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The best Oakland A’s team to never win a championship

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How did the Moneyball A’s never go all the way?

Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The Athletics franchise has won nine World Series championships, which is tied for the third-most among any club. Four of those titles came since they moved to Oakland in 1968, which is an impressive total even despite the three-decade wait since they last hoisted the trophy. They’re one of only two MLB teams ever to pull off a three-peat.

There has been plenty of winning in the A’s storied history, but that doesn’t stop sports fans from lamenting the other times that the top prize eluded them. For every triumphant victory, there’s another memory of a prime opportunity that slipped through their fingers. (Ironically, none of those heartbreaks came when they actually employed a closer named Fingers.)

That leads us to the question: What was the best A’s team that didn’t win a title?

For the purposes of this post, I’m only looking at Oakland teams. The 1931 Philadelphia A’s won 107 games and featured a long list of future Hall of Fame players: Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, and Waite Hoyt. But that was nearly a century ago and a continent away, and I don’t have much of interest to say about it. Let’s focus on stuff some of us might actually remember.

With that caveat, the answer to the above question is objectively the 1988 team. Their 104 wins are the most in Oakland history, and they entered the Series heavily favored over the Dodgers. The A’s were loaded even without Rickey Henderson (who was still doing his stint on the Yankees), with a juggernaut led by AL MVP and 40-40 pioneer Jose Canseco, historic slugger Mark McGwire, 21-game winner Dave Stewart, future Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, and a long list of other quality players. Their five-game loss to L.A. stands as one of the league’s biggest upsets, with the tone being irrevocably set in Game 1 by Kirk Gibson’s famous pinch-hit, walk-off homer against Eck.

But I’m not picking the ‘88 squad, for one simple reason: They did win, the next year. The 1989 roster wasn’t identical, but it was pretty darn close. The core was all still there, and it was more or less the same group.

Instead of picking one singular season, I’m going with an entire era in which a great A’s squad not only failed to win a championship, but didn’t even manage to win any playoff series: The Moneyball years. Specifically, 2000-03. Four years in a row they stormed their way into the postseason, and each time they lost the ALDS in a heartbreaking winner-take-all Game 5.

The players

After losing the World Series in 1990 and the ALCS in 1992, the A’s slogged through nearly a decade of ineptitude before piecing together their next contending club. They began to show signs in 1999 and made a spirited run, but it wasn’t until 2000 that they made their way back to the playoffs. The young team matured into a full-on powerhouse in 2001, and then even after suffering heavy losses to free agency they still had enough to stay great for two more years.

The core was elite:

  • Jason Giambi was voted AL MVP in 2000, on the strength of 43 homers and a ludicrous .476 OBP. He followed that up with a 9.2 WAR campaign in 2001 that is arguably the second-best season in Oakland history (after Rickey Henderson’s 1990).
  • Miguel Tejada was a perennial 30-homer slugger at shortstop, at a time when that was still a novel concept. Despite being outshined nationally by superstar shortstops Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra, Tejada still won the MVP in 2002.
  • Eric Chavez won the Gold Glove at third base in each of these four seasons, while also averaging 30 homers at the plate.
  • The Big 3 of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito anchored a top-notch starting rotation. Each of them enjoyed a 20-win season during this span, in three different years. Hudson was runner-up for Cy Young in 2000, Mulder broke out in 2001 and finished runner-up himself, and Zito won the award in 2002.
  • The closer spot was a turnstile but stayed consistently excellent. Jason Isringhausen, a once-top prospect for the Mets who had busted as a starter, found success as a closer in Oakland and made the All-Star team in 2000. He left as a free agent after 2001, but was replaced seamlessly with a historic performance from Billy Koch in 2002 (44 saves, 11 wins, nearly 100 innings). Koch was then flipped in a trade that winter for Keith Foulke, who nearly matched Koch’s gaudy numbers in 2003 and was named an All-Star.

The list continued with plenty of other memorable players: All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez, 2001 mercenary star Johnny Damon, quietly effective fourth starter Corey Lidle, unexpected first baseman Scott Hatteberg, 2001 deadline acquisition Jermaine Dye, the last hurrah of David Justice, the holy grail Erubiel Durazo, and many more.

This was a magical group to follow, especially as a teenage fan who had never fully experienced rooting for a good team. Giambi was a legend, larger than life. He was the brash, fun-loving frat boy, piledriving the stuffy, conservative landscape of the majors as the sport entered the 21st century — almost reminiscent of how the Mustache Gang of the ‘70s shattered the clean-cut image of their day. When Giambi’s hulking frame stepped into the batter’s box, I was almost afraid for the opposing pitcher.

