"If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a (crap)."
– Billy Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt in Moneyball.
"Billy is still trying to win the last game of the season."
– The last title card in the aforementioned film.
In sports circles it is often said that there is no task more difficult than winning a division in baseball. I imagine this is why teams in the other major sports do not hold a division championship in such high regard. There are no magic number countdowns preceding the on-field hug fest, off-field champagne bath that awaits the survivor of a six-month, 162-game grind.
Using that mindset, the Oakland A’s, under the watchful eye of Billy Beane, have enjoyed unprecedented success*, when compared to any other team in franchise history.
Not Oakland, mind you. Franchise.
No other Athletic team measures up over a 16-season span, the length of time Beane has held the General Manager position.
In fact only the 1901-1916 Philadelphia Athletics can claim a higher winning percentage (.541 to .539). So you have to go back to the very origin of this franchise to find a better stretch of baseball.
Ah, but the one area where Beane trumps Connie Mack is in post-season appearances. Both clubs can claim six first place finishes, but thanks to the wild-card, the 2001 A’s give the more recent group the edge. And it wasn’t like the ’01 team snuck in; that Oakland team won 102 games that season, and is widely considered the best of the Billy Beane era.
But where Mack and Charlie Finley and the Walter Haas/Sandy Alderson combination succeeded was in finishing what they started. Each of them has had World Champion next to their name at least once.
Not Billy Beane. Not in a front-office role, anyway.
Once upon a time the Oakland A’s were a post-season juggernaut. If they got to the playoffs, they were going to stay awhile. Either that or they were kind enough to exit quickly.
In Oakland’s first nine trips to the playoffs, the A’s advanced to the World Series six times. Excluding the 1990 World Series for a moment, Oakland won 11 of its first 15 playoff series. In 67 games, they won 41; a .612 clip. They were 22-10 (.688) at home, 19-16 (.543) on the road.
These are the four series’ the A’s lost, and you can almost excuse them each time:
ALCS 1971 – Oakland was the post-season novice, Baltimore the seasoned vet, in the midst of a three-year run as American League champions. The A’s were swept in three straight.
ALCS 1975 – Minus big-game pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, the three-time defending champion A’s were swept by Boston.
ALCS 1981 – In a scenario eerily similar to ten years before, Billy Martin’s newbie A’s were swept by a veteran New York Yankee club.
World Series 1988 – There was this home run, see, and uh, yeah. Well, the best way to describe this is to turn to former Athletic Jonny Gomes, who was 7 years old at the time, and a die-hard A’s fan:
"When you're a kid, your baseball heroes are like Superman or Batman or the Hulk. They don't die. It was my cartoon days. Cartoon heroes didn't die at the end. They rescued the chick. They put the fire out. They found Clifford the Big Red Dog. They never die. Then the f****** A's died. That was my first experience with real life. Life is not a f****** cartoon."
Let that be a lesson, kids.
Here’s a meaningless stat for you. Every time the A’s have swept a playoff series (exception 1989 World Series) – 1981 ALDS, 1988 ALCS, 1990 ALCS, and 2006 ALDS – they have lost in the next round, three by the broom.
That piece of trivia is going to win you a bet in a bar someday. You’re welcome.
I fell in love in the summer of 1990. Head over heels. Timber. Life was good. The Oakland A’s, fresh off a World Series sweep of their cross-bay rivals, were back at it the following season. And did I mention I was in love?
My romance heated up in the Fall, but I still had my priorities, man. I went to Game 3 of the ALCS with my brother John, a weekday afternoon affair that featured a special buzz in the crowd that only post-season baseball can deliver.
After a 4-1 win gave the A’s a 3-0 series lead, Oakland slugger Jose Canseco, deflected any hopes the Red Sox had of turning things around:
"I’ll say it’s over. Use common sense."
That’s right. Jose Canseco just told you to use common sense.
The next game was to be played during the day, too, and with World Series tickets securely in hand, I gave my ALCS-clinching seats to my brother Abel.
For the second time in three years, the A’s swept the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Sports Illustrated put closer Dennis Eckersley on the cover with the headline "They’re Back!"
It was going to be great to win the Series again. Finally I could bask in the same multiple-championship glow my older siblings enjoyed in the early 70’s.
Then the unthinkable happened. Again. As I mentioned earlier, you can almost excuse 1988. But 1990? It still burns. I didn’t even go to the last game. I couldn’t. Maybe you don’t understand. I’m not sure I do.
And while one season has nothing to do with any other, the A’s have yet to recover.
I got married in 1991.
The A’s lost the 1992 ALCS to the Toronto Blue Jays. Dave Stewart joined the soon-to-be-champions the following Spring. Carney Lansford retired.
My Grandma died a few days later. My only child, a son, was born exactly one month after she died. He will be 21 this November, and the A’s have not played a World Series game in his lifetime.
From 1993-1998, the A’s were not very good at baseball.
My wife and I separated in 1999. It was the first winning season in Oakland since 1992. In the next four years, the A’s went 392-255 (.606), and made the playoffs every time.
Each season ended the same way: with an excruciating defeat in Game 5 of the ALDS. With nine chances to advance, the A’s put up a goose-egg. Every damn time.
Since capturing the American League pennant in 1990, the Oakland A’s have played in nine post-season series’. They have won one. In 42 games, they have gone 15-27 (.358); 8-14 (.364) at home; 7-13 (.350) on the road.
The playoffs more than ever, with the additional rounds, are a crapshoot. Yeah, those other Oakland teams made it to six World Series’ but none of them had to play a Wild-Card game or ALDS. Still, the A’s have advanced past the first round only once since the current format was introduced.
To drive the crapshoot point home further, the 2006 A’s were probably the lesser of Billy Beane’s playoff-bound teams. Immediately following their breakthrough performance in that season’s ALDS they were swept by the Detroit Tigers.
The 2012 A’s were different. It felt very much like 1971 or 2000 or even 1981: happy to be there, but look out for us next year. The loss in Game 5 didn’t have that 2001-03 vibe to it. Those were the kind of heartbreaks where you ended up in a biker bar guzzling watered-down whiskey afterwards.
I have a feeling that a repeat of last year will not be seen as a celebration of a once-in-a-lifetime season. For better or worse, this post-season comes with expectations.
Tony La Russa preached the unfinished business theme to the 1989 A’s, and they responded in dominating fashion. This year’s group seems to be humming the same hymn.
It marks the seventh try at the Big Prize for Billy Beane. The previous six have not been kind. Close your eyes and you can see Long losing the ball in the sun, Jeremy not sliding, Byrnes not touching home, Miggy holding up, Durham’s pop-up falling harmlessly and hopelessly, Street walking off the mound, the ball popping out of Coco’s mitt.
Life isn’t fair. So it goes in baseball.
In 16 seasons under Billy Beane, Oakland has never lost more than 88 games in a single season. They have won at least 90 games nine times. They have already changed baseball.
But if you don’t win that last one…
Here’s to finishing what they started. Here’s to exorcising the ghosts of Kirk Gibson – yeah, I said it – and that goggles-wearing Chris Sabo. Here’s to redemption for the Big Three and Giambi, Miggy, and Chavy.
Here’s to falling in love and believing in cartoon heroes again.
Here’s to pie and Gatorade and raising a fifth flag in Oakland. Here’s to this city, downtrodden as always, and that decrepit, dilapidated stadium that resides there.
Here’s to rewriting that damn script, Billy.