Oakland A’s pitcher Travis Blackley was watching video of the Texas Rangers this summer, preparing to make a start against the league’s premier offense, the very one standing in the way of the A’s and the American League playoffs. Blackley was deep in study, identifying tendencies, looking for weaknesses in the reigning pennant winner’s armor. He looked at a season’s worth of at-bats, contemplated dozens of pitchers’ approaches. And here is what he saw: “They had one guy who couldn’t hit a change,” Blackley said, “and the next guy kind of diving and try to cover the far side of the plate.” Here’s what Blackley didn’t see: A’s pitching coach Curt Young standing behind him, watching him watch video.
At the time, Blackley had been with the A’s for two weeks. He is one of a dozen new pitching faces that have made their way through the Oakland clubhouse this season. Blackley has more than earned the label “journeyman.” Nearly thirty years of age, the tattooed left-hander has pitched for the Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, the New York Mets, the Kia Tigers (Korean Baseball Organization), the Melbourne Aces (Australian Baseball League), several minor league clubs, the Giants again, and, finally, the Oakland A’s.
One thing Blackley had learned over the years is that his coaches wanted to see him working. Not this coach. “He told me to turn off the video,” Blackley said Young told him. “I didn’t at first because I thought I heard it wrong.”
Young, guide and guarantor of the twelve arms that make up the best pitching staff in the American League, had seen enough in just a fortnight with the newest of his A’s to tell Blackley something he had never heard before. “Curt told me: ‘When you are looking at video, you’re figuring out what pitch they can’t hit, right? But what they can’t hit isn’t the same as what you can throw.'”
Blackley paused, remembering the moment. “He was telling me: “Don’t go in there contemplating how to get them out with your second or third best pitch. Work on your best pitch. Let them adjust.'”
That night Travis Blackley beat Texas — the best hitting team in the major leagues, a team that was one strike away from winning last year’s World Series. Blackley allowed the Rangers a single run, and the A’s whipped a team that pays more for one of its pitchers than Oakland does for its entire starting rotation.
Of course, that is a misleading descriptor for the Texas Rangers, because that distinction is not distinctive at all. Every team in the big leagues has more resources than the A’s. But in this season that hasn’t seemed to matter a bit. With less than a month to go before the season ends, the last place team in terms of payroll may very well finish first in the standings (or, at least, grab a wild-card playoff spot), and Travis Blackley and a collection of has-beens, never-weres, and some never-will-bes is the story of the 2012 baseball world.
The writers and reporters started showing up in early summer, trying to answer the question: Who are these guys? The answer, it turns out, has to do with pitching. That’s because, despite the razzle-dazzle of late-inning home runs, the A’s are a weak-hitting team with the worst batting average in the sport.
And so who are these pitchers taking it to the best teams in the league? And who’s leading them? A pitching coach who had toiled in anonymity for years, then failed in his one year in the spotlight.
And how did the Oakland A’s, who were bad last year and spent the winter getting worse, find their way not only to competitiveness but to the best record in the majors since July 1? And why hasn’t anyone thought of writing a book about it?
Oh, wait, someone already did. This was a sequel no one saw coming.
The book Moneyball was the last time the world noticed the Oakland A’s. The Michael Lewis bestseller chronicled the 2002 Athletics’ draft and subsequent season. It stated that a team could be smart, exploit market inefficiencies, and be successful. But often forgotten is the book’s subtitle, “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
And in the decade that followed, the game didn’t get any fairer, and the A’s mostly stopped winning. In fact, the A’s didn’t triumph in the Moneyball season either. Setting a league record with twenty consecutive victories, the Athletics rolled into the playoffs, but were rolled out after one round. After that, the team faded from the headlines, and, after 2006, from pennant contention. Meanwhile, the book became a kind of blueprint for teams who were astute readers with multimillion-dollar payrolls. Looking for undervalued talent soon became another part of the bidding war. And the A’s were relegated to bringing a pocketknife to a gunfight.
