Forum Posts

bunter s. thompson
Oct 24, 2022
In Futbol
Charlie Dennis got the Roots the initial lead with a sizzling goal in minute 36. Screenshot via YouTube. An oft-used aphorism in Texas hold-’em poker is that all you need is a chip and a chair. There is, after all, truth to that. You can go all-in on a crappy hand with nothing more in reserve than a single red five-dollar chip, bluff your opponent, double your meager stack, and go from there. Wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe you won't win the tournament. But nobody can question your moxie, your id, and your desire. The Oakland Roots entered the USL playoff quarterfinals as the seventh seed, drawing a match against the No. 2 seed San Diego Loyal in front of their rabid supporters in the fabulous City Named for Didacus of Alcalá. Unsurprisingly, the pitch at Torero Stadium looked like the surface of the moon, pockmarked all to hell, the result of a recent football game that saw the University of San Diego thump Presbyterian College 28-3. The city’s soccer team did not show the same level of resolve. And only if a segment of their fans showed some degree of restraint. During the second half, a bottle flew from the stands, a guided missile earmarked for Paul Blanchette’s skull. Thankfully, it landed nowhere near the Oakland goalie; however, given Paul the Wall’s adroit handling of his designated territory, he surely would’ve parried that rancorous projectile away as well. But that’s not even the main story. Yes, there were the three goals that the Roots shoved home (which could’ve been four, but Azocar’s bid was wiped out by an offsides call). In the realm of high amusement, though, it’s tough to surpass the Loyal’s pathological addiction to being disciplined, the graceless miscreants that they are. Can you think of a game in which one of the teams was red-carded damned-near to contraction? Last night, San Diego had not one, not two, but three – THREE – of their esteemed gentlemen pick up reds. All three of the red cards were wielded in the latter stages of the back 45. First, in seventy-sixth minute, Loyal forward Thomas Amang was admonished with two rapid-fire yellows and the ensuing red stemming, all from a love poke at a Roots player’s eyeball. Three minutes later, Amang’s teammate Alejandro Guido, a local kid who attended Mater Dei in Chula Vista, decided to join the fun and earn a trip to the locker room himself. Later, as the eighty-seventh minute melted into the eighty-eighth, centerback Grant Stoneman received a crimson booking of his own along with the requisite quick ejection to the showers. Stoneman had picked up a yellow just four minutes earlier. Clearly, Grant had other places to be. With the Loyal reduced to just eight players as the ninetieth minute approached, and the Roots leading 2-0, an Oakland victory was imminent. But in case the point wasn’t made, the Roots tacked on in the first minute of stoppage time. Midfielder Matias Fissore, who had entered the fray in the sixty-eighth minute, casually received a through ball from Óttar Magnús Karlsson and in one motion sent an easy delivery past SD goalie Koke Vegas, who had ventured outside of the box and left the net empty. The extra time tacked on to the end of the second half would prove no help for San Diego and would be little more than a minor annoyance for the Roots and their supporters who just wanted the damn match to end so they could start dreaming about and preparing for the upcoming tilt with San Antonio FC. ::: But I would be remiss if I didn’t give volume to the Roots’ first two goals. In the thirty-sixth minute, midfielder Charlie Dennis fired a frozen rope from the edge of the penalty area, past Vegas’s desperate dive, disrupting the back of the net to give the Roots a 1-0 lead. It was Oakland’s first shot on goal for the match. Given the disparity of the two teams’ respective rankings, drawing first-half blood on the road as the much lower seed was huge for the Roots. For one, it allowed them to play looser and with more confidence. Two, it imbued some doubt into the cranial matter of the Loyal, who eight days earlier had been dismantled by the Sacramento Republic 4-0 in their final regular-season game. Before that, SD had endured a pair of draws against Orange County and New Mexico. The Loyal hadn’t won a game since their September 24 triumph over the mediocre Las Vegas Lights. SD’s recent run of form was less a “run” and more a slog through quicksand. And, suddenly, they were staring at an early deficit to the underdog Oakland Roots. In the fifty-second minute, diminutive midfielder Lindo Mfeka recorded an easy walk-in goal by confiscating a careless and errant ball by Loyal defender Kyle Adams. The shocking 2-0 lead would prove to be plenty. Fissore’s stoppage-time tally, the first goal of his pro career, was an inspiring capper. Oakland will now face the top-seeded San Antonio FC on a quick turnaround: they will travel to Texas on Wednesday and play on Friday. ::: As the Oakland Roots, in just their second season in the USL after two in NISA, continue to phase from their nascent stages into being an established club, every USL playoff victory will feel like the biggest win in team history. In last season’s quarterfinals, the Roots ventured to El Paso and hung a big scarlet letter L on a Locomotive team that had not dropped a home game since the Compromise of 1850 was signed. On Friday they'll face a tough task in tussling with SAFC on a short week and traveling two time zones. Will the Roots have a second dollop of Lone Star serendipity in store for us? A chip and a chair.
