After yesterday’s unbelievable (but in a way fully expected) comeback win to seal the series against the Houston Astros, there was full postgame jubilation among the A’s faithful. Not only for taking three out of four (and so nearly a sweep) on the road against the defending champs, but also because we A’s fans have seen this before and are getting giddy. The alchemical sorcery that takes a bunch of nobodies and turns them into a thundering herd stampeding through Major League Baseball.
Turning the defending champs into a piñata was the pièce de résistance of a 19-5 stretch that shows no signs of slowing down. Following yesterday’s game, me and David Rockwood shared this exchange:
David Rockwood: “We are the new Astros”
I spontaneously responded:
“No, we’re the A’s, same A’s we’ve always been.”
“Fiercely supported in spirit, lightly in number, always broke and cheap and yet a sense of pride and purpose, creative, colorful, and somehow against all odds, frequently championship caliber. There’s no franchise in American sports that compares.”
This not to pile on Mr. Rockwood, a fine and passionate member of our fan base, fired up after a big win. His comment merely triggered a jumble of thoughts to form a coherent realization - the A’s are unlike the Astros, and in fact unlike any team at all. The Oakland A’s are truly unique in all of sports.
The A’s have a 118-year history spanning three cities, including, as we know, 50 years in Oakland. We could go back further, but focusing on those 50 years brings us to some constant running themes.
The A’s generally have been owned by notorious tightwads, focusing on year-over-year profits rather than actually building and sustaining a fanbase. Loyal A’s fans generally have been met with antipathy to downright animosity from their favorite team’s owner. Players, much the same. Becoming good with Oakland then moving on to more lucrative pastures is a rite of passage for virtually every player that ends up on the A’s. And fans historically have had extreme difficulty simply finding their games on TV or radio, seeing coverage of their teams in local rags. This year one of the chief complaints from the A’s fanbase is that the team’s flagship radio station, that airs all of their contests, gives virtually no coverage to the team that they broadcast, instead focusing on the Giants when it comes to baseball. Oh, and the A’s have the absolute rock bottom lowest payroll in the game.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The stadium is the same one they’ve played in for the last 50 years. It was always a misfit for baseball, given that, well, it’s a 50,000+ seat football stadium. Unlike every other team that occupied a similar multipurpose stadium, the A’s still call it home. And the stadium, was in fact made worse for baseball to woo the Raiders back to Oakland (who of course, are leaving again). There simply is no current analogue in the playground of billionaires that is American pro sports.
But it’s not all negative. Every so often, like clockwork, this team comes out of nowhere and starts kicking everyone’s ass. Despite the odds continuously stacked against them, the meager payrolls, the revolving door of stars who find fame and money elsewhere, the ownership either invisible (or visible and hated, aside from one short, economically unsustainable blip of Walter Haas), and the tiny fanbase, who, it must be said, were unable to fill all the seats for a free game...Every few years it seems the A’s rise above. The players are rarely household names, the team generally an afterthought except to astute writers and baseball superfans, but they begin to forcibly demand attention.
“The last four games stunk,” Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said. “I’ll tell you that straight up. They’re playing really good baseball. They’ve got a good, young core over there that can play really well and they can put some at-bats together, and we saw that this series.”
“We knew coming in they were playing well, and we see why,” AJ Hinch said. “They did a lot more right than we did during the series and they completed games. Their at-bats were exceptional this series. They made us work and kind of wore us out, the whole pitching staff, and just came out with some really big at-bats when they needed to. We were disappointed we lost the series, but we get onto the next one. We got outplayed this series.”
The A’s do not rise like other teams, in cycles of competitiveness, or longer windows sustained by money, or smaller windows in between vast decades of losing. They don’t “trust the process” like the Astros did (admittedly, they rode it to success, but after years of abject losing. A strategy that is simply not feasible for a team that suffers from a revolving door of stars, minimal local media coverage, low attendance and a football stadium). The A’s cobble together winning teams seemingly at random. This year’s version is buoyed by only two heralded prospects: Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, who are having predictably solid years. The rest of the team is something else. The All-Stars are a relief pitcher who was traded to Oakland in exchange for other (better) relievers, and a 34-year old seeing his first ASG, as an injury replacement to a rookie. The remainder of the key players are a collection of veterans and castoffs, “non-prospects” stepping up, and a healthy dose of spit and bubble gum. That’s what happened in 2006, and 2012, and it’s happening again in 2018.
And somehow the A’s have 18 postseason appearances in their 50 seasons in Oakland (16 division titles, 4 world series titles). Only the Yankees have more titles, and the Yankees and Braves more postseason appearances in that span (the Red Sox are tied). Time and again, the A’s do the impossible, such that the impossible becomes not some far flung hope but like a train, slowly picking up speed en route to an inevitable destination, a destination reached myriad times in wildly different, yet similar ways.
Yet, despite their myriad successes, it seems that this franchise as a whole has rarely been given their share of respect from their peers. Note, both quotes from the Astros are...former A’s. Hell, even after two titles, gunning for their third in a row in 1974, Bill Buckner, then on the Dodgers boastfully claimed that the Dodgers would beat the A’s 100 out of 162 times (after the series he trashed the fans, he trashed Billy North, he trashed the owner Charlie Finley (probably deserved it) and the entire A’s “not an exciting brand of baseball.” (He got his comeuppance in 1986 though). Decades later, a different cast of characters but the same sentiment remained. Jake Peavy, as part of the loathed San Francisco Giants, once said “We had our Moneyball movie, and they didn’t even win,’’ Peavy said of the Oakland Athletics. “How about let’s make a movie about the good ol’ fashioned baseball people, and how they judge team chemistry, and put together guys that fit in. How about a movie about a team that actually wins in the end?’’
I will answer the rhetorical question. Because that movie would be obnoxiously boring. Rote, routine, standard. Simply drafting players, keeping them, signing more, trading for more, making colossal financial mistakes that do not affect the team one iota...that is not an interesting story. That is a typical story where money + talent = championship. But I don’t blame Peavy and his ilk. How would he be able to understand?
The A’s are unlike all others. That’s why we got the damn movie.
We’ve seen this story before, and that’s why we know we’re seeing it again. Time to wreck baseball’s best laid plans once more.