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The A?s Season Wrap-up: Baseball as Greek Tragedy

Uploaded: Oct 2, 2014
Billy Beane is Oedipus, the King.

In Sophocles' great play, the protagonist was a man of considerable ability. He had a noble soul -- exiling himself from his father's home, lest he fulfill the Delphic Oracle's dire prophesy that he would kill ol' dad and marry his mother. He was a warrior of some note, having slain a whole group of presumed highwaymen out on a lonesome road. And he was pretty smart ? the only guy who could solve the Sphinx's riddle*, and thus free a kingdom from an awful plague. The grateful populace and its queen rewarded him with the kingdom's throne ? which happened to have a recent vacancy.

The future seemed bright for Oedipus. Uh-oh.

The Athletics' season was like that. There were rather humble beginnings based on a mediocre treasury, and chosen by few prognosticators to three-peat as Division champions. Most sports writers, you see, are human beings ? and most members of our species are front-runners (which is why there are so many Giants fans). The conventional wisdom always holds that the money ? usually expressed in the forms of the Hated Yankees and Sawx, must surely prevail. Anything else is an aberration to be explained-away as an outlier on the bell-curve of outcomes.

The problem is that, while a bell-curve it may be, baseball has a huge random factor ? a lucky swing here, an errant or brilliant throw from deep left field, umpiring more out of ego than accuracy, or any of a hundred other things. Thus, it is a very flat bell-curve. Even 162 regular-season iterations don't do much to amplify its middle. Where are the Yankees and Sawx ? and their nearly $half-billion in payroll, today?

Whether you call it statistical variation or the caprice of a sadistic deity, that great leveling factor is one of the reasons that baseball is a metaphor for life itself. Some folks try to insulate themselves against its cruelty by amassing great fortunes, right Yankees and Sawx? Some bet on the future. Others don't even seem to try. The A's, and their Oedipus, rely on their wits to try to stay 'ahead of the game.' But when the Baseball Oracle decides something, mere mortals are powerless against the forces of inevitability.

2014 is the ideal case in-point. In the season's first half, despite an injury-depleted rotation, our heroes succeeded mightily. They didn't just win (baby); they amassed a run-differential stat that more than doubled that of their next closest competitors, much less the rest of the league (In a game in which an outstanding season is defined as winning 6 games out of every ten, that run-diff ought to be only slightly positive). Fill-ins like gutsy Jesse Chavez, and newbies like Drew Pomerantz, daily mowed through the opposition like infield groundskeepers. Not only did Jesse disappear when he turned sideways, so did his fastball.

The Greek chorus all but proclaimed the season over ? with one great team, our A's as assembled by the young King Beane, and then everybody else (e.g., Schoenfield of ESPN was particularly smitten).

The future was bright for the A's. Uh-oh.

Apparently, the baseball gods noticed. The decline actually began before the All-Star break, although fans really didn't see it. Margins were narrowing. Players who had been batting 30-40 points above expectation (Coco, Norris, Moss) began to regress toward their means, and the pitchers were tiring early. Few others noted the decline, but our latter-day Oedipus did.

He took bold steps to overcome the offensive slumpery and stave-off the prophesy, bolstering that faltering rotation by mortgaging the team's future, and by painfully trading away the team's iconic symbol of under-appreciated 'potencia' -- who was not the future but who was hugely popular all-around. He even protected against an offensive drop-off in left-field by re-acquiring a locally-grown favorite, Jonny Gomes, whose numbers looked a lot like those of Mr. Cespedes (albeit on a much smaller season sample).

Nothing worked. Those shrinking positive margins turned negative ? not suddenly or drastically, but consistently. The A's lost 17 one-run games after the Break. They found almost as many maddening ways to lose ? an errant throw here, remarkably blown saves from a bullpen meticulously assembled to avoid them, and two extra-innings HRs by a mediocre opponent's scrub there. It started to become apparent to the A's FAithful that the stats/Fates/Deity smiled elsewhere.

Still they struggled mightily ? the chorus took delight in the occasional 11-2 pasting they administered, and the mammoth walk-off homer by their indomitable, hobbled star. Each time we thought: here, at last, was the turn-around that would redeem the season. Brilliant performances continued to go to waste, though, in seemingly random fashion. One bad pitch out of 100 thrown, or one bobble, and many, many opportunities lost in futile at-bats. The Fates made sure that the A's hit-em where they was.

We were teased by the heroics of Sonny Gray on the season's last day. Fates be damned, he threw a complete-game shut-out that was needed to avoid a play-in to the Wild Card play-in ? it would've been three cities in three days. But it was really just a set-up for the spirit-crushing finale in Kansas City.