San Diego Stunner: Roots Upend Loyal in USL-Championship Quarterfinals content media
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bunter s. thompson
Oct 21, 2022
In Baseball
Okay, so the title is embellished. Technically, Tommy Lasorda is a legend due to his twenty-one years as the Dodgers’ manager. And he did suit up in an A’s uniform for a half season back in the franchise’s fruitless and largely forgotten Kansas City days. This is the tale of what is, to me anyway, one of the more interesting footnotes in Athletics total franchise history. ::: Long before manifesting his legend as the Dodgers’ two-time World Series-winning manager, Thomas Charles Lasorda was a small, ruddy-faced left-handed pitcher in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. His repertoire consisted of the following: A fastball that had less heat than an unplugged toaster. “He was a shitballer,” Ed Mierkowicz, a long-time minor-leaguer who faced Lasorda said during a 2010 interview. “He threw a lot of crap up there. You had to be patient with him.” A big overhand curveball that made catchers’ lives miserable. “He had that 12-6 curve and catchers would hate him because he'd bounce it so often,” recalled Glenn Mickens, a former teammate. “He'd beat the catcher to death.” But Lasorda was nothing if not a competitor. “He'd knock his own mom down if it meant winning a ballgame,” Mickens said. “Talk about a competitor, he was amazing!” Bellicose in deportment, he was not above starting a fight if the moment called for conflict. On at least one occasion with the A’s he touched off a brawl while on the mound. In particular, to hear Lasorda tell it, there was an animus-tinged rumpus involving Billy Martin (or “Banana Nose,” as Tommy claimed to have dubbed him) on the sacred soil of Yankee Stadium that spawned out of Lasorda’s insistence on buzzing Yankee towers with purposely errant tosses. ::: But let’s start at the beginning. After four outstanding years pitching in Montreal for the Dodgers’ top minor-league affiliate, Tommy Lasorda received his first call-up to the big leagues in August 1954. Lasorda made four relief appearances, and was battered around to the tune of five runs on eight hits in nine total innings pitched. Displaying a lack of command that was partially his calling card, Lasorda also walked five batters. He received another call in 1955 and was even worse, surrendering six runs on five hits in four innings across four games. His one start came that year, on May 5, in front of a paltry 7,056 fans at Ebbets Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. Lasorda lasted just one inning, allowing a single run but walking two hitters and throwing three wild pitches. The last wild pitch brought Wally Moon, a swarthy man with a world-class unibrow, plateward as Lasorda ran from the mound to cover. The ensuing collision left Tommy with a bloody leg. Lasorda finished the inning, but could barely walk and manager Walter Alston had no choice but to pull him from the game. Tommy’s next appearance was a little over two weeks later, coughing up five runs over two frames in a 15-1 loss to the Pirates. By June, the Brooklyn brass decided they had seen plenty from Lasorda and dispatched him back to Montreal. In his place, Dodgers called up a nineteen-year-old southpaw with a supersonic fastball but, like Tommy, had barely made acquaintance with the strike zone. Over time, Sandy Koufax would corral his stuff and go on to a twelve-year, Hall-of-Fame career. Lasorda’s contract was sold to the Kansas City Athletics after the season; presumably, he would never wear a Dodger uniform again. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Tommy Lasorda blocks the plate against Wally Moon in 1955. Lasorda eventually had to leave the game with an injured knee. The next year, he was sold to the Kansas City A’s Photographer unknown. In 1956, the Athletics were beginning their second season in K.C. after calling Philadelphia home for fifty-four years. The A’s were bad – they lost 91 games in 1955 after dropping 103 in ‘54 – and had been bad for several years before that. Their last season over the .500 mark was a lackluster 81-73, fifth-place finish in 1949. As the team’s fortunes dwindled, so did the home attendance at Shibe Park. Owner/manager Connie Mack, who had controlled the team since its founding in 1901, was in his eighties and his health was deteriorating; on top of that, a financial deal struck in the late 1940s as a result of familial contretemps left the franchise coffers in disarray. At the time, Mack’s three sons also owned shares of the Athletics. Roy and Earle Mack, Connie’s two oldest sons from his first marriage, sought to buy out Connie Jr., their younger brother from Connie Sr.’s second marriage, with whom they had no affection for. To raise the capital to buy out their sibling, Roy and Earle mortgaged the club through Connecticut General Life Insurance, plunging the team into a deep debt that, coupled