Life in general is short but life in professional sports is even shorter. It’s a precarious venture and very temporary in every way. It is difficult enough to make a career of it but nearly impossible to reach the pinnacle of the sport: being a World Champion. Players aspire to join organizations which put winning first above all other priorities.
The Oakland A’s have not made winning the “Be All and End All” since the Haas family sold the team. But last season at this time, A’s general manager Billy Beane made a mad push to get his charges to the Promised Land. He apparently was fed up with having only one postseason series victory in his long tenure in charge. He rolled the dice … and crapped out terribly.
Beane didn’t want to see his team run a guy like Tommy Milone or Dan Straily out to the mound for a playoff start. He also had zero faith in the A’s holding on to the AL West lead and all but openly conceded the division to the Angels. So on the Fourth of July last year, despite having what most pundits believed to be the best team in baseball, he dealt away his top prospect in Addison Russell, former first round pick Billy McKinney, and Straily to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Tommy Milone demanded a trade, and Beane gladly obliged, sending him to Minnesota for Sam Fuld (whom Beane had previously cut earlier in the season.) But as stunning as the Russell trade was, if it would result in a World Series title, then it would be worth it. Now the A’s could have Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and the Shark to potentially face a Tigers trio of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Plus, Samardzija was not just a rental — he had another year under contract.
But after watching the A’s for the rest of July, Beane still wasn’t convinced. What if he could get the ultimate playoff pitcher, a guy with ridiculous numbers and success in the postseason? That man was Jon Lester, and Beane traded Yoenis Cespedes to get him for two months. I was disgusted and thought Beane had gone a trade too far. I went on the airwaves and conveyed my pessimism, saying the heart and mojo of the team had been ripped away. Others were optimistic, printing up “All In” shirts and signs. For some bizarre reason, they had faith in a GM who had never even won one solitary pennant.
The Beane apologists came out of the woodwork. Many criticized Cespedes and pointed out all his shortcomings like they were glaring flaws – almost as if they couldn’t believe he had ever been a starting outfielder in the first place. There were even some ludicrous nerds who opined that a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Stephen Vogt in left field would result in the “exact same production” that Cespy had given. Then we heard Beane saying he was going to trade Cespedes in the off-season anyway, yet another sign of defeatism. But people who actually watched the team, and didn’t just look at Excel spreadsheets, knew it was a stupid trade.
But what could fans do? Nothing but cheer and support the boys in Green & Gold. At the time, I said I would bow down if it all translated into a title. I wasn’t willing to bow down just for the effort of going for it, because I knew the Russell trade would haunt us forever if the A’s fell short. Similarly, I was very critical of the Joe Lacob ownership of the Warriors when he appointed rookie head coaches, a rookie GM and his son as Assistant GM. But he won, so I will gladly admit I was wrong and give him the credit he’s due. I would much rather be happy than right. So we A’s fans crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
As we know, the A’s were the only playoff team not to play in October. They squeaked into the postseason on the season’s final day, after having been the worst second half team in the league. They would get a winner-take-all Wild Card Game at Kansas City on September 30th. Yet the one man who was obtained to be the playoff killer was a disaster. Jon Lester, with a three-run lead entering the eighth inning, blew up and left the game with a line of 7.1, 8 hits, and 6 earned runs. The man with the sub-2 ERA in his playoff career ended up with a single game number of 7.36. The all-in gamble failed. Beane’s Russian Roulette found the chamber with the bullet in it.
Add a belligerent winter of trading four more All-Stars and another #1 prospect, and we now have the worst team in the AL plying their trade at the Coliseum. The good news is that baseball is never stagnant. Perhaps new draft picks Richie Martin or Mikey White will be better than Addison Russell. Maybe the soon-to-be trades of Kazmir, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard will bring in another team’s #1 prospect. But for the time being, in a business where all that matters is winning, the A’s have perfected the art of losing better than any other team for a full twelve months. Best team in baseball a year ago? It’s amazing how quickly something good can get ruined.