Yeah, that's right. We told you so. This is science, folks, not guesswork.
When we picked Jason Giambi to be The Magazine's Baseball Preview cover boy, anointed Tim Hudson and Barry Zito the one-two starting combo nobody wanted to face in the postseason, declared GM Billy Beane a genius and said Oakland would be the team to end the Yankees Dynasty, we did so with conviction. No, with certainty.
And, despite a few bumps in the road, we never stopped believing.
Not even on May 1, when the A's were 8-18 and already 12 games behind the Mariners. Not even on May 26, when the A's, after scratching and clawing their way back to .500 (24-24), looked up and saw they'd closed to within ... 11 1/2 games of the Mariners. Not even at the All-Star break, when Oakland was 44-43, 19 behind Seattle and third in the wild-card standings, six games behind Boston and Cleveland, and wondering out loud if Giambi, a free agent-to-be, was going to be traded to New York by the end of the month.
We never stopped believing.
That's our story and we're sticking to it.
"I can't say that," says too-young-and-innocent-to-lie third baseman Eric Chavez. "I kind of accepted this was going to be one of those years that can happen in baseball. Our line drives were getting caught. The other team's bloopers were falling in. Seattle was, basically, winning every night. I was like, 'Oh well, gotta keep playing.' "
We knew better than you, Eric. We knew if you guys just kept playing, the A's would find a way to get back into the postseason race. In fact, if we'd had more than 12 pages to devote to you in our preview, we would have forecast that Oakland was going to rip off 32 out of 45 after the break. That your starters -- not just Hudson and Zito, but Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle (both 3-0 in that postbreak stretch) -- would combine to go 10-0 with a 1.85 ERA from July 29 to Aug.14 and carry you guys from 4 1/2 out in the wild card to two up. To us, it was obvious this was going to happen.
Remember what we said about Zito in the preview? We said that the space-cadet thing -- the pink, satin pillowcases and stuffed animals he takes on the road, for example -- was an act, a cover-up for a really analytical young pitcher. So when Zito tells us now that he went from 3-6 with a 5.45 ERA on June 7 to 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA through August because he started "envisioning" that he was going to win every time out ... well, it makes sense.
Obviously, we envisioned a lot of things for you. Well, maybe we didn't envision that Johnny Damon, Oakland's key off-season acquisition, would be hitting .211 on June 18. But if we had predicted such a miserable start for Damon, we certainly would have said he'd come around, hit about .310 in August, climb back into the .260 range, move from left to center and be the catalyst Beane believed he'd traded for in the winter.
"Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself, I don't know," says Damon. "I do know I hit a lot of balls at people, and my bunting, for some reason, has been awful, so that's kept my average down. But the guys on this team made me realize pretty quickly that personal statistics don't mean a thing here. There was never any finger-pointing. We lose and we win as a team. No one guy's bigger than another. Except for maybe Jason. He's huge."
Yeah, that's right, and who said back in April to start engraving the AL MVP trophy with the name "Jason Giambi"? Who knew this guy would take .330-plus, 30-plus and 100-plus into September? Who knew that 16 of his first 32 bombs and 38 of his first 101 RBIs would either tie a game or put the A's ahead? Okay, maybe we're not that good. But we did know that, as Damon says, Jason is huge. And not only in terms of raw numbers.
"The numbers alone," says A's manager Art Howe, "don't begin to tell you how big Jason's hits have been. I've always said, good hitters do it in innings one through seven. Great hitters do it in the eighth and ninth. Jason does it time and time again in the eighth and ninth innings for us. That's what makes him so special. That's why he's a leader."
Jason is also the grand pooh-bah of the lodge-cum-boys-club known as the A's clubhouse (see page 54), a place where grown men huddle around their remote-control race cars talking strategy before heading out to the field for the day's feature race. A place where full-bore arguments break out over whose turn it is to retrieve the postgame beer, where -- most important of all, in the world according to Jason -- "nothing is sacred."
