A Beautiful Season for Baseball: The Great Times and Bad Breaks of 2012

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Chris O'Meara / AP Photo

Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, left, and designated hitter Chris Davis, right, high-five teammates after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 in a baseball game, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Wait ‘Til This Year

For now, though, let’s ignore the overlords and pay tribute to the underdogs — teams nobody, including most of their fans, thought had a chance to play a meaningful game in September, let alone October. The A’s, despite the Moneyball celebrity status of General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in the movie version), had not been to the playoffs since 2006; and their division, the American League West, was home to two titans, the Rangers and the Angels, thought sure shots for the postseason. The Orioles, in the mighty AL East (Yankees, Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays), had posted losing records for 14 straight seasons. The Nationals, also in a potent division (Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins), had moved from Montreal in 2005, but the city’s record of futility stretched much further back: the nation’s capital had not hosted a postseason game since the Washington Senators won the American League pennant in 1933.

I know their joy; I feel their pain. I’ve been an A’s fan for 60 years — beginning when they played in Philadelphia, my home town, and continuing through their moves to Kansas City in 1955 and Oakland in 1968. I exulted in their three straight World Series championships in 1972-74. I cheered them on in the pages of TIME as they claimed another Series trifecta in the late ’80s, including one championship the 1989 Earthquake Series). I felt renewed youth at the turn of the millennium, as the kids groomed by Beane made it to the postseason in four consecutive seasons, only to falter in the first round each time.

(MORE: Baseball: Streaking Hard for the Top)

Those sweet periods were anomalies, since the A’s could be out of contention for decades on end (four, to be exact, from 1932 into the early ’70s). Often, my summer evenings would end with a check of the West Coast scores on ESPN.com, the noting of another A’s defeat in a string of losing seasons, and the emotional dyspepsia familiar to fans of also-ran teams. The team hadn’t managed a winning record since 2006, the last time they made the postseason. In 2011 they finished 14 games below .500, and prospects were bleaker this year. Beane had traded away three of his four best starting pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Guiullermo Moscoso) and his all-star closer (Andrew Bailey). Another top starter, Brett Anderson, underwent Tommy John arm surgery and would miss most of the season. The team’s player payroll on opening day was a major-league lowest $53 million, or less than what the Yankees were paying Alex Rodriguez ($30 million) and Mark Teixeira ($23.125 million). From the first days of spring training, A’s fans were thinking, “Wait ’til next year.”

Hopes for the Orioles and the Nationals in 2012 were nearly as dim, to judge from the preseason picks of the baseball-writer establishment. According to the March 30 predictions by both the Sporting News and MLB Reports, the Athletics and Orioles would finish last in their respective divisions, and the Nats fourth in the five-team National League East. Of the 50 baseball mavens in the ESPN preseason poll, exactly none named either the A’s or the O’s to a playoff berth. Only 15 of the 50 thought the Nats would make it to the postseason. Do the math and you’ll see that, on the three big Cinderella stories of 2012, 70% of the ESPN experts struck out. More than half, though, picked the Miami Marlins, and about a third chose the Boston Red Sox; both teams ended the season at the bottom of their divisions. The clouded crystal ball of the baseball swamis proves that screenwriter William Goldman wasn’t referring only to Hollywood when he said, “Nobody knows anything.”

For the first half of the season, the A’s weren’t doing anything. By July 1, the Orioles were within five games of the division-leading Yanks, and the Nationals — stoked by star rookie Bryce Harper, tender phenom Stephen Strasburg and ex-Oaklander Gonzalez, had accumulated the best record in baseball. The A’s, though, were flailing at five games below .500, and 13 games behind the Rangers, tops in the American League. Then cool stuff started happening. In the next 30 days, the A’s won 19 games and lost just four; their four-game sweep of the Yankees, all one-run victories, got them on the national baseball radar; and by the end of July they were in the wild-card scramble.

For most of August and September (after their one veteran starter, Bartolo Colon, was suspended for failing a drug test), all five of the A’s starting pitchers were rookies; so were their catcher, Derek Norris, and their Cuban-import outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Manager Bob Melvin shepherded his team like a football coach, fielding platoons of players based on each man’s success against the opposing pitchers. These A’s, mostly castoffs from other teams, had the scruffy look of a biker gang and the irrepressible energy of schoolyard brats. They greeted every new win with a pie in the face (not whipped cream) for that day’s hero. Too young to feel pressure, they played what outfielder Seth Smith called “awesome, fun baseball.” For A’s fans who had been programmed for defeat, the mantra was suddenly “Wait ’til this year.”

(MORE: Moneyball: Brad Pitt Legs Out a Triple)

By late September — as the Nationals cruised to their division championship, and the Orioles spent the entire month either tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East or a single game behind — the A’s were virtually assured of a wild-card spot but still five games behind the Rangers with nine games to play. To win the AL West they needed a miracle, and they got one. Or rather, they made it: sweeping the last three games with Texas and taking the division by one game. From July 1 on, the A’s won 57 games and lost only 26, and became only the third team in the 112 years of baseball history that was never alone in first place until the last day of the season.

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