Lowly A's, defying logic, chase history

It was not supposed to be like this.

The Oakland A's, we were told, could not compete in today's major leagues.

We watched as their two best players fled for the greener bankrolls of Boston and New York last winter. We heard that the A's, like the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins, were a candidate for league downsizing. We were reminded that they had baseball's third-lowest payroll.

Yet during the past month, the Oakland A's have struck a blow for baseball as many believe it ought to be. Without a single superstar, the A's set an American League record with their 20th straight win Wednesday night.

In an era of $262 million salaries and comfy clubhouse chairs, they are among the rarities of modern sport: a team. A unit of players – some exceptional, some rather ordinary – who create a whole far more potent than the parts alone. They are a concoction of castoffs and up-and-comers that – for all their Gen X stubble and spikey hair – are in some ways throwbacks to a time of gritted teeth and teamwork.

For true immortality, there's work ahead, continuing tonight with a game in Minneapolis: The major league record for consecutive wins is 26, held by the 1916 New York Giants of the National League. Yet the American League record is no bauble. With their 20th win, the A's passed the 1947 Yankees – think Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio – who won 19 straight.

Don't think those names don't matter.

For many here, the Yankees are the anti-A's – owner George Steinbrenner's trust-fund baby, ever wooing all-stars, always buying world championships. What's more, his newest charge, Jason Giambi, was the A's heart and soul. Now getting $11 million in Yankee cash a year, his salary is equal to one-fourth of the entire A's payroll.

But left behind was the core of players that are ahead of the Yankees for the best record in the league. By major league standards, the A's are playing for lunch money.

The three pitchers who anchor what may be baseball's best rotation make a combined $2 million a year; Barry Zito, considered a favorite to win the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in the American League, makes $295,000.

The key has been making a baseball team the old-fashioned way. Oakland captured its top players when they were young and cheap, and then let them mature into everyday stars – together.

It's taken some time. With so many young players, the clubhouse has at times seemed more fraternity house than workplace. Earlier this year, there was a cardboard cutout of Britney Spears in the locker room, and players often found more interest in the team's Microsoft Xbox game console than the daily lineup card.

That attitude was moderated somewhat by an early-season losing streak, yet the sense of youthful enthusiasm and unity remains. The A's have become a team together, blending the brilliance of shortstop Miguel Tejada with the workmanlike steadiness of second baseman Mark Ellis.

So perhaps it's only fitting that this year, the A's – baseball's consummate team – have reached historic heights. After the home-run races of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire enshrined the individual, the A's run this season has caught the more team-oriented tone of the recent labor negotiations, where players finally put the good of the game above themselves and compromised to avert a strike.

By the end of the season, fans know, the Yankees could restore some normalcy to the baseball world. But for the moment at least, they can say that the A's are better than any Yankees team ever, and as they made their way home on Wednesday, chanting and cheering amid the receding throngs, many already were.

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