Posted: Thursday October 4, 2012 12:36AM ; Updated: Thursday October 4, 2012 12:47AM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

A's historic run to AL West title reminds us why we love this game

Story Highlights

Both the A's and Yankees won division titles but in dramatically different ways

With their stunning run, the A's fittingly characterize a playoff field with new faces

The A's are only the third team to never be alone in first until the season's last day

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Grant Balfour
A's reliever Grant Balfour celebrates after retiring Michael Young on a fly ball to center field for the game's final ourt.
Daniel Gluskoter/Icon SMI

You may not know it, but you are an Oakland Athletics fan. You are an Athletics fan because you are a baseball fan, and being a baseball fan means you believe desire is worth more than payroll.

You believe where you sit on your couch influences the baseball gods.

You believe in next year like you believe in your next breath.

You believe you would play this game for nothing and so you believe in those who look like they really do.

You believe the best seats in the house come with peanut shells around your feet, not a moat, a members-only restaurant and a $15 glass of petite sirah.

You believe there is nothing else in this country but baseball that so strongly binds strangers -- nothing else quite brings people, especially families, out of doors to share not just rooting interest but also the priceless open space for conversation -- that major metropolitan areas shrink warmly into Rockwellian hamlets.

And so because you believe in these truths you must believe in the A's. They are all the best reasons why we live and die with this great game, all wrapped up in green and gold.

Today the Athletics are the champions not only of the American League West Division, but also of hope. Maybe the last day of this season didn't give us the wall-to-wall drama of The Night of 162 last year, especially with the Red Sox having quit long ago.

But it gave us enough. It gave us the pure joy of the O.com Coliseum as Oakland, with a 12-5 neighborhood block party of a win, completed one of the five most prolific comebacks in pennant race history, having wiped out a 13-game deficit to the Texas Rangers, those poor blindsided foils who, thanks to the gaffe from center fielder Josh Hamilton, made this Oakland story good to the last drop.

Look at why we love baseball this way: the Athletics and Yankees both clinched the division title on the last day of the season. But the Yankees, burdened by the weight of money and expectations, merely survived. Whatever joy that came from victory was muted by relief.

The Athletics? They lived a dream. This is your team next year, or what you believe is possible for your team. They are why we love baseball, especially in this era when the talent, due to the international growth of the game and how well and widely it is taught, is distributed more evenly across more teams than ever before -- and that is why this sport surprises us more than any other.

There are 10 teams in the playoffs. Four of them had losing seasons last year, haven't won a playoff series in at least six years and haven't won the World Series in at least 13 years, if ever: Oakland, Baltimore, Washington and Cincinnati. On the night of the presidential debate, the end of the baseball season truly was a display of democracy at work.

In the 18 years under the wild-card format, 25 percent of all playoff teams had a losing record the previous season. In 17 of these 18 years there has been at least one Cinderella who jumped from a losing record one year to the playoffs the next. This year Cinderella comes to the ball with three of her sisters.

Four of the six division winners from last year did not repeat, including all three in the NL. Of the top seven payrolls in baseball -- and even with an expanded postseason -- more of them went home (Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, Marlins) than to the postseason (Yankees, Tigers, Rangers). And this comes in the year after the top nine payrolls in baseball won zero postseason series combined.

OK, and after all these surprises, now somebody wants to tell you exactly how this four-round tournament is going to play out? Just laugh at them if they try. And then sit back and watch the best month in sports play out, starting with a doubleheader of knockout games Friday night in which both World Series teams from last year, St. Louis and Texas, put their entire season in the line in one night.

We can't wait for what's next because this was an exhilarating regular season that surprised and tickled us at near every turn. The highlights included seven no-hitters, one of the best rookies ever (Mike Trout), one of the best teenage players ever (Bryce Harper) and the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 (Miguel Cabrera, who proved he is the best hitter in baseball and the better choice in a great race for MVP. Take out the Triple Crown for a moment; the dude separated himself from Trout, who is the player of the year, in April and especially September. He had more big moments down the stretch for a first-place team than Trout did for a third-place team.)

 
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