There are tough acts to follow, and there are unbelievably tough acts to follow.
Merely tough was the task of hitting the stage to perform at Sunday’s Grammy Awards show in the immediate wake of Justin Timberlake’s massively hyped, Jay-Z-enhanced return to the music business.
Unbelievably tough is the task in front of the 2013 A’s, whose task is made so tough primarily because they are essentially following their own act. Adding to the degree of difficulty is that as the Elephants open spring training this week, they’ll be doing it without some of the key players who made the act they’re trying to follow so spectacular.
The 2012 A’s, as a team, were the best story in baseball last season. In fact, you can make a strong case that they were the best story we’ve seen in the game in decades.
Picked to finish dead last in the American League West, if only because there is no standing lower than dead last, they riveted first the Bay Area, and then the country, by climbing out of a massive early-season hole to storm the gates of AL West royalty — plundering marauders in green and gold, hair and homers and howling fastballs flying — with an epic stretch run capped by a final-series sweep of the shell-shocked Texas Rangers to secure the division crown.
How do you top that?!?
The realistic answer is that you don’t. The question itself is unfair, bordering on insane. Lightning, we’re told, rarely strikes twice, and the 2012 A’s weren’t just lightning. So sublime was the collection of individual story lines coming together as a group narrative, the 2012 A’s were a big-league version of Haley’s Comet.
Yet when recently posed the question at their FanFest at Oracle Arena, where love flowed so freely that even the yellow-jerseys-over-collared-shirts look rocked by certain players somehow evaded critical eyes, the A’s didn’t in the slightest dismiss the notion of an encore as a bit much to ask.
They embraced the notion, going so far as to suggest that the encore, i.e., 2013, might be better than the show, i.e., 2012.
Bold talk. And you’ve gotta love the confidence. But you can’t take it as anything more than what it is: prideful professional athletes expressing unshakable faith in themselves and their abilities.
Jonny Gomes was a MASSIVE part of 2012. He was, if you had to name one player as such, the heart and soul of the squad. He’s gone.
So is Brandon Inge, another big heart-and-soul guy last season.
Cliff Pennington, whose all-around game sprang to life as soon as he was moved from shortstop to second base upon Stephen Drew’s arrival, is gone, too. So is Drew, for that matter, and he was no slouch himself. Chris Carter, whose right-handed pop was so welcome and prominent, isn’t back.
Also out: Brandon McCarthy, an inspiration in so many ways to so many members of the young pitching staff last season. Now the unchallenged leader of the staff is drug cheat — albeit widely (and oddly) respected drug cheat — Bartolo Colon, whose game without said drugs remains to be seen.
In short, there’s been some significant turnover from those walkoff-happy hams of yesteryear.
Sure, some of the newcomers provide legitimate allowance for optimism — Chris Young and Jed Lowrie, in particular. Top prospect Addison Russell, all of 19, is sure to add excitement to the early-spring proceedings as well.
And it’ll all feel great when what’s left of the 2012 band gets back together, no doubt.
Just keep this in mind to protect yourselves from a letdown, A’s fans: When push comes to shove, Timberlake solo — with or without Jay-Z — beats the hell out of an N*Sync reunion tour without him.
Mychael Urban has covered Bay Area sports for more than 22 years as a contributor to Comcast SportsNet, CSNBayArea.com, KNBR, MLB.com, ESPN The Magazine and various newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @BigUrbSports. His website is UrbsUnchained.com.