As a fan of the Oakland Athletics for the past 33 years and a season ticket holder for two decades, my two favorite seasons (not including 1989 which goes without saying here in the East Bay Area, will always be the most important) were 2002 and 2012.
The 2012 season will always be my favorite. There were no expectations because of a streak, it was just a scrappy team expected to lose 100 games but instead won 97 games, along with the American League West title, taking it from the Texas Rangers while playing at the Coliseum on the very last day of the regular season. It really does not get much better than that because every game from there on out was like icing on the cake.
When the A’s were shutout by Justin Verlander in the final game of the 2012 AL Division Series, instead of leaving, the crowd stayed to show their appreciation of a far-exceeding expectations season to the crushed players as they walked off the field. A five-minute long standing ovation occurred complete with chants of “Let’s Go Oakland!” It was moving. It was a truly fun experience, unlike the ‘streak season’ which truly broke my heart.
On Wednesday when the Cleveland Indians broke the record of those ’02 A’s by winning 21st consecutive game, it was much to the dismay of many A’s fans. I certainly won’t lie and say I am not among those in the ranks of the heartbroken, but that’s baseball for you. I have always maintained – and the Athletics have proven me right more times than I can recount – that anything can and usually will happen in baseball.
The fact is that regardless of what happens in the postseason, the A’s and the Indians are the only two teams with 20 or more game win streaks since the MLB Expansion Era began in 1961. Teams had done it before in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but tie games were involved. The 1935 Cubs won 21 games but a good point is made by Joe Posnanski in a piece recently written for MLB.com:
“That too, was very different baseball — it was before integration, before lights, before a lot of things — but it’s a lot closer than the Deadball Era stuff.”
Still, it isn’t all that close is it? It isn’t exactly the same kind of baseball that has been played in this still young century – a century in which the A’s made the playoffs in eight of it’s first 16 seasons, mind you. That cannot be said about the Indians, but that doesn’t diminish what the Indians have done in the last three weeks just as the A’s failures in the postseason do not change what they accomplished in 2002 or in the 15 years since. (Okay, maybe that is just a bit of my sour grapes over what they’ve done to our now-former record, but still, I am standing on it and you can’t change my mind either.)
As far as I can tell there are both differences and similarities between these two teams. Take them how you will – stats or players – I’m sad, but at the same time I respect both for their accomplishments. The similarities between the two teams are as striking as the differences. As I mentioned earlier, Posnanski has his own definitions of what makes a “streak” the best ever. And he’s got some very good points.
For example, he points out the OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) throughout each team’s first 18 wins of their respective streaks. The 2017 Indians come in well above the Athletics with a .955 OPS and the 2002 A’s, a distant second at .886. He also notes the team’s ERAs over that same period, the 2017 Indians have put up a 1.78 ERA over the first 18 games of their streak while the A’s posted a 2.65. In that respect the 2017 Indians take the cake and quite easily.
What he leaves out of his analysis – again, doesn’t diminish the accomplishments that each team has made. It can’t. Not losing a baseball game for three weeks is absurd, and it’s happened now twice in the first 18 seasons of the current century. Now, I am not completely certain what that means, or if there is some deeper meaning in the bigger picture of where baseball is at today. But the fact that it has happened almost three times this century, if you count the 16-game win streak put forth by the Seattle Mariners in 2001, is remarkable no matter what.
Maybe it does mean the times are changing, or maybe it is sheer luck. In reality, it probably means some of both. The 2002 Athletics definitely got lucky. They got especially lucky winning games 18, 19 and 20. All three of those wins came as walk-off wins. The first two on a Miguel Tejada home run one day and a double the next day.
Then came the real hero of the A’s streak, Scott Hatteberg who was put in to pinch hit for Eric Byrnes in the top of the 9th inning of an 11-11 game (one in which the A’s had held an 11-0 lead in the second inning). Hatteberg wasn’t the strongest of the A’s hitters but he was good at getting on base. And if he did, it would have brought up the heart of the order – Eric Chavez and 2002 A.L. MVP Miguel Tejada. In this case, if you haven’t seen the movie “Moneyball” – Hatteberg hits a towering shot to center field and the rest as they say, is history.
That was until Tuesday when the Tribe tied the A’s American League record 20-game win streak and Wednesday when they got their 21st win. They defeated the now rebuilding Tigers without issue. Yet, while there are differences between the numbers that the Indians’ have put up this year during their streak and the numbers that the A’s put up during theirs in 2002, there are other differences as well.
The 2002 A’s had one big name, David Justice. It was mainly because the New York Yankees were paying the majority of his salary. Yes, they did have the “Big Three” in Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson – and sure they had Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye and Miguel Tejada, but they were not quite yet what they would go on to become. Zito had yet to win the A.L. Cy Young and Tejada had yet to win the A.L. MVP Award. Even Chavez had only won one of his six consecutive Gold Glove Awards at third base. Even looking at the “Big Three,” it was the late Corey Lidle, the number four starter (who pitched better than the “Big Three” combined) that really kept the streak going.
Yes, it’s been easier for the Indians to win their streak – and no matter what – both teams had to run into luck to do something that has only been done twice in baseball history. Yet as good as the Indians are – and don’t get me wrong, they are very good and what they’ve accomplished would have been just about unbelievable if we hadn’t seen it happen just 15 years ago.
However, the Indians already had a Cy Young Award winner in Corey Kluber. They have established players in Francisco Lindor (I know he is just a sophomore but after last season, didn’t you see this coming?), Trevor Bauer, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and Carlos Carrasco. Those are just examples of how much more prepared they could be considered to be to hit this lucky streak.
Of course, I won’t neglect to mention that they have accomplished this without star outfielder Michael Brantley, infielder Jason Kipnis and reliever Andrew Miller. Even I must admit that to be playing this well without those three players is a bit more than admirable. However, they’re still pretty stacked when compared with Hatteberg and the 2002 Oakland Athletics.
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. For everything this streak represents, their biggest test still lies ahead by continuing on to win it all. Not a single team that has ever had at least a 16-plus win streak has won a championship. The Indians have a chance to change not only that pattern, but also bring baseball’s longest World Series Title drought to an end.
If they are able to take things all the way, the way they almost did in 2016, then they will officially have the greatest streak of all-time, whether it be 21 games or 25. No major streak has ever culminated in a championship win. It certainly didn’t for the 2002 Athletics or the teams that had streaks before them. For now, it’ll be a game of wait and see what happens in October.
All that said, what each team accomplished is something that we may not see for another century’s worth of Major League Baseball. Or maybe we will, who knows? Baseball is exceedingly random in that way. But regardless of who holds the record now, the way that mismatched, over-achieving A’s team reached that record is still one of the most impressive and exciting things that has ever happened in the game. And although they have been passed in the record book by the Indians, it does not dim the light of that streak in the slightest.