Once again, it’s over earlier than it should be. Earlier than it was built to be. Once again, they have to watch some other team celebrate. Salvator Perez sent Kansas City into a frenzy, and the Oakland A’s along with their general manager, Billy Beane, are forced to watch it. Just like they watched the Yankees celebrate for two straight seasons, including once on their home field and once when they had three bullets in the barrel to execute their foe. Just like they couldn’t close out the Twins in a year when the A’s finished the season tied for the best record, and won 20 consecutive games in August. Just like they squandered another 2-0 ALDS lead, this time to the Red Sox. Just like the had to watch Magglio Ordonez’s homer send Detroit to the World Series, and just like the Tigers had earned two consecutive trips to the ALCS at the hands of the Athletics.
This year, it was more of Oakland being unable to kill off a lead. The A’s were the best team in baseball through July. Then they started preparing their team for October. Specifically, for a five game series, not a winner-take-all Wild Card Game. They added Jon Lester to join Jeff Samardzija, for whom they traded Addison Russell, 14th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects. It all went wrong.
Yoenis Cespedes went to Boston, and Jonny Gomes re-joined the team he helped take to the playoffs in 2012. Gomes has always been a positive personality in the clubhouse, as evidenced by his “one day closer to the parade” mantra he started using with the Red Sox leading up to their run to a championship. The Duck Dynasty, beard-clad, Boston Strong team turned around a dreadful 2012 season for the Sox into a magical ride for Bean Town, and Beane undoubtedly thought he could bring that personality back to the Bay Area and win that elusive championship.
But the 2014 A’s were nothing like the 2013 Red Sox. Once Cespedes left, there was no presence in their lineup that compared to Big Papi the way Cespedes did. Samardzija struggled to find his groove in a league where the DH is present. Suddenly, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were threatening their division, and then pulled ahead of them for good before Oakland had even realized what had hit them.
Everyone said that the A’s just needed to survive the regular season, take a breath, and then return to form in October. They never had a chance to. They had fallen so far from their mountain that they needed to travel to Kansas City to play for the right to advance to the ALDS. It was a game that “was a microcosm of our season,” in the words of Oakland outfielder, Josh Reddick.
Oakland jumped out quick behind a Brandon Moss home run, and then Kansas City got running. Literally. Trailing 3-2 in the 6th, Moss appeared to put the entire team on his back when he launched a go-ahead, three-run home run to dead center field off of starter-turned-reliever Yordano Ventura. The A’s led by four runs with two innings left to play. but Oakland, yet again, couldn’t figure out how to slay the dragon. Twice, the A’s needed just three outs to seal the deal. Twice, KC roared back to life.
The A’s philosophy has always been getting on base, working the count, hitting home runs, and preventing the opposition from doing the same. Normally, this comes at the expense of fielding the ball, and running the bases. Sam Fuld was doubled off of second on a line drive caught by Eric Hosmer. Kansas City tied a postseason record with seven stolen bases, including a pair that set up both the tying run in the 9th and the winning run in the 12th. The final one was stolen despite a pitch-out – catcher Derek Norris was unable to make the exchange from the glove to his hand, there wasn’t even a throw. After starting center fielder Coco Crisp was injured in the 12th, Gomes came on to play left field. Uniting a clubhouse comes easy to Jonny. Playing defense doesn’t. Naturally the ball was hit in his direction on the first play. Hosmer skied a ball to left-center that nearly tied the game. Gomes and center fielder Sam Fuld raced to the track to haul it in. Both fielders made a leap – and came down with nothing but bruises as they collided into each other. Whether Gomes should have let his partner take control, or whether Gomes or Fuld would have been able to record the out had the other not interfered with the other makes for good alternative history fiction. Instead, Hosmer stood on third, scored on an infield single, and then rushed out of the dugout to join in the dazzling spectacle of white and royal blue celebrating their first playoff win since capturing the 1985 World Series championship.
And now people will talk about how Billy Beane can’t win a championship. That his formula got in the way of the team. They’re the same people that were puzzled by the A’s not going out to improve their team in 2012 or 2013. Beane put all of his chips in, thinking that he had already won the wild West. He sacrificed offense for pitching, and then realized that pitching doesn’t do a whole lot good unless you can score runs. He did what good teams are taught to do at the trade deadline – get your team ready for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the cure was worse than the disease. Now the A’s are without their prized prospect, without their star Cuban outfielder, and probably Lester, who will demand big money as a free agent.
But they still have Billy Beane, who will still piece together a winning team in 2015, because that’s what he does. Oakland doesn’t rely on a pitcher, or a slugger, and they don’t have a face of their franchise. They rely on their system of scouting, drafting players that fit Billy Beane’s system, and getting the most they can get until they can ship them off for fresh blood. It hasn’t brought a championship to Oakland yet, but one day the ball will bounce right. One day, some catcher will throw out that runner; that fielder will catch that ball, and Beane will find out how to win the final game of the season.