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The Oakland A’s Diaspora

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Yesterday The Oakland A’s traded pitcher Joe Blanton to Philadelphia in exchange for three minor leaguers. Blanton , 27, was 5-12 with a 4.96 ERA. He was Oakland’s Opening Day starter in March against the Boston Red Sox in Tokyo. Although Blanton won 14 games last year, he’s underachieved in 2008, his fifth big league season.

General Manager Billy Beane, who just last week sent another pitcher, Rich Harden, to the Cubs, says it’s all part of a process begun last winter, “ to build a foundation and put together a group of players” who would last a long time,” but anyone who follows the A’s knows that these trades are typical: if an A gets to the point where he’s showing signs of slippage, he’s gone. That’s a cruel way of putting it, and Beane isn’t really cruel, he’s just following a philosophy that Michael Lewis named Moneyball, and explained in his book of the same name. More or less invented by Beane, Moneyball rests on the theory that players peak just before they descend. His solution is to trade off a player the minute he peaks, in anticipation of his imminent downward slide. The upshot is that Oakland players come and go with the frequency of guests at a roadside motel.

Apparently the system worked well for awhile–the team went a long way on a short budget for several years. But now it doesn’t seem to be helping the A’s, and it never worked for fans like me, who get attached to players, only to have them disappear from one game to the next.

I love the A’s: they’re a historically laid back, scrappy club whose players have a genuinely good time on the field, and their spirit is infectious. Still, I find it hard to get excited over a bunch of guys I don’t know: from one season to the next—hell, from one week to the next—the lineup can become almost completely unfamiliar.

It’s like switching schools every year, or worse, mid-term. Just as you settle in and make friends, you’re faced with a whole new group of kids. Call me sentimental, but I miss bygone players. I miss Nick Swisher and Miguel Tejada. I miss Milton Bradley
and Eric Byrnes and Marco Scutaro. I miss the way the pitching trio of Zito, Hudson, and Mulder used to kid around. I miss the little celebratory dance Swish and Bradley did after one of them scored, and I miss seeing Byrnesie go crashing against the wall, hanging onto the ball for dear life. Because the A’s are such a laid back club, I worry when one of the boys gets sent off to a team that’s more uptight. (I’m not naming names, but everyone knows how much I worry about Zito.) So whenever I get a chance to see one of them in their new digs, I like to check him out, see how he’s doing. It’s one of the things I like about the All-Star Game, the chance to see players who’ve been traded from teams I regularly watch.

Because most A’s players inevitably move on, former teammates are scattered throughout Major League Baseball, and form a kind of brotherhood, bonded by the experience of having played together in Oaktown. You can see it when they meet on first or second base. When the Yankees come to Oakland, Johnny Damon gets loudly cheered. Same goes for Miguel Tejada, and most of the other guys. Because it’s a distinct phenomenon, I’ve come to view the scattering of A’s as a diaspora. I know, I know: that word is normally used in a heavier context, to refer to the dispersal of the Jewish people—and, in recent years, to Africans. But the dictionary definition of diaspora is a dispersion of an originally homogenous group, so it does apply.

These days, whenever an ex-A shows up in Arizona or DC or Toronto, I think, A member of the diaspora, with a special feeling in my heart. I recognize these guys as A’s first, and the team they play for now only a temporary home. Hell, look at Frank Thomas, who left the A’s for Toronto, only to get kicked out and come back home, happy as a pig in shit.

It just goes to show: you can take the player out of Oakland, but you can’t take Oakland out of the player.November 19, 2010: The movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, is due out next year. Billy Beane never looked so good! I’m really eager to see what kind of POV it presents.


2 responses »

  1. Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson into the major leagues and who also more or less invented the minor-league system as an instrument of player development, once advised that it’s better to let go of a player one year too soon rather than one year too late. I think this remains smart advice, but Billy Beane has applied cold statistics to it that have no room for loyalty and sentiment. I understand and appreciate Beane’s businessman’s approach — but it’s hard on the fans. Shouldn’t we factor into these decisions too? I don’t like feeling like my fan interest has no importance or even meaning in executive decisions to keep or lose players.

    What should be the goal of a baseball organization? To win championships? To be profitable? Perhaps most or even all baseball executives would answer, “Both.” But what about when pursuing one goal hurts the effort toward the other? The Cubs have proven that a team can make money — lots of money, in fact — from losing. The Red Sox, who have sold out Fenway Park at some of baseball’s highest ticket prices for several seasons running, show that putting a few marquee showboat players on the field to produce a winning record earns profits. The Giants built a business, and a ballpark, on the draw of a single player (and both suffer now that he’s gone). The Mariners demonstrate that a great ballpark experience can be enough to draw fans.

    If I were a baseball executive, I don’t know, really, what approach I’d take. As an A’s fan, though, I can definitely say I miss Tejada!

    As always, Steve, trenchant and informative commentary! Billy Beane has actually said he doesn’t think fans come to a game to see individual players. I don’t think that’s true at all–it is ONE of the reasons some fans come to games. Beane needs to find some balance.–MS

  2. Yes Marcy,

    I miss tejada, swisher, bradley, zito and now understand better what has been going on….I always feel a little betrayed when my favorite players are ousted, so to speak.

    I love your observations, as usual…..

    Susan, I’m so glad you read this. I wanted you to because you were blaming the Yankees for the A’s leaving Oakland so much. Another Yankee fan, friend of mine, says “Billy Beane ought to be shot.” But by the way–you can always catch Barry Zito with the Giants. I only watch them when he’s pitching, and half the time I keep the sound off. Man, I love that guy.–MS

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