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.

Upsets galore! Perennial losers vaulting to the top! All-stars benched and no-names turned into heroes! Games so close that anxious fans bite their nails down to the knuckle! One future Hall of Famer who breaks a 45-year-old record for batting supremacy, and another who breaks his ankle and must be carried off the field! Wild melodrama that obliges sportswriters to end every sentence fragment with an exclamation point!

The 2012 major league baseball season and the first full round of playoffs provided plenty of excitement: close races in five of the six divisions and, Oct. 3, last-day scrimmages for wild-card slots. The Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera led the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 (and many sabermetricians thought that the Angels’ Mike Trout, a rookie, had a better season). And for the first time in the 18 years of the current playoff system, all four League Divisions series went the full five games, with 13 of those 20 contests determined by just one or two runs. That divine hubbub stoked a million thrills and many more ulcers — October ecstasy for the fans of the upstart Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals, tremors for the adherents of such powerhouses as the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.

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When the regular season ended in early October, so was the natural baseball order of strength and money gloriously upended. Only three of last year’s postseason teams (the Tigers, the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals) made it to the elite eight this year; and of the seven teams with the highest player payrolls, only two (the Yanks and Tigers) played more than one postseason game. That left playoff spots for the A’s, the O’s and the Nats, and the chance for their long-suffering acolytes to hope that the ultimate prize, a World Series championship, might be theirs.

Heartbreak alert: Power reasserted itself on Thursday and Friday, as the Tigers and Yankees won the American League Division Series, while the Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants prevailed in the NLDS. Thus the final four comprises the winners of the last three World Series (Yankees 2009, Giants 2010, Cards 2011) and the Tigers, who fell two games short of reaching the Series last year.

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.”

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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.

Wait ‘Til Next Year

So three low-budget teams had given the one-percenters a run for their way-too-much money and made it into the postseason. Yet they were still underdogs. Vegas oddsmakers set the Rangers as 9-to-5 favorites to take the American League pennant, even though Texas still had to win a play-in game to become the wild-card team. Ha! — the Rangers lost to the Orioles (8-to-1), who would play the Yankees (5-to-2), with their legendary lineup of Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira and Robinson Cano. The A’s (6-to-1) took on the favored Tigers (3-to-1), who boasted the mighty Cabrera and the game’s best pitcher, Justin Verlander.

In the National League LDS, the Nationals, who had recorded the most regular-season wins in the majors (98), seemed to have their series against the St. Louis Cardinals wrapped when they forged a 6-0 advantage in the early innings of the deciding game. Leading 7-5 going into the top of the ninth, they allowed a four-run Cards onslaught and lost 9-7. The Cincinnati Reds, with 97 regular-season wins, fell to the San Francisco Giants by dropping the last three games at home — another historic first in the five-game playoff skein. The Giants host the Cardinals in the NL championship series starting Sunday.

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The two National League series had their share of high-scoring games and blowouts — the Cards scored 12, eight and nine runs in their three victories, and one of the Reds’ wins was a 9-0 flummoxing of the Giants — but the American League LDS was an almost unbroken string of cardiac contests. Eight of the 10 games were decided by one or two runs; another game was 2-2 entering the ninth inning, when the Yankees exploded for five runs, or as many as they would score in their next two games. In fact, the Yanks, who had led the majors in home runs and on-base and slugging percentage, suffered a severe power shortage once they got to the postseason. Only Jeter, with a .386 batting average, did much sustained offensive damage against the Orioles’ stingy pitching; the eight hits he got in the first four games were as many as registered by Rodriguez, Cano, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson combined. A-Rod, for 15 years a great slugger, fell into a sorry swoon and was pinch-hit for in the ninth inning of the third game — to be replaced by 40-year-old Raul Ibanez, who hit a game-tying home run and, three innings later, the game-winning blast, making him the oldest player in baseball history to hit two homers in one postseason game. A-Rod was also benched in the final game, which the Yanks took, 3-1, on a gutty masterpiece by their mound ace C.C. Sabathia.

Against the Tigers, A’s seemed to be recapitulating their season in miniature. They lost the first game, 3-1, to Verlander, and dropped the second, 5-4, when outfielder Coco Crisp muffed a showboating basket catch that plated two Tigers runs. Returning to Oakland for the rest of the series, they won game 3, 2-0, on great pitching by the surgically corrected Anderson, and took the next game 4-3, by rallying from two runs down in the bottom of the ninth. (Cheers. Pie in the face. Marvelous madness.) Then Verlander returned and turned in what, by sabermetric standards, was the best pitching performance in a deciding postseason game. The Tigers won, 6-0, and the A’s amazing run was over. Wait till next year.

A final confession: Having lived in New York City since I came to school here in the ’60s, I am also a Yankees fan. I root for them whenever they don’t play the A’s. So I was happy when they prevailed over the Orioles — and shocked to see the pain on the stoic Jeter’s face late last night when he broke his ankle in the Yanks’ extra-inning loss, 6-4, against the Tigers. Lifted off the field by two trainers, Jeter is done for the postseason. Can the Yankees come back after losing their Most — Their Only — Valuable Player? I have the same sinking feeling I so often got when rooting for the A’s. As the old manager Sparky Anderson wisely said, “Losing hurts more than winning feels good.” And Jeter’s fractured ankle could be, for this Yankees fan, the worst break of all.

MORE: The Championship Series Are Set. Will They Include A-Rod?

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