The Boston Red Sox had been shut out of the title since the Treaty of Versailles, but then they hired some of the same propeller-heads that made the A’s the story of baseball, and used some of the same philosophy, along with a convoy of Brinks trucks, to bring a championship to Beantown in 2004. Red Sox Nation subsequently either read or wrote books, telling everybody about how they invented baseball. It was just way too easy to do; even the San Francisco Giants eventually figured it out. “Undervalued,” after all, is relative. The A’s were shopping for the least expensive diamond in the rough, but found that the price of diamonds had gone up dramatically.
Over the years, A’s fans had grown accustomed to their team grooming future stars and then flipping them for future considerations, but with so many teams reading the same script, the cycle turned too fast and the A’s couldn’t hang on for the ride. From 2007 to 2011, Oakland never had a winning record.
In the early Moneyball years, the A’s at least got to see Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada come to life, but when Lew Wolff and the new ownership saw what rivals were willing to pay for baseball seedlings, the A’s started pulling up prospects by the roots. The means to an end had become a means to another means. Attendance and media attention, never great even in the salad days, grew particularly anemic during the cole slaw ones.
Last season’s big build-up was to Moneyball the movie. But by the time the film hit the big screen one year ago, the A’s were twenty games out of first, had fired their manager, and had written out pink slips for the pitching coach, batting coach, bench coach, bat boys, and hot dog vendors. The 2011 season marked the longest sustained period of losing in Oakland A’s franchise history.
Then when the 2011 season finally died its unmourned Oakland death (another third place finish), the A’s traded away the only three All-Stars they had in the space of about ten days: Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals, Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and closer Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox, who by now were aping the New York Yankees, figuring, if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. And in exchange, for these stars, the A’s got prospects. Which is what fans thought the whole point of Gonzalez, Cahill, and Bailey was in the first place. The Athletics had traded away big talent to get them, and now they were being flipped for another set of neophytes.
And the newbies? They weren’t even the Nat’s, D-Back’s, or Sox’s best young commodities — they were the same age or older than the All-Stars the A’s had just traded away, and looked like they were years away from prime time. Between the lines, one newly minted A hinted at what the others were probably thinking: He didn’t even want to come to Oakland.
Baseball prognosticators made their annual predictions before Spring Training 2012 and couldn’t reach a consensus: Half of them thought the Athletics were going to be the worst team in the American League, the others predicted that the A’s were going to be the lousiest team in Major League Baseball. One magazine provided the ultimate dis — by forgetting to even list the Athletics in their pre-season preview.
The biggest splash for those paying any attention was lavished on forty-year-old steroid abuser Manny Ramirez, who accepted a minimum salary and a fifty-day suspension after being convicted of serial-drug abuse. A’s fans were told that if the team didn’t actually disband by June 1, Ramirez — the former Red Sock and convicted wife-beater, senior citizen-beater, and twice a team-quitter — would suit up and, after being drug-tested weekly, would thrill A’s fans by grounding out weakly to second base all summer long.
The world’s saddest circus featuring the cruddiest side show was about to start the 2012 season, when it was then revealed that it wasn’t even going to start in Oakland. Wolff and Major League Baseball sent the A’s into exile. The first two home games of the new season had been sold to the highest bidder, so the Athletics began their season in Japan at a game that began at 2 a.m. Oakland time. The A’s became the only team in baseball that didn’t show its fans its home opener — but at least when the team lost to Seattle in the Tokyo Dome, no one stateside got to (had to?) see it. After a week in Asia and then two more “opening series” — all against Seattle, one here, one there, one in Tokyo — the Oakland A’s had a record of four wins and seven losses to launch the new year. Last place.
It’s a hard game,” said A’s pitching coach Curt Young. “As pitchers we all understand how hard it is to pitch.” Of course, Young hasn’t thrown a pitch in competition for more than fifteen years. When he did, he tossed most of them as a middling starter for the Oakland A’s in the 1980s. Young was the team’s best pitcher when the team was mediocre and was then an average pitcher when the team got really good. But it is meaningful that Young still identifies himself as a pitcher.
He also is a reluctant subject. The A’s public relations staff promised and delivered many who would speak about Young, but let me know that the coach himself might not be willing to speak on the record. But surprisingly, Young slipped into the clubhouse an hour ahead of our scheduled interview, having eluded the team’s publicist, and introduced himself and offered his time and his attention.
