OAKLAND, Calif. -- Sonny Gray was 11 years old when Derek Jeter's sideways shovel pass to Jorge Posada flagged an unaccountably vertical Jeremy Giambi at home plate in the 2001 playoffs. Josh Donaldson was 16 when the 94-win Twins dumped the 103-win A's in 2002. Seth Smith was backing up Eli Manning at quarterback for Ole Miss in 2003 when Eric Byrnes forgot to touch home and Miguel Tejada got caught spewing rhetoric between third and home, trying to do the umpire's job instead of his own.
The A's of a decade ago and the current incarnation share fluorescent uniforms, a miserly payroll, playoff berth, Billy Beane (the cult-figure general manager) and a stadium that bottoms out below sea level. (As far as anyone can remember, though, the Coliseum still could hold its bladder.)
They are also linked, most unfairly, by postseason clincher futility. In Beane's time at the helm, the club has gone 1-11 in games when a win would have advanced it to the next round. The current players contributed 0-2 to that mark, losing in last year's Game 5 of their American League Division Series with Detroit and in Tuesday's Game 4 against the Tigers. Thursday night will bring the franchise's sixth postseason Game 5 amid the seven playoff appearances of the Beane era. All but one of the Game 5's have been played at home, and they have each ended in a loss.
Just as the playoff berths themselves validate Beane's adroit navigation of the talent market, 1-11 apparently buttresses his famed "Moneyball'' assertion that "my s**t doesn't work in the playoffs.'' If this year's Game 5 yields 1-12 and another ALDS exit, might that mean that Beane's s**t actively fails in the playoffs? Or that his equally renowned, less profane, "gauntlet of randomness'' has just somehow never randomly worked in the A's favor?
That problem with linking all of these teams and their fateful potential clinchers is that Beane isn't sufficient connective tissue, in part because he doesn't do business exactly the way he did 10 years ago, when "Moneyball'' was published. This team, operating on an extensive platoon system, has considerably more depth than the A's of Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi and Eric Chavez, or even the Big Three of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.
Consider that the starting rotation from last year's playoffs has just one returning member in this series with Detroit (Jarrod Parker). The three others -- Brett Anderson, A.J. Griffin and Tommy Milone -- didn't get traded off in one of Oakland's offseason purges. They all remained with the A's, on a staff that finished second in ERA and first in WHIP among American League teams, but yielded their playoff gigs to healthier, stronger performers.
When manager Bob Melvin had to pick his Game 5 starter, the oddity wasn't that he went with rookie Sonny Gray, who has just 13 major-league appearances to his name, over former Cy Young winner and acclaimed 2013 ace Bartolo Colon. It was that, on a club with such meager financial resources, he had the option to choose from scintillating youth or solid maturity, as if he were browsing the Whole Foods buffet on a McDonald's budget.
That's more than depth. It's a vat of talent and possibilities.
Melvin also represents a significant evolution for the A's. That 1-11 stat covers three managers -- Art Howe, Ken Macha and now Melvin, who is more empowered and in sync with Beane than his two predecessors. He embraces advanced metrics to a degree that allows him, much like the essayist who must know the rules of grammar before daring to depart from them, to bring his instincts into play when the numbers leave room for interpretation. Beane used to be a constant presence in the clubhouse, in the period captured on film and paper. It's much more Melvin's turf now. The "Moneyball'' tenet about field managers meaning very little to a club frayed quite a bit in the four-plus seasons when Bob Geren, Beane's longtime friend and bench coach, acted as an inert custodian. The team didn't make the playoffs in his tenure, then returned in Melvin's first two seasons.
That may be an overly simplistic interpretation, just as it would be silly to cite Melvin as the sole reason that the A's overcame their clincher yips if they get past the Tigers. But it would be worse to let the starkness of the 1-11 stat go unchallenged and unexamined.
Let's remember that six of those losses came from two series: the 2001 ALDS against the Yankees and the 2003 ALDS with the Red Sox. Both years, the team took a 2-0 lead, and then missed three chances to clinch. Purely rational thought rejects theories about momentum and says that the non-slide by Jeremy Giambi and Jeter's wildcat cutoff in Game 3 did not and could not shift the entire series in the Yankees' favor.
But don't try that line on East Bay fans who witnessed that fiasco and the invocation of the Tuck Rule just three months apart. For the Raiders' fate, the fans could fault the refs and indulge their nearly congenital paranoia about NFL hostility toward their team and its litigious owner. For the appalling saunter into home, there were no outsiders to blame.
The play has considerable staying power in the Bay Area psyche. When the Giambi brothers showed up to testify at Barry Bonds' trial more than five years later, a small group of sportswriters boarded a courthouse elevator with prosecutor Jeff Nedrow. "When you have Jeremy under oath,'' one of the writers said, "can you ask him why he didn't slide?''
Nedrow, a man who incarcerates people for a living, smiled and replied: "You guys are really mean.''
But even those who believe that the play reverberated through that 2001 series, that any single play can set off a three-game winning streak, will have to wall off that baseball postseason from this one. That base-running failure has about as much connection with this week's playoffs as it did with the 2002 snowstorm in Foxboro.
They came so close, though, it felt like more than fate. Wouldn't randomness have spared some anguish, maybe mixing in a 3-1 series loss or just the sense that the A's were truly overmatched?
Instead, all of the A's 21st-century playoff seasons but one, 2006, have led to Game 5 losses in the division series. The composite box scores from the '02 and '03 playoffs add to the anguish: 27 runs for the Twins to 26 for the A's in '02; 18 runs for the Red Sox, 17 for the A's in '03. One run decided in Game 5 each of those years.
For those teams, it is possible that Beane built a roster that lacked something vital to playoff success, to breaching that tiny divide that decides which team moves to the next round and which goes home for winter. Until someone figures out how to identify that element in a tangible way, and explains how to measure it, we'll never know. We do know that Beane still believes in the vagaries of small sample sizes -- the essence of a playoff series. He said as much recently. That hasn't changed in 10 years. So we know what his explanation will, or should, be if the A's get past Detroit in Game 5. It will be the same as if they lose: a random occurrence that he couldn't control. The players will have their own answers, presumably loaded with the ethos of no excuses and just getting the job done. The response should have nothing to do with excruciating losses from a time when they were they were busy conquering adolescence. They don't have to answer for that.