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2 Oakland Athletics This free-spirited bunch might just laugh its way into the postseason party

Back in 1989, when the Yankees' clubhouse was run by Don
Mattingly, Dave Winfield and several other All-Star-caliber,
no-nonsense veterans, Randy Velarde--a timid rookie infielder from
Midland, Texas--would hide in his locker, afraid to say the wrong
thing. This early experience explains a lot about Velarde: His
stoicism. His dedication to physical fitness. His arrive-early,
leave-late work ethic. His respect for authority. His sheer
disgust upon meeting the A's.

Oakland acquired Velarde, along with righthanded starter Omar
Olivares, from the Angels last July 29. The next day, when
Velarde made his first appearance in the Athletics' clubhouse, he
found players sprawled across the floor, laughing loudly. Some
others played poker. A group of his new teammates watched Jerry
Springer. Nary a one was hidden in a locker, afraid to speak.
"It's too relaxed for me around here," says Velarde, 37. "I walk
in that first day, and guys are having fun." What's wrong with
having fun? "That's not the way it's supposed to be. In my first
five years, in New York, I was a church mouse. Don't talk,

Although Velarde still isn't 100% comfortable with what Oakland
third baseman Eric Chavez calls "a room of goofiness," he
does--sheepishly--admit that winning and fart jokes can go hand and
hand. That was proved last season when the upstart A's,
last-place finishers three of the previous four years, battled
for the wild-card spot until the final week, winning 87 games
with a $25 million roster dependent on unwanted retreads (DH John
Jaha), obscure rookies (righty starter Tim Hudson) and supposed
has-beens (reliever Doug Jones), and with all the stoicism and
anxiety of a Cocoa Puffs taste-athon.

Billy Beane, the wunderkind 38-year-old general manager, owns a
suit but prefers to walk the Coliseum halls in shorts and
sandals. His assistant, Paul DePodesta, is 27. Every other player
seems to have long hair or blond-streaked hair or, in the case of
Chavez, long, blond-streaked hair. The emotional leader, first
baseman Jason Giambi, speaks not in English but in yells and
giggles and grunts. "There's something of an us-against-the-world
attitude here," says Beane. "We're a small-market budget
competing with the big spenders, and we do it with a casual
professionalism. There's a communal feeling from top to bottom,
and it works."

Mainly it works because for the past seven years the A's have
spent their limited funds as well as anyone. Between 1992 (the
last time Oakland reached the playoffs) and last season, the A's
dedicated themselves to building from within, avoiding the risky
trade that smells of short-term gain. As a result, six of
Oakland's eight starting position players (Chavez, Giambi,
leftfielder Ben Grieve, catcher Ramon Hernandez, rightfielder
Matt Stairs and shortstop Miguel Tejada) as well as Hudson, the
ace of the A's rotation, were developed in the organization.

Oakland made very few changes in the off-season, which was
unusual for a club accustomed to watching stars walk in pursuit
of big bucks. Free agents Olivares and Velarde agreed to
below-market contracts to stay with the A's, as did Jaha, who
never even spoke to another club before signing a paltry
two-year, $6 million deal. Partly he signed out of loyalty, says
Jaha, who was invited to spring training by Oakland last year
when other teams didn't return his calls. "Mostly," he says, "I
wanted to have fun again."

He will, especially if the Athletics' obscure-yet-talented
sluggers can repeat their McGwire-esque showing of last season,
when they ranked second in the majors with 235 home runs.
Oakland needs the long ball. The A's are terrible on the base
paths (70 steals, 13th in the league last season), they don't
hit for average (.259, also 13th), and they fan more often than
John Popper on a 100[degree] day (a league-high 1,129 times).
Heck, they aren't even decent in the field, where Grieve and
Stairs are below average, Giambi isn't mobile, and Chavez is
still learning the nuances. But the middle of the lineup,
Giambi-Jaha-Stairs-Grieve, combined for 134 homers, 422 RBIs
and, ahem, 467 strikeouts.

