AJ woke up this morning like he always does, twisting away with a grimace from the dog's excited licking. He quickly focused, however.
"Did the A's win?" he asked, staring at me.
Before this season started, I figured the A's for about 70 wins. In fact, I made a wager with my son on that exact number. If they won more than that, he would collect $5. This was my calculated way to make sure AJ rooted for my team, instead of falling to the peer pressure around him in a region chock full of Angels fans, classmates and friends who were crowing all off-season about the local team's addition of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Angels were certain to be contenders and nothing sways a young boy's fancy more than a winning team. I should know. I broke from my own parents--Giants fans--at the age of 12 when Billy Martin came to manage the A's. I've been the green and gold sheep of the family ever since.
I paid AJ off three weeks ago, after the A's flew by the 70-win mark. He used his bounty for an ice cream sandwich at the ballpark. The A's beat the Angels that night, 6-5.
It was not an auspicious off-season. Still saddled with the crumbling eyesore of the Oakland Coliseum, all attempts at a new venue filibustered into oblivion by Bud Selig and the Giants, Billy Beane traded away three All-Star pitchers, all but admitting to the press that he was thinking three or four years down the road when it was more conceivable that a) the A's would be playing somewhere else, with a 21st century revenue stream and b) they might again be able to compete with the free-spending and talented Rangers and Angels.
In spring training, the A's starting third baseman ruptured his ACL. His replacement was a converted catcher.* They had a black hole at first base, manned by powerless, rudderless former prospect Daric Barton and AAA fillers like Kila Ka'aihue. Question marks in the corner outfield slots with untested Josh Reddick and wild card Yoenis Cespedes. And a re-made rotation featuring fragile Brandon McCarthy, robust--to put it mildly--Bartolo Colon, a couple truly awful and non-descript guys and a rookie.
*More, much more on Josh Donaldson to come
Yes, they added some interesting players. Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith have been useful parts during their careers. Ryan Cook came over with a live bullpen arm. Rookie starters Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker showed flashes in Arizona, with the former making the club out of spring training and the latter coming up in late-April.
Still, a couple months into the season, the A's were 22-30, right about where I--and every other rational human--expected them to be. I kept one eye on them as the Kings pummeled their way to the Stanley Cup and didn't even bat that single eyelash when they called up a fella named Brandon Moss, a 29-year-old off-season acquisition, who proceeded to bash six homers in his first nine games and is currently sporting a .947 OPS. Or when they added Brandon Inge to provide some leadership and timely hits at third, in lieu of the hapless Josh Donaldson (Donaldson was rocking a slash line of .153/.160/.235 at the time).
A decent June was no cause for too much attention, but then they won six of seven going into the All-Star break to reach .500. It was then that my ears perked. And it was for no rational reason at all.
AJ was born in 2001. That year, the A's were expected to be World Series contenders. They were coming off an AL West title and added Johnny Damon. Well, they stumbled out of the gate, the Mariners went freaking bonkers and it looked like another lost season until they provided a glimmer of hope. They swept the Diamondbacks and got to .500 at the break. They never did catch the M's, but went 57-19 in the second half to grab the wild card (at which point Jeremy Giambi didn't slide and let's not talk about that any further).
As you all know, Caleb, my second child and son, was born this year and the A's again made a mini-run to get to the break at .500. The symmetry could not have been more perfect. I even joked about it on Twitter. And the seeds of belief were sown.
They came roaring out of the break, winning 10 of 11, manager Bob Melvin expertly mixing and matching his lineup. That streak included a four-game sweep of the Yankees, two of them in dramatic, walk-off fashion. In fact, that became their m.o., punctuating each victory with a pie to the face of the player that produced the game-winner. They were not just winning, but they became fun. After years of painful offensive ineptness, they started banging dingers like nobody's business, led by Reddick, Cespedes, Moss and another call-up, Chris Carter, the perpetual prospect who finally--mostly--figured out which pitches to swing at (Moss and Carter, playing primarily as a first-base platoon, have combined for 37 HRs).
The pies, the walk-offs, the success of the rookie pitchers...it all seemed possible.
Inge got injured somewhere around in there and Donaldson got called back up to take over third again. He had hit well back at AAA, but...ugh...that slash line again: .153/.160/.235. I again took to Twitter and made the following joke:
"I'm sure Josh Donaldson is excited to be back with the #Athletics. At least until he sees his stats on major league scoreboards."
To my surprise (and AJ's uncontrollable delight), Donaldson saw the tweet. He responded:
@JoeSpeaker That was funny. I lol'd. I'm just gonna try to help the team, bro.
I can't be entirely sure if he was being sarcastic, or if he really did think it was funny. AJ is certain he was peeved and that he "called me out." Regardless, Josh Donaldson's slash line since his re-call is .286./355/.494. Silly. AJ would remind me of the tweet every time Donaldson came to bat and took to calling him "Bringer of Rain," which is Donaldson's Twitter handle. He found some other nicknames, too, referring to Moss as "That Guy," because an Angel fan asked me "Who is that guy?" after Moss hit an absolute bomb in Anaheim.
They ran off nine in a row in late August to put themselves firmly in the picture. One would almost think they were in control. Then they got swept--demolished, really--at home by the loaded Angels and every pessimistic thought I ever had surged right back to my frontal cortex. Colon had recently been banned for PEDs and, in the final game of that Angels series, McCarthy was hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar (serious talk here, I hate the Angels almost as much as I love the A's, but Aybar was all class in this episode, so good on him). When we found out McCarthy had surgery due to bleeding/swelling in his brain (as well as a cracked skull), it was deflating. Not at all in a baseball sense, but in a human sense. As I said, this team became fun and that is in large part to its personalities. McCarthy is probably first among equals in that regard and we are all thankful he is well and hopeful he will be back with us next season.
So that series proved to be a real bummer and the A's remaining schedule was nothing short of a minefield. Seventeen of the next 20 on the road. But for a three-game set in Seattle, all of their opponents were in the playoff hunt (Angels, Tigers, Texas, Yankees, Orioles). A 10-game road trip to the east coast and Texas. Seventeen straight games to finish the season with no days off, a fact which became amplified when the A's bullpen got completely cashed in a brutal 14-inning loss to the Yankees.
That game drained me of all energy and a considerable portion of belief. It left them 1-4 at that point on the trip and brought the Angels back within 2 1/2. Brett Anderson, who had returned from Tommy John surgery pitching remarkably hurt himself again and the A's were suddenly trotting out a rotation of five rookies, two of whom were pitching in A-ball last year. I could see it all falling apart and it wasn't fair. This team deserved to get to the post-season. For all the hurdles in their way, the ballpark, the payroll, the injuries, the rookie starters, they persevered. They earned their way here. They didn't buy their way here.
They hung on, winning a gut-wrenching three of the next gut-wrenching five, made it home with a two-game cushion. I was beside myself. I could not string together a non-A's related thought. I drove Emet upstairs with my psychosis, mood hinged on every pitch.
Four straight wins later--one thanks to a game-tying 9th-inning home run from Josh Donaldson--they're in. Two more wins and they'll--improbably--win the division.
I'm satisfied. I will always and forever look back on this season as one of total joy, regardless of what happens from here on out. This is a great team to root for, an easy team to love, and I'm so thankful to have gotten to be along for the ride.
"Did the A's win?" he asked, as he stared at me.
I laughed. "Yes, they won. Remember? I let you stay up until it was over."
AJ blinked, wiped the sleep out of his eyes. "Oh yeah. Balfour struck out the side in the 9th."
"Yep. Then Reddick pie'd Bob Melvin."
"Can I wear my Reddick jersey to school today?"