Young is a solidly built fifty-year-old. Sun-lined like most baseball lifers, he’s a thoughtful, low-key speaker. A Michigan native, Young maneuvered his way through the pre-game scrum of ballplayers and attendants with stealth. The clubhouse is a little like a junior-high dance. The writers hang on the periphery, mostly watching the action of players interacting in the middle, with the boldest or most desperate making brief forays into interaction and dialogue with the athletes.
Young came over to the wallflower section and sat at a table, gripping a paper cup with his left, pitching hand. We started with something simple. What were the plans for that night’s starting pitcher, Tommy Milone, in terms of how he was going to pitch to Tampa Bay? Young paused: “I’d rather not say. We keep that information kind of private.”
Young was never less than patient, and was more than generous with his time, but it was the unspoken response that spoke most eloquently after we parted ways. The trust, the bond, the brotherhood of Curt Young and his pitchers is sacrosanct. Never mind the fact that the inquisitor was a civilian who couldn’t distinguish a slider from a screwball, writing for a publication that wouldn’t hit print for six weeks, and is probably not being scanned by other big league teams; Young was not going to reveal too much about what he tells his pitchers.
Young also speaks to his players in a language only they seem able to hear. They say Young gives them confidence, that he believes in them, that he simplifies the task in their hands, that he communicates with them in the way that matters the most. “Curt is very soft-spoken, quiet, so when he does say something to you, and it may not be a lot, it’s important,” said relief pitcher Sean Doolittle.
“You realize, of course, that all of these guys have talent,” Young said, sweeping his hand in an arc around the clubhouse. “The talent is already there.”
Young said that the night’s starter, Milone, was going to throw to a brand-new catcher, just acquired two days before. “Tommy is going to talk to [George] Kattaras about the Tampa Bay lineup, about what their strengths are up and down the batting order. He’ll go over how he wants to pitch to them differently the second or third time through the game,” Young said. “Tom knows his game, he knows his strength, and he’ll explain that to George as well.”
Young’s brief sketch of rookie Milone, I suspect, could be replicated for any or all of the dozen pitchers who make up the Oakland A’s starting staff and bullpen. And it is confirmed by the players themselves, who said again and again that the low-key speaker who sat across the table before the game, slightly shifting his left-handed grip on a paper cup, doesn’t coach them; he knows them.
The Oakland A’s had decent pitching through all the years they wandered the hardball desert. The ballpark they play half their games in, derided as the “Mausoleum,” has nearly enough foul territory to build another ballpark in. That means balls hit out of play in every other stadium have a greater chance of finding a glove, and the pitcher, finding a groove.
But this year, only one starter, Tommy “Mayday” Milone, had been healthy or hearty enough to make all of his scheduled starts. And Milone’s claim to fame had nothing to do with his pitching. Last year, Milone became one of a few big leaguers to hit a home run on the very first pitch he ever saw in The Show. Nice, but for a pitcher not named Babe Ruth, it’s kind of getting your priorities backward. In the American League, where Milone and the A’s make their home, the pitchers don’t even hit, rendering the former USC lefty’s gift one best left under the tree.
Other starters either began the season late for Oakland or exited it early. The whole idea of a starting staff is about stability and routine. At the prices the A’s were paying their pitchers, it became clear that stability and routine were luxury items. Bartolo Colon, 39, won ten games and seemingly had drunk from the fountain of youth, though looking at his physique and noting that he got injured and missed three weeks of the season while bending down to field a bunt, maybe he had been drinking from a fountain of chocolate instead.
Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy won kudos for his stance against the ballpark perennial between-innings foolishness of the Kiss Cam, which typically featured ballpark attendees, framed as pairs while other fans make noise until the two lock lips on video. McCarthy found the typical last image of this featurette — two visiting ballplayers sitting together, then being whooped into (or against) smacking lips — homophobic and offensive, and said something about it. The A’s listened, and ceased its practice. (Maybe next year, someone can take up the cudgel against Dot Racing?)