Enter in a bad mood and you hear about it from Jason. Enter in too good a mood and you hear about that from Jason, too. Don't expect your taste in music, clothes, tattoos or women to go uncritiqued. His younger brother Jeremy, who lockers right next to him, can't even count on Jason to keep things "in the family." Does he rub anybody the wrong way? No. "Probably that's because I take more crap than anybody," says Jason. "And deservedly so. This is a full-on frat house in here."
Like a fraternity on the verge of losing its charter because of a low GPA, the A's did find themselves wondering after their slow start if they'd be disbanded. With the franchise's future -- as in, where are we going to play? -- up in the air, and players like Giambi and Damon in their walk years, the A's knew it was either convince Beane they could make a wild-card run or be torn apart. Rumors began to swirl about a white-flag fire sale. To Jason -- who says the most important thing he's asked for in his contract talks is a no-trade clause because he believes the A's are set up to be a top team for the next five years -- that kind of talk was sickening. Break up the band already?
"We didn't start falling apart," says Jason. "There was never a boiling point. But we knew we needed to get on a roll. In the middle of May, we sat down as a team and talked. We looked around at the talent in here and realized we needed to change the way we were playing. We needed to start bunting more, stealing more, hitting-and-running more."
But the main early-season problem with the A's was that young guys who'd been asked to step into important offensive roles were putting too much pressure on themselves. "We'd traded Randy Velarde, Ben Grieve and Matt Stairs in the off-season," says Giambi. "That's 60 homers and more than 200 RBIs taken out of our lineup right there. Guys like Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez are talented kids, but it was a big assumption to think they were going pick up all that slack. Terrence Long had just gotten used to hitting leadoff last year, and now he was hitting fourth a lot. Teams started walking me, taking their chances on the kids. When they struggled, they tried harder, and in baseball, man, you have to relax. When we changed our offensive approach, it seemed to take some of the pressure off, and we started winning."
The A's went 16-5 to begin July, good enough to convince Beane to not trim payroll and to instead go for broke -- and to postpone all talk of a new contract for Jason until the off-season. On July 25, Beane dealt three minor leaguers in a swap with Colorado and Kansas City to land Jermaine Dye. Now pitchers who pitch around Jason have to take their chances on a guy who, in his first month in Oakland, averaged more than an RBI per game.
"I had a lot of questions about the A's offensively," says one AL scout. "I thought the new strike zone was hurting them because so much of their philosophy is based on being selective and taking walks. Dye gives them a guy who's a little more aggressive in the middle of the lineup, a guy who will expand the zone to drive in a run."
But it's not Oakland's offense that has the AL scared as autumn approaches. It's the three aces. We told you everything you needed to know about Hudson and Zito in our preview. How they combined to go 10-1 with a 1.71 ERA last September while pitching in life-and-death games. How Hudson, even though he's 5'10" and 160 pounds dripping wet, is a grip-it-and-rip-it power pitcher. How Zito, tall and smooth, never lets a hitter focus on a single plane. And how both stared into the eyes of the Yankees in their five-game ALDS without blinking. As for Mulder, a lefthander who looks even taller than 6'6", let's just say we knew that, with his sinking fastball and whiplash-inducing changeup, there was potential. Okay, maybe not the potential to be 16-7 with a 3.60 heading into September, or 8-1 in 11 starts since July 2.
Now we see there's the potential for the A's to do something they couldn't do as they battled the Mariners and Indians down the stretch last September -- set up their rotation for a rematch with The Dynasty. "Our big three are every bit as good as the Yankees' big three," says Jason. "They may not have as much experience as Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, but that's all our guys lack. We match up as well as anybody, and we'd love to get another shot at them."
So, yeah, we told you so. Maybe we didn't see the A's going the wild-card route. Maybe, if you back us into a corner, we'll admit that Oakland's bullpen -- especially closer Jason Isringhausen, who's blown more than 25% of his save chances -- scares us silly.
But trust us when we say, as we did back in April, that the A's are going to win it all. We never stopped believing.
That's our story and we're sticking to it.
This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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