Friday, September 6, 2002

Squeezing the Tube From the Bottom: Another Year, Another Miracle for the Oakland A's

Back in June, ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote of the then-struggling Oakland A’s that, "all that's left to play for are pride and 2003." To his credit, Neyer ate his crow this week and was even good enough to remind us that he wrote off the A’s last year as well, only to see them mount a second-half surge similar, albeit less spectacular, than this year’s. You have to wonder if Neyer has sworn off making predictions about the A's. If so, you could hardly blame him. The A’s seem to have mastered the art of defying reasonable expectations.

In the first place, it defies expectations that they're winning at all. When Neyer made his prediction earlier this year, Oakland was eight games behind the first-place Mariners for the division lead, nine games behind the Yankees, and 11 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race. Since then they have won 61 of 89 games -- a record topped off by the current 20-game winning streak. This stretch is basically identical to their 2001 drive, which constituted one of the greatest second-halves of all time. You don't exactly make a living in sportswriting by predicting back-to-back miracles.

But it’s the more subtle improbabilities that really excite me. Last year’s surge was led by Jason Giambi, who put up a season that should have given him his second-straight MVP award. When Giambi walked, he left a massive hole in the lineup to be filled by stiffs like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice, and the non-stiff but certainly unproven Jeremy Giambi. Teams with MVPs can do amazing things; teams with journeymen tend to play at or below expectations. The A’s weren't supposed to have the personnel to pull off this historic run.

Adding to the improbability of it all is that in May the A’s seemed to have taken a mid-season downgrade in the journeyman department, trading a solidly performing Jeremy Giambi for one of the poster boys of stiffdom, John Mabry. Some of you might recall that the more enlightened members of the baseball punditry viewed this trade with extreme skepticism. One clever wag called the trade "bungling of the highest order." All John Freakin’ Mabry (as he has come to be known by critics of the trade) has done is put up a .938 OPS in part- time play -- and shut the mouths of the clever wags. A’s GM Billy Beane has always managed to squeeze the occasional good performance out of spare part players. With Mabry he has squeezed from the bottom and rolled the tube up.

Finally, let's not forget that the A’s now-annual second-half march to the sea has been accomplished with the third-lowest payroll in the majors. The only teams who spend less on payroll are the Montreal Expos, who are in receivership, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are on pace to lose 107 games. And to think we almost lost this season because the owners thought that teams with low payrolls couldn't compete against the big boys. Of course, if the A's win the World Series, history will probably give the new and inferior collective bargaining agreement all the credit.

But that’s the future. For now fans should just sit back and enjoy the A’s magnificently improbable run, and hope to Heaven above that the irresistible force from Oakland meets the immovable New York Yankees in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Given what we've been through this season, we've earned it.