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Nice article from the NY Times

OAFC BBS - All Topics: Archive: Nice article from the NY Times
Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By eyleenn on Thursday, August 11, 2005 - 10:01 pm:

August 12, 2005
The Athletics Keep Proving That the Kids Are All Right
OAKLAND, Calif., Aug. 11 - Something in the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse over the past half-dozen seasons has altered conventional thinking. How else do you explain a franchise that adds by subtracting, that grows younger as it ages and improves with inexperience?

Numbers validate their beguiling small-market success, but do not fully explain it. Managers and skilled players are vital to it, but in the ever-churning A's system, they are ultimately expendable and interchangeable.

Since 2000, the club has traded or lost Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Jason Isringhausen, Keith Foulke, Terrence Long, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. During all that rearranging over the past five years, the A's won three division titles, one wild card and averaged nearly 97 victories.

For one critical position alone, closer, the A's have passed the ball from Isringhausen to Billy Koch to Foulke to Octavio Dotel (who had elbow surgery in June) and now to Huston Street. Street, a first-round draft pick last year, had 21 minor league appearances before his promotion. But he has posted 14 saves, 2 more than the Oakland rookie record set in 1969 by the Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Over the winter, Billy Beane, the A's dynamic general manager, traded two of the starting rotation's Big Three, Mulder and Hudson, for six players. The club paid for that apparent recklessness. The A's were 17-32 on May 29, 12½ games behind the first-place Angels in the American League West. The A's have since gone 49-16 - including Thursday's wild 5-4 comeback victory over the Angels - to take a one-game lead in the division.

The A's won in the ninth inning Thursday when reliever Francisco Rodriguez missed a routine throw back from catcher Jose Molina. That allowed Jason Kendall to sprint home from third with the winning run.

If the A's reach the postseason, they will be the second team to do that after being at least 15 games under .500. The 1914 Boston Braves, who were 16 under at their low point, won the World Series. (Houston, the National League wild-card leader, could accomplish the same feat this season.)

Beane has built a reputation for evaluating, elevating and trading for young players on the cusp of success. Six of the A's first-round draft choices are on the roster. The weight to succeed falls on rookies and second-year players. Again this season, youth is at the team's core.

Danny Haren, a second-year right-hander who came from St. Louis in the Mulder trade, has fit nicely in the rotation. He is 10-7 with a 9-game winning streak, and the A's have won all 14 of his starts since May 31.

The rookie first baseman-designated hitter Dan Johnson has stepped in for Erubiel Durazo, who is out for the season after elbow surgery. Johnson has a .371 average since the All-Star Game break. Right fielder Nick Swisher's 16 homers lead all rookies in the league. The right-hander Joe Blanton, Hudson's replacement, has won six of his past nine decisions.

Even with that evolving roster, the A's seem to play better in the second half. Since 2000, they have a 262-134 record after the All-Star Game break, the best in the major leagues. They have been remarkable in August, baseball's turning-point month. They are 94-30 in August since 2001, 15 games ahead of every other team in baseball. They have had at least 20 August victories for four consecutive years, and are 8-2 this month.

Beane said the belief that young players would wilt down the stretch was a misconception.

"I have a contrarian position," he said. "The mental grind is what they are talking about. But young players just establishing themselves have a better chance of improving than just staying status quo. Ultimately, it depends on the players you have. You have to establish that you are good enough to get to the point to wilt.

"Baseball teams have self-esteem, just like a teenager. Sometimes it can be high, and sometimes low. When you build success, it helps build self-esteem, and that creates those intangibles that allow momentum to happen."

With a perennially sparse budget - $55 million this season - Beane has had to use a judicious eye for intangible qualities like maturity, toughness and energy.

"It's an aura," said Rex Hudler, the Angels broadcaster, who had a 13-year major league career. "Once you catch it, you ride it because you know it's not going to last forever. They're feeding off what they read now, and they're too dumb to know. This team should be called the Idiots. Boston made a killing on that attitude last year."

No offense intended; none taken.

"I know idiot is in a different context," said Barry Zito, the ace of the A's pitching staff. "But you know the bigger idiot is one who looks at the big picture, who takes into account all of the circumstances, who takes on all the pressures and starts to feel those and gets beaten down on an everyday basis. The smart ones choose not to do that. They look inside themselves and know that their skills and their visions will take them where they need to go."

Yet other teams have smart players with skill and vision. Tampa Bay has had several first-round draft choices over the years. Texas is loaded with young talent, as are Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and others. But those teams do not get off the ground, while Oakland soars.

Perhaps another potent stealth force is inside the A's clubhouse.

"It's clubhouse chemistry," Zito said. "What it does is bring every ounce of talent out of these guys."

How do you go about building chemistry, which is as elusive as it is indefinable? It's much like falling in love: you can't force it, fake it or even explain it. It just happens. Every year here, it just happens.

"You have to win first," Beane said. "I don't think you'll see teams at the end of the year say, 'We came in last place, but we love the chemistry so we're going to keep it together.' We've had a lot of kids come up through the organization, so there's a familiarity. Our veterans are just a few years older than the rookies."

When Eric Chavez, now 27, arrived in 1998, he entered a mature clubhouse. "Now it has leveled out," he said. "I'm finally playing baseball with my peers. It took me six years to do so. We're always youthful. We're always young."

What the forever-young A's also have accomplished with their resurgence is a threat to the playoff path of the two A.L. East powers, the Red Sox and the Yankees. The A's and the Angels, the 2002 world champions, have better rotations and bullpens that should hold up down the stretch. The Angels entered Thursday's games with a three-and-a-half-game lead in the wild-card race.

"They're up on the high wire now, with no net," Hudler said of the Yankees and Red Sox. "The sentiment out here is that they're battling among themselves" for one playoff spot.

Zito added: "If we had our choice, the wild card would come out of our division every year. That's something we prefer, and if there's any way to take an edge on Boston or New York, that's what our goal is."

These A's, whose payroll is $150 million less than the Yankees', are underdogs with a bite.

"As a team, we look at ourselves as good players and a great team right now," left fielder Bobby Kielty said. "We're not looking like we're underdogs; we're kicking everyone's butt right now. We've been doing it for the last two months."

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By oaktownpat on Thursday, August 11, 2005 - 10:29 pm:

This energy right now is amazing - almost 20-game-streakish.

Top of pagePrevious messageNext messageBottom of pageLink to this message   By snax on Saturday, August 13, 2005 - 01:12 am:

It sure is a fun, interesting time to be an A's fan.

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