By Tom Cushing
Son of MoneyballUploaded: Sep 13, 2012
Okay, so this week Mr. Obama got his bump, and Mr. Romney continues to demonstrate his proud amateur standing as a student of foreign affairs. It also looks like those nasty media sharks (even including Fox News) are circling and doing actual journalism, increasingly dissatisfied with the GOP campaign's common approach to policy substance and tax returns. The beat goes on.
So instead I'm going to write about the Oakland Athletics' magical season, because 1 it's by far the best story going in America's Pastime, and 2 -- nobody else is. To paraphrase the legendary, if fictitious, Major League play-by-play man Harry Doyle: "In case you haven't noticed, and judging by attendance you haven't, there's something happening in Oaktown."
By now, folks are familiar with the Moneyball saga of book and movie fame. In it, A's General Manager (and Danville's own) Billy Beane, a former "can't-miss" prospect who did, approaches his job as the small-market A's GM with an abiding distrust of Conventional Wisdom and of scouts of the type who convinced him to pass-up a full-ride to Stanford to sign with the Mets out of high school. Faced with rebuilding a contender ravaged by the free agent departures to richer teams, he opts for a high-risk, egg-headed approach espoused by various computer geeks, Ivied-Econ majors and an obscure guru/security guard at a Kansas pork-and-beans plant named Bill James.
Out of that creative process came Moneyball, a new recruiting and tactical gospel: batting stats that measure contribution to actual winning, pitching keyed to deception rather than radar guns, and defenders chosen according to a bewildering array of measurement acronyms. Patience at-bat was preached, and steals and sacrifices discarded as bad probabilistic deals. Nobody cared anymore whether a player had an ugly girlfriend. TheA's flourished against much better-paid opposition, setting a league record with 20 consecutive wins -- but the team fell short of brass and World Series rings.
Those other, richer teams noticed, and quickly re-invented themselves with Moneyball-style tactics and better players. The A's have, for several seasons, regressed to the mean, or just below it. Purists concluded that the potential of quantification had been realized; order had been restored to the hardball universe as the big-money Sawx and Yankees prospered. Oakland's brief era was pronounced an ephemeral Camelot, and ESPN reverted to not-even-pretending any interest in baseball played west of the Hudson River.
But Moneyball was never a static dogma it stands, ultimately, for acquiring and exploiting under-valued talent, on whatever bases other teams overlook it. It's the team-building equivalent of "hittin' 'em where they ain't." Bad luck, especially injuries, dogged the team for several seasons, and Ownership did itself no favors with the dwindling fan base by actively courting Fremont and San Jose as sites to replace an Oakland home stadium that has all the attraction of a crumbling parking structure. The Coliseum may ooze, but it's not charm.
2012 prospects looked bleak. That old bugaboo Conventional Wisdom opined that the team was building toward a mid-decade future elsewhere, having traded-away its three best pitchers, lacking home run power and with an outfield patrolled by a little-known Cuban defector, a Bahston disappointment and some guy named after a breakfast cereal. The payroll was MLB's lowest out of 30 teams about 25% of what New York pays its heroes. Recent hot prospects were either injured or slumping, and the A's played to their clippings for the first two months.
In June, perceptive fans in the blogosphere began to notice that the team was stirring they had shrugged-off a nine-game disaster, they seemed to be "in" nearly every contest not-played-against the Hated Yankees, and they were starting to win. The local media, however, stayed true to their allegiances to the Hallowe'eners 'cross the Bay, leading with them, and never running a positive A's headline without a disjunctive "but." The A's headed into the July All-Star Break flirting with a .500 record for the first time in recent seasons.
And since The Break, oh my? The Athletics are winning at a near .700 clip, at 39-17 comfortably the best in the League (vice Baltimore 35-22, Texas 33-23 and the redoubtable Yanks 28-29, including a four-game sweep courtesy of the A's in late July). And they've had a blast doing it pie-facing their many walk-off heroes (13 so far), and fittingly bringing a corpse back from the dead by rockin' The Bernie in the dugout.
How have they done it? Superior newcomers, led by chiseled Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, Boston's former "fifth outfielder," wrasslin' fan and Zonker Harris doppelganger Josh Reddick, platooners stylish Seth Smith and roughneck Jonny Gomes, and rookie hurlers Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook. They've been joined by patented Beane scrap-heap pickups the Brandons Moss and Inge, catcher George Kottaras, injured infielder-turned-fireballing-reliever Sean Doolittle and the venerable relic Bartolo Colon, whose reckless pharmaceutical assist has earned him a suspension under MLB's half-hearted drug-testing program.
They've been joined by homegrown prospects suddenly blooming together the Big Man Chris Carter, surgery-survivor lefty Brett Anderson and still more puppy pitchers in AJ Griffin (6-0, who blanked the Angels over 8 innings last evening) and Dan Straily, pressed into service when anchor starter Brandon McCarthy was near-tragically beaned by an errant line drive. Finally, there's irrepressible sparkplug centerfielder Coco Crisp, whose clutch play might earn him a Wheaties box portrait were it not for that moniker.
But the confluence of talent isn't the-half-of-it. This Son of Moneyball team also has something the father never counted-on: a remarkable chemistry, led by genius puppeteer Bob Melvin. The Manager sets the tone, and this Manager clearly relishes his role in keeping his charges confident and loose. It helps that he has unerringly made the right calls on personnel and pitching. Big assists, too, go to coaches Kurt Young for developing his kiddie corps of no-walks pitchers, and Chili Davis, who has 'em swingin' for the fences. The A's lead the Majors in home runs since The Break despite playing in the Coliseum, where fly balls go to die.
The A's still have the toughest September row-to-hoe almost everyone they face has a winning record. But this season has a magical quality to it, and instead of playing "prevent-defense" with their 5-game Wild Card cushion, they appear to have set their sights on their Division rival Rangers the locals have made-up six of the nine games that once separated them, and the two teams play each other seven more times before the regular season concludes.
Fellow upstarts the Balamer Ohreos come to town this weekend, for fireworks aplenty including an after-game show Friday night. The fans are starting to come back, despite the continuing media blackout. You might want to get in on the magic by learning The Bernie and coming on out. Brad Pitt may not be there, but Son of Moneyball is the best sequel ever and the best show in-town.