with the abating patronage in the stands, left the ballclub in a dire predicament. The other American League owners, displeased at receiving a paltry share of the gate receipts from Shibe, pressured Roy and Earle to either sell or move the Athletics. After some initial resistance, the brothers capitulated, pawning the A’s off to Arnold Johnson, who made millions selling vending machines but also owned the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees’ top farm club. Johnson moved the A’s to the Paris of the Plains and folded the Blues. The big-league Athletics would go on to essentially replace the minor-league Blues as a farm team for the Yankees (more on that later). By 1956, the A’s were still struggling to win games, and while they weren’t good at manufacturing runs, they were really bad at preventing other teams from denting the plate. Their pitching staffs in the first two years in the heartland were a Who’s Who of “who the hell is that?”, featuring the likes of Art Ceccarelli and Arnie Portocarerro and Lou Sleater and Bob Trice and Sonny Dixon and Al Sima and a legion of other guys you’ve never heard of. So why take a flier on a pugnacious lefty who was just let go by one of baseball’s more successful teams? It’s not like Tommy Lasorda was a scrub without potential. From 1951 through 1954, pitching for the Montreal Royals, Lasorda posted a composite 57-26 record with a 3.34 earned-run average, and though he didn’t strike out many hitters, the baffling breaker made his humdrum fastball look at least average, and using that combo he succeeded in manipulating Triple-A hitters, a few of whom were top prospects, into off-balance, front-foot-swinging marionettes. Sure, his two previous stints in the Majors, consisting of a 7.62 ERA over 13 outings, didn’t turn out great. But even at age twenty-eight, Lasorda was still young enough to reverse his fortunes and enjoy a productive career. If nothing else, Tommy was afraid of neither competition nor confrontation, and perhaps he could light a fire into what had become a staid and stale franchise. ::: Lasorda’s A’s debut came in the season opener in Detroit, on April 17. Manager Lou Boudreau summoned Tommy to the Briggs Stadium mound with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the A’s clinging to a 2-1 lead over the Tigers, the tying runner on second base, and Earl Torgeson at the plate. Lefty on lefty. All he had to do was retire Torgeson for the final out without the runner scoring. Unsurprisingly for anyone who watched Lasorda pitch for the Dodgers, Tommy immediately unleashed a wild pitch, sending the runner to third base. Okay, fine. The sacrifice fly was out of the question, anyway. Lasorda then bore down and induced a grounder to second baseman Forrest “Spook” Jacobs for the final out. Although the save wouldn’t be created for three more years and become an official statistic for thirteen, Lasorda had essentially notched one, and the “S” is located right next to his name in the Baseball-Reference.com box score for this game. Three days later, Lasorda was brought into another tight spot, and this time it didn’t go as well. Tom Gorman (not the Tom Gorman who later became an umpire, and certainly not the Tom Gorman who pitched for the Mets in ‘80s) had just allowed a two-run homerun to put the A’s down to the White Sox 5-3, and after Gorman surrendered a single by the Sox’ No. 9 hitter, relief pitcher Dixie Howell, Boudreau had to make a move. Lasorda entered to face leadoff hitter “Jungle” Jim Rivera – again, left versus left – tasked with keeping the game close. Rivera singled. First and second. Rivera was then forced out at second on a grounder to first base. Two outs, runners at first and third. If Tommy could retire Nellie Fox the A’s would confront only a two-run deficit in the bottom half of the inning. Lasorda walked Nellie Fox. Of course he did. Bases loaded. Gulp. Lasorda then walked Larry Doby, scoring Howell. Six-to-three. Sherm Lollar, who later would manage in the Oakland A’s minor-league chain but in 1956 was a respected veteran catcher who would appear in seven All-Star games for his career, mercifully popped out to end Lasorda’s second A’s appearance. The White Sox held on to win as Howell, clearly not tuckered from running the bases, retired the A’s in order. Lasorda’s third appearance, a three-inning relief stint against Cleveland at Shibe Park on April 26, was perhaps his best big-league outing to date. His command still wavered – he walked three – but he allowed just one unearned run (the result of an error by shortstop Mike Baxes) on two hits, while also fanning three (two in his first inning of work). The A’s were already down 10-2 when Tommy entered to start the sixth, so it was about as low-leverage a situation as Boudreau could find for him. A little over a week later, at Yankee Stadium, Boudreau called on Lasorda to intentionally walk Elston Howard with runners on second and third in the eighth inning