In like the ’27 Yankees and out like the ’69 Orioles. That’s what 5 days in October did to the everlasting reputation of the ’88 Oakland Athletics, winners of 109 games but not the World Series.
Having already done the folding, the A’s can sign, seal and deliver their file to the archives. It will always be there for handy reference if the memory fails. Just ask your local librarian. Or Mickey Hatcher.
Cleveland Indians, 1954. Won 111 games in regular season. Lost World Series to New York Giants, 4 games to none. Baltimore Orioles, 1969. Won 109 games in regular season. Lost World Series to New York Mets, 4 games to 1. Oakland Athletics, 1988. Won 104 games in regular season. Lost World Series to Los Angeles Dodgers, 4 games to 1. So much for finding your place in the sun.
Understandably, the A’s are uncomfortable with their place in history. The first question Oakland Manager Tony La Russa fielded in his final World Series news conference included the word choke , and after an awkward pause, La Russa addressed the charge uneasily.
“That’s one thing that happens when you perform in public,” he said. “People see you when you do good and when you don’t. Unfortunately, we got beat, and everybody will have an opinion as to why.
“I think they should focus on the positive things the Dodgers did, rather than on the things we did not do. . . . We did not choke. We got beat because the Dodgers did more than we did.”
If you’re looking for an antecedent by which to judge this club, the Athletics would prefer that you check out the 1971 A’s. Those were the dynasty-in-the-making A’s, on the brink of 3 consecutive World Series championships, a string that began the next season.
But in 1971, Oakland, which had won 101 games, was swept out of the American League playoffs in 3 games by the Orioles. Those A’s were schooled, all right, but what they learned was that they were on the verge, that something big was definitely in the offing.
The 1988 A’s say they feel the same way.
“This ballclub has a great nucleus,” said Mark McGwire, the 25-year-old Oakland first baseman. “We have an outstanding pitching staff and a lot of quality young players. But in this Series, we just didn’t hit. If you don’t hit, you don’t score runs and if you don’t score runs, you don’t win games. And that’s what happened in this Series.
“Next year, we’ll all be salty veterans at this thing.”
Added Jose Canseco, the A’s 24-year-old right fielder: “Our team is young. We’ve got players who are going to be around 10 or 15 more years. Some of us might play in 2 or 3 World Series in a row.
“So there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Indeed, the task facing Oakland Vice President Sandy Alderson this winter would appear to be far simpler than that facing Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president.
Claire has to rebuild an offense and maybe find a pitcher to replace John Tudor. Alderson merely needs to fine-tune.
Canseco and McGwire, the previous two American League rookies of the year, are fixtures. Walt Weiss, who figures to keep the league’s rookie award in the family, is set at shortstop. Terry Steinbach, the most valuable player of the 1988 All-Star game, just completed his second season as a big league catcher.
Third baseman Carney Lansford, a career .280 hitter, is 31, and center fielder Dave Henderson, coming off his finest season, just turned 30. The starting pitchers range from elder statesman Bob Welch, who will turn 32 next month, to rookie Todd Burns, 25. Dennis Eckersley, 34, is 2 years into his second career as a short reliever.
During the off-season, Alderson would like to find a second baseman and a right-handed designated hitter. Mike Gallego and Glenn Hubbard are incomplete parts of the A’s second base picture--Gallego can’t hit, Hubbard has little range. Don Baylor is on his last legs as a designated hitter, judging by his .220 regular-season average. Baylor, who will be 40 next June, made just one appearance in the World Series, as a pinch-hitter.
Oh, and the A’s may need to locate a new third base coach, now that Jim Lefebvre has become the hot new name in baseball’s managerial pool. Lefebvre is believed to be a candidate for the Angel job, but the Seattle Mariners and the Chicago White Sox have shown interest in the former Dodger infielder as well.
Other than that, these same A’s, a year older and a World Series wiser, should again be a pain in the American League West in 1989.
“Looking at this ballclub here, anybody who doesn’t think we’ll be back in the same position next year is crazy,” pitcher Dave Stewart said. “I believe that strongly, and I think everyone in this clubhouse believes the same.”
And now the A’s have incentive.
