The 1992 Oakland A’s will always hold a special place in my cholesterol-wracked ticker. Maybe it was because I was fourteen years old, about to embark on that terrifying journey known as “high school” (with all that entailed), and was enjoying the hell out of the intervening summer. I honestly don’t have a ton of strong memories of that year, other than finishing eighth grade, spending several days at Yosemite with my cousins and our grandparents, fiddling around with this new, exciting proto-Internet program, Prodigy, which was installed on my mom’s computer and allowed unhampered access to enough baseball statistics and box scores to cause my brain to detonate. I was also casually following the goings-on with the presidential campaign, mindful that I was four years away from being old enough to vote.
In hindsight, the biggest reason for why this team stands out is that it marked the end of a successful era. An era that spanned from 1987 through ‘92 in which the A’s went 567-405 (.583 winning percentage), won the American League West division four times, the American League pennant thrice, and the 1989 World Series. Those teams featured two Rookies of the Year, two Most Valuable Players, and two Cy Young Award winners. But those were also aging teams, consisting of players who embarked on the inexorable march towards the pasture. In fact, many of them would be completely out of baseball before the 1990s ended.
The 1991 season was a sort of “gap year” for the A’s, with their manifest clobbered relentlessly by both age and various health maladies. The most notable injury was to third baseman Carney Lansford, who shredded his knee in a January snowmobile incident. The A’s finished with a 84-78 record, so if nothing else it was their fourth-straight season above the .500 mark, but it left them in none-too-familiar environs of fourth place by season’s end. In Lansford’s stead, the A’s employed a three-headed cerberus of Vance Law, Brook Jacoby, and Ernie Riles to occupy the hot corner, and they ultimately provided neither bark nor bite. First baseman Mark McGwire had his worst career season, whacking just 22 homeruns coupled with a lowly .201 average. Top starters Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, both on the dire side of thirty, began showing their age on the mound. Welch won just 12 games and posted a 4.58 earned-run average, a shocking dropoff from his 27-win Cy Young campaign of 1990. Stewart’s dyspepsia-inducing 5.18 ERA came attached to an unflattering 1.55 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). The bullpen corps, outside of lockdown closer Dennis Eckersley, was pure chaos, with the likes of Joe Klink and Steve Chitren and Curt Young and Eric Show getting the bulk of the relief calls and putting on excruciating displays of pitching.
It wasn’t all bad. Jose Canseco finally had a healthy season, clubbing 44 homers. Designated hitter Harold Baines, thirty-two years old but with the knees of a sexagenarian, hit .295 and added 20 longballs. Dave Henderson batted .276 with 25 homeruns and made the A.L. All-Star squad. Mike Moore won 17 games and compiled the only sub-3.00 ERA in the rotation. By 1991’s conclusion, the aging of the pitching staff and the lackluster final record seemed to spell the end for the Athletics’ hegemony over the division and the league. It was no surprise that the A’s would enter the next season with lowered expectations surrounding them.
Not so fast! The 1992 club burst out of the gate with five straight victories, and 10 wins in their first 14 games, vaulting out to an early division lead. Nipping on their heels in the early going were not the reigning champion Minnesota Twins, but the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers, both of whom lurked only a game behind in mid-April. The Twins began the year hanging out with the Kansas City Royals in the abyssal zone of the A.L. West, but they would not stick there for long. As 1992 played out, Minnesota would rise from the depths and become the Athletics’ most formidable challenger for the crown until an August swoon relegated them to also-ran status for the season’s final weeks.
The Biggest Hit of His Life
Eric Fox was an unlikely big-leaguer. Compactly built, at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, with a cherubic face and curly blond hair, the switch-hitting Fox was a first-round (fifth overall) pick of the Seattle Mariners in the January 1986 supplemental draft. Fox was a speedster; he went to Fresno State University on a football scholarship and spent his first two years at the school playing both football (as a cornerback) and baseball, then gave up the gridiron to concentrate on the diamond. In 1983, he stole 31 bases, was an All-American, and represented the USA at the Pan American Games. He missed ‘84 with a knee injury, then returned in ‘85 to pile up another 56 steals. The Bulldogs appeared in the College World Series each year that Fox was there, but never advanced past the regionals.
Eric Fox introduced himself to pro baseball with 31 steals in 68 attempts for the Salinas Spurs of the Class-A California League. Over three seasons in the Mariners’ chain, Fox established himself as a strong gap hitter who wouldn’t necessarily put many balls over the fence, but could rack up the extra-base hits. In ‘87, playing for Double-A Chattanooga, Fox collected 28 doubles and 10 triples. He fell off some in 1988, and in ‘89 spring training, the Mariners released Fox. The A’s picked him up and assigned him to their Double-A affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama. There, he pilfered 49 bags and clobbered a surprising 15 homeruns (he’d never hit more than 8 in any previous year). Fox advanced to Triple-A Tacoma for the 1990 season, batting a career-high .276 over 62 games before a knee injury shelved him for the rest of the year. From there on, despite being one level away, Fox had trouble breaking into the bigs, partly because there was a stacked outfield in Oakland and nowhere for him to fit in, and partly because he was not highly regarded. Felix Jose and Darren Lewis were considered top prospects among A’s minor-league outfielders.