of a tie game. Gorman entered and allowed Howard, plus three others, to score. Poor Lasorda was charged with a run in zero innings pitched, the first run to appear on his ledger (the run he forced in via the bases-loaded walk to Larry Doby was inherited), so his ERA jumped from bagels to 2.45. After a largely uneventful two-batter stint in a 7-4 loss at Baltimore (he allowed an inherited run to score and spiked a wild pitch that ultimately proved harmless), Lou Boudreau elected to give Lasorda a start. It would be Tommy’s second career start, after the one for Brooklyn in which Wally Moon nearly amputated his leg. It was a decision made of necessity; yes, Lasorda had been pitching well, but the A’s were scheduled to play a Sunday doubleheader in Cleveland. Art Ditmar spun a complete game for KC in a 5-2 victory to open the twinbill. The second game would be Tommy Lasorda’s time to shine and prove once and for all that he belonged at the sport’s highest level. Lasorda wasn’t awful. He survived the first two innings, allowing just two hits, no walks, and committing a throwing error on a pickoff attempt, but no runs crossed the plate. The third did him in: after retiring the first two batters, he characteristically lost the strike zone, walking Jim Busby and Bobby Avila back-to-back. Then he left one over the plate that Al Rosen deposited over the right-field fence for a three-run homer. Boudreau left Tommy in to pitch the fourth, and the pitcher responded by retiring Cleveland in order. But he had thrown a lot of pitches, and, owing to his role as a reliever, simply wasn’t stretched out enough to work much longer. At a minimum, he kept the game from getting out of hand, even if a 3-0 deficit could be considered insurmountable by the modest standards of the 1956 Kansas City Athletics, who would go on to lose 102 games. For the rest of the ‘56 season, Lasorda toiled mainly out of the bullpen, but would be given sporadic starting assignments. He fared poorly in most of his starts, save for two: pitching into the ninth on May 28 against the White Sox, giving up three hits and 10(!) walks but allowing just four runs; and a 6⅔-inning, three-run late-June outing that showcased his potential as a back-end rotation stalwart, though he also surrendered five walks and tossed his sixth wild pitch of the season. He also experienced some turbulent waters in relief, such as giving up two runs on a hit and three walks in an inning-and-a-third on June 9 in Baltimore. Or his July 8 outing against Cleveland, in which he surrendered five runs in a third of an inning, walking three and striking out nobody. ::: During their thirteen-year stint in Kansas City, the Athletics traded so many players to the Bronx that they became derisively known as little else but a farm club for the Yankees. There was the deal sending Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar, and Bobby Shantz to New York for Billy Hunter and an assortment of other warm bodies. Also: Ryne Duren, Harry Simpson, and others for Billy Martin and Ralph Terry. Virgil Trucks in a deal to reacquire Simpson while also taking on a sore-armed Bob Grim. Sending Terry back to the Yanks in exchange for Johnny Kucks, Tom Sturdivant, and Jerry Lumpe. Roger Maris for Norm Siebern, Hank Bauer, Marv Throneberry, and Don Larsen. Tommy Lasorda for Wally Burnette. No one ever mentions Lasorda-for-Burnette when discussing the bevy of A’s-Yankees trades during the mid-to-late 1950s, and generally for good reason. Mainly because it was a trade that did not work out for either club. In contrast, the Maris-for-Larsen swap on December 11, 1959 has for many years been held up as the cause célèbre that had subsequently rendered the other deals tame. This is especially true in hindsight. Three years earlier, the baby-faced Don Larsen had become the first, and still only, pitcher to toss a perfect game in a World Series. An extraordinary accomplishment, to be sure, considering the Brooklyn Dodgers had four future Hall-of-Famers in that day’s lineup, but Larsen had always been a mediocre, unremarkable pitcher. His record through the ‘56 regular season was a pedestrian 30-40, with a 3.82 ERA and just 327 strikeouts across 671 innings. Larsen went 10-4 in ‘57, but he got off to such a terrible start that by the end of May his earned-run average was still over 6.00. In ‘59, the Yankees were a third-place club, they were looking to add more pop to their lineup, and thus Larsen was expendable. Maris had made the American League All-Star team as a twenty-four-year-old, hitting .273 with 16 homeruns as the Athletics’ everyday right fielder (except for a bout with appendicitis, during which their backup, a man named Dorrel Norman Elvert “Whitey” Herzog, filled in for him). Maris had potential. Bauer, the Yankees’ starting right fielder, was thirty-six and his best days were far behind him. Maris-for-Bauer was a steal for New York, even without factoring in Larsen, who peaked with the