Before the Oakland Coliseum was transformed by a jubilant sea of yellow and green, it was, well let’s face it a giant concrete hole in the middle of the bay area that was built to support a group of fans that, on Sundays, get dressed up in black and grey shoulder pads with giant spikes coming out of them. The days of the Billy Beane “Moneyball” era appeared to be wrapped up before a sequel could be green lit. Fans began to wonder and then conspire that Athletics’ owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher were purposefully filling the roster with a rotating cast of no-name players so that fans would put the A’s on the backburner.
Why would Wolff and Fisher attempt a season suicide? For this reason: if they could get the fans in Oakland to stop caring about the A’s it would make the process of building a new stadium in San Jose a much simpler process. The two owners could point to the low attendance and put the blame on the stadium, not the product. Without a solid fan base there wouldn’t be wide spread protests of “Save the A’s!” and just diehard fans would be left with the task of rallying a cause. It seemed like a perfect plan, but a plan that we’ve seen spoiled before.
The team’s lineup on opening day (which was in Japan, the only thing that Bud Selig has gotten wrong recently) evoked memories of a team that faced a similar fate. That team’s owner put together an appalling spring training roster with the intensions of moving the team to a much better climate in Miami. The team’s stadium was also considered a dump that was inhabited by only the diehardiest of diehards; who would argue if a homerun was “too high”. The team I’m referring to is the fictional 1989 Cleveland Indians from Major League.
Rachel Phelps (played by Margaret Whitton) instructs Charles, the general manager, to go out and hire the worst team possible from a list of players that she has already prepared. Sound familiar?
On the final day of the 2011 season Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez struck out eleven batters over eight innings and won his 16th game of the season. So did Wolff and Fisher extend the future ace of the franchise? Of course not. On December 23rd Gonzalez was traded to the Washington Nationals for a RHP that was drafted in the 41st round of the 2006 draft (Brad Peacock), a LHP who was drafted in the 10th round of the 2008 draft (Tommy Milone), a catcher who was taken in the fourth round of the 2007 draft (Derek Norris), and a 20 year old prospect who was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft (A.J Cole).
Of those four only Tommy Milone played some type of role for the A’s this year; he finished with a 13-10 record, with a 3.74 ERA, and a SO/BB split of 137/36. Derek Norris played in 59 games this season and finished the year under the Mendoza line (.194). The other two players involved in the trade didn’t make it up to the show. The player that should have been signed in Oakland for the foreseeable future not only went on to become the best pitcher on the best team in the National League, but vaulted himself into the discussion for the Cy Young award.
The similarities between the real life A’s and the fictional Indians from over 20 years ago are so ridiculously close that before the season started the Athletics radio affiliate 97.5 The Game actually starting running promos comparing the characters between the two ball clubs. When you actually sit down and think about it the similarities are striking:
Pedro Cerrano (Indians) – A 30 something Cuban defector who practiced Voodoo, which helped him mash any fastball in sight, but he couldn’t use those magical powers to hit a curveball.
Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics) – A 26 year old rookie who defected from Cuba to sign a four year, $36 million contract. If Mike Trout didn’t have the best season by a rookie in the entire history of the league, we would be having a huge debate for the AL rookie of the year. Cespedes finished the season with splits of: 69/23/82 and .291/.353/.506. Cespedes like Cerrano struggled to hit the major league curveball early on in the season.
Willy “Mays” Hayes (Indians OF) – Wasn’t invited to spring training, but showed up anyway, almost overslept the first day of practice and then shows flashes of brilliance with his speed. The only problem is that he doesn’t understand the concept of hitting for contact, thus causing him to hit numerous pop flies. The skipper made Hayes to pushups every time this happened.
CoCo Crisp (Athletics OF) – Alright this one is a little bit of a stretch as Crisp had 49 steals last season and has quietly been one of the better players on the team, but personality wise it’s close. Crisp can be outlandish at times, but it remains to be seen if he nails his gloves to the wall after every steal. Also we don’t know if he had to do any pushups during spring training.
Eddie Harris (Indians SP) – The old veteran pitcher who has just enough left in the tank to go six innings, when he’s able to get the ol’ spitball working.
Bartolo Colon (Athletics SP) – The old veteran pitcher who was having a renaissance, so much so that at some point it seemed too good to be true… It was, on August 22nd he was suspended 50 games for a positive test of heightened testosterone.