Eric Fox? Ehh, not so much.
By 1992, the Athletics’ minor-league outfield situation had changed. Jose and Lewis were no longer around, with the former having been dealt to the Cardinals back in August 1990 for Willie McGee, and the latter sent to the Giants for the aforementioned Ernie Riles four months later. Fox batted .306 in Cactus League play and was one of the Athletics’ final spring cuts. Injuries decimated the A’s outfield in the season’s opening half, with Jose Canseco, Dave Henderson, and Rickey Henderson all spending time out of action for various maladies. By mid-summer, the A’s lineup had the likes of Jerry Browne (a career utilityman), Lance Blankenship (also a utilityman), Scott Brosius (an infielder), Willie Wilson (old), Troy Neel (a first baseman), Harold Baines (crabmeat knees), and Dann Howitt (who?) manning the outfield spots.
And yet, the A’s stubbornly held on to the division’s top spot.
Rickey, especially, was perturbed by a strained hamstring that landed him on the disabled list in late May; when he returned a month later, he tried to give it a go but found the muscle wasn’t responding. On July 7, Henderson returned to the DL, prompting rumors that he was faking the injury. The suspicions drew a defiant rebuttal from the thirty-three-year-old star. “I hate it when people say I don't want to play,” he groused. “The hardest thing for me to do is sit on the bench and watch a baseball game. . . . When I go out there and do things, people think I am a god. When I am hurt, I’m nobody.”
With Henderson out of action, the A’s decided it was time to give Eric Fox a look, but first, they needed a spot on the 40-man roster. To clear it, Oakland designated Howitt for assignment before promoting Fox from Huntsville. Ironically, the team that claimed Howitt was the one that originally drafted Fox: the Seattle Mariners.
Fox made his debut that night in Detroit, pinch-running for catcher Jamie Quirk at first base in the ninth inning. On the first pitch to Walt Weiss, Fox attempted to steal second, and was gunned down by Tigers backstop Chad Kreuter (who years later would serve as an advisor on the set of “Moneyball”). An inauspicious start, for sure. On July 11, in Toronto, manager Tony La Russa slotted Fox in the leadoff slot. In the third inning, he recorded his first hit, a leadoff homerun against Blue Jays fireballer Juan Guzman. The A’s won 3-1 to up their record to 50-36 and keep them only two games back of the Twins, who had surged ahead thanks to a June streak that saw them win 12 of 14 games to close out the month.
Naturally, it would all come to a head in late July when the A’s, fresh off taking three of four from the Blue Jays at the Coliseum, would board a plane bound for Minneapolis to take on the defending champs and division-leaders in a three-game series that could either further establish the Twins’ lead or push the A’s even. Back in late June, as part of that incredible 12-of-14 streak, the Twins traveled to Oakland and grabbed three games of a four-game set, including two blowouts. No doubt the outcome of that series was on the Athletics players’ minds as their plane bounced over the Rockies and floated above the Great Plains.
(This was also a simpler time in Major League Baseball, an era that existed before Wild Cards, which would not be officially established for two more years. Either you won the division, or you were relegated to hosting October watch parties. There were no extra postseason slots for mediocre squads to sidle into.)
By this time, Fox was sharing leadoff duties with Rickey Henderson, who had returned from his hamstring injury, and he would draw the starting and leadoff assignments for all three games at the Metrodome’s rock-hard artificial turf. The A’s won the opener handily, 9-1, behind strong pitching from Bob Welch and a three-hit, four-RBI performance from catcher and native Minnesotan Terry Steinbach. In the middle game, Oakland posted a three-run fifth inning and a half-dozen more in the sixth – the latter included a Fox two-run triple in which he also scored on an error – to take an 11-6 lead, then let Minnesota back into it with a three-run bottom of the sixth. The A’s held on for a 12-10 win, and were only a single game back in the A.L. West.
It was the series finale, on Wednesday, July 29, that would forever be linked to Eric Fox, who would go on to play parts of three more seasons in the Majors but without much success. The A’s jumped to a 2-0 first-inning lead, then their bats went silent for seven innings while Minnesota recorded single tallies in the first, second, third, and eighth frames. Facing a 4-2 deficit in the top of the ninth, the A’s were three outs away from losing the game, losing the sweep, and falling back to two games behind. Staring at them from the mound was Rick Aguilera, the Twins’ bearded All-Star closer who had posted 42 saves in 1991 and was on his way to adding 41 more in ‘92. In his younger days, Aguilera was a promising starter who had won 10 games as a member of the 1986 Mets but was probably better known for his part in a scuffle outside Cooters, a Houston bar, that also involved several of his teammates and the Houston Police Department. One of Aguilera’s teammates from the “Cooters-gate” incident was now peering out at him from the A’s dugout: pitcher Ron Darling, who was scheduled to start in Oakland’s first game in Kansas City in two days.
Second baseman Randy Ready was due to lead off the inning, but La Russa opted to send the switch-hitting utilityman Jerry Browne to pinch hit. The move paid off, as Browne sent an Aguilera 1-1 offering over shortstop Greg Gagne’s head for a base hit (“Somehow I got a hit, but I don’t know how I did it,” Browne said after the game). La Russa whistled for another pinch-hitter, Harold Baines, whom the manager had wanted to give a day off after playing him in right field in the middle game.
