speaks for itself. Moreover, the A's are 15-18 in ALDS play in that time period. And considering the competition they face in the playoffs, that's perfectly acceptable. Good teams are supposed to beat up on bad teams, and hold their own against good teams.
In 1941, the Brooklyn Dodgers faced off against the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees in the World Series. Leo Durocher's Dodger squad couldn't get it done, falling in five games to Joe McCarthy's Yankees, who claimed their fifth world title in six years.
It was Brooklyn's first time playing for a championship since 1916, when the Brooklyn Robins, as they were known at the time, were swept by the Boston Red Sox. Even before the great depression, the East Coast baseball hierarchy had already been established.
The Yankees were the richest and most influential of the city's three Major League teams, and the Dodgers were probably the least. The Bronx Bombers played, of course, in Yankee Stadium, which at the time was capable of hosting upwards of 76,000 spectators, more than double the capacity of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Those two venues were separated by a body of water (the East River, to be specific) and the borough of Queens; to get from one park to the other, you had two options: take the subway, or drive across the bridge. The Yankees drew bigger crowds, got better coverage, and were viewed by many to be the area's white-collar team, one that prided itself on cleanliness and tradition and conventionality.
The borough of Brooklyn would have to wait six years to see its "Bums" reach the World Series again. That 1947 season saw a young infielder named Jackie Robinson break baseball's decades-old color barrier, becoming the first African American to play in the Major Leagues in the modern era and earning the distinction of being MLB's first-ever Rookie of the Year.
Things seemed promising, but again, the Yankees prevailed, this time using the full seven games to earn their 11th title.
The Dodgers won the National League pennant again in 1949, and found themselves facing a familiar opponent. The Yankees needed only five games this time, and the Brooklyn drought continued.
Yes, there's a pattern here. 1952: The Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games. 1953: New York beats Brooklyn in six.
That's four out of seven years that the Dodgers had lost to the Yankees in the World Series. But the familiar refrain of "wait ‘til next year" never left Brooklyn's blue-collar fanbase, one that had started to hear whispers, as early as 1954, that their beloved Dodgers might soon leave town for greener pastures.
"Next year" finally arrived on October 4, 1955, when the Dodgers eked out a 2-0 win in Game 7, disappointing the majority of the 62,465 in attendance at the House That Ruth Built. Robinson didn't even play (it was the only time that Jackie Robinson didn't play in a World Series game involving his team), but it didn't matter - he and the Dodgers had cemented their legacy in Brooklyn, earning the borough its first and only championship.
It took years of patience, love, and loyalty for Brooklyn Dodger fans to finally witness the outcome they'd prayed for since the franchise's inception, and a decade or two of having the game's biggest prize cruelly dangled in front of them before the neighborhood bully snatched it away. But they kept the faith, and were eventually rewarded for it.
University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, an NCAA legend, coined a phrase that's remained popular at the school (yes, it's my school...don't judge me) to this day. Those who stay will be champions. Sure, he meant it for the players who had to contend with his grueling workout and practice routine, but I think the message is just as pertinent here — if you stick around long enough and put in the time, your efforts will eventually be rewarded.
There's no question that at this point, the only thing that will leave A's fans with no disappointment whatsoever is a fifth World Series trophy for the City of Oakland. It would be the tenth in franchise history, good for third most in baseball after only the Yankees and Cardinals.
With the core of the 2013 squad back, the A's will once again be the team to beat in the AL West. A playoff berth is Oakland's to lose, and while we can hope that the A's hypothetical first-round draw is a team other than the Detroit Tigers, it might not matter. Billy Beane is a compulsive gambler, one who tries his absolute best to stack the odds in his favor as much as possible. He's been breaking even, but one of these days, Beane will see his luck turn.
Keep the faith, Athletics Nation. Our "next year" will be sooner than you think.