“I know we’re all terribly disappointed, because we had high hopes,” owner Walter Haas said. “But now we have something to look forward to. We have another step to reach next year.”
So what happened to the high hopes?
Precocious or not, the Athletics should have defeated the Dodgers. Crushed, some would say. It appeared a mismatch from the outset--and that was before the Dodgers lost Kirk Gibson, Mike Marshall, John Tudor and Mike Scioscia.
And yet, despite superior hitting, superior defense and superior relief pitching, the A’s were erased in 5 games.
--The great gimp. Plotted on paper, the Series looked like the A’s in 6. Give the Dodgers victories in Games 2 and 5--Orel Hershiser’s games--before watching Oakland wrap it up with Bob Welch this weekend at Dodger Stadium.
Then, Gibson struck his incredible home run against Eckersley in Game 1, and the whole World Series was thrown out of whack. The A’s lost the gimme and were suddenly staring at Hershiser and an 0-2 deficit.
The A’s returned home, having to come from behind, a role that doesn’t fit them. They led in their division virtually wire to wire. Game 1 was the one that got away--and it wasn’t long before the rest of the Series did the same.
--Good pitching beats good hitting. While the Dodgers squirted champagne, the A’s sprayed this cliche from one corner of the clubhouse to another Thursday night. It may not be original, but it was certainly obvious in this World Series.
The A’s had baseball’s best-balanced offense in 1988, finishing 4th in the major leagues in batting average at .263, 2nd in home runs with 156, 2nd in runs with 800 and 4th in the American League in stolen bases with 129. The Dodgers had a pitching staff with a team earned run-average of 2.96.
The A’s scored 11 runs in 5 games. They batted .177 against the Dodgers and, amazingly, were out-homered, 5-2. All told, Oakland managed 5 extra-base hits against Los Angeles pitching.
Case, and World Series, closed.
--Scouting. “They obviously had a very good scouting report on us,” McGwire said. “Their pitchers were always making the right pitches at the right time.”
True, and there are a couple of reasons for this.
Strange as it sounds, the A’s might have damaged their World Series chances by clinching their division so early. By late August, the Dodgers were assembling a scouting staff to travel with the A’s, which gave the National League champions ample time to chart weaknesses and tendencies.
Making matters worse for Oakland, one of the Dodgers’ chief scouts, Steve Boros, is a former manager of the A’s. Boros managed Oakland in 1983-84, right at the time when Canseco and Steinbach were beginning to move up in the Oakland farm system.
Boros knows the A’s. And in this instance, familiarity bred an upset.
--Big mouth strikes again. The A’s should have known better. As a matter of fact, they did. They watched how New York Mets quotes inspired the Dodgers in the National League playoffs--and yet they refused to keep quiet when it came time for bulletin board material.
Call the A’s Coneheads.
Failing to learn from David Cone’s mistakes, Canseco predicted an Oakland victory in 5 games, and Baylor insulted Jay Howell. Baylor also said he would have preferred playing the Mets, whom he regarded as the better team.
If nothing else, the Dodgers have big ears and, once again, burning ears carried them to an emotional victory.
La Russa tried to downplay this factor, saying, “If the Dodgers need that to get themselves ready, they’ve got a problem.”
As it developed, the A’s had the problem.
--The C-word. Did Oakland plainly, simply, flat-out choke?
La Russa has already dismissed that question, but look at the numbers:
Canseco: 1 for 19, .053.
McGwire: 1 for 17, .059.
Lansford: 3 for 18, .167.
Dave Parker: 3 for 15, .200.
Then, there were the home run pitch by Eckersley in Game 1, the defensive lapses in Game 4 and Storm Davis’ 2 stormy starts.
Canseco’s “I’m only a kid” remarks after Game 4 were telling. “I’m just a 3-year player,” he said. “How can you say I’m supposed to carry the whole ballclub?”
That was the sure sign of a pressure leak in the Oakland clubhouse. Once Kid Franchise started to waver, the end was near for the A’s.
A game later, the A’s were history. Hershiser loaded the final slingshot, and late Thursday night, winter fell upon Oakland.
Four months hence, the Athletics will reconvene in Phoenix, hoping to get it right next time. And they will come to training camp with a dual purpose:
--To forget 1988.
--And to remember 1971.