Baines singled. Two on, none out.
Not wanting his creaky-kneed DH to run the bases, La Russa pulled a favorite maneuver, sending relief pitcher Gene Nelson to pinch-run for Baines. It lined up perfectly: the night before, Nelson had tossed 3⅓ innings, surrendering three runs but receiving the victory. Nelson was forced into early action because the starter, Mike Moore, was pulled in the second inning after turning the Twins’ lineup into an occupying force on the basepaths. Nelson was the pitcher of record when the A’s scored six runs to grab the lead that would win them the game. He would not be available to pitch the finale. In fact, the Athletics’ only available relievers, besides closer Dennis Eckersley, were veteran righty Jeff Parrett and rookie southpaw Vince Horsman. La Russa needed, and got, a strong outing from starter Dave Stewart, who gave way to Parrett with two outs in the seventh. The former Expo, Phillie, and Brave would pitch through the eighth. Nelson would get the chance to run the bases, representing the winning run. “When you are the tying run, you don't want to make a mistake,” said Nelson after the game. “When you don’t run very often, you lose your instincts.” Nelson didn’t run very often relative to the position players, but this wasn’t his first time, either.
Rickey Henderson’s flyout to center moved Browne to third base, but Nelson had to hold over at first. Aguilera then made it easy for the pitcher-turned-baserunner, bouncing a wild pitch past catcher Brian Harper that wasn’t far enough for Browne to score, but allowed Geno to move to second. Now with first base open, Aguilera certainly could have pitched around Fox, a switch-hitter batting left-handed, and perhaps gain a platoon-advantage with the righty-batting Carney Lansford. Except Fox was a rookie without résumé, and Lansford was a former batting champion who entered the game with a .270 season average. Aguilera went to a 1-1 count, then unleashed a fastball that floated over the inner half of the plate. Fox turned on it, sending the ball thudding above the blue folded-up football seats beyond the right-field wall for a three-run homer. “About halfway between first and second I heard a collective sigh,” the A’s new hero said after the game. Said Eckersley, “I saw the ball go out and I thought, ‘Great.’ Then I thought, ‘Now I have to go out and pitch.’”
Suddenly, Oakland had a 5-4 lead. When Eckersley retired the Twins in his customary 1-2-3 fashion, the A’s were tied with Minnesota atop the division.
Conga Line to the Disabled List
The A’s were banged up in 1991, and it cost them any shot they had at division laurels.
The A’s were also banged up in 1992, but this time they had both depth and luck.
The entire projected starting outfield of Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, and Jose Canseco took turns battling various maladies that had them on the shelf for periods of time, and would never play together in ‘92. Rickey went on the disabled list on June 30 with a strained hamstring. A day later, Canseco joined him, the victim of a cranky shoulder. Hendu, who has been there since the season began thanks to hamstring grievances of his own, welcomed them to the club. He returned at the end of April, played two games in right field, reaggravated the muscle, then returned to the DL. By the time he returned for good, Rickey was back but Canseco had been traded to the Rangers (more on that later). Hendu played sporadically the rest of the season, and was left off the playoff roster. Stalwart catcher Terry Steinbach missed 14 games in April but returned and had perhaps his best season to date: a .279 average with 12 homeruns (four less than his career high to that point) while zapping 42 percent of attempted base-stealers, third highest mark in the Majors behind Ivan Rodriguez and Kirt Manwaring. In Steinbach’s stead, veteran Jamie Quirk, a member of the 1985 World Series champion Kansas City Royals, handled the bulk of the receiving duties. Shortstop Walt Weiss began the season out with a pulled ribcage muscle, one that would keep him out until early June. Youngster Mike Bordick filled in admirably, and upon Weiss’s return would slide over to second base. A hard swing-and-miss on August 21 in Baltimore gifted Mark McGwire a ribcage strain of his own; at the time he was leading the bigs with 38 homeruns. The 20 games missed robbed him of a chance to win the homerun crown, as he finished 1992 with 42 longballs, one behind Texas’s Juan Gonzalez. Still, it was a wonderful comeback year for Big Mac, who had struggled badly in 1991.
Not content with chomping at the starters, the injury bug also went after the backups: utilitymen Lance Blankenship (who began the season as the starting second baseman but would also play all three outfield positions) and Randy Ready, also missed time, with Ready spending two different stints with first with an Achilles inflammation, then a pulled ribcage (the A’s abused a lot of ribcages in ‘92).
Injuries also racked up the pitching staff. Dave Stewart, thirty-five and with his four-straight 20-wins seasons framed squarely in the rear-view mirror, was invalidated on June 30 – the same day as Rickey – with a sore pitching elbow. He returned on July 24, having missed four starts. Kelly Downs, picked up in late June after the Giants let him go, filled in and went 1-2 with a 4.67 ERA. He remained in the rotation after Stewart’s return, essentially serving in the fifth-starter role that had been occupied by youngster Joe Slusarski and reliever Kevin Campbell, until September. Veteran Bob Welch, the 1990 American League Cy Young Award winner, began the season on the DL, with a bad back. He rejoined the A’s on May 2, made five starts, then was shut down again on May 27, this time with knee inflammation. Welch returned on June 14, made 11 starts, then was disabled for a third time on August 8 with a recurrence of the elbow pain. Through it all, Welch still won 11 games with a fine 3.27 ERA. Like Stewart, Welch was thirty-five, his best days behind him, and retirement looming ever nearer.