April starters Tyson Ross (“The East Bay Express”) and Graham Godfrey didn’t make it through May, meaning the A’s’ B-team was called in to rescue an underwhelming plan A. Maybe this iteration of the Moneyball philosophy has been to recognize that if the A’s can’t afford the best players, perhaps they can collect the most.
This year, Oakland has used eleven rookie pitchers, and has shuttled in several centerfielders, a plethora of third basemen, and more first baseman than could fit on the base. By May, the A’s had introduced new pitchers Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley, and Dan Straily, who are not even household names in their own homes. The most heralded, Parker, available after being disabled for a year and a half after Tommy John ACL surgery, couldn’t crack the Big Leagues on Opening Day.
Parker is 23 years old, and even in his brief minor league baseball career, has been privy to the thoughts and ministrations of more than a dozen pitching coaches. The A’s have handed him the baseball every fifth day since he arrived and said: “Your time is now.” Parker said he’s gotten better as the season progressed, and pointed to Curt Young as the explanation.
Parker recently reflected on one of his starts, a stinker against Baltimore, one of four teams including the A’s, that has been competing for a pair of wild card playoff spots in the American League. “Curt came up to me the next day after the game,” the peach-fuzzed pitcher said at his locker. “He said to me, ‘What’s done is done.'”
“That was it?” I asked.
“He told me to turn the page,” Parker replied.
I must have looked less than impressed, so Parker continued in earnest, trying to communicate why his pitching coach’s message, which sounded like clichés to me, spoke to him. “There are guys I’ve had coach me who put their hands in everything,” he explained with greater intensity, eyes locked on mine from under his cap as he mimed a man whose hands are grabbing at objects all around him. “Curt gave me a few key points and moved on. He doesn’t over-coach me.”
Parker is having one of the best rookie seasons by an American League starter; the others are also Oakland A’s.
Ordinarily, using eleven rookie pitchers in a season spells Wait Till Next Year, but in this most surprising season, it has yielded Pennant Fever. The slightly more grizzled relief pitcher, Jerry Blevins, chimed in on how Young manages his youngsters. “Curt gets to know us as people,” said Blevins, a six-foot-six beanpole. “The best coaches know that when you have five different starters, you’re going to need five different ways of talking to each one. He’s not a guru, if you know what I mean. He’s not on the bus telling us this is how you throw a cutter, this is how you throw a curve.”
Blevins looked around his clubhouse and added: “We all got here, the skills are evident. It’s up to us to perform. But what makes Curt so popular around here is that he knows us as people first, not employees. Some guys like me want to be talked to directly, right at the moment. No bullshit. Other guys aren’t going to be receptive walking right off the mound. That’s what makes him great to have around.”
Pitcher after pitcher echoed the words of Parker and Blevins. Reliever Doolittle, who had been a minor league first baseman until last season, said that Young “builds relationships.” The pitching coach, he said, provides all the info necessary and whatever degree of input and advice a pitcher seeks. After a lousy effort against the Toronto Blue Jays, Doolittle went to Young the next day, half dreading his coach’s review. “Instead, he just said: ‘That was pretty bad. Let’s just throw it out.'”
The itinerant Blackley, who has not only crossed continents but now does the traverse between starting and finishing games, said Young finds places to build confidence, too. “After my bad start, Curt took me out and we started throwing the ball back and forth in the outfield,” Blackley said. “My solution after giving up a home run was to just start throwing everything five miles per hour harder.” He grinned and shook his head. “So we’re there in the outfield just throwing the ball back and forth, and Curt gives me some thoughts as we debrief out there. I had my guard down, and was ready to listen. I didn’t get beat up, didn’t beat up myself.”
The veteran of international pitching added simply: “I have never had a pitching coach to build confidence like Curt. He told me once: ‘You have a Gio Gonzalez curve ball.’ And I never even liked my curve, but then I started throwing it. He was right. He’s right a lot.”
The A’s new manager is Bob Melvin. He is the favorite to be named baseball’s Manager of the Year regardless of where the A’s finish at this point because they’ve gone so far beyond where they were predicted to end up (in a ditch somewhere).
