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The Anatomy of a Failed Bet

The Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Athletics both had everything to lose last night, not just for this year, but for a long time forward.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, first off, I'm going to admit one thing right up front: I was rooting against the Royals last night.

I know, I know; it seemed as if most of the world was behind Kansas City last night, in much the same way people were behind Pittsburgh last year. (At least until this bunch of Midwestern assholes came along and did that thing they do, beating the Pirates and incurring further wrath from all the world not part of their specific fanbase.) It had been so long for the Royals and their fans that the night felt...well, cathartic, really. Not just another night of great baseball (although it was, absolutely, as good a game of baseball as you're ever going to see); seeing the Kansas City Royals advance past the Oakland Athletics seemed an equal mixture of both joy and relief, as the longest playoff drought in the game came to an end.

I just couldn't bring myself to root for the Royals, though, despite my Midwestern sensibilities practically demanding it, not to mention my sense of history, feelings of empathy, and love of Rany Jazayerli. No matter how strong those things were, for me, they could never overcome the antipathy I have always felt, and will likely always feel, for the Kansas City Royals.

The 1985 World Series is, probably, my first real baseball memory. I don't actually recall the games themselves that well, honestly; that would have to wait for 1987 and watching the Metrodome swallow up my red-tinted dreams. What I do remember, however, is my father and uncle, swearing at the television, and for weeks afterward. My grandfather, a former minor leaguer in the Cardinal system and the man who taught me most everything I knew about the game, told me it was the worst call he had ever seen, and five year old Aaron accepted it as gospel. It absolutely was the worst call that has ever been made. He died in 1997, failing to see another championship in his life. Sure, the 24 years we Cardinal fans waited to see another trophy brought home to St. Louis pales in comparison to the suffering of Cleveland fans, or pre-2004 Boston fans, or even Cubs fans, whose sorrows I can only understand intellectually, as actual emotional empathy for them is beyond my capacities. But even so, as a Cardinal fan whose consciousness was formed after 1982, those years were a longer drought than I hope to ever weather again. Just because the years didn't pile up quite as heavily on us as on some of those other fanbases doesn't make the sorrow any less real, or the taste any less bitter every time the replay of Todd Worrell stepping on first base ahead of Jorge Orta's foot happens to pop up on a screen somewhere. My feelings toward the Royals are always purely visceral, never intellectual, and if I had to make a guess, it will probably be that way, always.

So no, I can't be all that happy for the Kansas City Royals this morning. I rooted against them last night, and while I won't root against them in the next round (I wish nothing but ill on this current iteration of the Angels, also), I'm not going to run out and buy a royal blue KC hat, either; Missouri solidarity be damned. My first baseball memory is having something stolen by the team from across the state. And I've never forgiven them.


All that being said, I will admit that the matchup last night was, perhaps, as fascinating a draw as one could possibly imagine. Of all the teams in the playoffs this year, while the Dodgers/Cardinals may represent the most exciting matchup, with a pair of historic powerhouses meeting in a rematch of last year's NLCS, not to mention the added attraction of the game's best pitcher squaring off against another who firmly belongs in the top five to begin the beguine, as it were, that Royals/Oakland matchup had perhaps the most pathos attached, and what, really, is October baseball if not joy and pathos, in equal and opposing measures, writ large against the chill autumn sky?

The pathos, of course, was plain to see, as we had a team seeing its first postseason action (albeit a bastardized version), in nearly 30 years, most of which were exceedingly dark seasons, going against the smallest of small market teams, the little engine that has been able to, but only far enough to frustrate and tantalize and turn, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs," into something resembling prophecy.

The Royals have been awful since forever; the Athletics have been mostly good for a long, long time, but have never been able to scale that mountain, year after year watching promising, exciting seasons end in a blaze of October disappointment. You want pathos? Try the Never Any Goods against The Never Quite Good Enoughs; there's heartbreak enough to cover the world in tears between the two.

Adding to the intrigue this season is the fact that, no matter which team lost, it would be the team with the most to lose, if that makes any sense. Both Oakland and Kansas City had bets riding on this game; huge bets which, in one way or another, may very well haunt those particular franchises for a long time to come.

We all know the bet Kansas City placed; the now famous (or infamous), James Shields deal prior to the 2013 season has had untold barrels of digital ink spilled about it. The Royals sent Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, along with lesser pieces Mike Montgomery (himself a former monster prospect, now lusterless), and Patrick Leonard, a big, slugging first base type, to Tampa in exchange for Big Game James, Wade Davis, and utility infielder Elliott Johnson. The thought was that Shields would be the ace the Royals needed to helm their upcoming top prospect ship, providing stability, innings, and all the intangible things a guy with the moniker of Big Game would be expected to.

