Anyone who has tried to warn a youngster about the dangers of, say, making a funny face ("It'll freeze like that!") knows there's a fine line between gently impressing the importance of something on a kid and scaring the bejesus out of him. Oakland A's manager Art Howe learned that lesson in September 1999 after he called a meeting of his callow team to stress the importance of an upcoming three-game series against the Texas Rangers. At the time Texas was 5� games ahead of Oakland in the American League West, and with only nine games left it was do-or-die time for the A's.
They died. Got swept. Were outscored 32-11. "Got beat like a drum," says Howe. "This year I eliminated the meeting."
No meeting has meant no thinking, and no thinking has meant no tension. The result: In a three-team race with the Seattle Mariners (their rivals for the American League West title) and the Cleveland Indians (their rivals for the league's wild-card berth) for two postseason spots, the A's entered the final weekend of the 2000 season in charge of their playoff destiny. "The advantage we have in being young," said first baseman Jason Giambi last Friday, "is that sometimes ignorance is bliss."
Almost as blissful as having someone like Giambi play first base and bat third for your team. After two mediocre months Giambi exploded in September, homering on an almost nightly basis and catapulting himself into the thick of the MVP race. It's no coincidence that his surge came at the same time the A's were expected to wilt under the pressure of the pennant race. Though he's only 29 and in just his sixth season, Giambi has at least two more years of big league experience than all but second baseman Randy Velarde and outfielder Matt Stairs in Oakland's starting lineup. The player his teammates call G has become the A's de facto captain, a role he embraces. Ask Howe which player he looks to, and he says, "Giambi," even before he's asked what he's looking for.
As the season wound into its final days, though, Giambi had led his teammates into largely uncharted waters. Save for last year's flirtation with the playoffs, he had never been so close to a postseason berth. What exactly had G learned? "Everybody wants to play so well right now," he said, "but sometimes trying harder is worse than being relaxed. We're loose. We play music, laugh and joke around. That's what makes it so exciting to come to the ballpark, that Little League attitude. Sleep in your uniform, come to the ballpark, swing from your heels and try to hit homers."
Here then is a blow-by-blow account of the A's decisive weekend series against the Rangers, as Oakland hoped to grab its place in the playoffs.
Friday, Sept. 29: Oakland
Giambi sticks to his usual routine: Sleep late, eat lunch at In-N-Out Burger, head to Network Associates Coliseum with younger brother-housemate-A's outfielder Jeremy (a.k.a. Mini G) around 2:30, swing from the heels and try to hit homers. It pays off, as G bashes his 42nd off former teammate Kenny Rogers. After the blast, which cuts Texas's lead to 2-1, Rogers can't find the plate. Oakland pulls ahead 3-2 in the fifth and holds on for a 7-5 win, reclaiming the division lead by a half game over Seattle, which loses to the Anaheim Angels, 9-3. The Indians, who are now a game behind the Mariners in the wild-card race, stay alive with an 8-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
In the A's clubhouse following the victory, there are two prevailing emotions: joy and confusion. Though all are pleased with the win, no one seems entirely sure what it means. Stairs sits on a couch and listens to a local sportswriter run through the possible permutations of wins and losses by the contending teams and what they all mean to Oakland. The lesson ends and Stairs gets up, shakes his head and says simply, "Just win tomorrow."
Saturday, Sept. 30: Oakland