There was nothing in the stars that suggested this baseball blitz. Most of the publicity that the A’s have gotten has gone to the team’s streak of walk-off hits, referring to a blow struck that ends the game at that moment. The name, ironically, was coined by Dennis Eckersley, an A’s relief pitcher back in the day, and now his former team is its most successful practitioner. With each successive last-minute win, the Oakland crew has piled on elaborate celebratory flourishes. A Gatorade shower. Pies in the face. Spiderman with Gatorade showers and pie (don’t ask).
But if the Oakland A’s are to make this a September (and October, yo!) to remember, it’s the men on the hill who are going to take them there. Need numbers? This is a team that leads the majors in being shut out; the A’s strike out more often than any team in the game other than the Houston Astros, the actual worst team in baseball, who were eliminated from pennant contention around Easter, or, for their Jewish fans, Passover.
Melvin, a former catcher, knows exactly what is holding his team together. “Pitching is our strength,” he said. “It has been all year.” Melvin pointed to Young, who he hired to return to Oakland in 2012. “He has such an easy way about him,” the A’s skipper continued. “He gives our guys confidence that they can beat anybody. And we did, taking a four-game series from the Yankees. He makes the pitchers believers.”
Melvin said Young “simplifies things. You can give your guys a game plan that is way too complicated. Curt does the work and then boils it down to one or two things. I spent my career sitting in meetings with pitchers and pitching coaches, and I’ve never seen a coach get pitchers so ready to do their job.”
Ray Fosse is the TV color man and a former big league All-Star. All this talk of confidence and attitude seemed a bit twee. So I figured a ballplayer from a less touchy-feely time might have something more concrete to offer. Instead, Fosse laughed and pulled out a quote from thirty years before his playing days. “Pitching is just what Yogi Berra described it as, ’90 percent mental, and the other 50 percent, physical.’ At this level, everyone can do the job. On this team, it’s been remarkable to see these kids are not just competing but winning. I’ve been watching baseball for fifty years. This is something special.”
For every season from 2004 to 2010, Curt Young toiled in baseball anonymity. His talents and his results remained known only to the baseball cognoscenti and the 12,000 people who regularly filled the Oakland Coliseum. For a while, like most A’s, the lure of a bigger payday and bigger publicity was dangled by one of the Haves, and every year, Young, like General Manager Billy Beane, stayed with the Have Not Muches.
Then in 2011, characteristically without a word, Young uncharacteristically took the bait. He was going to the brashest stage in the game, Boston, and was going to take its underachieving, overpaid pitching staff and bring the Sox back to the World Series, since they hadn’t been there for a Cursed three seasons.
Perhaps the quiet man was seeking some spotlight, but, alas, what he found instead were Klieg lights. The Sox lurched badly out of the gate, losing six straight and ten of their first twelve games. With a now Yankee-like sense of playoff entitlement, the BoSox, who had been somewhat charming as Also Rans, became insufferable as Contenders.
Throwing Big Money at Big Free Agents cushioned the Boston team from the painful discipline of efficiency, but the bloated payroll brought new problems — like sloth. In spite of the stumble, the Red Sox seized control of a playoff spot by the start of September, even with the pitching staff firing on half its cylinders. A nine-game lead with less than a month to play is a mortal lock; no team had ever failed to make the postseason with such a head start. But Boston was determined to do the impossible.
Day after day, the million-dollar babies found ways to lose ballgames. Mostly, it was the pitching. On the final evening of the season, the Sox still controlled their fate, and needed only to beat the lagging Baltimore Orioles to limp into the playoffs. The Sox had won just 7 of their last 26 games, but they led the O’s until the bottom of the 9th in the final game, when once again the pitching collapsed and Baltimore rose up from irrelevance to score twice and beat Boston 4-3.
