Just because nobody saw the Oakland A's coming doesn't mean it's not real

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It’s been a while, so maybe it was easy to forget the Oakland Atheltics have a knack for this sort of thing, until they don’t. They have jumped up on us before, become something greater than the sum of their roster parts, become a curiosity if not quite a full-on beast. And then it’s a joy, because their austere stadium hops around on its axles like a Carnival float, and one of the game’s lonelier outposts is released to show itself as one of the most spirited too.

Nothing lasts forever, and by forever in this case we mean through October. Most of the time. So the A’s fade in and out, usually out, a victim of the very ballpark that in the right place and time is the essence of their otherworldly selves, and a this-world payroll that tends toward minimum wage, and a market that sometimes doesn’t seem that sure about baseball at all. Though the market would be fair to ask if baseball cares about it too. It’s all very complicated. For the moment, however, it falls away to reveal baseball’s best team over the past couple months.

This is the franchise that 15 years ago was immortalized by a book called “Moneyball,” and then years after that a movie, both of which hailed the A’s – their front office, mainly – as hardball savants and/or witch doctors. They were smarter. They were braver. They were handsomer. They saw stuff coming before anyone else did. They used that to create something more, to sneak up on a stodgy, boxed-up game. Guerrilla baseball, if you will. They pounced on what were called “market inefficiencies,” a term educated people had already heard but hardly seemed to apply to the dusty game played amid concrete columns off Hegenberger Road.

Oakland Athletics’ Ramon Laureano, center, celebrates after making the game winning hit against the Detroit Tigers in the 13th inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP)
Oakland Athletics’ Ramon Laureano, center, celebrates after making the game winning hit against the Detroit Tigers in the 13th inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP)

After three seasons of last place in the AL West, of 94, 93 and 87 losses, it was time for other ideas. Time to be smarter and braver again. Starting with the lowest payroll in baseball and the new – and still rising – World Series champion in their own division, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst would require another way to ambush the league. “I feel your pain,” Beane had told A’s fans this winter, adding, “I’m running out of time myself. So, I’m with you.”

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And maybe this was intentional and maybe it’s a matter of dumb timing, but this year’s market inefficiency, its most undervalued asset, its best bargain, and that which the A’s have become exceptional at, is … winning baseball games.

Look around. Not everybody is in. Not everybody is playing to win. There is, instead, a separate race to terrible, those franchises playing as though the first to terrible will then be the first to trampoline from terrible. The alibi created by championships in Kansas City, Chicago and Houston had become a windstorm, carrying as many as 10 teams – a third of the league – with it.

So, hell, why not try to win? It was just crazy enough to work. You don’t even have to be great. (Great can be expensive.) You just have to, you know, try.

Not that the A’s weren’t trying before. They were, in their own way. But finishing in last place year after year after year does tend to start looking like not trying, whether it’s meant to or not. And now, in 2018, holding your own against good teams and bazooka-ing bad teams is a more than reasonable way to contending, to bringing that old ballpark to life again.


Against the worst of the worst – Baltimore, the Chicago White Sox, Detroit, San Diego, Texas and Toronto – the A’s are 39-9. Relevance is born. (Against the same teams, the Astros are 33-11. The Seattle Mariners, who until recently were the A’s, are 26-16.) Play .813 ball against six teams, one in your own division, forge winning records (over a couple series) against the Astros, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, suddenly you’re carrying the fourth-best record in baseball and are only 2 ½ games behind the third-best. Being pretty good at baseball can get you a long way. As of Monday, so far, it was plenty for a wild-card game against the New York Yankees.

“This team,” mused Edwin Jackson, the nomadic right-hander who has a 2.48 ERA over nine starts for the A’s, “it reminds me of that 2008 Tampa team I was on. We were underdogs. It wasn’t a team of what the baseball world would call superstars. But the potential in that clubhouse was through the roof.”

Those Tampa Bay Rays – small market, funky ballpark, buzzsaw division – went to the World Series.

It starts with talent, of course. Young men such as Matt Chapman and Matt Olson show up, stand beside Jed Lowrie, the only remaining player from the A’s last postseason team, and Khris Davis, and hit the ball and catch the ball. It demands someone pitch. What remains from the first week of the A’s starting rotation is Sean Manaea, only today he is surrounded by Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers and Jackson. None, but for Manaea, was even in the organization in mid-March.


The A’s generally do their own thing. But the bullpen, that idea would have to be borrowed. At a time when starting pitchers were losing innings to relievers through the game, particularly down the stretch and deep into October, the A’s for three years had assembled some of the worst bullpens in baseball. They traded for Blake Treinen from the Washington Nationals last summer. Headed into these final weeks, he mans the end of a bullpen that includes former closers Jeurys Familia (July 21 from the New York Mets), Fernando Rodney (Aug. 9 from the Minnesota Twins) along with Shawn Kelley (Aug. 5 from the Washington Nationals). The A’s will lead with their bullpen, with rookie Lou Trivino and veteran Yusmeiro Petit, with numbers and innings and guile and stuff.

“That’s a good team, a good team,” Rodney said Friday afternoon in the uniform of his 10th organization, his sixth in four seasons. “The way they play baseball right now, it’s better than you think.”

Forget NASA or Space Force or tiny little thingies that make our phones and iPads work, some of the greatest technical achievements are on our streets, wobbling down our sidewalks, wedged against our alley hedges.

Oakland Athletics’ Stephen Piscotty (R) is high-fived by Matt Chapman after Piscotty scored on a sacrifice fly by Khris Davis during the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, July 14, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP)
Oakland Athletics’ Stephen Piscotty (R) is high-fived by Matt Chapman after Piscotty scored on a sacrifice fly by Khris Davis during the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, July 14, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP)

These miracles of human want-to, mobility and haulage are bikes, modified to a wheel or two beyond their original designs, now accessorized with straps and hooks and clamps, bungeed and knotted in order to lug a proud man’s life to the next shady spot. They are brilliantly calculated and expertly balanced, so what looks like a haphazard mountain of lost-and-found is quite contrarily a symphony of persistence. Of endurance. Of you-never-know.


Sorta like the Oakland A’s.

Yeah, I just compared the A’s to a two-(or three-or-so) wheeled, top-heavy, urban belongings conveyance. They’re only not pretty if you don’t know what you’re looking at, or can’t appreciate what you don’t understand. Also, holy crap, how’s that thing still upright?

It’s talent, people. And because you didn’t see it coming doesn’t mean it’s not real. Or can’t stay that way.

“I don’t want to say there’s one thing,” Lowrie said. “But, the balanced lineup. Anybody in the lineup can hurt you. And I think the back end of the bullpen has been fantastic. I don’t think we’re doing it in any one way. It’s just a talented group.”


So warm up the right-field bleachers in Oakland, where the fun starts. And get somebody up in the bullpen, and keep him up. Carnival is coming. The best time of year.

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