Diaspora: A dispersion of an originally homogeneous group.
(from the American Heritage Dictionary, 2d. Ed.)
The news that third baseman Eric Chavez may have played his final game with Oakland last week shocked me more than if it had been almost anyone else in baseball. Chavez is the longest tenured player on the Oakland A's, and all during the frequent comings and goings of players, manager Billy Beane maintained he would never let Chavez go. He isn’t, of course: Chavez has been battling spasms in his neck ever since Spring Training, when he collided with a second baseman. When asked if he thought his career was over, Chavez said, "It might be. I don't know what my future is going to hold.”
Now in the final year of a six-year, $66-million deal, Chavez was drafted by the A's with the 10th overall pick in the 1996 First-Year Player Draft; he made his big league debut on Sept. 8, 1998. That’s 12 years ago, about four times longer than the average Athletic player's term. In fact, there’s been so much movement in and out of Oakland that a few years ago I began calling ex-Athletic players members of a Diaspora. I know this word is usually reserved for more serious cultural displacement, like the ancient separation of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or for people originally from the continent of Africa; recently I even heard it applied to Haitians. But the way manager Billy Beane runs his team, the dictionary definition of Diaspora perfectly suits the situation.
Beane seems to think that a better player is always just around the corner, no matter who he has to give the axe to or what position they play. Trading activity was particularly intense during the seasons from 2007 to 2009, when Beane claimed he was trying “to build a foundation and put together a group of players who are going to be here for a long time.” Anyone who follows the A’s, though, knows this isn’t the whole story: Beane operates in accordance with a philosophy known as Moneyball, as in the Michael Lewis best-selling book of the same name. Invented by Beane, Moneyball operates on the theory that a player’s performance peaks just before he’s about to descend into mediocrity, so it’s smart to trade him away the minute he peaks and let another team catch him on the inevitable downward slide. Under Beane’s management, if a player reached the point of showing any slippage, he’d be gone; usually he’s tossed long before then. It may sound chaotic and cruel, but it’s supposedly carefully calibrated. Calibrated or not, though, the result is that Oakland players come and go with the frequency of guests at a roadside motel. Beane and those who believe the Moneyball philosophy say it’s allowed the A’s to go a long way on a short budget.
Be that as it may, it doesn’t work out quite as well for fans like me, who get attached to individual players. When I was a kid, I actually wept with disappointment when my father informed me that a team’s players were not all necessarily born or living in the city they represented. I’m still recovering from the shock. Now that I’m an adult I’ve gotten resigned to seeing favorite players leave from time to time. But with the A’s, it got to the point where every week someone else would vanish in the night. Just as I’d get to know someone, or get to really like a player, he’d disappear, from one game to the next. The only exception was Eric Chavez.
To be perfectly honest, I never understood why. True, Chavez ranks second in his team's career doubles (282) and extra-base hits (532), and fourth in runs (730), home runs (230) and RBIs (787). He also won six straight American League Gold Glove Awards, from 2001-06. But his career batting average is only .267. He’s prone to injury, and last year seemed to spend more time on the DL than playing. I’m not saying Chavez is a bad player, not at all; it just always seemed odd to me that of all the guys who passed through the A’s locker room during Beane’s management, Chavez was the only one he couldn’t do without.
I think the A’s are a special kind of team. They're historically laid back, a scrappy club who seem to have a genuinely good time on the field, with a buoyant spirit that's infectious. As much as I love them, I find it hard to get all excited for players I don’t know: from one season to the next—and it used to be from one week to the next!—the lineup can become almost completely unfamiliar. It’s kind of like switching schools every year at mid-term. Just as you settle in and make friends, you’re faced with a whole new group of kids.
Call me sentimental, but I miss bygone players. I’m happy to have Nick Swisher playing for the Yankees – especially when he hits the winning home run in the 9th inning, as he did a few days ago against the Twins—but sometimes I miss seeing him in Athletics green--and I always miss his beard! I used to love the little celebratory dance Swish and Milton Bradley did after one of them scored. I still miss Miguel Tejada, and he’s been gone forever. For a long time I missed the pitching trio of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder, the way they hung over the dugout wall and teased one another. I missed—I still miss—Eric Byrnes, who'd go crashing against the wall, oblivious to physical pain or damage.
Every time an A leaves Oakland, I worry he might have trouble adjusting to his new team that might not be so laid back. Whenever I get a chance to see an ex-A in his new digs, I like to check him out, see how he’s doing. I absolutely died inside every time Barry Zito bombed during his first three seasons pitching for the Giants. I was sure part of his problem was that he couldn't be as loose as he was back in Oakland.
A’s players, scattered around Major League Baseball, are part of a special brotherhood, bonded by the experience of having played together in Oaktown. You can see it in the way they are when they meet on first or second base. Whenever Johnny Damon comes to Oakland, no matter what team he’s playing with, he gets cheered. Same goes for Tejada. (Jason Giambi was another story: fans apparently resented him dumping the A’s for the Yankees.)
When an ex-A shows up in Arizona or DC or Toronto, I think of him as one of the Diaspora, with a special feeling for him in my heart. I recognize these guys as Athletics first, and the team they play for now an aberration. And who says you can’t go home again? Frank Thomas was kicked out of Toronto and ran happily home to his former teammates. As much as they booed Jason Giambi when he went to New York, they took him back for a season before he went to Colorado. You can throw the player out of the Athletics, but you can never take the Athletic out of the player.
And so I wonder about Chavvy's future: will he retire? Will he bear the singular distinction of having played for the A's, and only the A's, his entire career? Will he heal and come back someday? Will Billy Beane survive the loss? Will he realize what it’s like for Oakland fans to continually lose players? Maybe the lesson will put a dent in his Moneyball philosophy. Hey, you never know! It could happen.