Red Sox fans reacted with typical restraint. “They killed this city; this city is in mourning as of right now,” a transit worker was quoted in the newspaper. The Boston Globe published an autopsy that ran for seven pages and revealed the cause of death: a mismanaged and poorly disciplined pitching staff, allowed to eat fried chicken, drink beer, and play video games during games, running roughshod over the gentle (weak!), patient (gutless!) pitching coach, Curt Young. “He was a cool dude,” remembered Clay Buchholz, one of the Red Flops starters. “Curt’s a really laid-back guy.” It was obvious Hub talk for “big wuss.”
Referencing his pitching coach previous to Young, Buchholz said: “I was scared of him. … It made a difference.” The Boston press used the phrase, “thrown under the bus” with unseemly glee to describe Young’s fate. He was let go from his contract, free to pursue a new opportunity. Instead, he took an old one. Before the World Series had even begun, Young shook hands on a new deal, agreeing to come back to Oakland.
Before the 2012 season even started, the rich got richer. The A’s play in a four-team division in which only the first-place team is guaranteed a playoff spot. There are three divisions, and beyond the division champions, the two teams with the next best records qualify as “wild cards.” For the A’s, two of the best teams in baseball were already in their division and not rebuilding for 2012, but reloading. Texas, with the league’s 2010 MVP, got off to a rocket-fast start, and the Los Angeles Angels spent hundreds of millions to get Albert Pujols, the Most Valuable Player in the National League, to keep pace.
The Angels, with a huge TV and attendance revenue stream, also purchased C.J. Wilson, a former Ranger pitcher who had his best career year in 2011, and took particular delight in tormenting and taunting the A’s. (“I hate pitching there, the mound sucks, the fans suck,” Wilson was quoted as saying.)
The Rangers have a budget of $120 million, and the Angels decided to pay $154 million to try and catch them. The third team in the division, the Seattle Mariners, are laying out $81 million just to hold onto bronze, while the A’s looked under the cushions and in the cup holder and scraped up $55 million to apparently play ego booster to the rest of the American League.
In the early season, the A’s bullpen didn’t get many leads, and when it did, it failed to hold them. Grant Balfour, a 2011 holdover, was sent back to middle relief after he couldn’t close. For a team with no margin for error, ninth-inning errors were gut-wrenching. Looking down the bench, Young found Ryan Cook, yet another fringe rookie prospect acquired over the winter, and essentially said, I know you just started, but we need you to finish. Cook did so for three months, and became the A’s’ sole representative on the American League All-Star team.
On May 21, the Athletics had dog-paddled their way to a .500 record, certainly not world-beaters, but not ready for a shroud either. Then the wheels came off. C.J. Wilson of the Angels started off the misery tour, shutting out Oakland 5-0 at his hated Coliseum. Then there were three straight losses at home to the Yankees, and when the Athletics hit the road in late May, the road hit back. The woeful Minnesota Twins beat the A’s three straight, and the dismal Kansas City Royals took two of three as well.
The A’s were in last place, nine games behind Texas at the start of June, and having to host the Rangers, ready, it seemed, for a knockout blow. But someone forgot to tell Jarrod Parker, who no-hit the first-place Texans for eight innings en route to the second win of his big league life. Two days later, Colon also missed the memo, and shut out Texas 2-0. On the last day of the series, Brandon McCarthy was scheduled to pitch against Yu Darvish, who had just signed a six-year, $60 million contract to pitch for Texas. With that money, Darvish could have bought the entire A’s roster. What he couldn’t do, though, was beat them. McCarthy’s shoulder held up long enough for the A’s to give him a 7-1 win, and all of a sudden, what looked like a funeral became a resurrection. McCarthy, Milone, and Cook beat the first place Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-0, 4-1, and 4-1.
A June swoon, though, found the A’s back on life support, when Texas used its home ballpark advantage to take the first three games of a four-game set against the Athletics. All the hard work to stay afloat seemed to have gone for naught, as the hot A’s had fallen further behind the scorching Rangers. Oakland trailed Texas by thirteen games heading into the final game of the series.
