"People were starting to place too much of an emphasis on how great the clubhouse atmosphere was and not enough on playing soundly," says Beane. "And that's what we started to become known as—a fun team. Well, that's great. But if you're a fun team that loses, it defeats the purpose. We felt some changes were needed."
Clearly, Beane and Howe were right. After May 21 (the day many in the organization now call Black Tuesday) through Monday, Oakland went a league-best 62-26. The team that once roared into town like a pack of wolves now enters politely. Hearty partyers like Jeremy Giambi and righthander Eric Hiljus (who was shipped to Sacramento on May 30) have been replaced by quiet professionals like Mabry (.312, eight homers and 35 RBIs in 67 games), second baseman Ray Durham (.282 since being acquired from the White Sox on July 25) and lefty reliever Ricardo Rincon (0.90 ERA after being picked up in a trade with the Cleveland Indians on July 30). "It's still a great, enjoyable clubhouse but not as insane," says Chavez. "Used to be eight or nine of us would go out together. Now it's more like two or three. But as long as we're winning, I'll take it."
Along with the shake-up in personnel, Oakland's turnaround has been sparked by the best starting rotation in baseball, which overcame a staggering start as well. (As late as May 31 the rotation's ERA was a horrific 5.04.) When Hudson pitched a complete-game eight-hitter last Saturday, it marked not merely the Athletics' 11th straight win but the 11th straight by a starter. The last team to accomplish such a feat was the 1956 Milwaukee Braves. "It's hard enough just winning four or five games in a row as a team," says Hudson. "To have your starters do it 11 straight times is pretty incredible." (Reliever Jim Mecir got the win on Sunday.)
Lately, the most untouchable starter has been righthander Cory Lidle, whose 32?-inning scoreless streak came to an end on Monday night when he gave up an unearned run in the second. He allowed no more runs in his seven innings of work, giving him a 5-0 record with a 0.00 ERA in his last five starts. That string came from a player who, during the roster shake-up, could have been had for two diet sodas and a Ring Ding. Before his current run Lidle was 3-9 with a 5.15 ERA—a soft thrower who was consistently falling behind in the count. "He's the type of pitcher who drives a hitter crazy, because he's tossing Wiffle balls up there at 88 miles per hour," says Chavez. "You think you should kill the thing." Opponents did so until recently, when, Lidle says, he made a conscious effort to improve his focus. "I'm at a mental level that I've never reached before," he says. "After games I used to be physically tired; now my body and my brain are tired. I'm not wasting pitches, and I'm not having lapses. I'm always in the game."
The same goes for Zito, whose 18-5 record and 2.89 ERA through Monday place him in a three-way dogfight for the Cy Young Award with Boston righthanders Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. Zito was brilliant in Oakland's 9-1 win over the Tigers last Friday, holding Detroit to four hits in seven innings with his sweeping curve, the best in baseball. He also remains one of the team's delightfully kooky personalities, venturing out on the town in funkadelic velvet jackets and butterfly collar shirts.
Combined, Zito, Hudson, Mulder and Lidle were 42-14 since Black Tuesday. "They're the best pitchers I've been with," says Rincon. " Bartolo Colon [the former Indians ace, now with the Montreal Expos] was the toughest starter I knew. We have four Bartolo Colons here."
Oakland also has one Miguel Tejada. Because he speaks limited English and plays in a midsized market on the West Coast, the 26-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic is rarely included in the company of Texas' Alex Rodriguez, Boston's Nomar Garciaparra and New York's Derek Jeter—the American League's holy trinity of shortstops. But not only do Tejada's numbers (.310, 27 homers, 109 RBIs through Monday) stack up well (chart, page 58), they place him on the very short list (along with Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano and Minnesota Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter) for the league's MVP award. The biggest bragging point for Tejada: Oakland desperately needed someone to fill the void left by Jason Giambi, and Tejada has.
Over the past couple of seasons, teammates say, Tejada's concentration tended to waver, depending on game situations. Sometimes he would be A-Rod-esque; other times he would misread a grounder or throw the ball into the dirt. "He used to be erratic, but no more," says Mariners manager Lou Piniella. "He hits for average, he hits for power, he drives in runs, and he's an athletic kid. He's got a great future."
But does Oakland? Can a team on such an awesome roll afford a work stoppage? Can the A's shut down for, say, two or three weeks and bounce back just as strong? On the other hand if the season is not interrupted, will a September schedule that features eight games against Anaheim and six against Seattle be too much to handle?
We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the A's weren't thinking about anything. They were simply playing baseball.