When Giambi left after 2001, Tejada and Chavez got their chance to step up into the spotlight. Tejada in particular gave me one of my best in-person baseball memories, as I was in the left-field stands when he extended The Streak to 18 wins (out of an eventual 20) with his last-minute, come-from-behind, walk-off homer. Chavez’s defense at third base is harder to properly appreciate now that we’re used to watching superhuman Matt Chapman, but Chavez’s signature pirouette spin-move on balls to his left still dazzles me as a wonderful memory.

The Big 3 were a different kind of phenomenon. On their own they were each great starters, but together they formed an unstoppable trio that fed off each other with each successive gem they twirled. With them around, A’s fans went into the majority of their games simply assuming the team would win, and we were usually correct. Between Hudson’s tumbling splitter, Mulder’s relentless efficiency, and Zito’s impossible curveball, they were mesmerizing to watch.

Isringhausen was perhaps the original Misfit Toy of the Billy Beane administration, and helped me form a lifelong appreciation of underdog players. I loved Izzy’s story of redemption, as he’d been shredded by injuries but rose back up in a new role to achieve greatness anyway; conversely, I loved the A’s willingness to get creative and give him that new role at all. (According to Wiki, via the New York Daily News, his previous manager, Bobby Valentine, had been “reluctant to use Isringhausen in relief, saying that it would be akin to ‘[using] an Indy car as a taxi.’”)

But through it all, Hudson was my favorite at the time. He was one of the first of this group to rise to stardom, and he personified the upstart A’s as much as anybody. At barely over six feet tall and well under 200 pounds, he was undersized for a starting pitcher, making it easy to underestimate him. But he brought the bulldog mentality that all subsequent bulldogs have been compared to, and a never-back-down attitude that made it easy to rally around him. In much the same way, the small-market A’s were constantly written off right up until the moment that they’d shock the world with yet another victory.

Where it all went wrong

Despite all the star power, all the diamonds in the rough, 392 wins over four seasons, and a best-selling book and Oscar-nominated movie about their unlikely success, the Moneyball A’s never won a title. They never even reached the ALCS, much less the World Series. Each time, they’d stumble in some new way, causing us all to endure another round of Chokeland jabs.

In 2000, as the new kids in the playoffs, they crossed paths with a Yankees dynasty and almost dethroned them. They hosted the deciding Game 5 at the Coliseum, but Game 1 winner Gil Heredia wasn’t able to repeat his magic. He was pulled in the 1st inning after facing seven batters and retiring just one of them, with all six runners coming around to score. The iconic play was Terrence Long losing a catchable fly in the sun, exacerbating the rally, made excruciatingly worse when the A’s rallied back from down 6-0 to almost catch up in a 7-5 defeat. If Long had caught that ball, might the A’s have pulled through and beaten the Damn Yankees?

In 2001, again facing the Yankees, the A’s found themselves on the wrong end of one of the most famous highlights in MLB history. Oakland was leading the series 2-0, but in Game 3 they were being shut out by future Hall of Fame starter Mike Mussina. In the 7th inning, with the score 1-0, Jason’s brother Jeremy Giambi singled with two outs and Long followed with a double. Giambi lumbered his way around the bases and looked like he was going to score the tying run, as the throw from the outfield sailed over the cutoff man, but Derek Jeter appeared out of nowhere to grab the loose ball and flip it to the catcher. Giambi inexplicably failed to slide and was tagged out by a matter of millimeters.

What if Giambi had slid? Or what if he’d simply been replaced by a much faster pinch-runner, like Eric Byrnes, who was on the roster for specifically that purpose? Heck, was the call even correct, or was Giambi actually safe? If that run scores, and the game is tied, do the A’s pull off the win and win the series? If momentum is worth anything then that play permanently shifted it in the Yankees favor. The next day, in Game 4, cleanup hitter Dye fouled a ball off his leg and broke his tibia, and Oakland never recovered.

In 2002, the A’s finally faced a new opponent in the Twins, but with the same result. In Game 1, Oakland blew an early 5-1 lead in an eventual loss. In the winner-take-all Game 5, Koch entered in the 9th inning facing a 2-1 deficit, but instead of keeping it close he served up three runs to blow it open. In the bottom of the frame, Mark Ellis blasted a three-run homer to bring the score back to 5-4, but Oakland wasn’t able to complete the comeback in what turned out to be one of the all-time teAses in club history. If Koch had held serve in the 9th, would Ellis have hit a walk-off homer to clinch the series, instead of an almost-comeback?

