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Moneyball 2.0: The Pitching Whisperer

The Oakland A's are winning again on a shoestring budget, but this time the credit goes to a soft-spoken coach named Curt Young.



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Over the years, A's fans had grown accustomed to their team grooming future stars and then flipping them for future considerations, but with so many teams reading the same script, the cycle turned too fast and the A's couldn't hang on for the ride. From 2007 to 2011, Oakland never had a winning record.

In the early Moneyball years, the A's at least got to see Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada come to life, but when Lew Wolff and the new ownership saw what rivals were willing to pay for baseball seedlings, the A's started pulling up prospects by the roots. The means to an end had become a means to another means. Attendance and media attention, never great even in the salad days, grew particularly anemic during the cole slaw ones.

Last season's big build-up was to Moneyball the movie. But by the time the film hit the big screen one year ago, the A's were twenty games out of first, had fired their manager, and had written out pink slips for the pitching coach, batting coach, bench coach, bat boys, and hot dog vendors. The 2011 season marked the longest sustained period of losing in Oakland A's franchise history.

Then when the 2011 season finally died its unmourned Oakland death (another third place finish), the A's traded away the only three All-Stars they had in the space of about ten days: Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals, Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and closer Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox, who by now were aping the New York Yankees, figuring, if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. And in exchange, for these stars, the A's got prospects. Which is what fans thought the whole point of Gonzalez, Cahill, and Bailey was in the first place. The Athletics had traded away big talent to get them, and now they were being flipped for another set of neophytes.

And the newbies? They weren't even the Nat's, D-Back's, or Sox's best young commodities — they were the same age or older than the All-Stars the A's had just traded away, and looked like they were years away from prime time. Between the lines, one newly minted A hinted at what the others were probably thinking: He didn't even want to come to Oakland.

Baseball prognosticators made their annual predictions before Spring Training 2012 and couldn't reach a consensus: Half of them thought the Athletics were going to be the worst team in the American League, the others predicted that the A's were going to be the lousiest team in Major League Baseball. One magazine provided the ultimate dis — by forgetting to even list the Athletics in their pre-season preview.

The biggest splash for those paying any attention was lavished on forty-year-old steroid abuser Manny Ramirez, who accepted a minimum salary and a fifty-day suspension after being convicted of serial-drug abuse. A's fans were told that if the team didn't actually disband by June 1, Ramirez — the former Red Sock and convicted wife-beater, senior citizen-beater, and twice a team-quitter — would suit up and, after being drug-tested weekly, would thrill A's fans by grounding out weakly to second base all summer long.

The world's saddest circus featuring the cruddiest side show was about to start the 2012 season, when it was then revealed that it wasn't even going to start in Oakland. Wolff and Major League Baseball sent the A's into exile. The first two home games of the new season had been sold to the highest bidder, so the Athletics began their season in Japan at a game that began at 2 a.m. Oakland time. The A's became the only team in baseball that didn't show its fans its home opener — but at least when the team lost to Seattle in the Tokyo Dome, no one stateside got to (had to?) see it. After a week in Asia and then two more "opening series" — all against Seattle, one here, one there, one in Tokyo — the Oakland A's had a record of four wins and seven losses to launch the new year. Last place.

It's a hard game," said A's pitching coach Curt Young. "As pitchers we all understand how hard it is to pitch." Of course, Young hasn't thrown a pitch in competition for more than fifteen years. When he did, he tossed most of them as a middling starter for the Oakland A's in the 1980s. Young was the team's best pitcher when the team was mediocre and was then an average pitcher when the team got really good. But it is meaningful that Young still identifies himself as a pitcher.

He also is a reluctant subject. The A's public relations staff promised and delivered many who would speak about Young, but let me know that the coach himself might not be willing to speak on the record. But surprisingly, Young slipped into the clubhouse an hour ahead of our scheduled interview, having eluded the team's publicist, and introduced himself and offered his time and his attention.

Young is a solidly built fifty-year-old. Sun-lined like most baseball lifers, he's a thoughtful, low-key speaker. A Michigan native, Young maneuvered his way through the pre-game scrum of ballplayers and attendants with stealth. The clubhouse is a little like a junior-high dance. The writers hang on the periphery, mostly watching the action of players interacting in the middle, with the boldest or most desperate making brief forays into interaction and dialogue with the athletes.

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