Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Lobotomizing A's

Being an Oakland A’s fan is frequently an exercise in creative lobotomy.

In 2006 the A’s reached the American League Championship Series, they had a strong team and a recent history of Moneyball fueled success. When Magglio Ordonez deposited a Huston Street offering into the left field bleachers to complete a humiliating four game sweep, A’s fans everywhere lost the part of their brains that believed in destiny. The part that assumed with a self-assured passion that if our team had a compelling enough story, a powerful enough lineup and a sufficiently long record of barely averted victory we were destined to succeed.

In 2007 Dan Haren started the All-Star Game. Nick Swisher was a fan favorite star and Jack Cust came out of nowhere to be a three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, homerun) hero. And then, the stars were gone, and the part of our minds that believed in spunky success, in winning with flash, were seared away.

2008 was the year of bargain bin success. Cust blasted 33 homers, Frank Thomas hit a triple, Ryan Sweeney and Jack Hannahan wowed on defense and Rajai Davis ran away with every base on the field. Justin Duchscherer became a starting pitcher, and a good one at that, and Dana Eveland and Greg Smith became the most watchable soft tossing lefties in the league. And then, despite a decent first half performance, the A’s traded Rich Harden to the Cubs and Joe Blanton to the Phillies, for what amounted to fifteen hits from Josh Donaldson a set of superb stirrup socks and 151 mediocre innings from Josh Outman. That quickly, the part of every A’s fan that trusted, defended and lionized Billy Beane without reservation winked out of existence.

That is not to say that we lost all faith in Beane, for he pivoted quickly, and 2009 began with a set of stars in the lineup and young brilliance in the rotation and bullpen. But the 2009 A’s tanked, and they did so in an entirely disheartening manner. Matt Holliday wanted to be anywhere else but Oakland, as his hitting before and after his trade to the Cardinals clearly displayed. Even worse, Eric Chavez, whose likeness adorned every lunchbox, calendar and poster the A’s handed out, played only eight games all year. In 2009 A’s fans lost the ability to expect even mediocrity from their players.

2010 seems in hindsight to have been a happy time to be an A’s fan. The young players stockpiled by Beane finally began to produce, the team still couldn’t hit, but still rode spectacular pitching performances to a .500 record. Yet 2010 must be understood not as a respite from the piecemeal destruction of the hopes, happiness and brains of Athletics fans, but as a nefarious and entirely intentional build-up to even more through destruction. For in 2011 the A’s had the pitching, a bit of power and a fun team. And then the universe informed Brett Anderson that throwing a slider 40% of the time was simply unfair. Of course, the universe, being a shameless hussy, did so by turning his elbow ligaments into spaghetti. The A’s fell apart, and at the end of the season Beane sold off all of the parts.

Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Ryan Sweeney, Brad Zeigler, Josh Willingham, and Andrew Bailey disappeared. The A’s began to rebuild their roster again, thus admitting that the previous effort had been an unmitigated failure. Worse, we traded away players who were young, under team control for years, and fan favorites. Those players had been our reason to go to the ballpark. They had captivated us with their talent, their youth and their promise, and their departure robbed me of one of my personal pleasures: paging through the lists of A’s prospects and imagining what could be. Why should I hope for young men to grow and succeed when they might play for the Green and Gold for barely a year before being traded?

During the few months prior to the start of the season, A’s fans silently took stock. We had lost destiny, success, trust, mediocrity, and promise. There was nothing left to cut away.

And then the A’s had to go and ruin the narrative: after a slow start they morphed into one of the Cinderella stories of Major League Baseball. Yet this A’s team bears no resemblance to the lobotomizing teams of years past. The A’s hit for power, they never allow runs, they steal when they have to and they galvanize the sleepy crowds.

In fact, the only thing that these Swingin’ A’s bear in common with the Swooning A’s of the past half decade, is the walk-offs. Despite all the pain and suffering, the A’s never lost the walk-off. Now that is not to say that they produced walk-off hits with any great frequency, but their walk-offs had a character, a drama, a majestic beauty entirely out of proportion to their frequency. Jack Cust’s three run blast to cap off his magical first week, Marco Scutaro’s foul pole victory over Mariano Rivera, Mark Ellis’ wall scraping homer on throwback day… The A’s produced good drama, even as they failed to play good baseball. Those walk-offs were the only breaks that A’s fans had from the constant lobotomization.

In 2012 the A’s have combined drama and good baseball, they have built a powerful narrative, boast a strong lineup and exciting pitching and win in fun ways. Slowly the lights are coming back on (yes I am aware I am mixing metaphors, just go with it, ok), and A’s fans are remembering how to root for a good team, how to trust our general manager, how to appreciate mediocrity and hope for victory. I can only hope that these A’s aren’t just setting us up for a fall. Even more than that, if the A’s do begin to lose, I hope the walk-offs never stop.

1 comment:

  1. Gideon, you must carry a future disclosure device everywhere you go. Your analysis of the soul crunching endured by A's fans is elegant and sophisticated. We are indeed lobotomoid, but with such hearts, such strong hearts. [OK now, everybody sing one chorus of "You gotta have heart... all you really need is heart"] You predicted/forecast yet another walk-off when no one else dared to dream of it. You sure can sling a syllable mister.