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With the mid-afternoon sun shining directly into the visitors' dugout at Detroit's Comerica Park last Saturday, it was hard to tell what was going on with Art Howe's eyes. Was he tearing up or was he just squinting? The normally stoic Oakland Athletics manager sat on the bench, surrounded by a dozen reporters, being pelted with the usual mundane pregame questions. The brim of Howe's green A's cap seemed a little lower than usual, covering the tips of his light-colored eyebrows. Clearly, something was on his mind.
"Art," one reporter asked, referring to the Aug. 30 strike date set by the major league players' union, "how devastating would it be for you to have a work stoppage with your team playing so well?"
When it comes to such questions, Howe generally crinkles his forehead and offers a sound, if generic, reply. Not this time. "You know," he said, "whatever happens, I'm a big boy. I've had a lot bigger setbacks in my life than not winning a championship." Howe paused for a moment, thought about what he was about to say, and then in a quiet monotone told the story of his then 23-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who spent two days in a coma in 1995 after a near-fatal car accident. Though now fully recovered, she struggled to regain her mobility and short-term memory. "When you almost lose your child, you gain a different perspective," Howe added. "I think sometimes we...."
And there he stopped. Howe is not the sort to put his emotions on display. Mid-sentence he nodded, rose from the bench and walked toward the field, where his team—the hottest in baseball—was preparing to win its 11th straight game, a 12-3 pummeling of the hapless Tigers. The sun continued to shine, the reporters continued to scribble, the A's continued to roll. They beat Detroit again, 10-7, on Sunday and defeated the Kansas City Royals 6-3 on Monday night for 13 in a row.
No team in baseball has more to lose from a work stoppage than the Athletics, who were 81-51 and 2� games ahead in the wild American League West, where the A's, the Seattle Mariners and the Anaheim Angels are playing a furious game of musical chairs for divisional supremacy. It is one thing to tell the downtrodden Tampa Bay Devil Rays to pack their bags, go home and play golf. But for Oakland much is on the line: the rejuvenation of a once-moribund season; the continued support of a growing fan base (just four years after attracting fewer than 16,000 fans per home game, the A's are drawing more than 25,000 a game to Network Associates Coliseum); the Cy Young candidacy of lefthander Barry Zito; and the MVP run of shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Yet to a man, the A's swear that they have refused to let a possible work stoppage become a distraction. "Man, you can't worry about that stuff," says third baseman Eric Chavez, who through Monday led the team with 30 home runs. "It does you no good, just brings you down. All I think about is winning the next game, and then the game after that. We're all pretty much that way. Just put your head down and play hard."
That Chavez and company are maintaining their focus so well brings bushels of satisfaction to Howe and Oakland general manager Billy Beane, both of whom, early in the season, felt that their players had become more interested in XBox tournaments and beer-chugging than the fundamentals of baseball. Despite the off-season defections of three free-agent stars—first baseman Jason Giambi (who signed with the New York Yankees), centerfielder Johnny Damon ( Boston Red Sox) and closer Jason Isringhausen ( St. Louis Cardinals)—the A's entered this season a sound, if flawed, playoff contender. On April 26, when Oakland was 13-10, SI assigned this reporter to follow the A's for two weeks and write a lengthy story on the most fun team in baseball. At the time the A's clubhouse was part circus, part discotheque. Mystikal's raps were loud, the XBox Halo wars intense, the food slinging messy, the smack nonstop. Between the lockers of starters Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder stood a life-sized cardboard cutout of Britney Spears; LET'S GO BOYS! bubbled from her mouth. It was a crazy place.
The only problem was, in the nearly two weeks I spent with the team, the A's went 4-8, losing a series of lopsided, sloppily played games to the Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. On May 8 SI photographed four Oakland players—Hudson, Zito, centerfielder Terrence Long and second baseman Frank Menechino—in team warmup shirts and shorts, sitting in a whirlpool bath wearing snorkel masks. Howe, who was not informed of the shoot, was livid, believing the picture made his club look like pathetic amateurs. Others in management were equally disturbed. To some extent their anger was moot: Because of the slump, the story was put on hold.
Shortly thereafter the A's traveled to Boston, where they lost two out of three, and to Toronto, where a three-game sweep by the Blue Jays dropped Oakland to 19-24 and 10 games behind first-place Seattle. They were a bad act off the field, too. The Boston Herald reported that several Oakland players were spotted at a Beantown strip club. On May 19, after an 11-0 loss to the Blue Jays in the final game of the trip, Howe surely expected a subdued flight back to the West Coast. Instead, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report from a team insider, outfielder Jeremy Giambi put on a "drunken, obnoxious" performance.
Over the next three days Beane didn't just clean house—he laid down an entire new foundation. Menechino, first baseman Carlos Pe�a and reliever Jeff Tam were sent to Triple A Sacramento, and Giambi was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for journeyman outfielder John Mabry. The moves were shocking. Giambi was a popular player having the best year of his career. While marginal as a player, Menechino was the unofficial clubhouse leader—a short, cocky New Yorker whose lips flashed faster than his bat. The highly touted Pe�a, a rookie acquired from the Texas Rangers before the season, was expected to be Jason Giambi's replacement. (Frustrated by Pe�a's .240 average in Sacramento and his stubborn refusal to make adjustments at the plate, the A's traded him to Detroit in early July.)