Underdog A's, Orioles unleashed magic in 2012
Baltimore, Oakland smashed expectations with thrilling runs to postseason
On the big screen, superstar Brad Pitt made Billy Beane a household name beyond the baseball and literary worlds. Beane clearly is a man who knows how to repay a debt of gratitude.
In the afterglow of the actor's on-the-money portrayal of Beane in "Moneyball," the Oakland Athletics' general manager made Pitt look even better. His behind-the-scenes performance in 2012 brought Beane Major League Baseball's version of an Oscar: the Executive of the Year trophy.
Affirmed by the GIBBYs, MLB.com's Greatness in Baseball Yearly Awards, the best story of the 2012 season was co-authored by the Athletics and Baltimore Orioles.
Awakening the echoes of earlier generations of powerhouses, the Orioles and A's took flight in unimagined ways. Both clubs reached the postseason -- before their implausible dreams were snuffed out by the Yankees and Tigers, respectively, in American League Division Series play.
Sharing a powerful chemistry that lifted them repeatedly to late-game triumphs, the Orioles and A's can now serve as templates for all the hopeful mid- and small-market clubs across the MLB landscape.
"Nobody can predict what's going to happen in baseball," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. "Look at the A's and Orioles. Who saw that coming?"
The Orioles made a quantum leap in going from 69 wins to 93 under the reins of manager Buck Showalter, voted Manager of the Year by the 10 million people participating in the GIBBYs. The Birds did it with persistence and perseverance, producing the best record in one-run games (29-9) in the modern era and by going 16-2 in extra-innings games.
Young and far from wealthy, the A's improved by 20 games to 94 wins, second to the Yankees' 95 in the AL. Like the O's, the A's finished the season scorching hot, each team winning 20 of its final 31 games.
The A's stunned two-time AL champion Texas to claim the AL West title with a six-game season-ending winning streak, the last three coming against the Rangers. Baltimore fell two games short of the Yankees in the AL East, winning the first-ever Wild Card playoff showdown against the reeling Rangers in Texas.
The magic in both cases expired in the ALDS.
Bob Melvin of the A's was the Baseball Writers Association of America's choice as Manager of the Year, edging Showalter. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones was sixth in the AL Most Valuable Player balloting, with Oakland left fielder Yoenis Cespedes -- a Cuban signed surprisingly to a four-year, $36 million offseason contract -- finishing 10th.
Also receiving MVP votes by the BBWAA were Orioles closer Jim Johnson (14th), A's right fielder Josh Reddick (16th) and Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (21st). Johnson was seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
These were teams in the truest sense, playing together with uncommon purpose and chemistry without the star power of some clubs that didn't fare nearly as well.
"I was paying attention [to the Athletics] because of the playoff ramifications," Showalter said. "We didn't see them very much. But you could feel the excitement they had going on out there. I felt great for Billy [Beane] and Bob [Melvin], knowing both of them.
"I guess there were some similarities, just, I think, from an energy [standpoint] and the mentality that was going on a little bit. It kind of snowballed for both clubs. You play so many games. There's no Cinderellas, but I know sometimes, I'm sure, Bob, in a private moment [and the] coaching staffs kind of look at each other and go, 'This is pretty cool, you know.' I'm not so old that I can't take that in and go, 'Wow.' There was many a night where I kind of said, 'Boy, I'm pretty lucky to be a part of this. Hope I don't screw it up.'"
The A's were built by Beane for the future. Nobody figured the future would arrive so soon in the loaded AL West.
Winter deals costing the club starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, closer Andrew Bailey, reliever Craig Breslow and outfielder Ryan Sweeney also fortified the organization with an infusion of youthful talent: Reddick, pitchers Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Raul Alcantara, catcher Derek Norris, corner infielder Miles Head and outfielder Collin Cowgill.
"We had two goliaths in our division -- the Angels and Rangers, two of the best teams in the game," Beane said. "We traded our three best players because they weren't enough to allow us to compete. We acquired 10 players [in the swaps with the Nationals, D-backs and Red Sox]. People sort of shut us off at that time.
"It changes quick. This business is so fluid. One good thing about what we did last year was that it was transformative."
Reddick, Cespedes, first basemen Brandon Moss and Chris Carter and outfielder Jonny Gomes gave the A's clout to overcome a .238 batting average and .310 on-base percentage. Reddick led the club with 32 homers, and Moss and Carter combined for 37 in 483 at-bats.
The Orioles also exploited power, with at least 20 homers from five sources: Chris Davis (33), Jones (32), Wieters and Mark Reynolds (23) and J.J. Hardy (22). They hit .247 overall with a .311 OBP.
Before Brett Anderson returned from elbow surgery, the A's were going with an all-rookie rotation. Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy brought veteran experience to the mix before Colon was suspended for 50 games for performance-enhancing drugs and McCarthy was felled by a line drive. They combined for 42 starts.
Anderson made only six appearances. The rookies combined for 101 starts, with Milone and Parker each claiming a staff-high 13 wins.
Only rookie Wei-Yin Chen, at 12-11 the lone Baltimore pitcher with double-figure wins, went to the starting post more than 20 times for Showalter. Miguel Gonzalez, another rookie, was 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts, and Chris Tillman was 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in his 15 starts.
Showalter also pulled all the right levers, enabling the Orioles to revive a fan base that hasn't been this excited since Cal Ripken Jr. made shortstop his home.
The Orioles had an astonishing run of 15 straight wins in extra-inning affairs, the most since the 1949 Indians claimed 19 in a row.
That spoke to the quality of a bullpen that was their primary asset, going 30-11 with a 3.00 ERA -- fifth best in the Majors. The A's were fourth at 2.94.
The Orioles ended a run of 14 consecutive losing seasons, dating to a 1997 campaign that ended with the Indians claiming the AL Championship Series from Baltimore in six games.
The Pirates tried to make it a threesome of great surprise stories, but the Steel City magic faded late in the season.
Running against the wind, the A's kept winning after Beane had shed $14 million in payroll, down to $52.8 million.
"This franchise has a history of exciting teams and some raucous times," Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick said of the A's. "You go all the way back, it's been that way. Guys who played here liked to have a good time. You can kind of feel it with this team. They're confident and they're exciting. They want to show how good they are."
The A's excelled against the big spenders: 8-1 vs. the Red Sox, 11-8 vs. the Rangers, 10-9 vs. the Angels and 5-5 vs. the Yankees.
"If I had to use one word to describe us, I'd say overwhelming," said Reddick, an emerging star acquired from Boston. "I don't want to say scrappy -- that's been used too much -- or surprising. I think we're overwhelming, to everybody in the league who thought we weren't going to be any good."
The GIBBYs' Storyline of the Year drew co-winners in the shadow of the nation's capital -- Baltimore for "Bucking the trend" and Washington for "Postseason baseball returns to DC."
"That's one award you'd like to win two years in a row," Showalter said, grinning.
Given their relative youth and all the knowledge and awareness gained in the past year, the Orioles and A's are positioned to sustain their quality play in 2013. The only difference will be those targets on their jerseys.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.