In a goofy but endearing week in the American League wildcard race, the Boston Red Sox indulged in clock watching as well as scoreboard watching, the Toronto Blue Jays visited the gaming tables of Reno in hopes of rolling seven or 11 somewhere other than in their own ERA, and the Oakland Athletics were the Little Engine That Could, fueled by a magic elixir of small payroll and big home runs. There was mad: Last Thursday, Red Sox ace righthander Pedro Martinez blew a gasket at general manager Dan Duquette for making him feel like a clock puncher at the foundry; Martinez thought Duquette was lurking in the clubhouse to see if Martinez arrived there the prescribed two hours before game time, because Martinez had been late for—and scratched from—his previous start. And there was madness: Last Saturday at Oakland's Network Associates Coliseum, the A's gave up three runs before getting an out and still whipped the Blue Jays. At the close of action last Saturday, the wild-card standings looked like this:
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
"The chasers have become the chasees," A's rightfielder Matt Stairs said. "In the standings, we have achieved the dash. August 21, 1999, is a happy day for the Oakland A's."
After the A's split with the Blue Jays on Sunday and Monday, they remained in a tie with the Red Sox for the wild-card lead and deserved to admire the view: Oakland had won five of seven from Toronto and split four games in Boston over an 11-day surge. The A's hadn't been first in anything in August since 1992. After six years underground—"We had a hiatus and were out of touch with baseball for a while," manager Art Howe says—the A's, 25-13 since the All-Star break, were the new patron saints of small-market baseball, their $22 million payroll (fifth smallest in the majors) a testament to what can be done with imagination, gumption and kismet.
As Oakland general manager Billy Beane replied when asked who would be his closer after he'd dealt righthander Billy Taylor to the New York Mets at the July 31 trading deadline: "For $22 million you don't get perfect." The A's are like a rambling house with a leaky roof. In the past five weeks they've lost veteran outfielder Tim Raines to lupus, leadoff hitter Tony Phillips to a broken left leg and rookie third baseman Eric Chavez to a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, and Beane has only so many buckets to catch the drips. He won't stop the rain, but if he shifts the buckets cleverly enough, he might not drown.
In a stunning series of four deals last month that actually lowered the Oakland payroll by $100,000—money that would be spent in acquiring outfielder Rich Becker from the Milwaukee Brewers last week to play center in Phillips's absence—Beane traded, in addition to Taylor, a disgruntled starter ( lefthander Kenny Rogers), a middle reliever and five minor league prospects, and wound up with two frontline starters (including prized righthander Kevin Appier), a regular second baseman and bullpen depth. "We have to be a little more creative than other teams," says Beane. "We have to take the guerrilla approach. That's guerrilla with a u."
The A's began on July 23 by trading Rogers to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers. On the surface it appeared to be a small-market reinsdorf, a depressing capitulation even though Oakland was only three games back in the wild-card race at the time. But Beane, who had called first baseman Jason Giambi before the deal to make sure losing Rogers would not upset clubhouse chemistry, was adding by subtracting. "He told me he needed a week but that other stuff was going to happen with the money we saved [half of Rogers's $5 million salary]," says Giambi. Indeed, six days after dealing Rogers, Beane landed righthanded starter Omar Olivares and second baseman Randy Velarde from the Anaheim Angels for three minor leaguers. Forty-eight hours later he sent Taylor to the Mets for relievers Greg McMichael and Jason Isringhausen, and packaged righthanded middle reliever Brad Rigby and two minor leaguers to the Kansas City Royals for Appier, stealing the righty from elite suitors such as the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians. "When we heard [the A's being linked to] Appier, it was like a kid on welfare asking for a new bicycle at Christmas," Giambi says. "You want that brand-new Mongoose and Mommy and Daddy are trying, but it's not looking very good. But when we got him, it was unreal. I looked at the names in the clubhouse that day and said, 'We're something to be reckoned with.' "
Appier dominated in winning his first two starts for the Athletics—"I think these guys had respect for my ability when I was with Kansas City, but seeing it in a different uniform is more meaningful," he says—and after losing 9-4 to the Blue Jays on Monday, was 3-2 for Oakland. But his impact has been no more profound than that of any of the other new A's embraced by a team unspoiled by money, success or a fan base. (The Athletics were averaging a measly 17,984 at home through Monday.) On Sunday, Velarde drove in the winning run with two outs in the ninth on a bloop against tough Toronto closer Billy Koch. That hit gave him 32 in 101 at bats for Oakland. Neither Isringhausen nor McMichael had allowed a run in a combined 16? innings; Becker had a .478 on-base percentage; and Olivares, who overcame the gloomy start in the 8-4 win last Saturday, had a 3-0 record. Even Chavez's replacement at third base, Olmedo Saenz, stepped up on Sunday with two stunning defensive plays and a home run, part of the A's gorilla approach. (That's gorilla with an o.)
At the All-Star break Oakland was batting a puny .244 and averaging 4.98 runs a game. In the ensuing 38 games through Monday, the A's batted a robust .282 and averaged 7.05 runs. Suddenly Oakland was second in the majors in home runs with 181. The team leader with 29 (including 12 since the break) was the unheralded 31-year-old Stairs, who developed his uppercut swing three years ago while marooned with Triple A Edmonton. A combination of off-day libations and a spot of sunstroke during a road trip to Tucson left him with a case of bottle fatigue; he was simply too tired to hold his bat high in his customary Geronimo Berroa-style the following night. Instead, Stairs laid the lumber on his shoulder, and he has been a consistent run producer ever since, with 83 RBIs this season.
Like Stairs, whose career has sent him meandering through Montreal, Japan, Boston and Mexico, the A's are not easily discouraged. After blowing a two-run lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Boston on Aug. 16, they won 12-1 the next night even though their most productive hitter, Giambi (.317, 25 homers and 94 RBIs), was out with a banged-up right knee. A 7-4 defeat followed, but then, last Thursday, Oakland ambushed Martinez, the best pitcher in baseball, behind rookie Tim Hudson, a 6'0", 160-pound righthander. Hudson struck out Boston's All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to end the sixth inning and then stared him down like a gunfighter. "I was out there talking to Nomar at second, and he asked me if Tim was an a———," Giambi said. "I told him, 'No, just real competitive.' " The 6-2 victory over Martinez gave the commanding Hudson—who started the season at Double A Midland (Texas) and who possesses a splitter for an out pitch—an 8-1 record and a 2.72 ERA. Finally, after getting hammered 11-0 last Friday by the Blue Jays (who had spent their off day on Thursday in Reno), Oakland took two of the next three to close out their 11-day gut check. "I admire the way they play," said Toronto catcher Darrin Fletcher, whose own team had lost nine of 11 through Monday. "It looks like they're not thinking too much, just reacting and playing the game."