The A's did it again on Wednesday night, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To their credit, at least they had the courtesy to allow more than two runs in the ninth and prevent it from being another one-run loss.
There's a popular narrative being pedaled these days. The Oakland A's are mercenaries. The A's will never connect with the fans if they keep shuffling players in and out. The A's are in a tailspin right now because they futzed up the clubhouse alchemy, and the fans are going to notice and stay away. It's mostly hokum. Allow me to explain.
Not before I apologize for my contributions to the narrative, though. When I woke up and heard that Yoenis Cespedes went to the Red Sox, I wrote this before my first cup of coffee. The baseball stuff could wait; I was just stunned that the A's would trade him. It reminded me of the Giants trading Matt Williams in 1996, something that was immediately and transparently unpopular with a substantial cross-section of the fan base. That trade worked out. The Lester/Cespedes trade still might work out. But my first reaction was to mind-meld with the fans because that deal was so unexpected.
There's a difference between wondering what the fans are going to think in the immediate aftermath of a deal, though, and predicting a mass exodus of fans who feel betrayed by organizational philosophies. Bruce Jenkins had a column on Wednesday that wondered about the latter, suggesting the A's are setting themselves up for trouble with their revolving cast of characters and new faces. He compares them to the Giants in that regard, which I'm sure just tickles A's fans.
This type of revolving-door thinking can play hell with the fan base. For those aware that the A’s make a ton of money, and have an obscenely wealthy co-owner in John Fisher, the endless transition is inexcusable. But there are matters of the heart, as well.
Jenkins includes a couple of reader testimonials to support this point, both of which laud the idea of homegrown players and keeping the familiar faces around. The Giants have been fanatical about this over the last four years, which leads to things like a broken Tim Lincecum getting a standing ovation when he jogs to the bullpen. The A's are more concerned about winning, winning, winning, which forces them to make tough decisions on a limited budget.
Here, then, is the master list of what fans care about, presented to you in order of importance.
- Keeping the band together
When you get to do both, it seems like the second one is more important. And when you ignore the second one, only to watch the first one mysteriously disappear, it absolutely seems like the second one is more important. Those are red herrings, though. Don't trust them. Winning, you fools. Fans respond to winning, even if means doing it with players who weren't there a month ago.
Allow me to demonstrate with the help of an oil painting that hangs in my living room.
I know, I know. It's a little tacky, but I apologize for nothing. It was a gift I got because of a personal connection to that scene, and I love it so. It's a painting of one of my favorite moments as a sports fan. It's also a painting of a rent-a-player that exists only because the rent-a-player's team won with the rent-a-player's help.
Back up a bit. It's not enough to point out that Marco Scutaro came to the Giants mid-season and fans embraced him. It's important to note whom he replaced. Two years earlier, it was another mercenary second baseman who was a darling of the San Francisco baseball scene. After a career as the face of another team, Freddy Sanchez came over to the Giants and became a fan favorite immediately. When he helped the team win, he was a rock star. Everyone loved Freddy Sanchez around here. Everyone.
Then he broke. After an injury in 2011, he never played again.
Then Scutaro came along and did his thing. When he helped the team win, he was a rock star. Everyone loved Marco Scutaro around here. Everyone.
No one talked about Freddy Sanchez anymore.
Now Scutaro is in the Freddy Sanchez zone, with back injuries threatening his career. For months, second base was a wasteland for the Giants until rookie Joe Panik took off, and now Giants fans are agog at Panik. Look at this sweet-swingin' rookie. He's like a cross between Wade Boggs and Pete Rose, but with a higher ceiling and better ethics. All hail Joe Panik.
No one talks about Marco Scutaro anymore.
Does it seem callous? It is. It's horribly callous. For all the talk about Billy Beane being an insensitive, unfeeling jerk who trades players without thinking of the fans, it's nothing compared to how insensitive and unfeeling fans can be when it suits them. The fans love it when the band stays together, as long as the team wins.
As long as the team wins.
Look at that homegrown infield. Look at that homegrown infield that's been historically successful and together for the last decade. Look at how little the fans want to show up and appreciate the respective legacies of everyone in that infield. This isn't a slam against Phillies fans. It's something that would happen in every ballpark. You'll see the same downward trend in San Francisco if/when the Giants turn to mush.
Jenkins quotes an email that contradicts this idea.
"My two middle-school girls have grown up as A's fans these last three years, and all of a sudden, the buzz is gone. All of their Oakland-born and raised friends feel the same way. Not only did they lose the player that brought the cool and the buzz, but they lost faith in the family aspect of a team. The next generation of A's fans doesn't care about OPS, or WAR, or name your sabermetric."
I strongly disagree. Every baseball fan in the world cares about OPS and WAR and sabermetrics, even if they don't know what any of those things are. They care about them when they translate to wins. If the A's win a dozen straight after the deadline and Jon Lester threatens Orel Hershiser's scoreless-inning streak, that buzz wouldn't have gone anywhere. It would have increased exponentially.
It was fun following J.T. Snow, beloved fan favorite, for a decade. It was a lot more fun to watch Aubrey Huff for one specific season. And when he forgot how to baseball, it took about two months for everyone to start clamoring for the rookie to get a shot. When that guy starts to struggle, Giants fans will jump to the next lilypad.
A's fans aren't that different. No teams' fans are that different. Considering that, Billy Beane is trying to build the most fan-friendly team he knows how. You notice only when it doesn't work.