In 2003, things just got ridiculous. Facing the Red Sox this time, the A’s found themselves in the same situation as 2001 — a 2-0 series lead, but down 1-0 in Game 3. In the 6th inning, with two runners on (including Byrnes on third), Tejada tapped a grounder that was fielded by the pitcher. Byrnes raced home and beat the throw, but he was blocked off the plate by catcher Jason Varitek. The throw got away and skipped to the backstop, giving Byrnes plenty of time to go back and touch the plate, but in the heat of the moment he must not have realized he’d missed it at all. While he wandered back to the dugout, nursing a limp after the collision, he was tagged out by Varitek.

Two batters later, the A’s got another chance. A grounder found its way to the outfield, scoring Durazo with the tying run. Right behind him was Tejada, representing the go-ahead run, but as he rounded third base he was obstructed by the fielder. However, rather than keep running and still score easily, he stopped to complain and got tagged out. Oakland had bumbled its way out of two runs, and they’d never score again on way to an extra-inning loss.

The next day, Hudson started Game 4 but lasted only one inning, amid rumors that he’d been involved in a bar fight two nights prior. Still, the A’s nearly won, taking a lead into the 8th until star closer Foulke blew the save. The next year, Foulke would wear a Boston uniform and enjoy a nearly flawless postseason en route to winning the World Series, which he clinched himself by inducing a comebacker to the mound for the final out.

In Game 5 of 2003, facing future Hall of Fame starter Pedro Martinez, the A’s were able to stay close. It was 4-3 entering the 9th, and they drew two walks against the bullpen to lead off the inning. A sac bunt gave away one out, and then the A’s put the finishing touch on their choke job. Manager Ken Macha inexplicably called on his backup catcher, Adam Melhuse, to pinch-hit for Dye, who was still one of the team’s better hitters. Melhuse struck out looking. After another walk loaded the bases, Long was called to pinch-hit, and he also struck out looking, on a pitch more or less right down the middle. You couldn’t ask for a more deflating finish, especially since this was the second time in three years that the A’s had won the first two games and still lost the best-of-five.

What if Byrnes or Tejada had scored in Game 3? What if Hudson had been able to pitch Game 4, or Foulke hadn’t blown the save? What if the A’s had played baseball in the 9th inning of Game 5? The series had started out so promisingly, with Ramon Hernandez’s thrilling 12th-inning walk-off bunt in the first game, but the result was the same sad tale full of what-ifs.

All told, in these four postseasons, the A’s had nine chances to win an elimination game that would have knocked out their opponent and won them the ALDS. They dropped all nine.

Moving on

It’s 2020 now, and the A’s are still trying to win that ring. They did finally get reach the ALCS in 2006 (including ALDS revenge against the Twins), but they were swept out of it by the Tigers. The next decade brought a new series of ALDS Game 5 defeats, to the Tigers in 2012 and 2013, and then three losses in the one-and-done Wild Card Game in 2014, 2018, and 2019 (against the Royals, Yankees, and Rays, respectively).

Those were all excellent teams, but none of them quite live up to the agonizing heartbreak of the Moneyball years. Those early-2000s teams felt like the most dominant of the bunch, and so many the key losses hinged on such weird plays. It’s one thing to simply get shut down by Justin Verlander and lose a normal baseball game, but it’s another entirely to fall short because of some insane fluke or unlucky short hop. Only the 2014 Wild Card Game comes close to the same feeling, and we shan’t spend more words dwelling on that now.

If I had to pick one team from these four years whose loss was the most disappointing, I’ll go with 2001. The 2002 squad won one more game, but ‘01 was the most stacked team, with Giambi, Izzy, and Damon still on board and Dye arriving midseason. The Jeter Flip is also the single most devastating moment from any of these years. But if I had to pick the overall most crushing loss, it might be 2003, due to the sheer quantity of choke moments as well as the fact that it was the fourth year in a row that they fell short.

But this post isn’t just meant to dredge up the sad memories. It’s also to remember the good parts, and all the players we knew and loved. How ecstatic I felt when they acquired Kevin Appier, one of my favorite pitchers at the time. The joy of seeing Frankie Menechino rise from obscurity to post what we now know was a 3-WAR season. Jeff Tam coming in for relief to induce that key double play, or Chad Bradford scraping the ground with his submarine delivery. Who could forget Olmedo Saenz, trusty DH?

So, while we wait for baseball to someday start again, let’s share some memories in the comments. Happy ones, sad ones, or anything in between. There’s no telling how long the wait might be for that elusive 10th World Series title.

Poll

Which of these A’s teams was the best one to not win a title?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    2000
    (14 votes)
  • 69%
    2001
    (182 votes)
  • 17%
    2002
    (46 votes)
  • 7%
    2003
    (20 votes)
262 votes total Vote Now