Travis Blackley was given the ball, and no videotape to watch. That night, on the first of July, Yu Darvish, the $60 million man, was beaten by a pitcher who had worn out his prospect label eight years earlier — Blackley, a 29-year-old reject whom the San Francisco Giants, Korean Tigers, and fifteen other teams had cut loose. With newfound faith in his “Gio Gonzalez curve ball” and a pitching whisperer who spoke to him in a way that nobody else ever had, he stopped the Rangers 3-1, and fairly crowed to reporters after the game. “I’ve got heaps of confidence. I’m just so glad somebody gave me an opportunity again.”
The A’s got hotter. A three-game roll over the Boston Red Sox with Jarrod Parker ($500,000) beating Daisuke Matsuzaka ($8.5 million). Then Jerry Blevins ($490,000) defeated Jon Lester ($7.3 million), and finally Grant Balfour, a relatively rich A at $4 million, finished the clean sweep. Oakland took two of three against Seattle, then flattened the Minnesota Twins three straight (A.J Griffin, yet another untested rookie, then Milone, and, finally, Parker). The A’s took two of three versus the Rangers, who went out and bought another high priced pitcher to steady their ship.
Just before the All-Star break, the Yankees — once again the highest-priced and highest-profile team — came to town. But for the first time in Oakland A’s history — a history that includes four World Series titles and many other glories — the Athletics, with Griffin, Cook, Parker, and Blevins, swept a four-game series. The CBS affiliate in New York wrote: “Strong pitching has led Oakland all series — all month actually.”
The A’s finished with one of the best Julys in baseball history, and in August, their arc continued upward. As of Monday, Oakland was nineteen games over .500, their best record since winning the American League West in 2006. The A’s also led the race for the two wild-card spots.
When the trading deadline came in July, fans and players sat waiting for Beane to pull the trigger and bring in some serious support. Texas scored a relief pitcher; the Angels, a Cy Young award winner. Teams that are out of the race often make available top talent, hoping to bring in budding prospects. The A’s, loaded with minor leaguers from their winter haul, seemed uniquely positioned to benefit from a fire sale. But as the deadline ticked closer, they did nothing. No hitting to buck up the anemic offense, no new pitchers to spell an exhausted staff.
Even though the A’s had moved up in the standings, they still flat-line in terms of ownership and support. The money that couldn’t buy a free agent in February had not materialized to pay a veteran’s salary in September. Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, and Travis Blackley are going to be the pitchers that carry the team through September in Texas, Detroit, and New York.
The staff also will have to gut it out without Brandon McCarthy, who was felled last week by a line drive hit off the bat of a Los Angeles Angel. This latest shot means that with the exception of Milone, literally no Athletic starter who began the season in the rotation will finish in it, a rare occurrence in the major leagues at any level — unheard of for a team with the inside track to the postseason. The loss of McCarthy also means the A’s are going to try to win a playoff spot with four rookie starters. That would get a team laughed out of spring training.
Of course, the A’s also must do without Bartolo Colon, who was suspended for the rest of the season after failing a drug test. In the spirit of 2012, Oakland brought up Brett Anderson, a pitcher who had not thrown a big league game since June of 2011. Anderson promptly took the ball and beat the Minnesota Twins. “Whenever a guy’s coming back after being away so long,” Young said, “you’re hoping all good things happen.”
Good things have happened this season in Oakland. The fact that the team has provided its fans with a full season of drama and joy means that whatever happens from this point on, the A’s are playing with house money. It is still very much an unfair game. Look across the bay and see what a swanky stadium, a 50,000-watt radio station, corporate ticket holders, and a ginormous marketing budget can do. Look at New York or Boston, and see them ready to poach and then overpay the first A’s player or coach who they fancy. Look at Wolff and co-owner John Fisher, still trying to move the A’s out of Oakland for a location with more corporate money and what they imagine to be a more appealing demographic. And then look at the ragged Oakland Coliseum and see a team and a town that may only have this one September together.
Moneyball appealed because it showed that if the little guy was more agile he could find a way to win when the odds were stacked against him. It’s ten years later and the rich guys are richer and the long odds are longer. But the A’s have found a way to win an arms race and maybe a playoff with pitchers and parts that other teams have thrown away. It may not be a book and it may not be a movie, but it’s turning out to be quite a story.
Update, 9/14: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Manny Ramirez is thirty years old. he is in fact forty.