perfect game and remained largely mediocre thereafter, spending the next several years bouncing from team to team, and throwing his last professional pitch in 1968 for the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A team in Tacoma, Washington. Maris, of course, went on to hit 61 homers for the 1961 Yankees, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record, and would win two MVP awards and seven All-Star Game selections. Lasorda for Burnette? Yeah. Afterthought. Understandably so. ::: Lou Boudreau had seen enough. Three days after Lasorda’s disastrous outing against Cleveland, the A’s pulled the trigger on the deal with the Yankees for Burnette. Burnette would spend two more seasons with the Kansas City A’s and would be out of baseball by 1959. Lasorda spent the balance of the 1956 season playing for the Triple-A Denver Bears, a very good team that would ultimately be swept in the American Association finals. Pressed mainly into starting duty, Lasorda posted a 3-4 record, and a 4.99 ERA while toiling alongside the likes of Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Ralph Terry, Marv Throneberry, and future big-league manager Darrell Johnson, who nineteen years later would pilot the Boston Red Sox to the World Series. But it was his manager, Ralph Houk, who left the biggest impression on him. “Ralph taught me that if you treat players like human beings, they will try to play like Superman,” he recalled years later to author BIll Plaschke. Those seeds would bear fruit soon enough. The Yankees sold Lasorda to the Dodgers in May 1957, and he would spend three more seasons back in the city of his greatest triumphs, Montreal. In 1958 Lasorda would post an 18-6 record while helping the Royals win the International League title, a 4-1 final series victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, an unaffiliated team owned by Jack Kent Cooke. Tommy threw his final professional pitch in 1960, at the age of thirty-two, drawing his release in July after posting an 8.20 ERA and allowing an average of 2.3 baserunners per inning. His waning performance wasn’t the sole reason why he was let go. Lasorda had worn out his welcome. He started too many fights on the field and couldn’t help getting under the skin of the people running the Royals. Tommy was still popular with the Montreal fans, but from the club’s perspective, the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze. Hell, there wasn’t even much juice to speak of anymore, and what little was left was way too tart. His release was in the form of a letter from general manager Buzzie Bavasi that effectively decreed a lifetime ban from the Dodgers. “It was like my whole world had collapsed,” Tommy told Plaschke. Lasorda phoned Bavasi and begged to return in some capacity, and had the GM read a letter that he had written to scouting director Al Campanis professing “his undying love for the Dodgers and his willingness to do anything for the organization.” Impressed by the letter, Bavasi hired Lasorda to work for the team as a scout, kicking off a thirty-six year post-playing career that saw Lasorda evolve from scout to minor-league manager to big-league third-base coach (he had a front-row seat to watch his former club, the now-Oakland Athletics, vanquish the now-Los Angeles Dodgers, in the 1974 World Series), to Dodgers’ manager (and exacting revenge on the A’s in 1988). Lasorda was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 for his managerial exploits – a 1599-1439 regular-season record, four National League championships and two World Series titles. He was also elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 for his nine seasons with the Montreal Royals, during which he became the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, games pitched, and innings pitched. (The Royals became the Syracuse Chiefs in 1961 and are currently the New York Mets’ top farm club.) But for a half-season, sixty-six years ago, he was an Athletics left-handed pitcher, even if very few people either know or remember. Sources: Baseball-Reference.com (SportsReference LLC; Sean Forman, Founder/Owner). “Connie Mack.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/Connie-Mack/ Diunte, Nick. “Remembering Tommy Lasorda: How The Hall Of Fame Manager Broke Into Baseball With A Stellar Curveball.” Forbes.com, January 8, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickdiunte/2021/01/08/remembering-tommy-lasorda-how-the-hall-of-fame-manger-broke-into-baseball-with-a-stellar-curveball/?sh=57deb70b27a6 Plaschke, Bill and Tommy Lasorda. I Live for This!: Baseball’s Last True Believer. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2007. “Tommy Lasorda.” Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. https://baseballhalloffame.ca/hall-of-famer/tommy-lasorda/ “Tommy Lasorda talks about facing Mickey Mantle.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcHL2VdCVcM&t=111s. Posted to YouTube on September 19, 2017.