Another aging hurler, forty-year-old reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage, saw his season cut short in late July due to biceps tendinitis. He would not appear in the playoffs, and retired two years later. The last postseason game of Goose’s Hall-of-Fame career remains 1984 World Series Game 5 in Detroit, in which he infamously eschewed an intentional walk to Kirk Gibson with first base open and wound up getting burned by a ballistic missile of a homerun that landed somewhere near Grosse Pointe.
Lengthening the Lead
The good times dissipated ever so briefly after the Fox homerun in Minnesota, as the A’s dropped two of three in Kansas City while the Twins snatched three of four from the Milwaukee Brewers. At the close of play on August 1, Oakland found itself with a 60-43 record, a game-and-a-half behind the Twins. But it was during the so-called “Dog Days” that the A’s morphed into green-and-gold Rottweilers, while the defending champions inexplicably bungled their way off the top of the table with the brio of drowsy Shih Tzus.
Bob Welch threw eight innings of two-run ball and his teammates exploded for a six-run sixth inning, capped by a three-run Carney Lansford homer, to grab the final game of the series in Kansas City. That was the start of a seven-game winning streak that not only allowed the Athletics to grab the division lead back, but also open up a three-game gap. On August 14, the A’s stymied the visiting California Angels 4-1, which coupled with a Twins loss to the Rangers lengthened the lead to four. Three days later, the A’s capped off the series against their So-Cal rivals with a Jose Canseco game-winning infield single that plated Lance Blankenship. Suddenly, the A’s were up five games. Despite the difference, the A.L. West was still only a two-horse race between Oakland and Minnesota, as the third-place Chicago White Sox, at 60-55, were 5½ games behind the Twins and the rest of the teams were under the .500 mark. As the trade deadline approached, the also-rans figured to be sellers, not buyers. The Twins would have to make some moves, too. Perhaps the A’s had a deal up their sleeve, as well.
Goodbye, Jose … Hello, Ruben
Lance Blankenship never thought he would be the answer to a trivia question.
Monday, August 31, 1992, was a typically calm late-summer night at the Oakland Coliseum, with more than 25,000 fans on hand to watch the Athletics take on the 72-58 Baltimore Orioles, who were sitting second place in the East. All was normal. There was Jose Canseco, stationed in right field, in the top of the first inning as starting pitcher Kelly Downs worked through the Baltimore lineup. Maybe Jose had a lot on his mind. Maybe he was fully immersed in the task at hand. The half-inning ended without much drama – sure, there was Randy Milligan’s one-out walk, followed later by a Glenn Davis single to left, sending Milligan all the way around to third. But Cal Ripken Jr. hit a comebacker that Downs ably handled, and that was it. Not a single ball was hit out in Jose’s direction.
Canseco was due up third in the bottom half, as usual. That was the arrangement. Canseco batted third, and his fellow Bash Brother, Mark McGwire, often hit right behind him. Only McGwire was on the disabled list thanks to the strained ribcage he had sustained against those same Orioles back in Baltimore. Instead, it was designated hitter Harold Baines hitting behind him. The lefty swinger was en route to a nice season in which he would hit .295 with 20 homeruns.
Facing Mike Mussina, leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson flew out to left field. Jerry Browne walked. Superb! There’s a runner on for Jose Can-…
Wait. Lance Blankenship?
Anyone in attendance who happened to peek towards the A’s on-deck circle located near the third-base dugout might have spotted the guy warming up was smaller and wore the number 12. But Blankenship’s sudden appearance caught the KPIX television crew by surprise. The graphics person instinctively put up Canseco’s stats. Then, a second and a half later, as if to realize, Oh, crap, that’s Lance Blankenship, immediately corrected the mistake, and posted the proper line: AVG .247 / HR 2 / RBI 31. Those seemed like humble stats, but Lance Blankenship was actually having a career year in 1992. He would set personal bests in games played (123), plate appearances (446), hits (84), doubles (24), RBI (34), stolen bases (21), total bases (119), and walks (82), after spending the previous four seasons either firmly glued to the bench or mired in yet another minor-league stint. Typical of a role player, Blankenship’s fortunes came from others’ struggles – in this case, their injuries. As described earlier, a persistent injury bug had pervaded the clubhouse during the 1992 season, sending a number of guys reeling towards the nearest trainer’s table. Blankenship played the role of a baseball factotum, filling in at second base, right field, left field, center field, and, because why the hell not, at first base for a few games in September.
That was the way it was for him when he was in college just twelve miles up the road at the University of California, where today a faded banner bearing Blankenship’s name and a photo of him in mid-swing hangs off the backside of the campus’s Recreational Sports Facility building, overlooking left field at Evans Diamond. Blankenship played four years at Cal, and he was so good that he became the first four-time All Pac-10 winner in conference history, and graduated having set Cal records in homeruns (32), RBI (189), stolen bases (187), and runs scored (230), while playing all over the diamond. The A’s took him in the tenth round of the 1986 draft.
