By Tom Cushing
The A?s Season Wrap-up: Baseball as Greek TragedyUploaded: Oct 2, 2014
Billy Beane is Oedipus, the King.
In Sophocles' great play, the protagonist was a man of considerable ability. He had a noble soul -- exiling himself from his father's home, lest he fulfill the Delphic Oracle's dire prophesy that he would kill ol' dad and marry his mother. He was a warrior of some note, having slain a whole group of presumed highwaymen out on a lonesome road. And he was pretty smart ? the only guy who could solve the Sphinx's riddle*, and thus free a kingdom from an awful plague. The grateful populace and its queen rewarded him with the kingdom's throne ? which happened to have a recent vacancy.
The future seemed bright for Oedipus. Uh-oh.
The Athletics' season was like that. There were rather humble beginnings based on a mediocre treasury, and chosen by few prognosticators to three-peat as Division champions. Most sports writers, you see, are human beings ? and most members of our species are front-runners (which is why there are so many Giants fans). The conventional wisdom always holds that the money ? usually expressed in the forms of the Hated Yankees and Sawx, must surely prevail. Anything else is an aberration to be explained-away as an outlier on the bell-curve of outcomes.
The problem is that, while a bell-curve it may be, baseball has a huge random factor ? a lucky swing here, an errant or brilliant throw from deep left field, umpiring more out of ego than accuracy, or any of a hundred other things. Thus, it is a very flat bell-curve. Even 162 regular-season iterations don't do much to amplify its middle. Where are the Yankees and Sawx ? and their nearly $half-billion in payroll, today?
Whether you call it statistical variation or the caprice of a sadistic deity, that great leveling factor is one of the reasons that baseball is a metaphor for life itself. Some folks try to insulate themselves against its cruelty by amassing great fortunes, right Yankees and Sawx? Some bet on the future. Others don't even seem to try. The A's, and their Oedipus, rely on their wits to try to stay 'ahead of the game.' But when the Baseball Oracle decides something, mere mortals are powerless against the forces of inevitability.
2014 is the ideal case in-point. In the season's first half, despite an injury-depleted rotation, our heroes succeeded mightily. They didn't just win (baby); they amassed a run-differential stat that more than doubled that of their next closest competitors, much less the rest of the league (In a game in which an outstanding season is defined as winning 6 games out of every ten, that run-diff ought to be only slightly positive). Fill-ins like gutsy Jesse Chavez, and newbies like Drew Pomerantz, daily mowed through the opposition like infield groundskeepers. Not only did Jesse disappear when he turned sideways, so did his fastball.
The Greek chorus all but proclaimed the season over ? with one great team, our A's as assembled by the young King Beane, and then everybody else (e.g., Schoenfield of ESPN was particularly smitten).
The future was bright for the A's. Uh-oh.
Apparently, the baseball gods noticed. The decline actually began before the All-Star break, although fans really didn't see it. Margins were narrowing. Players who had been batting 30-40 points above expectation (Coco, Norris, Moss) began to regress toward their means, and the pitchers were tiring early. Few others noted the decline, but our latter-day Oedipus did.
He took bold steps to overcome the offensive slumpery and stave-off the prophesy, bolstering that faltering rotation by mortgaging the team's future, and by painfully trading away the team's iconic symbol of under-appreciated 'potencia' -- who was not the future but who was hugely popular all-around. He even protected against an offensive drop-off in left-field by re-acquiring a locally-grown favorite, Jonny Gomes, whose numbers looked a lot like those of Mr. Cespedes (albeit on a much smaller season sample).
Nothing worked. Those shrinking positive margins turned negative ? not suddenly or drastically, but consistently. The A's lost 17 one-run games after the Break. They found almost as many maddening ways to lose ? an errant throw here, remarkably blown saves from a bullpen meticulously assembled to avoid them, and two extra-innings HRs by a mediocre opponent's scrub there. It started to become apparent to the A's FAithful that the stats/Fates/Deity smiled elsewhere.
Still they struggled mightily ? the chorus took delight in the occasional 11-2 pasting they administered, and the mammoth walk-off homer by their indomitable, hobbled star. Each time we thought: here, at last, was the turn-around that would redeem the season. Brilliant performances continued to go to waste, though, in seemingly random fashion. One bad pitch out of 100 thrown, or one bobble, and many, many opportunities lost in futile at-bats. The Fates made sure that the A's hit-em where they was.
We were teased by the heroics of Sonny Gray on the season's last day. Fates be damned, he threw a complete-game shut-out that was needed to avoid a play-in to the Wild Card play-in ? it would've been three cities in three days. But it was really just a set-up for the spirit-crushing finale in Kansas City.
Our heroes battled against a fleet-footed, upstart foe and a deafening crowd in a game that was being called A Classic even before two lately-acquired reinforcements (including the defensively challenged Mr. Gomes) collided in the 12th inning. In the end, it didn't really matter How the A's would lose ? it was fated. The baseball gods always get the last word, and they had spoken, again, now for the last time and emphatically.
Some will call this season a(nother) failure. They will speak of epic collapses, of 'Chokeland,' about excessive tinkering and even voodoo curses. But true A's fans know what the Greek playwrights knew. When the gods are ag'in you, you may strive, you may push, scream into the howling gale and you may do everything humanly possible. And you will be a better (hu)man for it ? but they will always win. Always. Baseball really is like life that way ? the essence is in the struggle. This season was a failure Only in the fact that it has ended ? too soon for us.
Fortunately, our Billy didn't have any sharp objects handy on Tuesday evening ? we're gonna need his eyesight, and foresight, next Spring. No other team so exemplifies the human spirit of success against the (g)odds, as the A's: always in the bottom five in payroll ? but usually in the post-season tournament.
Spring will get here, and we who inhabit the human condition will begin the struggle, all over again. Meanwhile, Thanks, you A's, for another great season of unlikely thrills, and for the heartaches, too.
* "What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three in the evening?"