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Picking up the pieces of our broken Athletics-fan hearts

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The Shark will swim again in 2015.
The Shark will swim again in 2015.
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

This one hurt. More than usual.

It's been three weeks since that fateful day, since the A's were royally flushed in the wildest of card games. I can honestly say that nothing in sports has ever hit me as hard as the end of the 2014 season. Only in the last couple days did that feeling of sickness subside, allowing me to think about baseball for even a few minutes without sinking into a sadness that would last the rest of the day. That 163rd game absolutely broke me as a fan -- of the A's, of baseball, of sports -- and it took around three weeks for me to heal. Usually, after the final game of a season, my sights are immediately set toward the next spring and the countdown toward those six magic words: pitchers and catchers report to camp. Only today did my mind wander that way this time around.

***

I don't need to spend long rehashing the sources of this malaise. The Athletics are the Greek tragedy of baseball teams right now. It's one thing to suck for 30 years straight like the Royals, simply accepting failure as a given and never even knowing what hope feels like. It's another thing to fall short within recent memory of your last success -- Cardinals fans need only think back three years to ease the pain of their postseason ouster last week. But to spend two decades getting so close, year after year, to feel like your increasingly strong efforts produce increasingly weak results, is just devastating. Oakland seems to be staring up at an adamantium ceiling, unable to break through to new heights.

Let's run through the list, for cathartic effect. The A's have played in nine playoff series (I'm counting the 2014 Wild Card game as a series) and have lost eight of them. They've played 14 games in which a win would put them through to the next round, and they've won one of those contests -- and were then promptly swept in the next round. Every time they've lost the ALDS, they've taken it to the final game. Twice they've gone into October with 100-win teams, twice they've gone in with squads of upstart rookies that could have been described as "teams of destiny," more than twice their clubs have had legitimate playoff experience, and in at least half of those years they were generally favored by the pundits. None of it has mattered. They've lost to teams of old veterans, teams of young upstarts, teams with power, teams with speed, teams with dominant pitching. It doesn't matter who the A's have, and it doesn't matter who they play. Something will always go wrong, their guys will get hot, our guys will get cold, and a week later it's all over. Wait til next year.

***

It's been three weeks, and I still don't have any answers for you. I don't even care what factors everyone wants to blame on this newest entry in Oakland's book of horrors. The trades, the injuries, the slumps, the bullpen, it doesn't matter. It was all of those things, and if it hadn't been one of those things then I'm positive it would have been something else. I'm not a particularly spiritual person, and I certainly don't believe in fate, but it's the only way I can explain this season. It just wasn't meant to be.

It's easy to be bitter at the teams who made it, too. Why do Royals fans get their team of destiny on the first try, while A's fans watch near miss after near miss? Why do Giants fans, likely your own friends and family, get to enjoy this wild ride for the third time in five years? And right when we're sitting at the other end of the bar, mired in our deepest moments of grief? Both teams are good, but it's not like they're full of superstars. I don't know that either roster is more talented than Oakland's was this year, or more than any of the A's other past playoff duds. But that's how sports go -- it's why they play the games, to see who actually performs after all that talk. Start with the talent on paper, mix in some random chance, and see who comes out on top. I don't mean luck, mind you, because that implies an absence of skill in the proceedings, and the Giants and Royals aren't devoid of talent. No, I mean true chance -- the wrong guy gets hurt at the wrong time, you trade for the wrong reinforcement, the ground ball goes a few feet to the side of the defender, you hit your 400-foot bomb in front of the 405 sign rather than behind the one that reads 390. These are the things that swing entire postseasons.

***

So, what's next? I was four years old in 1989, so I don't remember Oakland's last World Series title. Of course, neither does much of the rest of the world, since even when the A's manage to win a gigantic earthquake interrupts things and renders the sports scores relatively meaningless. Even I'm not an exception -- when I break through my infantile amnesia and think back to that year, I remember the earthquake but not baseball.

In the time since, I feel like I've seen it all. I spent my decade following hopeless losers, and I spent my decade-plus watching underachieving winners. Every year there is a different reason why this will be the one, why this team is set up to go all the way where its predecessors failed. Every year, it falls short. It's tough to know what to get excited about until the A's are actually celebrating their next title, in the past tense. I can't let myself get excited about preseason rosters, because they can always fall apart over six long months. I can't let myself get excited about a strong first half, because it can be ruined by a big collapse. I can't let myself get excited about a strong second half, because being hot upon entering the playoffs has never helped us. I can't let myself get excited about a 2-0 series lead in an ALDS, for obvious reasons. We've come so tantalizingly close so many times that I'm afraid to trust again. I'm afraid to believe.

***

Alright, there's the sad part. Want to know where I've been for the last three weeks? I've been editing out the other 9,000 words whining about the Giants and life being unfair and other first-world problems. There's no time for that crap. To paraphrase the great Thomas Wayne, we fall down so that we can learn to get back up. There are 20 teams who didn't even get to play the one exciting playoff game that we were treated to, as torturous as it turned out to be. Yeah, I'm afraid to believe, but that doesn't mean I won't do it. I most certainly will. I always do, and so do you, which is why you're here reading this website. We root for the laundry, we keep the fAith, and we enjoy the ride even if it doesn't get us where we're trying to go.

So stand proud, Athletics Nation. Baseball has thrown a lot at us in the last 15 years, and we're still here. Let's move on from this. I know there will be many more discussions about what went wrong this year, and some of the repercussions of this summer will be talking points for years. But it's all done now, and we have what we have. A solid rotation, at least six-deep. A couple of mashers in the lineup, one with a legitimate MVP ceiling. A couple more borderline stars. A handful of fantastic role players, and only one or two glaring weaknesses. And a bit of money to work with this winter, potentially. It could be much, much worse, and dwelling on what could have been won't do anyone any good.

In a week, there will be no more baseball for five months. Even watching a loss is better than that. Let's spend that time gearing up for another exciting season, and discussing what can be done to win in 2015. And, if you find yourself feeling bummed about what has transpired in the past, or struggling to find reason for hope, just remember the other six important words that bring joy to baseball fans young and old.

At least we're not the Cubs.