And now, here he was, stepping to the plate as a sudden pinch-hitter for a high-profile teammate. Up the KPIX television booth, Greg Papa, in just his second season as a part-time play-by-play broadcaster for the A’s and the station, didn’t know what to make of it. What was going on with Canseco?
His back? (That had been a problem before.)
Migraine? (Nah. No way. Usually Jose gave people migraines.)
“They didn’t trade Canseco, did they?”
After the game, general manager Sandy Alderson held an impromptu press conference. The A’s had dealt Canseco to the Texas Rangers in exchange for another right fielder, Ruben Sierra (who was approaching free agency), plus a pair of pitchers – Bobby Witt, an enigmatic starter with faint knowledge of the strike zone, and reliever Jeff Russell.
Just like that, the Bash Brothers era was over. And Lance Blankenship had become an answer to a trivia question.
A bout with chicken pox kept Sierra from joining the A’s immediately, but when he did, he was impactful from the jump, recording a hit, a walk, and scoring the winning run in an A’s 2-1 extra-inning victory over the Boston Red Sox in his Oakland debut. Ruben recorded hits in each of his first five games, and the Athletics put together their longest winning streak of the year – ten games – as their division lead over the Twins ballooned from 4½ to 8½.
Witt made his A’s debut in the same game that Sierra did, tossing 7 innings of one-run baseball but picking up a no-decision. Just twenty-eight years old, Witt had been with the Rangers since 1986, and for much of his early days had fought command issues that caused him to lead all of baseball in walks allowed: 143 in ‘86 and 140 the following year. He gradually began to embrace the mysterious wiles of the strike zone, but at the time of the trade to Oakland, Witt was still averaging just over a half-dozen walks per nine innings for his career. He made six starts in the season’s final month, picking up a win and a loss along the way. The final man acquired in the deal, Russell, had been a closer in Texas, saving as many as 38 in a season, but with Dennis Eckersley, on his way to both MVP and Cy Young honors in 1992 (51 saves, 1.91 ERA, and only 5 unintentional walks in 80 innings pitched), manning that role, the thirty-year-old righty was expected to serve primarily as a set-up man.
Back to the Playoffs!
The A’s ended their long, grueling, twenty-four-month postseason drought in the most anticlimactic way possible. They took over a local establishment on an off day and watched the Twins eliminate themselves.
It was Monday, September 28. The Athletics had just wrapped up their final road trip of the season, taking two of three in Seattle, splitting a four-gamer in Chicago, then getting swept in Milwaukee by a tough Brewers team that was giving the Toronto Blue Jays all they could handle over in the A.L. East. The Twenty-eighth featured a light card around baseball, with four games in the American League and four in the National, the latter of which included a Mets-Phillies doubleheader in Flushing. But the only game that the A’s were paying attention to was taking place under the bulbous roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the site of Eric Fox’s Herculean homerun heroics two months earlier. The Twins, who trailed the A’s by 6½ games with seven to go, were locked in a struggle with the long-since-eliminated Chicago White Sox. The game was scoreless through four innings. Then, in the top of the fifth, the Sox unloaded on Twins starter Pat Mahomes for four tallies, capped by back-to-back doubles from Frank Thomas and George Bell. Minnesota meekly answered back in the bottom of the sixth with a single run; then, as if offended by that, the Pale Hose added five more thanks to a three-run longball by Tim Raines and a Bell two-run shot two batters later. The Twins were cooked. When sinistral sidewinding reliever Scott Radinsky whipped a looping slider through the gaze of Chili Davis for strike three to end the game, the Athletics were back in the A.L. West winner’s circle for the first time since 1990.
Taking in the Twins-Sox tilt at Mac’s, a sports bar in Oakland’s Jack London Square, the A’s players jubilantly raised their arms and celebrated. “At first, I thought it would be better to clinch it by winning a game and [to] celebrate on the field,” manager Tony LaRussa said as champagne-infused pandemonium reigned around him. “But if you look at our season, it almost had to be this way. Nothing fell into place, and yet we won. We will always remember ‘92.”
“This has to be the most satisfying,” McGwire said. “After last year, when people didn't expect us to win this year, it made it a lot better.” Preseason prognosticators had picked the A’s to finish no better than third.
“This is what I dreamed about all the time I was rehabbing,” said Lansford, referring to his lost 1991 season due to a knee injury. Like McGwire, the veteran third-baseman had a nice comeback year, all things considered, hitting .262 with seven homers, while playing his usual stellar defense at the hot corner. However, Carney was now thirty-five, and he was planning to retire after the season.
Dave Stewart took the pill in the opener of the American League Championship Series, against the kings of the Eastern Division, the Toronto Blue Jays, who boasted an identical 96-66 record. A late bloomer by baseball standards, the Oakland-born Stewart was taken in the 1975 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a catcher, but, owing to his strong right arm (and the Dodgers already having a franchise backstop in twenty-five-year-old Steve Yeager), Stewart was immediately converted to the hillock. Stew climbed the organizational ladder in a hurry, reaching Triple-A for just one game in 1977. He began ‘78 back in Double-A San Antonio, spending the entire minor-league season there before receiving his first call to the Dodgers. His MLB debut, on September 22, 1978, was nothing flashy: two shutout innings to finish a 12-3 rout of the San Diego Padres, earning his first big-league strikeout at the expense of some guy named Jim Beswick..
