The Greatness of the 1997 Oakland A's

The 1997 Oakland A's were the worst team in baseball, and yet that season, in many ways, set the foundation for the run of playoff teams the A's had in the early 2000s. We take a look back in time at the greatness that was the 1997 Oakland Athletics.

If there was a low point in Oakland A’s history over the past 30 years, it was probably 1997. That season, the A’s lost 97 games, finishing with the worst record in the baseball. Before the 1997 season, the A’s said good-bye to longtime fan favorites Terry Steinbach and Mike Bordick, who both left for greener pastures via free agency. Then during the season, the A’s traded away franchise legend Mark McGwire and entertaining slugger Geronimo Berroa. After the season concluded, the A’s final tie to their 1980s-early 1990s glory days was cut when General Manager Sandy Alderson left the organization.

Yet there was something oddly compelling about those 1997 Oakland A’s, and, as it turned out, that year was a pivotal one for the A’s as a franchise. Let’s take a look back in time…

The A’s fall from the perch as the best team in baseball came swiftly and seemingly without warning. From 1988-1992, no team was more successful than the A’s. Oakland took home four AL West titles and three American League championships. The A’s also won the 1989 World Series. Led by a brilliant brain trust in GM Sandy Alderson and manager Tony LaRussa, the A’s put together teams that were a blend of homegrown talent and shrewd trade or free agent acquisitions.

In 1992, the A’s won 96 games to move on to the American League Championship Series. A heartbreaking six-game loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS would prove to be the end of the A’s dynasty, although it wasn’t that obvious at the time. The A’s traded Jose Canseco during the 1992 season, but he brought back then-star Ruben Sierra in return. The 1993 team featured Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire, Sierra, Dave Henderson, Mike Bordick, Bob Welch, Rick Honeycutt, among others. Despite that star power, the 1993 A’s lost 94 games.

The A’s weren’t much better in 1994, but the strike-shortened season actually left the A’s in second place at the time of the strike despite a 51-63 record. In 1995, the A’s finished last in the AL West with a 67-77 record. That year signaled the end of the road for Tony LaRussa at the A’s helm, as he left for the St. Louis Cardinals, taking several of his coaches and favorite players with him. Beloved owner Walter Haas also passed away in 1995, and the team was eventually sold to a new ownership group led by Steve Schott and Ken Hofman.

The A’s brought in Art Howe to manage the team in 1996. The ’96 season was an odd year for the franchise. Due to construction at the Coliseum to build Mt. Davis, the A’s began the season in Las Vegas at Cashman Field. The A’s showed some improvement that season, finishing in third place in the AL West with a 78-84 record. Jason Giambi made his major-league debut and McGwire hit 52 homeruns.

All of the seeming progress the A’s made towards respectability in 1996 dissipated in 1997, however. That off-season, Terry Steinbach and Mike Bordick left via free agency. The A’s brought back former superstar Jose Canseco in a trade, sending current A’s minor league pitching coach John Wasdin to Boston in exchange for Canseco. Oakland built a line-up of mashers, featuring the Bash Brothers, a young Giambi, Matt Stairs, Geronimo Berroa, Scott Spiezio and Scott Brosius. However, what the A’s had in power they lacked in pitching and defense. Much of the season, the A’s most closely resembled a beer-league softball team.

En route to the worst record in baseball, the A’s hit 197 homeruns to finish third in the American League. That total may have eclipsed the still-A’s team record of 243 (set in 1996) had the A’s not traded McGwire and Berroa at the deadline. The A’s also finished second in the AL in walks with 642. But they led the league in strike-outs (1,181) and finished 11th in the league in runs scored with 764. As a team, the A’s stole fewer bases that season (71) than Rickey Henderson did by himself in seven different seasons during his career. The lack of team speed was also reflected in the A’s doubles and triples numbers, as Oakland finished 10th in the league in both categories.