The Rays, for their part, received one of the top five prospects in all of baseball at the time in Myers, a very promising young arm in Odorizzi, and two lottery tickets in the hard-throwing lefty Montgomery and the extremely young Leonard. Kansas City, and, more specifically, their General Manager Dayton Moore, were largely lambasted when the deal went down, as it was seen as a huge overpay. Six years of a top five prospect, six years of a potential number three starter, and whatever might come of those lotto tickets for two years of an admittedly very good pitcher and the up and down, rotation-to-bullpen-to-rotation Davis? It looked disastrous at the time, and even worse when Myers won the AL Rookie of the Year award last season while the Royals still managed to miss the playoffs, even while moving their own target, claiming whatever progress they made in 2013 with Shields on the staff was, amazingly, the exact amount of progress they had hoped to make. Funner how that works, isn't it?

In 2014, Shields was great early, poor late, and rolled up his usual boatload of innings, while Wade Davis moved back to the 'pen and formed one-third of what might be the greatest trio of late-inning relievers the game has ever seen. Myers struggled and then got hurt and then struggled some more, while Odorizzi struck out better than a hitter per inning as a 24 year old in the AL East this year. The bet looked better since Myers and Davis headed in opposite directions, but still, the years ahead are the years ahead, and those years ahead will see the Rays with players from the deal, while the Royals will see Shields move on after this season, receiving only a compensatory draft pick in return.

As for Oakland, Billy Beane did perhaps the most un-Billy Beane thing imaginable this season, pushing all his chips to the center of the table for 2014, trading away the future for the present in a way we've frankly never seen before from one of the most patient organisations in the game. He dealt away Addison Russell, the A's top prospect and a top 20 guy overall, along with Oakland's number two prospect, Billy McKinney, and a right-handed enigma named Dan Straily for Jeff Samadzija and Jason Hammel of the Cubs. When you lop off the top two prospects from a fairly thin system in exchange for short-term rotation help, you're basically announcing to the world that this is your year, and they had better not forget it.

And then, of course, Beane made another move. He traded away his club's cleanup hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, for Jon Lester. If Samadzija was to be the stabilizing force in an Oakland rotation which had been hit hard by injuries, and Hammel was meant as further depth (which then failed, spectacularly, to materialize), then Lester was the coup de grace, the tactical nuke that would put the Athletics over the top come postseason time. The deals didn't actually even stop there; smaller trades were made, all to try and win right now.


The deals were defensible at the time for Oakland; the A's possessed the majors' best record for much of the season, not to mention an historically good run differential that strongly suggested the green and yellow might have been baseball's best team. Billy Beane had a great team, and made multiple deals to upgrade a variety of spots. His team responded by collapsing. They scored a run and a half less per game after the trades than before, prompting plenty of people to ascribe supernatural abilities to Yoenis Cespedes, who, it should be noted, is a pretty good hitter, but most definitely not worth a run and a half per game. The bullpen struggled, their closer got injured, and what looked like the majors' best team for a time finished the season double digit games out of first place in the AL West, and scrambling to wrangle the second wild card spot.

And now it's over.

Billy Beane did the least Billy Beane thing imaginable; the results were, sadly, the most Billy Beane thing imaginable. If I could choose just one image for the Oakland A's 2014 season, it wouldn't be of dejected players or Sean Doolittle failing to hold the Royals down. It wouldn't even be of a baseball field, really. It would be the unique death ending from Chrono Trigger; the one where Lavos manages to defeat the player party. A shot of the earth, in grey, with the words in bold:


Both teams placed enormous wagers. Dayton Moore bet years and years of possible brilliance that Big Game could take his team to the next level, and, at the moment, it looks as if he was right. Sure, the Royals could still lose in three to the Angels, and Shields could walk away, and the draft pick KC gets back could turn out to be nothing, and then maybe it wasn't worth it after all. Or, maybe it was. Nearly 30 years without playoffs. That's a long time. And there were playoffs in Kansas City last night, of a sort. And there are more to come.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, it's tougher to see how those bets could have possibly been worth it. Cespedes isn't elite, but he's still under contract, and fairly reasonable, and could have brought something else much more forward-looking from another team. Say, perhaps, a team with a solid overall roster, who is very much a contender, but whose right field situation is such a drain on the club that it threatens to sink the whole enterprise, perhaps. As a fan of the Cardinals, I'm not suggesting I would want to see them trade for Yoenis Cespedes; I'm just saying, we can all see how something like that might happen, yes?

And then there's the other deal, the bigger deal. Samardzija is still under contract for next season, so the A's will have his services again in 2015, and likely a draft pick when he leaves. But there's a very real chance Billy Beane and Company are going to watch Addison Russell blossom into an impact major league shortstop, and do so in another uniform. Do you think he regrets that bet this morning? I know I would.

You want pathos? Two franchises, one wretched, the other a perennial bridesmaid, both with so, so much on the line, playing late into the night, into the dying hours of September, trying to survive into October, where their bets might truly pay off. The Royals are moving on, Big Game James will get another shot at glory, and Dayton Moore can read about how he was right all along. The Athletics are going home, and Billy Beane gave up the very best of what he had to see one extra game at the end, and now will face the winter trying to figure out how it all went so wrong once again.

Happy October, everybody. It's good to be home again.