The last time the Los Angeles Angels rolled into the Oakland Coliseum (May 21), they were eight games out of first with an 18-24 record and their pricey offseason acquisition, Albert Pujols, was struggling through the worst slump of his career, batting .211. The A’s, on the other hand, were in second place with a 21-21 record, despite injuries to Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon McCarthy and Coco Crisp. But few thought the anomaly would last.
It wasn’t long before the Earth returned to its normal rotation. After winning the first game of the series, the A’s lost nine in a row while the Angels peeled off 25 wins in their next 33 games.
But now here we are, the first Monday in August and the A’s are leading the Angels by a half-game atop the American League wild-card standings heading into another three-game set at the Coliseum. The rivalry will never measure up to Giants-Dodgers in the eyes of most West Coast baseball fans, but the contrast of economic realities the two clubs face presents a compelling narrative for this year’s stretch run.
The Angels now have the third-highest payroll in Major League Baseball — more than $100 million above Oakland’s payroll — after spending $317.5 million in the offseason to put halos on the top pitcher available, C.J. Wilson, and a future Hall of Famer in Pujols. The Angels’ starting rotation alone costs more ($53.7 million) than the entire A’s roster.
But this wasn’t always a David vs. Goliath matchup. For decades, the Angels were the AL’s lovable losers, accumulating a .488 winning percentage over their first 41 seasons (1961-2001). Like the Chicago Cubs, the franchise’s most notorious moment was a choke — blowing a 3-1 lead in the 1986 AL Championship Series after being one strike away from a trip to the Fall Classic. Meanwhile, the A’s won 12 division titles, six AL pennants and four World Series in the same span.
But the axis flipped in 2003 when billboard mogul Arte Moreno bought the Angels shortly after their 2002 World Series title. Suddenly, the Angels were spending lavishly, bolstering the lineup with free agents like Vladimir Guerrero ($70 million, 2004), Gary Matthews Jr. ($50 million, 2006) and Torii Hunter ($90 million, 2008).
This coincided with Lew Wolff’s purchase of the A’s in 2005 and subsequent attempts to relocate the franchise to Fremont and San Jose.
Under Moreno, the Angels’ front office can get away with spending $11.2 million on Ervin Santana (5-10, 5.83 ERA) and $24.6 million on Vernon Wells (.255 OBP, six HRs, 12 RBIs) and still add Zack Greinke at the trade deadline for another $5 million.
Of course, Billy Beane’s learned how to be a seller, always trading to get younger, hoping the stars line up for a season while everyone is under contract.
While this economic disparity appears unjust, it also spawned the magic that’s unfolding in Oakland this season. Would you still have the walk-offs, the Gatorade showers and the Spider-Man costume without a team of rookies, castoffs and underdogs banding together with nothing to lose?
Fans on talk radio are already calling for a “Moneyball II” based on the 2012 A’s season. With that in mind, can you imagine a more appropriate Hollywood ending than a walk-off win over the Angels in a one-game wild-card showdown? Who knows? Maybe Spider-Man will make a cameo appearance.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.