OAKLAND — Given the small-market restraints of a $22-million payroll and the six consecutive losing seasons of a painful rebuilding project, the Oakland Athletics have emerged as the wildest of baseball's wild-card contenders, the longest of longshots. They are the little engine that could, except that the young A's have become a homer-powered diesel refueled by an aggressive series of recent trades.
"Our expectations have changed," General Manager Billy Beane said of his preseason hope that the 74-88 A's of 1998 might improve to .500 in 1999. "We want to make the playoffs. To shoot for anything less would have been malpractice."
Trying to build on the momentum and accelerate the emergence, Beane responded to the July 31 trade deadline by first acquiring the mandatory payroll flexibility by trading pitchers Kenny Rogers and Billy Taylor in separate deals to the New York Mets for relief pitchers Greg McMichael and Jason Isringhausen. He then shipped three young pitchers to the Kansas City Royals for Kevin Appier, an experienced and potential ace to take the pressure off rookie sensation Tim Hudson, and sent three more young players to the Angels for Omar Olivares, another experienced starter, and second baseman Randy Velarde, who continues to express his gratitude.
"I was rescued from a sinking ship," Velarde said of the Angels. "Everything that was said and written about that situation was only half as bad as it really was. Guys were at each other's throats constantly. There was no control, no stability in the lineup. The atmosphere was totally miserable.
"Any time you pick up 8 1/2 games with one phone call like I did, it's a lot of weight off your shoulders. It's easy to come to the park now. I went from a team that was picked to win to a team that wasn't picked to do anything, and it's as if there has been a complete role reversal. There is no way in my mind that a team with the talent of the Angels should have struggled the way it has the last three or four years, but it goes to show that you can have all the talent on paper and you still have to do it on the field, which is what the A's have done."
The A's are 16-8 in August, 26-14 since the All-Star break and have the second-best record in baseball at home (44-22), which may come as a surprise in Oakland, since the A's continue to play before sparse crowds. They are 69-58 overall, 6 1/2 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West and tied with the Boston Red Sox for the wild-card lead. They are a game ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
"It's a young team traveling uncharted waters," Velarde said, "but each day you can see the confidence grow. Each day you can see the younger players believe that much more in how good they are. I think it's up for grabs. If we can avoid the dry spell that Boston and Toronto have already gone through, I think we can be there."
Said first baseman Jason Giambi: "Right now, we're only focused on what we're doing, not Toronto or Boston. Besides, we don't want to limit ourselves to thinking that we can only win the wild card when we still have a chance to win the division."
Since 1991, when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series, the playoffs have been dominated by teams with high revenues and high payrolls. San Diego was a small-market exception as the National League champion last year, but the Padres' $53-million payroll ranked among the top third of the 30 teams. Only Kansas City, Montreal, Minnesota and Pittsburgh have a lower payroll than Oakland's $22 million, but the Cincinnati Reds, at a modest $33 million, are in contention for a division or wild-card berth in the National League and could help create an October confrontation of Haves vs. Have Nots in both leagues.
"Given the economic disparity, to be leading or tied for the wild card is certainly groundbreaking," Beane said. "I don't think a team with our payroll has been in the race this late in five or six years. It's the best story of '99, as far as we're concerned."
The story is still being written, of course, and the A's could be excused if they were to be feeding off that Cinderella theme. They insist, however, that isn't the case, although Manager Art Howe isn't sure. As he put it: "If you have one competitive bone in your body, all you need is to have someone say you're not good enough or you can't do something."
Said Beane: "I think for a time that was a motivation. Now there is a feeling we can compete with anyone. I don't think there's any inferiority complex, if one existed previously."
"We don't need to feed off anything except what we're doing," he said. "We have great chemistry, and we're growing as a club, having a ball. I mean, no one expected us to be here, so we're loving every minute of it."