Our heroes battled against a fleet-footed, upstart foe and a deafening crowd in a game that was being called A Classic even before two lately-acquired reinforcements (including the defensively challenged Mr. Gomes) collided in the 12th inning. In the end, it didn't really matter How the A's would lose ? it was fated. The baseball gods always get the last word, and they had spoken, again, now for the last time and emphatically.

Some will call this season a(nother) failure. They will speak of epic collapses, of 'Chokeland,' about excessive tinkering and even voodoo curses. But true A's fans know what the Greek playwrights knew. When the gods are ag'in you, you may strive, you may push, scream into the howling gale and you may do everything humanly possible. And you will be a better (hu)man for it ? but they will always win. Always. Baseball really is like life that way ? the essence is in the struggle. This season was a failure Only in the fact that it has ended ? too soon for us.

Fortunately, our Billy didn't have any sharp objects handy on Tuesday evening ? we're gonna need his eyesight, and foresight, next Spring. No other team so exemplifies the human spirit of success against the (g)odds, as the A's: always in the bottom five in payroll ? but usually in the post-season tournament.

Spring will get here, and we who inhabit the human condition will begin the struggle, all over again. Meanwhile, Thanks, you A's, for another great season of unlikely thrills, and for the heartaches, too.

* "What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three in the evening?"
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Analog_guy, a resident of another community,
on Oct 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Very apt and well-written summary of the season.

*Thanks also for the classical allusions.

Posted by Mrs. Pennywhistle, a resident of Kottinger Ranch,
on Oct 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I got lost in the mixed metaphors. So, who is Oedipus, who's his mother, and who's his father?

Grade (assuming written by a college freshman): C-

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Oct 4, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Tom Cushing is a registered user.

Tough critic, madam. The analogy to the play might not be on all-fours, especially this late in the afternoon, but you might check with 'Analog_guy' -- he seemed to understand it pretty well.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Oct 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I don't know much about Greek drama but I do understand SF Giants drama!!!

3 senior citizens crashed at my home last night...we went crazy crazy crazy...we woke up to scrambled eggs and tortillas.

fun was had by all...VIVA SF GIANTS! NO MERCY!

ta-ta as my boys go ALL THE WAY!!!

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Danville,
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Tom Cushing is a registered user.

Aw Geez, Cholo -- the knife! It twists!

This IS the only month when their colors make sense, ya frontrunner.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 9:03 am

Web Link

I REST MY CASE....anony

Posted by Bill, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm

@ Mrs. remind me of most English teachers that grade a paper based on experiences that the teacher had during their lifetime. For some reason a student is suppose to have knowledge of these experiences even though they have spent a short time on Earth. In this case the tables are turned. Unless you have lived baseball as a player, coach, and umpire you will not get anything out of what Tom wrote. For those of us who have, Tom wrote a wonderful piece that brings back a flood of memories and the reference to Oedipus' destiny puts a cherry on top.

Posted by Another Teacher, a resident of Highland Oaks,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Sorry, Bill. The scroll doesn't hold together not because of poor Ms. Pennywhistle being a woman who you imply could never know baseball like you the self-proclaimed male athlete that you imply you are. No, most of us have read the story of Oedipus, perhaps even some who wasted their lives playing baseball but were still able to wrench themselves from the diamond in order to read books.

I agree with Ms. Pennywhistle's brief critique. I'd only change the grade from her C- to perhaps a C+. When one leads by flaunting a classical myth, the burden is on the author to tie it intelligibly to the subject matter, in this case, Oakland's choke job. Like Ms. P., I see no tying together. All wind-up, no pitch.

Posted by Pancho, a resident of Avila,
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:12 am

I am glad that you teachers are improving the breed as to your students' writing. The future is bright for blogging.

But who will teach them reading comprehension?

Posted by Bill, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows,
on Oct 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm

@ Mrs. Pennywhistle and @Another Teacher......What does Oedipus' mother and father have to do with anything? Tom is assuming that most people are acquainted with the story of Oedipus Rex and have enough brains to understand that Oedipus' life was governed, not by his will, but by predetermined fate. Hence the tie in to a season of baseball that should be based on the team's ability but instead is more than not predetermined by the gods of baseball. The way Tom tied this together was short and sweet. Maybe you two would like to take the weekend and rewrite Tom's blog and show us what it would take to make the grade of this story an "A". My feeling is that you two are fakers and relish criticizing someone?s hard work but cannot lift a pen to paper if you tried.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of another community,
on Oct 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

(Thanks Bill -- an occasional compliment's a nice thing to get, especially in the dreary months 'til Spring Training.)

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