Oakland's Baseball Resurgence Rates GM an 'A'
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
The Oakland A's have made the playoffs four out of the past five years even though they're a small-market team that can't afford extravagant player salaries. Before this season, they traded away two of their biggest stars, so hardly anyone expected them to win again. Early on, the A's did just as forecast, posting one of the worst records in baseball, but they've come roaring back and they're in contention for the post-season once again. Kathy McAnally reports.
KATHY McANALLY reporting:
By major-league standards, Oakland's $55 million payroll ranks as rather puny. The Yankees are shelling out $205 million this year. The defending champion Red Sox will spend $121 million. The A's depend on developing young talent augmented by players that other teams deem expendable. For Oakland, the 2005 season began with lowered expectations. By the end of May, the A's were ranked among the worst teams in baseball, and general manager Billy Beane watched with morbid fascination.
Mr. BILLY BEANE (General Manager, Oakland A's): I've watched--we were getting our rear ends kicked. I actually probably watched more innings of baseball then I've ever watched just because I wanted to see the young players, you know? You know, I like watching young players play. You know, they're not going to be perfect, they're going to make mistakes, but the process has been a lot of fun.
McANALLY: The A's early season troubles cheered some in baseball. The best-selling book "Moneyball" portrayed Beane's dismissive attitude toward the traditional ways of judging talent, grading how fast a player ran, how hard he threw or hit the ball is replaced by complex computer models. Beane liked to find players that other teams undervalued. The A's signed Scott Hatteberg because he got on base a lot.
Mr. SCOTT HATTEBERG (Oakland A's): You know, Billy's very pioneering in how he goes about putting together a team and baseball is one of those, you know, things that you got a lot of stodgy old-time things that, you know, you don't want to fix what's not broken type of thing.
McANALLY: Having traded away their two best pitchers, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder because they couldn't afford to resign them, Oakland was left with 27-year-old Barry Zito as the old man of the starting rotation. Zito says the new kids were clearly talented.
Mr. BARRY ZITO (Oakland A's): Physical talent's one thing. Mental skill, to put it together in the big leagues, is totally different.
McANALLY: The young starters, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden, started putting it together in June.
(Soundbite of baseball game broadcast)
Unidentified Announcer: Huston Street comes in at the game and he's been nothing short of spectacular this year.
McANALLY: When the A's most important relief pitcher was felled by injury, Oakland turned to 22-year-old Huston Street. He started the season pitching only in low-stress situations. Street's biggest responsibility as the team's youngest pitcher was to ferry snacks to his elders in the bullpen. Now he's the guy who comes in with the game on the line.
Mr. HUSTON STREET (Oakland A's): I mean, obviously it's not like you're impervious to the feelings of anxiousness and, you know, excitement, but at the same time, you know, you almost have to trick yourself and you're trying to get three outs as quick as possible without giving up any runs.
McANALLY: In recent years, Oakland typically started slow, then got hot the second half. That's happening again but even in a more extreme fashion. General manager Billy Beane says the team probably can't keep winning eight of 10 games, as it has since June, but he's amazed by how rapidly these young A's have matured.
Mr. BEANE: What has surprised me is the recovery that we've made. I thought that we would be competitive and I thought that we would be better than people were--thought we would. I've said that, you know, but the recovery has been so dramatic I can't say that I anticipated that.
McANALLY: If the Oakland A's do make it into the post-season, they'll make baseball history. Only one other team, the Boston Braves of 1914, came back from being 15 games below .500 to play for a championship.
For NPR News, I'm Kathy McAnally.
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