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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

Team of Destiny - 08/14/2001

When Jason Giambi sent Mike Stanton’s hanging slider over the right field fence Sunday for the penultimate walkoff piece, it felt that all was right with the world. Could it be that finally the young Oakland A’s are fulfilling their promise? After a rocky start that had even the most faithful (and you know who you are) worried, the Athletics have come full circle, to the point where they are not only in the lead for the wild card, but quite possibly the favorite to win it all. And how are they doing it? The old-fashioned way, of course—they’re playing as a team.

It’s all about the characters, the ones on center stage every night (and sometimes for matinees), the performers who are bringing a daily adult dose of baseball magic to the loyal fans of the East Bay. My God, it seemed like just yesterday they were on their way to Vegas. Today they might be on their way to the world series.

The current streak certainly is amazing, and brings to mind the vaunted 1988-92 team which won four out of five division titles, three pennants and one championship. But before you make those comparisons, ponder this—those A’s were an older, seasoned group, led by veterans Eck, Stew and Ricky, intense competitors who had come of age as A’s fans and had something to prove in their hometown. At the helm was Tony LaRussa, a fiery, brilliant strategist dumped by the White Sox and given a second chance by the Haas family. LaRussa, however, has not been able to replicate his success in St.Louis, where, despite an impressive array of talent, he’s had trouble getting them to play together. Oh, and by the way, will Mark McGuire ever hit another single?

This edition is quite different. Led by the three musketeers—Hudson, Mulder and Zito, and D’Artagnan (Cory Lidle) and featuring a slew of mellow southern Californians—the Giambis, Lidle, Zito, Mike Magnante, The Erics Chavez and Hilgus –the A’s are captained by Uncle Art Howe, surely the polar opposite of the intense LaRussa. Art, unlike Tony, was a solid major leaguer, a team player who toiled in the shadows of others. His strength is his personality, an old-school blue-collar blend of humility and stability, his secret weapon his laid-back, warm, engaging demeanor. Howe manages by the book, which sometimes rankles the fans, but where it counts he shines. The players love him. They want to win for him.

What makes the A’s a special team, a squad that is engineering one of the great second-half turnarounds in recent years, is the way that the players seem to have each other’s backs. Notice there are no surly Bonds, no angry Everetts, no obnoxious Rockers, no egotistical Ripkens, no arrogant and diffident Griffeys. This is a collection of young millionaires who are not engulfed in selfishness and blame, but are all about the team. To a man they mention the unique chemistry that permeates the clubhouse, the kind you can’t buy for a hundred million dollars.

I haven’t read the acclaimed book on Dominican baseball that chronicles Miguel Tejada’s ascension from barefoot shoeshine boy to big leaguer, but I want to. Jason may be the leader, Hudson the bulldog, Mulder the quiet assassin and Chavez the superstar-in-waiting, but Tejada is the spirit of the A’s. When he makes an error we react angrily, but feel his pain as he gets visibly upset with himself. And when he makes a brilliant play at shortstop we cheer and beam with pride. When he strikes out on a pitch in the dirt we curse him at first, but then empathize with his frustration. And when he jacks one over the fence we marvel at his strength and roar our approval.

He is our man-child, the baby-faced prodigal son who clawed his way out of the kind of abject poverty that we in the affluent Bay Area cannot begin to comprehend. He has made an emotional impact on all of us. Tejada’s game-tying double against Kansas City saved us the indignity of losing a series to the hideous Royals (did anyone catch Mike Sweeney trying to decapitate a foul-mouthed Jeff Weaver with his helmet?!), and his homer off of Mussina yesterday got the A’s out of their “we can’t hit this guy” funk and on the board. That was HUGE.

And Jason? Is there anybody breathing who doesn’t think that Schottman (or their as of yet unnamed successors) better give this guy what he wants, no questions asked? He is the heart and soul of the team, the first one out of the foxhole, and a good guy to boot who actually appreciates how lucky he is. The reaction of his teammates after his game-winning homer says it all—the bullpen emptied before he crossed second base. In the celebratory clubhouse afterwards he told Greg Papa that what drives him is the “love and support he feels from his teammates.” Somehow I can’t picture Barry Bonds making that statement…

So, what we have here is a collection of young, motivated individuals at the top of their profession playing with a collective passion and unity of purpose not seen in these parts since the aforementioned glory days, and you know what--it feels great! Whatever cosmic or karmic mojo is fueling the A’s run, well, fill ‘er up and don’t ask questions.

When my friend Rich, a rabid and knowledgable fan who attended every game of the double sweep, announced he was going to every Cleveland game next week, I realized that this was serious. “Hey, I don’t wanna miss history in the making,” he said.

History, maybe. Destiny, perhaps. Fun? You bet. So get out the old broom, the one you never use but can’t throw away because the damn thing won’t fit in the garbage can. Take out your hand saw, and some sandpaper, and have that bad boy at the ready. You might need it again before we’re through. It can get awful dusty around here in October, ya’ know…

by Peter Elman