Rodger Dorn (Indians 3B) – The highest paid player on the team. He gave little effort after getting his big contract because he didn’t want to screw up any potential opportunities after he stopped playing baseball.
Stephen Drew (Athletics SS) – The highest paid player Oakland’s $50 million payroll. Drew isn’t a prima donna (at least not that we know of), but he’s struggled to match his production in 2008-2010.
I couldn’t find a match for Jake Taylor, which is a shame because he’s really the leader of the team, but that’s what’s beautiful about this A’s team. There are no individuals; they’re just a rag tag bunch of players who were hung out to dry…
Wait a second? There’s someone on this Oakland team who has a personality? There’s someone on this team with a walk up song that fits his personality perfectly? There’s someone on this team who the fans go absolutely bonkers for?
Grant Balfour reminds me more of Brian Wilson from two years ago than Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, but the love fest for Vaughn and Balfour are nearly identical. The main difference is the gender of fans. Vaughn was meant to be a sex symbol that gave the women demographic a piece of eye candy to look at. Balfour is an intense in your face guy that makes guys live vicariously through him while watching the games in the stands. They feed off of his energy and he feeds off of theirs. He’s like the character in a movie that gets overlooked during the film, but over time grows on you.
Balfour had six saves in his previous eight seasons, he finished the 2012 season with 24 saves in 26 chances (including 16 since August 11th), but he achieved a much greater purpose. His enthusiasm and intensity has transformed the Coliseum to a raucous expression of pent up rage that stems from the attempt of the owners to push the team into the basement of the AL West. This perceived group of has-beens, prospects (Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss, wicked hard swing and a miss by the ‘Sox), a Cuban defector, but most of all a bunch of no names became a functioning unit that breathed off of working hard and continued to have a heart beat because of the AL manager of the year Bob Melvin.
Back in March Melvin stated on the Chris Townsend show (which is broadcasted in the Bay Area), that his team was going to work hard every game. On June 30th his team was 37-42, the Texas Rangers were 13 games ahead. The ballpark was empty. The owners were plotting their exit strategy, while fighting with the San Francisco Giants on the move to San Jose, but the A’s just would not die. A franchise record for wins in a month was set in July (19-5). Four of those wins came in a sweep of the Yankees, in New York, all by one run. Suddenly this team had a pulse, but still no one paid attention. The A’s went 18-10 in August, still no one cared. It was assumed that at some point the motor would go out just like in Pittsburgh. It took all the way until the second to last week of September before Billy Beane’s group made people believers.
The A’s won nine out of their last eleven, won the division, and put the Rangers in a precarious position of playing a winner take all one game playoff against the other feel good story in the American League, the Baltimore Orioles. Back in ’89 the imaginary Cleveland Indians got hot at the end of the season and forced a one game playoff against the dreaded Evil Empire. “Mays” Hayes scored on a Jake Taylor squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth to complete the Indians improbable run to the playoffs.
(After watching the movie countless times growing up I never thought I would break the movie down and describe it as if it were a real occurrence. Could it be time to reevaluate what I’m trying to do with my career?…. Nah, let’s close this puppy up.)
Now we’ll never know what was said or done inside the clubhouse to inspire the A’s to make this impromptu run to an AL West title. In Major League the Indians manager Lou Brown (played by James Gammon) gives the team incentive by taking a cardboard cutout of the owner Rachel Phelps and removing a piece of her dress after each win. Maybe the Athletics used this same philosophy and instead used a cardboard cutout of Brandon McCarthy’s wife Amanda. She seems like the type of person that would be ok with it and we all know he would be down with that. After all he did ask for a threesome while laying in a hospital bed, as he recovered from getting struck in the head with an Erick Aybar line drive on September 5th.
If there is a cardboard cutout in that locker room it needs to be hung up because the first triple crown winner in 45 years, a Prince, and the reigning Cy Young are coming to town this weekend for a five game series. We never got to see what happened to the imaginary Indians in the 1989 playoffs, but the eyes of the baseball world will be in Oakland to see if the Athletics can make perhaps the most improbable championship run in the history of baseball. There is one thing we do know, the fans will rage on.
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(Stats and facts courtesy of ESPN.com and Yahoo!)