Stewart spent 1979 and 1980 back in the minors, but returned to the Dodgers in 1981 and had an active role in their World Series championship season. L.A. nearly released him before the ‘81 season even began; instead, they opted to rid themselves of a Don Stanhouse-sized headache (manager Tommy Lasorda had learned in a hurry why “Stan the Man Unusual” was also known as “Full Pack,” as in cigarettes, back in Baltimore) and to keep the youngster instead. Stewart was effective as a reliever in ‘81, but his upbringing as a starter, plus his standout fastball, made him an intriguing option for the Dodger rotation. Going forward, he occasionally battled control problems, and spent the next several years drifting from the Dodgers to the Rangers (1983) and to the Phillies (1985) while splitting time between starting and relieving and having no identity as a big leaguer. Stewart was a disaster working out of Philly’s bullpen, and on May 9, 1986, he was released.
After two weeks unemployed, his hometown team offered him a contract. Stewart struggled through most of his first ten appearances as an Oakland Athletic. Then, on July 7, manager Tony La Russa, hired just six days earlier, named him the starter against Roger Clemens and the Boston Red Sox in a game played at a sweltering Fenway Park and aired on national television. Stewart won that night, his first victory since a complete-game effort against the Angels back on September 28, 1984. Although this wasn’t a particularly great outing – Stewart allowed four runs on eight hits in six innings and was aided in part by back-to-back homers from Jose Canseco (“I think I’d hit 50 homers a year if I played here”) and Dave Kingman – La Russa was convinced he had at least a competent starting pitcher on his hands, as the A’s looked to continue digging themselves out of the post-Billy Ball era into another successful championship run. The A’s manager gave Stewart 14 more starts, and the pitcher responded, winning eight of them, three of which were complete games (he also registered a complete-game loss).
Stewart’s career took off the following campaign, as the thirty-year-old won 20 games for the first time in his career. He would reach the 20-win plateau in four consecutive seasons, from 1987 to 1990. His composite stat line for that timeframe:
146 GS, 1061⅔ IP, 84-45 W-L, 3.20 ERA, 41 CG, 7 ShO, 367 BB, 718 SO
He finished in the Top 3 in the A.L. Cy Young voting in three of those four years, and twice led all of baseball in innings pitched, tossing 275⅔ in 1988 and 267 in 1990. Such workload numbers are extinct in today’s five-and-dive era.
By 1992, however, piling up all that work at an advanced age had taken a toll, and Stewart’s wins were the result of guile and experience as much as stuff. His ERA of 3.66 was a marked improvement over his ghastly 5.18 mark of 1991, but nowhere as good as any of his 20-win seasons of yore. The four starts missed due to elbow pain kept him from reaching the 200-inning plateau for the first time since 1986, and though he didn’t complete many of his starts, he still could gut through seven frames if needed. The A’s hoped to see a vintage Stewart kick off the ‘92 ALCS and give the A’s an early series lead on the road.
He did just that, leaving with two outs in the seventh inning after giving up a double to Dave Winfield. Oakland led 3-2, but the tying run was in scoring position for Toronto. All reliever Jeff Russell had to do was take care of John Olerud and the A’s could congregate in the dugout and think about adding insurance runs. But Russell’s 2-2 slider hung over the fat part of the plate, and the Toronto first baseman shot it right back up the middle, barely eluding Russell’s outstretched bare hand (why do pitchers insist on trying to flag down line drives with their pitching hands?) and into center field for a game-tying single. That was all the Jays got, and in the top of the ninth, Harold Baines led off against Jack Morris – no stranger to pitching deep into postseason games – and walloped a high fastball off the facing of the second deck down the right field line to untie the game and capping an outstanding 3-for-4, two-run, one-RBI performance, helping give the A’s a 1-0 lead in the series.
The Jays took Game 2, Kelly Gruber’s two-run, fifth-inning homerun off Mike Moore proving the big blow in a 3-1 final score. The series shifted to the Coliseum for Game 3, which saw Juan Guzman outduel Ron Darling, allowing just two runs despite pitching through traffic; the A’s left eleven runners on base and were 4-for-12 with runners in scoring position for the entire game. At the close of the sixth stanza, the Jays held a slim 3-2 lead, then the latter innings turned into a shootout. In the top of the seventh, Toronto added two runs on a triple by Manny Lee, a hard smash that barely grazed off a diving McGwire’s glove and rolled into the right-field corner. The A’s countered with two tallies of their own in the bottom half. A Jeff Russell wild pitch gifted Toronto a run in the top of the eighth. Oakland’s counter-punch was a Ruben Sierra single that knocked in Walt Weiss, but Rickey Henderson, representing the crucial tying run, was left stranded at third base. Finally, in the top of the ninth, Dave Winfield administered the kill shot, smacking a line drive off Eckersley’s body for a hit (Eck slipped and fell trying to retrieve the ball) that scored Lee from second with an insurance run. For his part, it was a situation that Dennis Eckersley seldom found himself in as Oakland’s closer; he typically entered the ninth inning of games with the bases empty and none out, but here, he was tasked with keeping the score within reach after Russell put Lee on with a leadoff walk. Lee then stole second base off Eck, whose high leg kick was a ripe invitation for larcenous base-runners. Lee and the Jays were rewarded after Winfield’s body blow drove him in. The 7-5 Toronto victory put the A’s in a 2-1 series hole, but they still had two more games at the Coliseum to pull ahead and thus require only one victory in Toronto to secure their fourth trip to the World Series in five years.
