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October 8, 2001

Love

Being An A's Fan

by Derek Zumsteg

I get a lot of e-mail that reads, "I liked reading your article until it turned into another stupid A's love-fest." It's a valid criticism: while I talk a lot about the A's and their player-development philosophy, their success, their control of the strike zone, and their amazing trade acumen, the Mariners have nearly as good a strikeout-to-walk ratio, a better record, a farm system percolating more interesting prospects than any other, and have had great success in international recruiting, and I don't constantly make asides about how great that organization is.

So why do I tend to put little pro-A's comments in my work? How did a long-time Giants fan who once used to heckle Jose Canseco relentlessly come around to cheering for Eric Chavez?

Defiance.

I grew up watching Mariners baseball in Seattle and, when I was visiting family in San Francisco during summer, the Giants at Candlestick Park. The Giants were playing the Kids--Robbie Thompson, Matt Williams, Royce Clayton, Will Clark--while the Mariners were playing retreads, no-hit prospects who might be at home today on the Royals squad. I went to home games in Seattle all through my impressionable youth knowing the Mariners would probably lose that night, and nothing I could do would change that. The A's would stomp those Mariner teams on their way to, say, stomping the Giants in the World Series.

Every year, we heard that our stadium was terrible, that our city couldn't support a team, that the team couldn't afford to keep players, that it might move to [city of the week], it lost $150 billion that year, and we should be happy if they won 40 games.

This is the time-tested lament of bad teams: that they can't win. So they don't try.

We see this in Kansas City, where they plead poverty and pick up Roberto Hernandez's option, in Pittsburgh, where they'll say they can't afford top-tier free agents, but will spend a ton of money on Derek Bell and Terry Mullholland.

The Athletics don't make excuses. They acknowledge their limitations, but instead of whining that they don't have any money, they talk about how important it is to spend what they have in the right way. And having said that, they follow through, making investments in long-term contracts to young players, their farm system, and their draft picks, instead of finding an available, aging stiff with recognizable fame to spend their money.

It goes beyond that, too. When the A's lost in the playoffs last October, they didn't slouch about and make lame statements about how it was impossible to compete in the current economic climate, or that they'd lost to a team with more than twice their payroll. No, Billy Beane dismissed those questions, saying "This is the worst team I intend to field over the next five years." This year, when the Royals, having run Johnny Damon out of town for salary reasons went to dump more players in mid-season, it was the A's, another low-payroll team, who picked up Jermaine Dye and used him to fuel their drive to a 100-win season and the wild card. They didn't dismantle their team after a slow start and moan about how narrow the window of opportunity is for teams without new stadiums--they stuck to their guns, and now they're headed to the playoffs.

The A's have battled low attendance (while they averaged about 38,000 in their last series against the Mariners, they've rarely drawn more than 20,000 on weeknights without promotions), stadium issues, and uncertainty surrounding ownership and potential moves. All the while they will not lie down, concede a season, go the easy route of playing the model small-market franchise, losing 100 games and crying poor.

How can you not love this franchise?

So if I'm a little too enthusiastic in my praise of the team, I beg your forgiveness. To me they're more than just a success story to be emulated; they're what my 1980s Mariners could have been but were not, and their work at fielding good teams means that in Oakland, there are kids now watching baseball of much higher quality than I ever got to see. That makes me happy.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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