Watching Oakland in the postseason is a bittersweet reminder of October baseball
The Oakland Athletics are playing in the postseason for the fifth time since the Mariners’ playoff drought began in 2002.
Seattle Times columnist
Here’s the absolute best moment: When the batter connects, and all 50,000 people realize simultaneously that it’s headed out of the ballpark.
And as the ball is traveling, during that split-second that seems more like an eon, there’s a collective, rising roar that takes your breath away, and it’s better, in the sweet anticipation, than the actual landing of the ball in the stands.
On Friday evening, taking a busman’s holiday in Oakland, I saw, and heard, that little slice of bliss occur in the seventh inning of a game the Athletics would eventually lose to the Tigers, 3-2.
Yoenis Cespedes’ seventh-inning homer, and the joyful chaos that ensued at O.co Coliseum, helped encapsulate just what we’ve been missing in Seattle for far too long.
It’s now 12 seasons and counting since the postseason passed through Seattle, forcing all of us to live vicariously through our television sets. Or, for those of us lucky enough to travel, to experience it voyeuristically in October ballparks, where it’s festive, sure, but also fraught with tension.
You old-timers remember, right?
“The atmosphere — whoa. Everything you dream about the postseason being is what it was tonight,’’ Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt told me afterward.
Josh Reddick followed Cespedes to the plate, and he let the ovation bathe over him. For these games, the A’s have taken off the tarps they use during the season to hide seats they can never sell, and all were occupied at this moment with towel-waving maniacs.
“To look up in the third deck and see every seat was filled, it was an adrenaline rush — maybe sometimes too much,’’ said Reddick, who had set off his own explosion an inning earlier by throwing out Victor Martinez at the plate.
“When I stepped into the box after that home run, it was unbelievably loud. It takes everything in your body to block everything out and get that tunnel vision.”
The stadium off Hegenberger Road is still a sewage-spewing dump, but the venue isn’t what makes October baseball special. It’s the feeling of community that develops in playoff towns, where everything that happens during the day is just a nuisance, something to endure while waiting for the three hours that really matter.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, of course. Well, except for the youngsters who haven’t advanced past middle school, for whom contending baseball is a mere rumor.
The Mariners have provided a few, albeit too few, and too brief, exposures to the all-consuming passion of the postseason. There’s never been a primal roar fueled by more visceral emotion than when Edgar Martinez lined the ball into the left-field corner in ’95 in the Kingdome — another dump transformed into the only place in the world to be.
But you can’t live on that forever — as much as the Mariners have tried. The frustrating part, of course, is how the A’s have consistently outsmarted the Mariners over the past decade-plus, making the playoffs five times since the Seattle drought began in 2002.
And doing it, of course, with a fraction of the Mariners’ payroll, but far more acumen. “Moneyball” was never about on-base percentage; it was about figuring out a way to compete with the big-market teams by scoping out market inefficiencies.
Everyone is wise to OBP, so general manager Billy Beane is now onto something else — platoons. The A’s can’t afford many stars, but they’ve mastered the art of piecing one together, cheaply, by blending two unheralded players who excel against just left- or right-handed pitchers.
It’s not a new concept, but the A’s, as masterfully deployed by manager Bob Melvin — yeah, I know — have taken it to a new extreme. They have platoons at first, second, left field, catcher and DH, and somehow it all hums, to the tune of 767 runs, third-most in the American League.
Throw in one of the most efficient defenses in the American League, and a pitching staff that ranked second in the league in earned-run average, and you begin to understand how the A’s won the AL West for the second year in a row.
The array of productive players obtained by the A’s through under-the-radar free-agent signings, trades in which they seemingly dumped star players because of salary, and in the draft, fully exposes the inadequacy of the Mariners’ perpetual rebuilding efforts.
But all that hardly matters on Friday night, when the joint is rocking — “probably as loud as I’ve ever heard a crowd,’’ said Coco Crisp. “Playing against Cleveland, when I was with Boston, they had the white towels going and that was pretty electric. But I think we definitely rivaled them today.”
Here’s the beautiful part — it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it before; a crowd in full-throated unison still has the capacity to move you, and always will. The bonus is that the long absence of such an experience in Seattle will one day serve to amplify the zeal. For proof, look no farther than the current hysteria in Pittsburgh, where fans suffered 21 years for this opportunity.
When it turns in Seattle — and it will turn, because no down cycle lasts forever, no matter how grim it looks — those Cespedes moments will be every bit as electric. And they will be ours.
For now, however, they’ll have to be experienced from afar. Yet again.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.