"Bandwagon." Sometimes the very sight or utterance of this word draws a sneer or a look of disgust from sports fans. To some, the word implies a lesser fanhood, a quality of root-root-rooting that somehow falls below that of fans who have staked more time into watching a team than others throughout the course of a season.
To me, "bandwagon" is no dirty word, no derisive term meant to discourage fans -- for whatever reason and motive -- from cheering for a given team. This applies to me, personally, more than ever now that I have no personal stake in these playoffs, my hometown Phillies sitting out a World Series chase for the first time since 2006. In a way, it makes things easier; no premature aging or heart problems from stressing over every pitch will be wonderful. Normally, I'd just hope these playoffs feature great games with high drama, not really caring who wins it all in the end. Except maybe the Yankees.
But something about this year is different. No, not the Yankees part. This year, I feel a calling, a pull that started out gently in the summer and has grown ever stronger as the days have cooled and grown shorter: I have to root for the Oakland Athletics.
Maybe even saying the pull only started in the summer is selling the draw and attraction short. It probably started back when news broke that the A's had signed Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, star of one of the most over-the-top promotional videos ever seen. Oakland was an unexpected destination, and that made the A's more intriguing.
But really, even after adding Cespedes, who thought about Oakland as a legitimate playoff contender? They had traded away Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and lost Josh Willingham to the Twins in free agency, three players who had accounted for 8.3 of the team's 25.2 cumulative WAR in 2011. Additionally, Brett Anderson, another of the team's promising young pitchers, would be missing a vast chunk of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
What about this team screamed "playoffs"? Seemingly little, at least on paper. The Angels had stocked up with premium talent, the Rangers were the incumbent American League champions, and even the addition of a second wild card likely just meant competing with another team from the AL East. But you know how the saying goes: That's why they play the games.
At the close of business on June 30, though, the games weren't going so well. The A's sat 37-42, 13 games back in the division and 6 back of the second wild-card spot, after trotting out a lineup with five players OPSing below .700 and failing to score more than four runs for the 11th time in 13 games. It wasn't the best of times.
That was the season's nadir, because since then? The Athletics have gone 56-26, the best record in baseball by 3 games over the Reds. They've compiled six extra-inning, walk-off wins in that stretch alone and Cespedes has hit .296 with an .862 OPS and 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases. Josh Reddick dressed up as Spider-Man and pied Coco Crisp after one of those walk-offs. They've even turned the "Bernie Lean" into a thing.
But above all else, the A's have been more fun to watch than I can possibly quantify. It's Cespedes and Reddick, but it's also Chris Carter and Brandon Moss. It's an unheralded pitching staff that featured the team's lone All-Star: reliever Ryan Cook. It's the personalities of pitcher Brandon McCarthy and his wife Amanda, and Brandon's recovery from taking a line drive to the head. It's the fans in the right-field bleachers, shamelessly into every swing of the bat and rampaging through every pitching change that brings Grant Balfour to the mound.
This isn't about "Moneyball," not in the least. This is a tale being written by a group of underdogs -- in tandem with the Baltimore Orioles, in a sense -- looking to turn the tables on both preseason and perennial postseason favorites in the American League, all while doing it with flair, personality and accessibility not often seen on a baseball diamond. Perhaps you haven't been able to watch much of them this year, whether it be the West Coast start times or simply not knowing what was unfolding out in the Bay Area, but Oakland's time in the national spotlight is at hand.
Their postseason run might only last one game, it might last 20, but however this page-turner of a season concludes, the Oakland Athletics have easily earned my respect and admiration, as well as my allegiance for the duration of this October run. Give them a chance, and they'll do the same to you.