It started innocently enough.
A Tuesday night game in mid-August between the A's and the Blue Jays, in front of 17,466 at the Oakland Coliseum. Barry Zito was on the mound for the A's, facing Toronto's Chris Carpenter. The A's entered the game at 68-51 but in third place in the American League West. The Blue Jays were 52-65 and mired in fourth place in the American League East. Jermaine Dye hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the fourth to give the A's the early lead. The Blue Jays rallied, scoring three off Zito in the top of the sixth. Eric Chavez then drove in the winning runs with a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh. Zito got the win to go 16-5. Closer Billy Koch got the save, his 29th of the season.
Nineteen games and 21 nights later, the A's had set a new American League record with a 20-game winning streak. We all remember Scott Hatteberg's walk-off home run to seal the 20th win. We either watched the game as it unfolded, or caught the highlights later. Or we've seen Chris Pratt's version in Moneyball. I saw it all three ways, and again last night while sitting on the outfield grass at the Oakland Coliseum. In honor of the tenth anniversary of The Streak, as it's called, the A's had a special showing of Moneyball after their game against the Cleveland Indians. Hatteberg introduced the movie and said something along the lines of: "Art Howe is a good guy. Don't believe everything you see in the movie."
Howe's portrayal in the movie was controversial upon the film's release last fall, and remains so. Howe returned to Oakland to help celebrate The Streak as part of a pre-game ceremony that included players and coaches from the 2002 team. (Read this post on Athletics Nation for a rundown on what the 2002 team members are doing now.)
The A's donated $10,000 to The Cory Lidle Foundation, and presented a check in that amount to Lidle's children. Lidle died in October 2006 when his plane crashed into an apartment building on the east side of Manhattan. Relievers Jeff Tam, Micah Bowie, Jim Mecir, and Chad Bradford were there for the pre-game festivities. So was outfielder Terrence Long. Zito, David Justice, and Eric Chavez sent video messages shown on the scoreboard. But it was Howe who received the first standing ovation from the Coliseum crowd, outdone only by the one for Hatteberg.
But The Streak was about so much more than Hatteberg's walk-off winner at 10:43 p.m. on Wednesday, September 5. The Streak was fueled by old-fashioned baseball ideas: great starting pitching and lots of home runs. Of the 20 games in The Streak, the A's starter recorded 15 wins, including the first eleven wins in a row. Zito won four times, as did Tim Hudson. Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle each had three wins, and Aaron Harang one. The A's hit at least one home run in 18 of the 20 wins. Ten players combined for 26 home runs during the 20-game winning streak.
Hatteberg's record-breaking home run in win number 20 followed walk-offs in wins 18 and 19. Tension and drama gripped Oakland in those last three games of The Streak. But the first 17 wins were much more matter-of-fact. In the 20 games, the A's trailed by more than two runs only twice. In 14 of the 20 games, the A's never trailed at all.
The Streak, in fact, was a microcosm of the 2002 season, when the A's won 103 games and the American League West. Oakland hit 205 home runs that year, fourth in the league. Shortstop Miguel Tejada hit 34 home runs, in addition to batting .308/.354/.508, and was named the AL's MVP. The A's posted the lowest ERA in the league. Barry Zito, at 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA, won the Cy Young Award.
But Moneyball the movie wasn't about Zito or Tejada or home-run mashers or stellar starting pitching. Like the book, the movie was about an idea, about how to look at baseball in a completely different way, about how to ask tough questions, and demand unconventional answers. Scott Hatteberg epitomized the idea, making him the ideal player to highlight in the film.
It makes you wonder: if Hatteberg hadn't hit that game-winning home run in win number 20 -- if the A's had lost the game, leaving them in a tie with the 1906 White Sox and the 1947 Yankees for the longest winning streak in the American League -- would Michael Lewis have written Moneyball? I think so. Sure, The Streak was the perfect centerpiece for Lewis in exploring the evolution of Billy Beane's thinking. The Streak was the pivot between winning battles on the field and winning the war of ideas off the field.
"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" Beane asks Peter Brand in the movie. On a beautiful summer night in Oakland, with the A's victory over the Indians secured, hundreds of fans sat on the outfield grass and watched Moneyball on a make-shift projection screen. We celebrated The Streak. We celebrated the new ideas. And we were undoubtedly romantic about baseball.