A Portrait of Hope

On the eve of the A's big loss, we learn why the Oakland team is to baseball as indie rock is to mainstream music

I am so freaked out right now. It's not even funny. My palms are sweating, my mind is racing. What if they don't pull through? What if they don't pull it together, get the job done, knock one -- or two, and yeah, sure, we'd settle for three -- out of the park tonight, over the fence and into the stands? What if they don't win?

I am of course talking about the Oakland A's, the best baseball team ever. My team. The team that is currently, as I write this on Friday of last week, tied with the Anaheim Angels for first place in the American League West and about to enter into a three-game series with those SoCal sons of bitches to decide, once and for all, who will move on to the playoffs. This is just about the most exciting and stressful a day as I will have all year.

When old friends of mine hear me talking like this, they're bewildered. "But Garrett, you don't like baseball," they say. And it's true, until about three years ago, I was anti-sports. Then I moved to Oakland, and a friend of mine started to school me in the nuances of the game, and he told me the story of the A's, and little by little this tall, lanky indie rocker grew into one of the most rabid baseball fans around. Now I'm here to convince you that you, reader, lover of music, asker of the question, "What the hell is this column doing in the music section?," can embrace the A's, too.

As a fan of underdogs, of musicians who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, of music scenes that band together to create something larger than themselves, you could be the perfect A's fan. And you should be, because despite the past four winning seasons, when Oakland has battled its way into the playoffs against all odds and expectations, the turnout at the team's games is horrendous. No one shows up. So now the organization is considering a move to San Jose or Santa Clara, and, friends, that just can't happen.

So listen to me now as I try to convert you.

The A's are to conventional baseball as indie rock is to mainstream music. First off, they have, and have had for the past couple of years, one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball; 2003's was approximately $57 million. Compare that to a team like the Yankees, with its 2003 payroll of $180 million, a team whose starting infield this season was paid more than the Oakland A's 25-player roster made last year. And yet, miraculously, the A's have been post-season contenders every year of the new millennium. That's equivalent to a band like Good Charlotte spending $2 million to record its new album, only to have it debut on the Top 40 charts tied with a band like the Velvet Teen, which spent a little over 10 grand to record its latest.

Zach Rogue, frontman for the Bay Area's beloved indie rock band Rogue Wave and a devout A's fan, agrees with the parallel. "It seems like when the A's beat the Yankees," he says, "it feels like the Shins got a gold record. The Yankees are the Creed of baseball. And you do get that sense of beating the system or something."

Actually, it's not so miraculous. As Michael Lewis outlines in his extraordinary book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the A's general manager, Billy Beane, has pioneered a system that allows him to stretch a limited budget in such a way that he still puts together a winning team, year in and year out. How does he do it? By going after undervalued players whom no one else wants, by taking risks on atypical or unproven athletes. It's not unlike an indie label seeing something in an unsigned, rough-around-the-edges band and taking a chance. Lewis gives us a few examples of such players: A's relief pitcher Chad Bradford, whose freakish, underhanded delivery (his throwing hand actually scuffs the dirt of the pitcher's mound) doomed him to the minor leagues when he played for the Chicago White Sox, found new life as an A. The same goes for Scott Hatteberg, whose shoulder injury all but ended his career. Beane, seeing the value in a player who drew as many walks as Hatteberg did, acquired the second-string catcher from the Red Sox and made him a first baseman. This season Hatteberg is batting .287 and is one of the hardest players to strike out in the American League.

Then there's the A's farm system, which has discovered and produced pitchers like Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and hitters like Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi. What Beane does is scout, sign, and nurture underrated players whose true talents are brought out by the A's unconventional approach to baseball. When those players mature -- when their contracts run out with the A's, and they can command a higher salary -- they are snatched up by wealthier teams, which is what happened in the case of both Giambi and Tejada. It's just like Sub Pop putting out Nirvana's first recordings, shepherding the band from the underground into the mainstream.

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