A lifelong Oakland A’s fan, I’m finding this season beyond thrilling. I don’t ever recall getting teary about a baseball game before, but it’s happened several times in the last two weeks as the A’s have defied expectation after expectation.
In case you need catching up, the 2012 Oakland A’s are a team made almost entirely of rookies and veterans who didn’t click with their previous teams. This was seen as a rebuilding year. Most people didn’t expect them to break .500, let alone win the American League West, which they did last Wednesday on the final day of the season. Prior to this season the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers held the record for a playoff team with the most regular season starts by rookie pitchers at 69. The 2012 A’s busted that record with 101 rookie starts. But what I find most wonderful about this team is their spirit.
Several times it has crossed my mind to write about the A’s here. But my thoughts have quickly gotten lost in an abundance of amazing stories and stunning moments. Since I am not a person who has been taken by Twitter, I am amused that what has finally inspired me was a tweet.
It caught my eye on the sfgate.com web site last night, which I was reading as I was trying to calm down. See, in case you missed it, last night the A’s were playing a must-win game against the Detroit Tigers. If the A’s lost, the Tigers would have gone on to the American League Championship Series, and the A’s would have been done. The A’s had been behind all night. As of the 8th inning they’d only had four hits, spread out across the entire game. Bad as it seemed, those of us familiar with the A’s had a little more than the usual “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” hope. The A’s led the major leagues this year with 14 walk-off wins during the regular season. That means 14 times they either came from behind or broke a tie in the bottom of the ninth or a later inning, leaving no need to play the final outs.
And so it happened. The game’s ending couldn’t have been scripted any better. They went into the bottom of the ninth down 3-1, facing the Tigers’ star reliever Jose Valverde. Josh Reddick, the hero who only had one so far hit this series, lead off with a single. The joyful, raucous Coliseum crowd, already on their feet, exploded with cheers. Josh Donaldson, who was sent to the minors in May with a .094 batting average but returned to become a solid contributor both in offense and defense, was up next. He hit a first-pitch double off the left-center wall. Runners were on second and third. Next Seth Smith, the normally mild-manner designated hitter, hit another double and literally roared once he reached second base. The game was tied. A’s fans everywhere, including this one, heaved a massive sigh of relief. Then George Kottaras popped out for out number one. Cliff Pennington, despite his great eye, checked his swing to strike out looking. And so, with two outs, it was Coco Crisp, just the right person to be there—a clutch hitter with the .367 batting average with runners in scoring position to show for it, one of two players in the lineup who was an A’s player last year, and one of the few who saw the potential of this team asking not to be traded at the beginning of the year. Coco Crisp, the centerfielder who had dropped a ball last Sunday for a heartbreaking two-run error, but then leapt perfectly to reach above a wall and rob Prince Fielder of a homerun Tuesday night. That guy hit a first-pitch sharp grounder that got by right fielder Avisail Garcia, Smith ran home, and the rest of the A’s poured out of the dug out to celebrate.
How did they do it? How have they done it all season? It’s easy to wonder. Some say it’s magic. I’ll agree with that. But what kind of magic? I suggest it is the magic of belief in one’s self and one’s teammates. I’ve been suspecting that for a while and was extra delighted by the tweet I happened upon last night. It came from San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Susan Slusser, whose coverage of the A’s I greatly enjoy and respect. She posted about Grant Balfour, the A’s Aussie closer who psyches himself up with impassioned speeches on the mound in front of thousands of people. That level of unself-conscious freedom inspires me. Turns out he is using those skills for his team, too. I got this insight from Slusser’s tweet: “Balfour got entire dugout fired up in 9th insisting everyone believe. He’s still really fired up.” Of course he is. Me too.
For more on this amazing game, Balfour’s speech to his teammates, and a chronicle of the A’s whole team’s contributions to their now 15 walk-off wins, read here.
And for even more on this game by Susan Slusser, herself, read here.