Manager Art Howe's Opening Day staff will be infinitely better
than last year's, when now-departed Jimmy Haynes--routinely ripped
by teammates for his softness--shared ace status with Gil Heredia,
a nomadic righthander who never had more than six wins in a year.
Olivares and former Royals All-Star Kevin Appier joined the A's
in late July, and each won seven games. Heredia, a junkballer and
ideal No. 4 starter, won a career-high 13 games. The surprise was
Hudson. Tiny (listed at 6 feet, actually 5'10"), unknown (a
sixth-round pick who never attended a big league camp) and,
beginning with his June 7 call-up from the Triple A Vancouver
Canadians, dominant, Hudson throws hard, but it's his changeup
and slider that produced 132 strikeouts in 136 innings. Batters
chased his off-speed pitches out of the zone, a trend Hudson
fears may not continue. "Major League hitters are awfully smart,"
he says. "Eventually I'll have to find new ways, 'cause they
might stop chasing."


COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN GRADE A TALENT Just as he fooled the experts, the unheralded Hudson baffled American League hitters, racking up nearly a strikeout per inning.


around the HORN

[4 1/2 stars]
[2 stars]
[3 stars]
[3 stars]
[4 stars]

by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

Batting average .259 (13)
Runs scored 893 (4)
Home runs 235 (2)

1999 record: 87-75 (second in AL West)

Opponents' batting average .274 (6)
ERA 4.69 (3)
Fielding percentage .980 (10)

next up...

In last September's Triple A World Series, someone told
Vancouver's Terrence Long that a minor league official had
allegedly said the Canadians didn't have enough hitting to win.
Long needed to hear no more--he batted .429, led his team to the
title and was named Series MVP. At the start of spring training
in February, Oakland manager Art Howe said Long was something of
a long shot to make the A's. Long needed to hear no more--he
batted .410 through the first 13 exhibition games to establish
himself as the favorite for the starting centerfield job.
Although he's still something of a free swinger, Long is a speedy
(20-plus stolen bases in four of six minor league seasons),
powerful and graceful outfielder who, on his best days, does a
pretty mean Andy Van Slyke imitation.

the lineup
projected roster with 1999 statistics

Manager: Art Howe (fifth season with Oakland)


CF Terrence Long *(R) L 162 .299 9 68 21
2B Randy Velarde R 80 .317 16 76 24
1B Jason Giambi L-R 32 .315 33 123 1
DH John Jaha R 97 .276 35 111 2
RF Matt Stairs L-R 67 .258 38 102 2
LF Ben Grieve L-R 108 .265 28 86 4
3B Eric Chavez L-R 196 .247 13 50 1
SS Miguel Tejada R 153 .251 21 84 8
C Ramon Hernandez R 219 .279 3 21 1


OF Jeremy Giambi[1] L 201 .285 3 34 0
OF Rich Becker[2] L 261 .258 6 26 8
C A.J. Hinch R 266 .215 7 24 6
IF Olmedo Saenz R 278 .275 11 41 1


RH Kevin Appier 80 16 14 6.1 1.50 5.17
RH Tim Hudson 52 11 2 6.5 1.34 3.23
RH Omar Olivares 59 15 11 6.4 1.45 4.16
RH Gil Heredia 105 13 8 6.1 1.31 4.81
LH Ron Mahay 185 2 0 5.0 0.57 1.86


RH Jason Isringhausen[2] 24 1 4 9 1.52 4.73
RH T.J. Mathews 195 9 5 3 1.12 3.81
RH Doug Jones 206 5 5 10 1.25 3.55
LH Mike Magnante[1] 247 5 2 0 1.40 3.38
LH Doug Johns[1] 262 6 4 0 1.22 4.47
RH Scott Service 338 5 5 8 1.71 6.09

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 164)
*Triple A stats
[2]Combined AL and NL stats

the book
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Athletics

"The Athletics are slow, they can't field, and they play
station-to-station baseball, but they can score runs off anybody.
They're for real--they're capable of winning the division.... They
have enough pitching, especially now that Kevin Appier looks like
he's healthy. With Omar Olivares, Gil Heredia and Tim Hudson they
have a solid rotation. It was a coup for them to re-sign Olivares
after the year he had. I like Heredia. He's a strike-throwing
machine. Hudson knows how to pitch. He's a guy who struggles with
his command at times, but then he finds a way to get you out.
He's got a knack for knowing what pitch to throw in certain
spots. And rookie lefthander Mark Mulder will help at some point
this year. I'm impressed with his poise.... Jason Isringhausen
will do the job as the closer. He's got a great arm with great
stuff. He's the key if Oakland is going to get into the
playoffs.... The only real question mark is centerfield, where
Terrence Long should be an upgrade on Ryan Christenson. If Long
hits enough to keep the job, look out. A dangerous offense will
be even tougher."