Sometime before his start against The Royals in the Wildcard play-in game this evening, the Oakland A’s rental pitcher Jon Lester will invariably say, “It’s just another start”. You see, we baseball players have been trained to bore fans to tears with our meticulously polished political correctitude because our dressing room is overrun with writers who’s unique clicks can always be higher. Writers who are eager to take something a player says over to the opponents clubhouse for a reaction while it’s still piping hot. They will ask Lester about his dominance of the Royals this season in hopes he’ll say something to give them more incentive. Offering a team extra incentive is a cardinal sin in any sport, including baseball, which is, as we know, haplessly conjoined to storyline. It is more fun to believe the back story matters, and with no way to necessarily disprove that a storyline affects player performance and against the threat that nothing matter but the bounces and trajectory of batted balls and the way pitches roll off the pitchers’ fingers at release, we rely on them.
‘The Royals simply had enough of Lester bullying them around this season and rose against the odds to punch their ticket to a showdown with Anaheim.’ The story can then shift to “Big Game” James Shields, the Royals’ ace acquired precisely for moments like this and can be fattened with the same filler. As much as pitching matters, and as thorough as the reporting of humble colloquialisms from each team will be until the first pitch, at this moment, each pitcher doesn’t even know what kind of ‘stuff’ they’ll be working with tonight. However, unlike average pitchers in the league who generally don’t stand much chance to win games in the Major Leagues without their best stuff, these are two pitchers whose experience has taught them how to be effective even when they’re down in the bullpen warming up knowing they aren’t quite as sharp or pain free as they’d like to be. For Lester, it really is ‘just another start’. He’s already won two World Series titles with Boston, and no matter how bad this start goes tonight, it will not affect what he fetches in free agency.
If we are to indulge storyline, the pressure tonight falls squarest on Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. After tonight there will be major lessons forwarded by baseball pundits regarding Billy Beane’s decision to trade Yoenis Cespedes, one of his best bats secured under contract through 2015 for the rental of Lester, a pitcher the thrifty A’s will not be able to re-sign after the season. You should already be able to hear an analyst say, “this is what you pay for when you rent Jon Lester”. In a television studio, someone who has never pitched a day in their life will say “Lester needs to go out there and be an ace tonight”, while using his hands a lot in that John McCain sort of way and he will say something like, “end of story” and this whip-cracking will be his exercise for the day. There are certain players whose superlative talents generally remain impervious to baseball, and by baseball, I specifically mean the volatile quality of the game— it’s unfairness and myriad moving parts that make it so unpredictable in short samples. As we speak, Lester might have the runs—a pea sized corner of uncooked pastrami in his sandwich? James Shields may be watching his daughter climb something tall that she’s never climbed before and some hitter on either team might be taking really, really, good vitamins and find himself at the right spot in the lineup when a cutter simply doesn’t cut.
Though the pressure will be on Beane this evening, it’s confusing as to whether it really should be. Especially in the hindsight of the A’s being the worst team in baseball in the second half, in my network of players and pundits amateur and professional, I often heard things to the effect of the 20-31(?) record since trading your cleanup hitter that everyone on your team (with the best record in baseball) adores is punishment from the baseball gods.
“Now they’re just another team trying to survive, a team without an identity or a soul.” wrote one of Oakland’s radio announcers, Amaury Pi-Gonzalez. It’s certainly a compelling idea—the team had undergone not simply the usual cosmetic changes that a playoff bound team does at the deadline, there was a serious structural change in the everyday lineup. But that could have happened in any number of ways. Baseball players are not by enlarge a group of agnostics unsusceptible to feels. The trending storyline of missing Yoenis gained credence as the Angels surged and Cespedes carried on with his general handsomeness and clutch hitting for the Red Sox in meaningless games after the trade. Here I imagine Billy Beane addressing the team in the clubhouse sometime in early September pleading with them to recode the experience, “let’s just pretend Yoenis was injured”—the fact that he was surgically removed means something if stories really mean anything, an existential quandary which the only jury that matters, the jury of players are still hung over. Had the A’s played decent baseball down the stretch, which they were more than capable of, this trade would have been another feather in Billy Beane’s already colorful hat.
With sabermetric data playing a greater role in informing baseball writing that reads, thankfully, less and less like a Matt Christopher book for adults, baseball’s interior operations have also become more secular. Billy Beane made that move because he believed his team had enough of a head start to win their division and that when the postseason began, he’d have the pitching staff to “beat us (Detroit)”, the Tiger’s Justin Verlander said in a rare, courageous instance of athletes speaking off the cuff (so rare there is literally an entire page of google links to the ‘story’) after Oakland’s acquisition of Jeff Samardzija, who makes another ace on the A’s staff who won’t factor if the A’s don’t get through the Royals in this one game crapshoot. It’s quite clear that the Athletics roster was improved after the trades but the ironic unforeseen circumstance happened: baseball.