On the mound and in the field, the A’s were as bad as it gets. They finished last in the league in team ERA (5.48), last in hits and runs allowed, last in homeruns allowed and they struck-out the 12th fewest number of batters in the league while walking the most. If a fan was looking to see some offense, an A’s game as a close to a guarantee as there has ever been in baseball, as long as the fan didn’t care who was scoring. The A’s staff failed to record even one shutout that season. Oakland also only had two pitchers who threw more than 100 innings.

Defensively, the A’s finished -89 in Total Fielding Runs Above Average, according to Baseball-Reference. Interestingly, the A’s spread out their playing time so much that only third baseman Brosius (arguably the best defender on that team) reached double-digits in errors. Still, only catcher Brent Mayne and second baseman Spiezio had positive defensive values, according to Baseball-Reference.

The defining moment of the A’s season came right at the trade deadline, when the A’s traded McGwire to the St. Louis Cardinals for a trio of minor league prospects. The question of whether the A’s would trade the impending free agent had loomed over the A’s that entire month, and both McGwire individually and the A’s as a team were caught-up in a bad slump at the time of the deal. The A’s would have to watch as McGwire crushed 24 homers in 51 games for the Cardinals that season, briefly flirting with a run at Roger Maris’ single-season record. Of course, the A’s would have to watch McGwire break that record one year later.

The A’s won just eight games that July and 11 that August before pulling within one game of a .500 record for the months of September and October. That late-season improvement saved the A’s from a 100-loss season, a fate that hasn’t befallen the organization since 1979. A few weeks after the conclusion of the regular season, Alderson stepped down as GM to take a position in the Commissioner’s Office. The A’s promoted a former player and young, rising star within their front office to replace Alderson: Billy Beane.

Despite the losing, there were several franchise-changing moments that took place for the A’s in 1997. Probably the most notable is the promotion of Beane, who was able to bring the A’s back to respectability by 1999 and to the playoffs in 2000. Eventual AL MVP Jason Giambi established himself as an everyday big leaguer in 1997, hitting .293/.362/.495 with 20 homers in 142 games. The trade of McGwire also meant that Giambi could stop pretending to be a left-fielder and move to his natural position at first base. Matt Stairs also established himself as the A’s everyday right-fielder with a huge season during which he posted a 969 OPS in a career-high 133 games. He would star for the A’s in 1999 and 2000 before being traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2001. Stairs is still fondly remembered as one of the most popular figures in recent A’s history and he embodied the beer-league softball element of the 1997 team.

Two future A’s stars made their major league debuts in 1997: outfielder Ben Grieve and shortstop Miguel Tejada. Grieve would win the AL Rookie of the Year in 1998 and help the A’s to a division title in 2000 before becoming the key piece in a trade that brought the A’s Mark Ellis, Corey Lidle and Johnny Damon before the 2001 season. Tejada, of course, would win the AL MVP in 2002 and is arguably the best shortstop in the Oakland portion of A’s franchise history.

Oakland also signed a young international free agent named Angel Berroa that season. Berroa would quickly become one of the A's top prospects, and he was also part of the deal that sent Grieve to Tampa and Damon, Ellis and Lidle to the A's. Berroa won the AL Rookie of the Year with Kansas City in 2003.

The A’s draft that season was relatively poor in the early rounds, but Oakland struck gold in the sixth round with their selection of Auburn pitcher and outfielder Tim Hudson. He would make the A’s roster midway through the 1999 season and was the leader of the A’s staff until he was traded after the 2004 campaign.

Oakland’s MLB-worst record in 1997 led to the number one overall pick in 1998. The A’s used that pick wisely, selecting Michigan State left-hander and DH Mark Mulder. The A’s draft position in 1998 also netted them HS catcher Gerald Laird and UCLA outfielder Eric Byrnes in the second round.

For a great look at the numbers for the 1997 Oakland A’s, visit their team page on Baseball-Reference.

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