Ryan Langerhans might be the face of the 2007 Oakland Athletics, even if no one can remember his face.
The former Atlanta Braves phenom became property of the locals following an April 29 trade, and three days later stood in center field at Boston's Fenway Park wearing Oakland's green and gold. "He's a player we've liked in the past," A's general manager Billy Beane told reporters at the time. "He's off to a rough start in Atlanta and became available to us."
The fans' imaginations bloomed: Another surprise star: a Jay Payton? A Milton Bradley? A Frank Thomas? Had Billy found another gold nugget in the scrap heap?
"I don't know how to react right now," Langerhans said of his transition. "I know I'm going to a place where I'll have a chance to get more at-bats. I have to look at it as a good thing for me right now."
We all know the Moneyball script by heart, the winning strategy that spawned the Michael Lewis bestseller and made Beane a household name: Buy low, sell high. Give us your tired, your injured, your rejects, your malcontents, and your deeply discounted and we'll ride them to the top of the American League West. It's a formula with which the franchise has won a handful of division titles, while its players have collected a pair of Most Valuable Player awards, Cy Young commendations, and a handful of Rookie and Comeback players of the year honors, despite the team having one of Major League Baseball's lowest payrolls.
Langerhans came to bat twice that May day in Boston and struck out both times. This, it turned out, was his best game as an Athletic. The next night, he again went 0-for-2, only this time he also dropped a fly ball hit right at him in center field. His error led to a run, and the run to a loss. "I got the glove between my eyes and the ball" he explained in the postmortem. "That's something as an outfielder you don't want to do."
Indeed. One hour later, Langerhans was a former Oakland Athletic. Beane quickly traded him to the Washington Nationals for Chris Snelling, another prospect turned suspect. Snelling came with a voodoo vibe: Fans from his days with the Seattle Mariners insisted on calling him by his middle name, Doyle, since playing as Chris only seemed to keep him on the disabled list. True to form, on May 10, six games into his A's career, Snelling was injured running the bases and hasn't played since. "Can't spell Doyle without D.L.," snarked one fan on AthleticsNation.com.
And the carousel of A's center fielders spun on its dizzy way.
The Athletics are deep into a September unlike any they've seen since the millennium: no pennant race, a losing record, and a farm system fresh out of Miguel Tejadas, Eric Chavezes, Jason Giambis, Huston Streets, or Nick Swishers. They can boast of one major accomplishment: By mid-August they'd already used more players in a single season than they had at any time in the franchise's forty-year history in Oakland. The previous record of 49 players was set in 1997, the year 1 BB (before Billy), while this year's club has gone through 54. Not all of them, thankfully, would have tenures as fleeting as that of the unfortunate Langer "Stone" hans. Most would at least get to wear the home jersey once or twice.
Perhaps you don't remember Erasmo Ramirez. It's likely pitcher Ron Flores didn't make you forget Mark Mulder. Blink, and you'd have missed Connor Robertson, who pitched to just nine batters. Or Kevin Mellilo, who walked in his only plate appearance. Or Dee Brown, who saw just six pitches in his A's debut before being sent back to the farm.
This year's Athletics have been a team of transients. They traded their backup catcher because he never got a chance to play, and then traded the starter, only to bring on two entirely new catchers. For players who've made less of an impression than hot dog vendors, the guys who've hardly plugged holes, barely filled the margins, September has been their month.
Already by August, attendance had shrunk and TV ratings were down. The daily papers moved game stories to the inside pages. The only effect the A's might have had on the playoffs was to keep certain rival teams out. Finally, a season for the Moneyball haters one in which the Harvard boys in the A's front office, the book-smart execs who've been trumping the grizzled old scouts, finally got a little old-fashioned chin music.
But all is not for naught. Baseball is a zero-sum game. The same RBI that boosts the batter's stats also whacks the pitcher's ERA. And a lousy, injury-plagued season spells opportunity for a lucky few who began their seasons in Sacramento or Portland or Midland, Texas.
Many of the temporar-A's have been young men who would never have suited up during a regular season. How do they live with the dizzying ascents and descents, with the strain of trying to play consistent ball while being treated like a yo-yo? And how do their families cope? Finally, what do we call these the players on the cusp, those who were it not for someone's pulled hamstring, sore wrist, or a glove that got between a fly ball and a pair of eyes would be playing a road game in Wichita, Kansas, on a buggy summer night?