The Oakland Athletics begin defense of their American League pennant Monday without Jose Canseco, who will be sidelined three to five weeks with a wrist injury.
The absence of the league’s most valuable player isn’t what Manager Tony LaRussa had in mind, but LaRussa’s long-range concern hasn’t involved the loss of one or two players.
LaRussa has been preoccupied guarding against an overall loss of appetite.
Saying he will be embarrassed if his Athletics don’t have a good season, LaRussa believes the 1989 team will be stronger on the basis of personnel than in 1988, when the Athletics won 104 regular season games and the league championship in a four-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox.
Stronger seems a possibility, but hungrier?
That, too, if LaRussa’s research and own experience helps provide clues to the complacency that frequently strikes teams after winning seasons.
No American League team has won back-to-back pennants since the New York Yankees in 1977 and ’78.
No National League team has done it since the Dodgers in those same seasons.
A graduate of the law school at Florida State University, LaRussa has been studying precedence and gathering evidence.
Among those he has recently talked with or read the writings of are Pat Riley, Chuck Knox, Dick Williams, Vince Dooley, Bill Walsh, Reggie Jackson and Dave Parker, his designated hitter.
Each, LaRussa said, established or continues to establish a career marked by “sustained success.”
Is there a thread?
“Definitely,” he said.
“Focus on the competition and don’t get bogged down on other stuff.”
“Never get too comfortable.”
Comfort, he said, translates to complacency.
He saw what happened to his own Chicago White Sox when they became a little too complacent after winning the American League’s Western Division with 99 victories in 1983.
They won only 74 games and tied for fifth in 1984.
Injuries to the pitching staff played a role, but LaRussa reflected and said: “We did have injuries, but they shouldn’t have been used as an excuse.
“We were healthy enough to play better than we did. We were in first place at the All-Star break, but when push came to shove in the second half we didn’t have the heart for it.
“We were a little too comfortable with our past year’s success. We were waiting for things to happen and forgot how we had made things happen the year before.
“You have to be careful not to take things for granted. You can’t expect a big carry-over from one year to another.”
The Athletics have heard it from LaRussa and from Reggie Jackson as well.
LaRussa invited Jackson to speak to the full squad early this month.
“Every year there was pressure on Reggie to produce a Reggie-type year,” LaRussa said. “Every year there was pressure on his team to be successful. Reggie could never take anything for granted. It was always a question of ‘What have you done for us lately?’ ”
In what LaRussa said was a brilliant keynote address, Jackson explained to the Athletics how he fed on the pressure and accepted the challenge, knowing he was expected to do better than the year before.
And where does the manager fit in?
“Injuries I can’t control, but hunger is mental, and I do have some control over that,” LaRussa said.
“I can use the lineup card and I can be vocal,” he said. “But it’s not enough for the manager and coaches to talk about it.
“The reason we were successful last year is that the players assumed a lot of the responsibility, and they’re going to have to do it again.
“The thing that distinguished the ’88 team is that it pushed, pushed and pushed, and that’s the standard that this club will be judged against.”
The 1988 season is likely to be remembered as being a breeze for the Athletics, who finished 13 games ahead of the Minnesota Twins.
But in April, when the A’s expectations were on the line and the race was just starting, they won 18 of 19 games beginning in mid-month, and in July, when their lead was reduced to three games, they won 22 of their next 28.
A final percentage of .642 seems to indicate that the A’s consistently continued to challenged themselves when there were no other challenges.
“We definitely have the talent to win a lot of games,” LaRussa said. “I mean, somebody is going to have to play like hell to stay with us.
“I would be embarrassed if we don’t have a very good year.”
Could the Athletics have a good year without winning?
“Certainly,” LaRussa said. “Winning is relative. The Twins won the division with 85 wins two years ago, then won 91 games and finished second last year. Did they have a good year or bad year? We set our own standard. We’ll know if we took our best shot.”
The A’s, of course, have more than LaRussa’s research going for them.
Memory of the World Series loss to the Dodgers is likely to motivate them, and the improved depth in the American League West should deter complacency.
The word, LaRussa said of his spring credo, is more and the word is also uncomfortable.
“We don’t have a corner on talent,” LaRussa said. “I think the competition will dispel any feeling of comfort.
“Some people have said I predicted we would win 100 games last year, but I never did that. I did set 100 as a goal, and now I’ve said we want more, more, more. We want to do better than we did last year. I would never set a goal of less.”
LaRussa and his team seem to have turned the page on the five-game World Series defeat to the Dodgers except as a source of motivation, of having failed to accomplish all of their 1988 goals.
“It was aggravating and frustrating not to have made it a closer series,” LaRussa said. “Tommy (Lasorda) did a great job of using his players and we caught an outstanding pitcher (Orel Hershiser) on the hottest roll of his career.
“I’m sorry we didn’t play better, but I still believe we had a great year. And anybody who believes we were exposed by Dodger scouts . . . well, I hope American League teams watch the tapes and pitch us the same way.”
Said third baseman Carney Lansford: “All we’ve heard is how the Dodgers figured out what we couldn’t hit. I think we’re fed up with that. We had a week off between the playoff and Series, then came back against good pitching and didn’t hit for a week. All of the stuff that’s been said about the Series has just motivated us that much more.
“It’s been a very determined, hard-working camp. We have confidence and should have because there’s a lot of talent here, but we know we have to go out and do it again.
“Last year is past.”
Last season, the A’s got career years from Dennis Eckersley (45 saves), Storm Davis (16 wins), center fielder Dave Henderson (.304 average, 24 home runs and 94 runs batted in) and Canseco (42 homers, 124 RBIs and 40 steals).
Even if those four fall off some, there would seem to be room for improvement from the remaining A’s, an ominous note for the rest of an improved division.
The A’s, aware of that overall improvement, didn’t stand pat. They signed free-agent pitcher Mike Moore to three years at $3.95 million.
Moore had a 65-96 record in seven seasons with the hapless Seattle Mariners but averaged 237 innings over the last five and looms as a significant addition to a staff that led the league in earned-run average at 3.44.
The A’s went to camp with two open positions, but will apparently start the season as they finished the last one--with Luis Polonia (.292, 24 steals) in left and a platoon of Tony Phillips (.203) and Glenn Hubbard (.255) at second base.
Canseco will be replaced during the first month by Felix Jose or Billy Beane, signed as a free agent after previous stints with the New York Mets, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers.
Jose, a 23-year-old Dominican who batted .317 with 83 RBIs at Tacoma last season, is batting .354 with 16 RBIs for the spring and has the look of “greatness,” according to batting instructor Merv Rettenmund.
The A’s have produced three straight rookies of the year--Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss--and Jose could be the fourth. He could also replace Polonia in left when Canseco returns.
“Our veterans are still in their prime, our young players are a year older and we’ve added a workhorse in Mike Moore,” LaRussa said.
“Personnel-wise I definitely think we can be stronger.”
It’s their appetite he’ll be keeping an eye on.