Heartbreak and joy with the Oakland A's
October, 6, 2012
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesIf you're an A's fan, there's been nothing like the joy this team has provided.True confession: I'm an A's fan. Always have been, and I suspect always will be. It's a reasonable question whether my favorite color is green because the A's wear it or I became an A's fan because they wore green, but my mind was made up early enough on both counts that I don't really know. Memory fades, defying dissection. Some things you stick with for a few decades, out of habit or love or both, and they become a part of who you are.
I was part of the last generation of kids who would grow up knowing the game and rooting for a team through the same media my great-grandfather had at his disposal when he followed the New York Giants: the radio and the printed page. That meant racing my brother to the mailbox before breakfast to get that morning's Sacramento Bee to determine who got to see the box scores first, or listening to Bill King calling games on the weekend while doing chores, or at night while scratching away over homework.
My first heartbreak? The original Billyball A's -- Billy Martin's crazy brand of hyperaggressive hyperactivity, Rickey Henderson running and starting pitchers getting worn to the nub, producing an instant winner where success was unexpected. After the strike season of '81, Billy's tactical magic shot its bolt, leaving behind a used-up team and used-up expectations, but before despair settled in too deep, a discarded Dave Kingman drifted to Oakland and belted 35 homers in '84. That was enough to keep at least one young fan going through the bland mediocrity that I refer to as the Chris Codiroli years.
You learn how being an A's fan can be like rooting for the 13-year cicada.
They have their good runs, then they go away for a while, sometimes for a very long while. Fans old enough to remember the Big Green Machine that won three consecutive World Series from 1972 to '74 had to endure some of the worst baseball played by any team on any diamond in the late '70s, which was where I was coming in; with that precedent, I figured I could stick it out because, after Gary Alexander or Miguel Dilone, there really was nowhere to go but up.
So, I had made it past that first big hurdle every fan endures, that first big disappointment, and now baseball was part of who I was. I moved away to Chicago for college with box score viewing an established daily ritual, an exercise of finding some small silver lining in the previous night's A's game, no matter what the outcome had been. I started reading Bill James'
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesIn the early '80s, Rickey Henderson stole the hearts of A's fans.
Abstracts, and they echoed much of what I'd already learned from reading "Weaver on Strategy." I started fancying the notion that I knew something about something.
When things improved under GM Sandy Alderson -- aided by sabermetrics consultant Eric Walker -- with Tony La Russa in the dugout, it seemed like part of the A's natural cycle: contend, collapse, renew, contend. Having stuck with the team through the bad times to enjoy the satisfaction of one of the upswings, it seems like a totally reasonable risk to listen to Game 1 of the 1988 ALCS on my Walkman through a single headphone during Western Civ with my head turned away from the instructor to keep the one earbud out of his line of sight.
Everything seemed perfect that sunny October day, but all the anticipation a fan can feel after years of laborious anticipation was rewarded with the swift kick in the teeth that was Kirk Gibson's game-winning homer in the 1988 World Series opener, en route to one of the all-time famous -- or infamous -- upsets in series history. It's the sort of moment that teaches you as a fan: Take nothing for granted. Ever. When the A's won it all in the earthquake-interrupted series the next season, I fretted over every out until the A's had won, even in the fourth and final game. And then the next season's humiliation at the hands of the Reds in the World Series? Perhaps Gibson had made even that endurable.
When, after the franchise's next fallow period, the Moneyball A's didn't wind up winning so much as a pennant, frustrating as it was, I'd long since bought into the notion that the postseason is a crapshoot: You can't know how any of it will turn out, no matter how well-built the team or how good the starting pitching. Take nothing for granted.
So you can imagine my surprise -- everyone's surprise, really -- when this season rolled around. Because unlike the previous years since 2006, when I might look at the sum of Billy Beane's offseason activities and think, sure, you can sort of see where there's an 85-win team somewhere in all that, this was the year when I took something for granted: 90 losses, at least. I would root, quietly, through my morning ritual of box scores, but with the lowest expectations I'd had for them since the mid-'90s.
And thus I learned that I had learned nothing after all this time because, in a season when there was nothing to expect, the A's upset even that expectation. They rewarded fans with a .500 first half, which seemed pleasantly surprising: nice, but not the stuff that engenders great expectations. Surely they were already over their collective heads? Wrong again. Well, they can't win a wild-card slot, they're sure to go away next week, right? Wrong. Catch the Rangers? C'mon now, that's not going to happen, Travis Blackley's pitching on Tuesday, and that'll end that and … oh my, it's done. They did it.
Now I'm probably guilty of rooting for this team like never before. Taking for granted that the A's could not do this or that or the next thing has only made it that much more rewarding when they outstripped and surpassed every ascending expectation, time and again. As an A's fan for more than 30 years, this team has given me something more than all of the others that have preceded it: a season better than any of us could have expected, better than any of us would have ever asked for out of want or greed or love. Where taking nothing for granted had been a reaction born of the fear that something bad can happen, this year's team is the flip side of that coin: Defeat isn't something to take for granted, either.
I like to think I'll watch this postseason without expectations, having already been given so much happiness by a team I hadn't asked to give me any. The A's could lose three quick games and I won't love this year any less because I'm still savoring and hopefully will never forget the surprising joy this team provided, week after week. Perhaps this squad is every bit as surprising as my original heartbreak team, the Billyball A's, was to older, wiser observers. But that makes this that much sweeter: I won't take it for granted. I'm grateful for every win, and here's hoping these A's have a few more in them. But more importantly, I've probably never been happier as a fan because I have never felt so lucky to be a fan of a team than I do right now, and I hadn't thought that possible.
After more than 30 years, the game and this team found a new way to surprise me. What else is there to say? Thank you.
So, how about we watch some baseball?