Time Machine: Tommy Lasorda - A's Legend content media
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bunter s. thompson
Oct 06, 2022
In Baseball
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. Low Expectations 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-… Blankenship? 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.) Shoulder? (Possible.) Migraine? (Nah. No way. Usually Jose gave people migraines.) “They didn’t trade Canseco, did they?” Bingo. 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… Clank! 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.” Postscript 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. Sources: 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.
Time Machine: The End of an Era content media
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bunter s. thompson
Jun 13, 2022
In Baseball
The Oakland A’s could lose 100 games this year. That’s bad! But also a rare occurrence. Should this beleaguered outfit pull off such a dubious achievement, it would be only the second time since the franchise moved to the East Bay that it finished with a triple-digit loss total. In this retrospective, I examine the only time (thus far) that an Oakland A’s team dropped a century in the loss column: what came before it, how the season unfolded, and the aftermath. Approximate reading time: 24-26 minutes. ================== Screenshot from an archived ABC News broadcast on February 26, 1979. Via YouTube The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Gas station lines stretched around the block, then around another block, thanks to the decade’s second oil shock, this time triggered by the Iranian Revolution. Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. The Daytona 500 race was telecast in its entirety for the first time (Richard Petty won; Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough traded paint in the final lap and later exchanged knuckles on the Daytona infield). Voyager 1 played paparazzi near Jupiter. Philips revealed the prototype of what would become known as the “compact disk.” C-SPAN debuted. The Uganda-Tanzania war raged on and then petered out. Prince’s eponymous second album hit record stores. Hurricane Frederic ravaged the Gulf Coast. Salvadorans turned against each other in a bloody civil war. A retired SS officer, out for a paddle at a Brazilian resort, suffered a stroke and his crusty old Nazi ass drowned. A total solar eclipse bathed North America in darkness for nearly three minutes. The Oakland Athletics lost 108 games. The Oakland Athletics lost 108 games merely five years after winning the third of their three straight World Series titles. How the hell did that happen? Stripping A Once-Great Roster Focus on Sport/Getty Images As the Oakland Athletics players gang-tackled each other to the Oakland Coliseum turf on the celebratory night of October 17, 1974, no one could have foreseen that over the ensuing years, everyone of note would be sent to far-flung destinations. The A’s had just vanquished the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, and given Oakland’s strong balance of pitching, defense, timely hitting, and attention to detail, not to mention their relative youth (the average age of the ’74 A’s was just under twenty-nine), there was no reason to believe that they couldn’t win a fourth straight title in 1975. And, perhaps, another one for the country’s Bicentennial. Instead, as the Seventies drew near its terminus, the Oakland Athletics devolved into an advanced state of disrepair and somnolence, a franchise devoid of star power and with one foot seemingly out the door. The first domino to topple was the departure of ace pitcher James “Catfish” Hunter. Hunter, who had won 25 games and the American League Cy Young Award in 1974, had a clause in his contract which stipulated that A’s owner Charles O. Finley pay $50,000 per year to the pitcher’s life insurance annuity. When Finley refused to make the payments, Catfish took the owner to an arbitration hearing, which the player won. The contract was voided, Hunter became a free agent, and on December 31, 1974, he signed a five-year deal with the New York Yankees. Even without its best pitcher, the A’s won the division in 1975, but fell to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Few suspected it at the time, but the dynasty was over once Sox second baseman Denny Doyle converted Jim Holt’s routine bouncer for the final out and the BoSox partook in reverie on the Coliseum infield. More dominoes toppled. In December 1975, veteran catcher Ray Fosse was sold back to his original team, the Cleveland Indians. On April 2, 1976, starting pitcher Ken Holtzman and prolific slugger Reggie Jackson were dispatched to Baltimore for three players. Then, in June 1976, Finley attempted to sell rocket-armed pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees and both outfielder Joe Rudi and ace reliever Rollie Finger to the Red Sox. The commissioner voided both transactions three days later, but Finley had made his intentions loud