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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

Headed In The Right Direction - 9/19/2000

This year’s edition of the Oakland A’s is a fascinating one. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes mediocre. Sometimes awe-inspiring, other times awful. Immensely entertaining, yet frequently aggravating. A look at the standings today (81-67) before the latest doubleheader (if it doesn’t get rained out) against the pathetic post-firesale Orioles shows a team only two games ahead of last year’s (87-75) final version. Upon closer inspection, however, one does not have to probe too far to salivate at what the future might bring.

Last year there were several veterans who shined. John Jaha came off the scrap heap and had his moment in the sun—probably his last. Matt Stairs had a career season and was the emotional center of the team. The seemingly ageless Randy Velarde made an immediate impact on the young squad with his West Texas-bred work ethic and even reached the 200-hit mark. Gil Heredia had a year that journeymen pitchers dream about, and current Fox analyst Mike McFarlane provided stability and guidance to an unstable pitching staff in his last year as a major-leaguer.

1999 was also the first year that the core group of young players got a full season together under their belts. Ben Grieve was able to rebound from a horrible start, Miguel Tejada showed all-star potential, Ramon Hernandez gave the team a young backstop with power and durability and rookie Eric Chavez had a respectable debut. Tim Hudson established himself right away as the ace and Jason Giambi eased comfortably into his role as team leader.

What is different this year? Well, take what’s gone wrong and balance it with what’s gone right, mix in a little optimistic crystal ball-gazing, and what you get is a team that is potentially a perennial contender for not only the division, but the pennant. Take the veterans: Jaha and Mcfarlane are gone, but Olmeido Saenz and Jeremy Giambi can cover the DH responsibilities and Sal Fasano, who is, according to Ray Fosse, (who, along with Bill Rigney, may know more about baseball than anybody) an adequate backup catcher. Stairs has struggled but has not sulked, and here it is crunchtime and he’s hitting again. Velarde, after a serious injury, is playing consistent ball. Heredia has not been as dominant as last year, but he’s a class act, an inning-eater who goes out every fifth day and does his job.

As for the returning youth corps, just look at the numbers: Jason Giambi is having an MVP-type year and carrying the team in September, Tejada—with over 100 rbi’s(!) is showing people why he must be mentioned in the same breath as the other three AL super-shortstops, Chavez, a much improved fielder, is raking the ball to all fields—with power, Ben Grieve will drive in over 100 runs (and has only 3 errors) and Hernandez has 54 RBI’s in the 9th spot in the order and may set a team record for games caught in a season. The mercurial Hudson might win 20, and Jason Isringhausen, after a brief bout with his confidence, seems to be the closer the A’s need.

But it is the real new additions to the team that make the future exciting. Terence Long, who is deserving of rookie-of-the-year honors, may be the best all-around centerfielder the Oakland A’s have ever had. Adam Piatt can flat-out hit, and is capable of playing first, third or the outfield. Barry Zito and Mark Mulder give the team a young 1-2 lefty punch that, with Hudson, could anchor the best rotation in the league for years to come. Veteran bullpen men Jeff Tam and Jim Mecir are the most reliable A’s setup men since Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt. And there is even more in the pipeline—Jose Ortiz, a slugger who can succeed Velarde at second base, Bo Porter and Mario Encarnacion, talented outfielders who could take over for Stairs, who may move eventually to DH, and a handful of bonafide pitching prospects.

One could argue that the A’s have Achilles’ heels on both feet—no team speed and a porous defense. Since when did the number of errors and stolen bases determine a club’s worth? Watch Miguel Tejada and T. Long for a week and tell me about the A’s defensive liabilities. It is the year 2000, and you need lotsa bats and a consistent pitching staff to compete. The rest is, sadly for some baseball purists, just icing.

So, on paper, it looks promising. But it has been on the field that Art Howe’s minions have showed their stuff. Their resilience in the face of what looked like a certain collapse around Labor Day has been a revelation, and if they don’t make the playoffs it won’t be for lack of effort (take a look at Cleveland’s all-star riddled lineup). Not since that dark October day in the 1992 ALCS when Robbie Alomar effectively ended the LaRussa-led dynasty by taking Dennis Eckersley deep has the Athletics’ future looked so bright. Wunderkind GM Billy Beane and kind-uncle Art Howe have laid a solid foundation with all the pieces in place. This is a team that can do some serious damage for a decade if they stay together. Now all they need is some fans in the seats…

by Peter Elman