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Moneyball

It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times.

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 8/3/2005

So begins this tale of two cities: Baltimore and Oakland.

On May 30, the Baltimore Orioles owned first place in the American League East, with a record of 31-19, a .620 winning percentage, 12 games over .500. They held a four-game lead over second-place Boston and New York.

Meanwhile out West, the Oakland Athletics dwelt in the cellar. They were in last place, 14 games below .500 with an 18-32 record, a .360 winning percentage, and an 11.5-game deficit behind the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.

For Orioles fans, this early surge marked the beginning of a new era. Doubters and skeptics stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop as the Orioles vanquished foes, winning series upon series in decisive fashion. For most O’s fans, the difference became evident when the Birds impressively swept the Yankees at Camden Yards with come-from-behind wins, clutch hits, and hammer-dropping, lights-out pitching.

Oakland’s early slumber found old-school baseball pundits reveling at the team’s demise. Oakland general manager Billy Beane earned their ire with his wholesale dismissal of baseball’s status quo (as featured in the 2003 book Moneyball). Strategists who celebrate bunting, base-stealing, and manufacturing runs found Billy Beane’s on-base percentage, walks, and slugging percentage formula crass. (Orioles fans, who know better, embrace Beane’s ideology, recognizing it for what it is—a distilled version of Earl Weaver’s offensive philosophy of the three-run homer.) The anti-Beane prognosticators who begrudged Oakland’s success were giddy at his apparent demise—in a bold stroke, after failing to make the playoffs last fall, Beane dealt pitchers Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, two thirds of Oakland’s “big three,” holding on only to Barry Zito. As the A’s stumbled out of the blocks this spring, Beane’s critics were convinced his formula would finally fail without his holy trinity.

Cut to July 30: The other shoe has dropped, and the Orioles are in free fall. With a record of 51-52, they have tumbled to fourth place in the AL East, seven games behind Boston, now looking up at Toronto and New York.

This is the first time Baltimore has been below .500 since April 9. They’ve lost four in a row and nine of the last 10 games.

The A’s have clawed their way into second place in the AL West with a record of 58-46 (.558), only 1.5 games behind the first-place Angels. They’ve won four in a row and nine of the last 10. They also lead in the wild-card race—the imaginary division that awards the best second-place team in each league an invitation to postseason play. Oakland holds a 1.5-game lead over the New York Yankees and an eight-game lead over seventh-place Baltimore.

Two months separate these snapshots of the O’s and the A’s, two teams whose fortunes have miraculously reversed. Oakland has played the best baseball in the majors, at 40-14, and Baltimore has played the worst, at 20-35.

Oakland’s success has established a new “big three” with red-hot Rich Harden, Dan Haren, and Joe Blanton joining Zito, who is 7-0 in his last seven decisions. Beane has also pulled off a number of quiet, albeit effective, trades along the way . He landed outfielder Jay Payton from Boston for reliever Chad Radford and jettisoned Eric Byrnes to the Colorado Rockies. On July 30, Payton hit a grand slam to power Oakland over Detroit 9-5.

The Orioles’ descent has been marked by freakishly bad luck. A spate of injuries—Luis Matos and Javy Lopez each broke bones in their hands, pitcher and de facto ace Erik Bedard went on the disabled list with a strained knee ligament, and even back-up catcher Geronimo Gil sprained his thumb.

The pieces are all falling back into place, finally. This past week, for the first time since May, the Orioles fielded their opening-day lineup—and bad luck surfaced again.

Two times in a week, O’s starters—Sidney Ponson and Daniel Cabrera—had to leave games in the early innings when a batted ball drilled into a pitching hand. And, in breaking news, on Monday slugger Rafael Palmeiro was suspended 10 games for steroid use.

Facing the trade deadline and attempting to turn the tide of luck, O’s co-GMs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have attempted to engineer some deals. The first, a blockbuster that would have brought Marlins starter A.J. Burnett to Baltimore, fell through allegedly because of Burnett’s reluctance to sign a contract extension. A deal that would have sent Ponson to San Diego for Phil Nevin was halted when Nevin exercised his “no trade” clause, citing his desire not to disrupt his family by moving away—a nice thought, except Nevin was traded to Texas only a day later.

Facing the trade deadline, wanting something, anything, Baltimore traded outfielder Larry Bigbie straight-up to Colorado for outfielder Eric Byrnes. Byrnes, of course, is the same player Beane dealt to Colorado earlier this season. While everyone is hoping he brings some of Beane’s magic with him, it is clear to everyone paying attention that the magic is in Oakland’s pitching staff.

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Benchwarmer archives

More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Macro and Micro (9/7/2005)
The "Oriole Way" has become synonymous with "half-assed."

Choker’s Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

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