By the ninth inning of Friday night’s 8-2 loss to the Yankees, watching Burch Smith getting tattooed left and right, with three kids about to melt down before the damn postgame Star Wars light show, I was wishing we could just forfeit and move things along.
Where in the stages of grief is “resignation?” I was resigned to our fate that the spit and bubble gum wasn’t going to hold up, even with the roll of duct tape brought in at the trade deadline. This feeling of resignation brought a sort of zen as the expectations dissipated. With the dark cloud representing the future of the franchise itself, I resolved to just go to as many games as I could, to enjoy the game for what it is in the moment. Watching a baseball game is still better than 90% of the rest of life, even if your team is out of it. I already knew that in two days, the team would be comfortably out of it.
The post-mortem wrote itself. The A’s couldn’t afford to re-sign (or even make any kind of respectable offer to) Semien and Hendriks, and both were perhaps the best 2B and RP in the American League. And unlike the 2002 Moneyball A’s, there was no magical 20-game win streak coming to save the season to get us to an improbable division title. No, all we got was a steroid suspension, a gruesome liner to the face of our ace pitcher, failures by an overmatched and overworked bullpen, and a 2-for-99 (ish) with runners in scoring position over the past couple of weeks. Bottom line, the A’s were looking like the sixth best team in a league where only five make the playoffs.
For some reason, and I don’t really know why, I’ve found myself insanely attached to this team. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be. When they win, they usually win boring. When they lose, they usually lose excruciating. But maybe it’s just all the adversity, maybe it’s that they’re kind of the only thing that has been normal in this 2021 return(?) to normalcy(?), or maybe it’s just these players embody the same knocked down and get back up and get knocked down and back up and knocked down and back up cycle that we have experienced as A’s fans for the past 20 years.
The “us against the world” mentality is so overplayed in sports, it’s comical when you’ll see a wealthy team laden with All-Stars go to that trope. But once in a while an underdog’s battle isn’t just against a superior opponent, but against its own owner, the league, the city they call home, and fate itself.
The 2021 A’s are that team. And if there’s a mascot for this underdog squad, it’s Tony Kemp, a guy who’s already been traded twice in his career, who has never consistently cracked the starting lineup of any squad, a small frame with a knack for coming up big.
Somehow, after looking like a team headed to the golf course, the squad was revived with a near-miracle 12 shutout innings from our starting pitchers against the powerful Yankees lineup, combined with one Tony Kemp, a 5’6” never-say-die ball of lightning.
Seeing him laser that magical homer that improbably brought the A’s a series split, two wins in a row, and back within striking distance of the postseason, was that fairy tale ending to a game that has ended with harsh reality over and again the past two weeks. In the last two games (3-1 and 3-2 victories against the Bronx Bombers) Kemp has 4 RBIs (3 traditional RBIs, and 1 Run Balked In, which he deserves credit for even if the official scorer doesn’t give it to him). He also had 2 hits with runners in scoring position (!!), en route to going 4 for 5, and, oh yeah, he made a handful of absolute highlight reel plays in the field along the way.
The A’s are still the underdog, and still have that storm to navigate. The sad truth about underdogs is that they usually don’t win in the end. But if the A’s stay upright on this crazy wave, we’ll all look at the two days Tony Kemp saved the 2021 season. Baseball never ceases to surprise.