04 January 2008

You gotta know when to hold em...

...Like the man said.

I don't usually get into moves on the baseball side. I feel compelled to do this now because there's a bit of fervor and backlash about first the Haren trade and now the Swisher trade (guess Swish isn't getting that ballpark-facing condo now, eh?).

I harken back to a game at the Coliseum in 1998. The A's were predictably mediocre, fighting to stay out of the cellar. I sat out in left field for a Wednesday "businessperson's special." The announced crowd may have been 10,000 but I could have sworn only half that many were there.

Late in the game a journeyman utility player named Jack Voigt played mop-up duty for Rickey Henderson in left. A couple of bleacher creatures played a little game with Voigt. They repeatedly begged him for some kind of souvenir paraphrenalia. The exchange went something like this, in rapid fire like an well-practiced vaudeville routine:

Fan 1: Voigt, give me your batting glove!
Fan 2: How about your hat?
Fan 1: Sunglasses!
Fan 2: Jersey!
Fan 1: Socks!
Fan 2: Jock!
Fan 1: Underwear!

Amused, Voigt turned around quickly and saluted the two fans. The fans yelled in delight.

Voigt didn't give the two fans any souvenirs AFAIK. The game would be one of Voigt's last as 1998 was his last season in the majors. He's now a realtor in his hometown of Sarasota, FL.

Throughout the A's eight year run of winning baseball (only surpassed in Oakland by the nine year run from '68 to '76), I've mentally gone back to those games when I was younger. I didn't have a mortgage, much disposable income, or many responsibilities. The team was horrible and somewhat depressing at times, yet I enjoyed going to the ballpark just the same. In fact, in some ways I enjoyed the game just as much then as I relished being present when the A's went up 2-0 on both the Yankees (road) and Red Sox (home) in the ALDS. No matter where the A's play, regardless of record, I'll still love the game and the team the same way. No labor stoppages, drug scandals, or other ills can take that away.

So I look at the two recent trades as the end of an era. I come not to bury, but to praise the first Beaneball/Moneyball tenure. It's given me and many others immeasurable amounts of joy, fulfillment, and sadness. I'm proud to be an Oakland Athetics fan. I'm proud of my team.

That said, Billy sure knows how to rip a fan's heart out, doesn't he? He does it with surgical precision, and who's to argue with the results? Depending on how long you've been a fan, you've seen this tearing down and rebuilding happen already once, twice, maybe three times. Chances are you're used to it. You may have even steeled yourself somewhat as I have. The A's aren't the Yanks or Red Sox, who never really have to go through such a difficult process.

It's for that reason, that sense of history, that I don't understand the conspiracy theory going around. The idea is that the fire sale is being done to help grease the skids to Fremont by alienating additional older fans. I can understand this if you've only been a fan since 2000 and you don't have that appreciation for the A's tenure in Oakland. But if you have been a fan for 20, 30, 40 years, you know this is inevitable. Sure, it would be advantageous for ticket sales and marketing if the A's put together a highly competitive team by the time the ballpark opens, but we don't even know when the ballpark will open. 2010? 2011 or later? We all know how injury-prone this team has been. A couple of injuries can mean the difference between winning the division and packing it in in late August. Should Billy also shift his scouting/drafting plans to move towards less risky players who have lower ceilings?

What we are witnessing is the product of the MLB economic system. Since most teams aren't the big money teams, their windows of opportunity have to precisely defined. Good draft yields and healthy players that proceed through the system in a timely manner are paramount. As a team gets better, it gets worse picks and has to take more chances to replenish the farm system. Over the last couple of years this strategy has not paid off for the A's. Plus the A's aren't in the position to pay exhorbitant fees for international players. They can't make frequent dips into the free agent market for big ticket players. We've had eight years of mostly wonderful, at times heartbreaking, always entertaining baseball. Billy and his current/former assistants have defied the odds repeatedly. Let's take a moment to appreciate this, then move on to the next era. As Billy folds this hand, we know that the next hand's just around the corner.