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The Athletics lost more games and attracted fewer fans than any other team in baseball last yearand still made money. Was it a successful season? "No, not at all," says president Sandy Alderson, though he acknowledges that being in the black is important. "We're a team trying to compete on a businesslike basis. It's important to remove the pressure of losing money because that creates fear of a team relocating and other negative components. We have to keep the financial pressure off."
In other words, you won't find Oakland overextending itself financially to pursue the pennant. Its philosophy is simple: Stick to a budget that at worst leaves the club with a balanced ledger and maybe, just maybeor as Alderson says, "if we get lucky"be competitive. So they make do with one of the five lowest payrolls in baseball. Lots of luck.
The Athletics have taken this approach the past two years, overachieving before a late-season collapse that left them with 78 wins in 1996, then sinking to 65 wins last year. They drew only 1.2 million people in '97, actually a slight improvement over '96.
"When you don't have a lot of veteran talent or leadership, the results tend to be more volatile," Alderson says. "You get the highs and the lows. We've experienced both extremes. And it's a heck of lot easier to go from 78 wins to 65 than the other directionfrom 78 to 91."
So, through trades and free agency, Oakland changed overnight from a bad, young team to a suspect, old team. They took the $13.4 million in salaries they unloaded and spent the money on pitchers Kenny Rogers, Tom Candiotti and Mike Fetters, outfielders Rickey Henderson and Shane Mack, and infielders Mike Blowers and Kurt Abbott (the only one of the bunch younger than 32).
The curious bottom line: They will pay their 40-man roster $18 million, $100,000 more than they spent last yeara little more money for a lot less long-ball excitement than they had before they dumped Mark McGwire, Geronimo Berroa and Jose Canseco.
What the Athletics hope to gain through those deals, besides stability, is sorely needed help for their pitching staff. "Last year we had people guaranteed a spot in the rotation whether they pitched good or bad," says DH-first baseman Dave Magadan, who led the American League with 13 pinch hits in '97. "We didn't have anybody else."
Oakland's retread-laden lineup takes some of the burden off a corps of talented prospects, including catchers A.J. Hinch and Ramon Hernandez, shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielder Ben Grieve, a franchise player in the making. Grieve, 21, hit .312 in 24 games with Oakland last year while ensconced comfortably in the number 3 spot.
"He's the best young hitter I've ever seen," Magadan says. "He's got power to all fields, he hits for a high average, andwhat really sets him aparthe's got a great eye at the plate. He's the real deal. Plus, he's got this quiet confidence that I really like. He doesn't go around telling everyone how good he is."
Even with Grieve, Oakland's short-term future is hardly encouraging. The Athletics are locked into a lease through 2004 at the expanded Oakland Coliseum, which is a football stadium masquerading in the summer as a ballpark. To generate the revenue required to increase their payroll, the Athletics need their young players to blossom together, the way it happened for Montreal in the mid-'90s. "We're not going to front-load the process the way [Wayne] Huizenga did in Florida," Alderson says. "What we need to do is stair-step it, to improve gradually. It's a stair-step to heaven."
by Paul Gutierrez
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