Tony La Russa handed the ball to Bob Welch for Game 4, opposing Jack Morris in a duel of two of the 1980s’ winningest pitchers. Morris had won 162 games in that decade, the most of anyone, and was a 20-game winner twice with the Detroit Tigers, in 1983 and 1986. Welch, who had spent most of the decade with the Dodgers, had won 137, the third most in baseball (behind Morris and Toronto’s Dave Stieb, who spent much of ‘92 injured). Both were long in the tooth; Morris was thirty-seven, while Welch was thirty-five. Both were past World Series champions, with Welch having served as the Dodgers’ No. 4 starter on their 1981 team, and Morris the anchor of Detroit’s ‘84 squad. Only one could claim to have struck out the redoubtable Reggie Jackson in the Fall Classic, however, and that was Welch, who as a twenty-one-year-old rookie in 1978 went toe-to-toe with Mr. October in a nine-pitch confrontation that lasted six minutes, with two runners on and two out in the top of the ninth and with L.A. clinging to a 4-3 lead. Firing nothing but 95-MPH fastballs, Welch sent Jackson angrily skulking back to the dugout to end the game as the Dodgers mobbed the City of Angels’’ sudden new folk hero. For his part, Morris had long boasted a killer pompadour atop his scalp.
It was Welch who fared the better in this battle of geriatrics, and whose seven-inning, two-run outing far dwarfed Morris’s ineffective 3⅓-inning, five-run performance. But the Jays’ bullpen held serve, while two of Oakland’s best relievers crumbled in the late innings, Jeff Parrett (two runs) and Eckersley (two runs on a Roberto Alomar homer; blown save) the culprits. The contest went into extra innings tied at 6-6. In the top of the 11th, La Russa summoned ex-Giant Kelly Downs, who had significant starting experience and thus could go multiple innings, to take over. He walked Derek Bell to begin the frame, then surrendered a base hit to his former San Fran teammate, Candy Maldonado, pushing Bell to third. Two batters later, Jays catcher Pat Borders swatted a line drive to Rickey Henderson in left field that was deep enough to score Bell with the go-ahead run. The angular, bespectacled Tom Henke retired the A’s in the bottom half to secure the Toronto victory. The Jays had a commanding 3-1 ALCS lead.
Dave Stewart returned to the bump in Game 5. Every one of the 44,955 who filed into the Coliseum knew that Stewart, who was nearing the end of a two-year, $7 million contract extension signed in 1990, was possibly pitching his last game as an Oakland Athletic, and he was tasked with keeping the ALCS alive for the Green and Gold. He did just that, tossing a complete game, two-run performance and getting the better of David Cone, whom the Blue Jays had acquired from the New York Mets in late August (for a prospect named Jeff Kent) and who had been the winning pitcher in Game 2 back in Toronto. A Ruben Sierra two-run homer in the first gave Oakland an early lead against Cone, who was ultimately pulled in the fifth after allowing three runs without getting an out. It was plenty enough for Stewart, the winning pitcher in a 6-2 Series-saving decision for the Athletics. If he was indeed making his last A’s appearance, this was quite the exit.
But now the A’s had to head back to the T.O. still down a game and needing to win both to advance to the World Series.
A crowd of 51,335 crammed into the four-year-old SkyDome with a chance to witness history. Born as an expansion team in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays had enjoyed intermittent success, reaching the playoffs in 1985, 1989, and 1991, losing all three times to the eventual World Series champions (Royals, A’s, and Twins, respectively). Never before had a team from outside the United States reached the sport’s ultimate stage - not the Jays, and not the Montreal Expos, founded in 1969 and with only one playoff appearance - 1981 - to their ledger. And now, on Wednesday October 14, 1992, the Blue Jays were on the precipice of uncharted territory. And the Oakland A’s were hopeful of denying that history and creating some of their own, becoming the rare team to reach the Fall Classic four times in five years. Only the 1936-1939 New York Yankees, who went to the World Series four years in a row, and the 1949-1953 Yankees, who went five years in a row, had achieved a similar feat.
Mike Moore, who had pitched through traffic over seven innings in the Game 2 loss, drew the start in the crucial Game 6. He was in trouble immediately, through no fault of his own. Leadoff man Devon White looped a high fly ball down the left field line that Rickey Henderson, hat flying off his head, sprinted over toward, camped under, and…
The ball hit the heel of his glove and bounced to the turf as the speedy and alert White hustled to second base. A disgusted Rickey fired the ball back to the infield as third-base umpire Al Clark signaled fair ball. Two batters later, Joe Carter sent a deep drive over the centerfield wall, narrowly eluding Willie Wilson’s valiant leap, and it seemed as if destiny was on Toronto’s side.
