Even in Hollywood, Cinderella sports stories don’t necessarily end in bliss. My favorite sports movie, “Moneyball,”chronicles how the 2002 Oakland A’s, a small-market team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, managed to compete with the likes of New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox not by outspending them, but by using advanced analytics — unheard of at the time — to put together a winning roster with cheap players.
My favorite line is when General Manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, is flustered by his scouting department’s unwillingness to be innovative and yells: “There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then, there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.”
That year, the A’s, with an approximately $41 million payroll, a roster full of nobodies and a dilapidated and outdated stadium, won 103 games, tying the Yankees — who spent $125 million — for the most in baseball. They set a then-American League record by winning 20 consecutive games. They revolutionized baseball, changing the way teams evaluate players. They were the subject of the book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by acclaimed author Michael Lewis, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Pitt.
But there’s one thing about the 2002 A’s: They didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs. The “Moneyball” A’s, despite a blistering 103-59 regular season record, fell in five games in the division series. “Moneyball” worked, up until it really mattered.
I wrote this column five days removed from the 2018 A’s suffering a similar fate. Beane is still the GM and they still play in the same dilapidated stadium. Yet, the A’s were the first team in 30 years to enter the season with baseball’s lowest payroll ($66 million) to make the playoffs. They were a roster of misfits, castoffs and journeymen that somehow won 97 games — 22 more than they did last season, the fourth most in baseball and more than any National League team.
In plain English, the 2018 A’s did an amazing thing.
This summer, I had a front row seat to the magic. I covered the A’s for my internship from May to August, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to witness high-intensity games during my time in Oakland. The A’s were picked by many to finish last or second-to-last in their division. They were young and unproven, a few more years away from contending. In my first couple of weeks, they didn’t do much to prove otherwise.
Then, June rolled around, and they couldn’t stop losing. I went from ignoring the playoff standings to chronicling the A’s surge up the ladder. They won 13 of 18 series and had an MLB-best 63-29 record after June 15. On that date, they trailed the Seattle Mariners by 10 games for the final playoff spot. They not only made up that gap, but they also clinched the spot by a clear seven games. That is remarkable.
As a journalist, I don’t root for a team to win, but rather for the best story. With every win, the A’s were becoming a headline sports story. And man, they became fun to cover.
What made it better was that the players didn’t care for the attention. The clubhouse was always loose, blasting music pregame and after wins. They joked around, played basketball on a mini-hoop and seemed like a group that genuinely enjoyed being with each other — an occurence in sports that is rarer than one might think.
I bet the casual baseball fan could not name three players on the roster. Despite them having Khris Davis, who led all of MLB with 48 home runs. Or closer Blake Treinen, whose 0.78 ERA was the lowest in baseball history for any pitcher with at least 80 innings thrown. Or third baseman Matt Chapman, who posted the seventh highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the league.
Those aren’t household names. None of them make what the best players on the Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs do, yet the A’s finished with a better record than both teams.
But here comes the “however”: the 2018 A’s also didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs, if you can even call it that. They were overmatched by the Yankees, 7-2, in the American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday. (The Yankees’ Opening Day payroll? $167 million.) The A’s, who put together another storybook regular season, were eliminated on day one by a big-market team with a much higher payroll and much bigger names.
Watching the game last week, I could not help but root for the best story: the A’s Cinderella season continuing. I watched this team work too hard to get to this point, shatter too many expectations and shut up too many critics to make a one-day cameo in the postseason — especially at the hands of the Yankees, the antithesis of the A’s in every which way.
Yet, that was the way it ended. Billy Beane, 16 years after changing baseball, is still looking for the ultimate reward for his efforts: a championship. If the small-market A’s ever get it done in Brad Pitt’s lifetime, it would make for a damn good “Moneyball” sequel.
Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.