‘Twas weird and borderline uncomfortable to watch a clean-shaven Eric Chavez hit a game-winner yesterday, wearing pinstripes in the Bronx. At least it came against Texas. With A-Rod becoming an old man in baseball years, it’s cool to see Chavez healthy and producing. Still weird, though.
On May 22, 2010, Chavez made his final trip to the disabled list for the green and gold. That afternoon, I had a chance to speak with him about the best team during his 13-year tenure in Oakland: the 2001 A’s. Crazy how Chavez shares the left side of the infield with Jeter nowadays.
Chavez’s locker was in the far corner of the A’s clubhouse for the last few years of his career in white cleats. It was next to an old arcade game machine, the type you would find at a pizza place in the ’80s. While his eldest son, four-year-old Diego, wrestled around with the joystick, Eric Chavez reflected on that special season.
“We were just so connected,” he said. “We felt like we could just throw our hats out there and we knew we were going to win. That’s how good we felt.”
Granted, the green and gold finished 14 games out of first place in the American League West in 2001. With some rookie named Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners had the best regular season in baseball history. No biggie.
But there was something special about those A’s, too. Back then, Chavez was a 23-year-old, winning his first of six consecutive Gold Gloves at third base. He also had one of his best seasons at the plate, batting .288 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs.
Together with Miggy, who hit .267 with 31 bombs and 113 RBIs, Chavez formed one of baseball’s top SS-3B combos. Then there was 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi across the diamond at first and Frank Menechino at second. Frank Menechino.
“We basically knew we were going to win,” Chavez said. “Not winning the World Series wasn’t even an … we knew we were going to win it. We were that good. I think we played the Yankees that year or whatnot, but we felt like we were the best team in the league that year. … Without a doubt. Without a doubt.”
The outfield wasn’t half-bad, either. T. Long was robbed of the ROY by some 32-year-old closer in 2000, following it up with .283-12-85 in ’01. Jermaine Dye was a beast down the stretch, batting .297 with 13 homers and 59 RBIs in 61 contests with Oakland. And don’t forget about Olmedo Saenz. Olmedo Saenz.
“That’s something I can never get back, was winning a championship here,” Johnny Damon said. “We had the team together, everybody knew we had the team together.”
Yup, the A’s also had a 27-year-old Johnny Damon. In a vintage Beane move, Oakland received Damon, Mark Ellis and the late Cory Lidle for Ben Greive, Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch before the season. Damon was the legit leadoff man the A’s were looking for, but he struggled, batting a career-low .256 with 9 HRs and 49 RBIs.
“I had the worst year of my career, but we won the most games in my career,” Damon said. “This team was awesome, on and off the field. I learned about team chemistry and camaraderie, all that good stuff. … I remember I learned how to play the game to win.”
Despite the down year, Damon still loved the Bay. Especially the local cuisine, the proximity to Napa and the region’s natural beauty. He was also a BART man.
“Yeah, I rode my skateboard to BART and just jumped on and came down that long ramp (next to the stadium),” Damon said. “A few days I had to jump off, I was going too fast.”
But the team’s strength was obviously at the mound, as the Big Three put it all together for the first time as a unit. Hudson (25), Mulder (23) and Zito (23) went a combined 56-25 with a combined 3.43 ERA.
Izzy always made it interesting at the end of games, but was a classic A’s closer. The bullpen also featured such members like Jeff Tam, screwballin’ Jim Mecir, submarinin’ Chad Bradford and Mike Magnante. Mike Magnante.
Aside from their immense talent and bevy of overachievers, the A’s also had momentum on their side heading into the postseason. This group made a habit of turning it on after the All-Star break. Lidle was ridiculous, going 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA after the midsummer classic, giving the A’s four dominant arms. Oakland went 44-43 before the break and 59-17 after it.
“It’s really crazy to think about,” Chavez said. “Time has really flown by. It’s been four or five years since Zito’s been here. Time’s flown by.”
Alas, the A’s went up 2-0 in the best-of-five ALDS before losing in Game 5, their second of four straight first-round exits.
“They were all tough,” Chavez said. “Every year we went to the playoffs we felt like we had a good team. But now looking back, we knew that was probably the best team of all the teams that were put together. Everything. Pitching, speed, relievers, defense. It was the best team we had.”
The preceding interviews were conducted during my internship with MLB.com in the summer of 2010.