Moore pitched around two harmless singles in the second, then encountered more turbulence in the third, surrendering a Maldonado three-run homer that was the capper in a four-run inning. Already down 6-0 only a third of the way into the game, the A’s were in deep, deep manure, and La Russa had no choice but to give Moore, who had entered the game with the fifth lowest career LCS earned-run average, 1.80 (behind the likes of Blue Moon Odom, Dave Dravecky, Bruce Kison, and Gary Nolan), a quick hook. Oakland was unable to muster any offense until the sixth, an RBI single by Mark McGwire, but that was the equivalent of throwing a styrofoam pellet at a tank, and it certainly didn’t help that Wilson struck out with runners on second and third to end the inning. In the eighth, Terry Steinbach drove in Harold Baines to cut the deficit to 7-2, but when Toronto added two more in the bottom half, Game 6 was effectively sealed. When Tom Henke coaxed a flyout off the bat of Ruben Sierra, history was made. For the first time in the long existence of Major League Baseball, the Fall Classic would be played north of the border. The A’s would head home, filled with thoughts about what might have been. The Blue Jays would defeat the Atlanta Braves to win Canada’s first World Series title.
For Sierra, acquired in the Canseco deal, this was his first postseason appearance, and he was crushed after the game. Wilson, who not only just missed snagging Carter’s homerun bid, also struck out three times and looked utterly helpless against Juan Guzman’s “invisible slider” that “looks like a fastball until the last minute and then breaks when you can't do anything about it.” It was a brutal way to end a season in which the A’s had exceeded expectations. Said La Russa: “I want to be careful how I say it, because I have had a lot of clubs play hard for me, that I have been proud to be associated with, even teams that didn't win. But this club had to go through so much adversity, and it still became a [division] champion. That is real special.”
Dave Stewart became a free agent on October 29, 1992, and on December 8 he signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the very team that just vanquished the A’s, the Toronto Blue Jays. Stewart was irked that Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson offered no better than a one-year (with an option), $2.7 million deal. “It’s a happy sad thing,” Stewart said, wistfully. “I had visions of ending my career an Oakland A. I could never see separating myself from that ballclub.
“I did everything I could possibly do to get a deal done,” he added. “I’m not sure it should have ended like this, but it did. I don't leave as a happy person, and I don’t leave wholeheartedly.”
Finally, the ex-A’s ace lamented what he felt was a “lack of respect. I’m sure [the A’s] didn't mean it that way, but that's how it appeared.”
On July 31, 1993, the A’s sent Rickey Henderson to Toronto, receiving two prospects, pitcher Steve Karsay and outfielder Jose Herrera, in return. Now reunited in Toronto, the two Oakland boys helped deliver the Blue Jays’ second-straight title, taking down the Philadelphia Phillies. It was Rickey who was on base when Joe Carter hit his iconic game- and Series-winning homer off Mitch Williams, and it was ‘93 ALCS Most Valuable Player Stewart who started that game and gutted his way into the seventh.
Meanwhile, the 1993 Oakland A’s endured a 68-94 season, the franchise’s worst showing since a 76-86 mark in 1986, the year La Russa took over and turned Stewart into an unlikely ace.
Stewart did return to the A’s, in 1995, but at age thirty-eight his right arm was out of bullets. Rather than accept a July demotion to the bullpen, Stewart, who had a 3-7 record and a 6.89 ERA, announced his retirement. Rickey Henderson returned to Oakland in 1994, left again after 1995, then returned for one more go-around in 1998, firing up his thirty-nine-year-old legs to steal an MLB-best 66 bases. In 1997 Jose Canseco also rejoined the A’s, for a Bash Brothers reunion with Mark McGwire that proved to be short-lived when Big Mac was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline for some flotsam and jetsam of little consequence.
Tony La Russa decamped for the Cardinals after the 1995 season, taking most of the coaching staff with him. Dennis Eckersley followed him there, converting 66 saves over his two seasons with the Redbirds. His longtime bullpen mate, Rick Honeycutt, also ventured to the Gateway City. The ‘96 Cardinals won the National League Central with a record of 88-74, and lost in the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves.
After the 1992 ALCS, it would be eight seasons until Oakland returned to the playoff stage. They have not endured such a drought since.
Bush, David. “Rickey Placed On DL -- Bad Hamstring.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 8, 1992, pg. C5.
Bush, David. “A's Tie Twins for 1st Place After Fox Hits Homer in 9th.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 30, 1992, pg. C1.
Bush, David. “Nelson Gets A Chance To Go Home.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 30, 1992, pg. C9.
Bush, David. “A's Pop the Cork on Title - Twins' Loss Triggers Celebration.” San Francisco Chronicle. September 29, 1992, pg. B1.
Bush, David. “O, Canada! A's Fall, 9-2 - Blue Jays Win A.L. pennant, Finally Reach Their 1st World Series.” San Francisco Chronicle. October 15, 1992, pg. C1.
Jenkins, Bruce. “Clemens' Second Loss in Row - A's Look Good for New Manager.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 8, 1986, pg. 41.
Keown, Tim. “Bonds Is Coming, Stewart Is Going - Jays sign A's ace -- 2 years, $8.5 million.” San Francisco Chronicle. December 9, 1992, pg. B1.