and clear. The big roster purge came after the ‘76 season ended, when five long-time A’s became free agents and scattered to the four winds: Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Fingers, Rudi, and Gene Tenace. The 1977 team lost 98 games and, outside of thirty-five-year-old Dick Allen, a seven-time All-Star with the Phillies and White Sox who joined the A’s with his best days clearly behind him, there were few familiar faces. There was still Vida Blue, who, as it turned out, was in his final year as an Athletic; he would eventually be dealt across the Bay for a cadre of lukewarm bodies. There was Mike Norris, a rookie in 1975 who could never stay healthy. Also hanging around was aging reliever Dave Giusti, once an All-Star closer with the Pittsburgh Pirates but was now thirty-seven, only moderately effective, and looking forward to collecting his pension. Outside of Blue, Norris, and Giusti, the ‘77 manifest was dotted with a bunch of guys named Jim Tyrone and Paul Mitchell and Pablo Torrealba. The 1978 season, now without Blue anchoring the pitching staff and providing a familiar face for the fan base (was anyone really jazzed for Steve Renko or John Henry Johnson?), featured 93 losses – buoyed in part by an 11-game June losing streak and a nine-gamer in August – and a midseason managerial change. Then came 1979. All-Star catcher Jeff Newman. Photos: Focus on Sport/Getty Images. Losing games in bunches was once a frequent occurrence for the Athletics, particularly during their Kansas City stint. Over thirteen seasons playing in America’s heartland, the A’s breached the 100-loss mark four times, and lost 90-plus games five other times. By the time the Athletics moved west to Oakland in 1968, the farm system had accumulated and developed enough young talent that, instead of the staccato, spastic retching that was so common in the K.C. days, the early Oakland teams were able to at least tread water for a time, until breaking through with a 101-win season and a division crown in 1971, only to fall to the more experienced Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS. Then came the three straight World Series winners from 1972 through 1974, with the likes of Hunter, Blue, Holtzman, Fingers, Jackson, Bando, Campaneris, Rudi, Tenace, Fosse, Dick Green, and Billy North all playing important roles. The five-straight postseason appearances from 1971-1975 was the longest sustained run of success in A’s history since the 1929-1931 Philadelphia squads went to the World Series in each of those seasons. Between 1932 and 1970, the A’s finished above the .500 mark just seven times. But by the mid-1970s, the days of noisome, repugnant baseball were seemingly in the rearview, never to be revisited again. Well. Given the roster purges – both active and passive – that Finley undertook between 1975 and 1978, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the 1979 Athletics would endure the franchise’s first hundred-loss season in more than a decade, even if such a judgment is rendered in hindsight. One of the best players on the ‘79 team was thirty-year-old catcher Jeff Newman, who led the team with 22 homers but produced little else, and yet, he would become the lone Oakland representative in that year’s All-Star Game, because who else and why not? Newman would never appear in the Midsummer Classic again, washing out of professional baseball by 1984. Also contributing was a guy you’ve probably never heard of: a first-baseman named Dave Revering, who contributed a .288 average, 19 homeruns, and a team-leading 77 RBI. Like Newman, Revering would be out of baseball not long after the decade changed. A Poor Start 1979 A’s manager Jim Marshall played for the Oakland Oaks during the early 1950s. Unknown photo credit. The A’s began 1979 by dropping their first five games, though all were by close margins. Their first victory came on April 11, a 14-7 victory against the third-year Seattle Mariners under the dreary roof of the Kingdome, a game in which four A’s hitters – Revering, Mitchell Page, Dwayne Murphy, and Wayne Gross each collected three hits and combined to drive in eight runs and dent the plate 11 times. The month of April gave a glimpse of what was to come for the rest of the season: the Athletics went 8-14 and were outscored 125-74. Three times that month they were blown out: 10-1 to the California Angels, 13-1, also to the Angels, and 13-1 versus the Baltimore Orioles. The Baltimore game was especially ugly, as the O’s posted a 10-run seventh inning, aided by a trio of homeruns - a solo shot from Rich Dauer along with three-run jacks by Gary Roenicke and Ken Singleton. Before the game, Orioles third baseman Doug DeCinces felt back spasms while taking grounders and was sent to Merritt Hospital to be examined. In his stead, Dauer slid from his usual second base position over the hot corner. The day before, ace pitcher Jim Palmer departed mid-game with back spasms. The Orioles were still formidable – they would reach the World Series – but watching two of his key players going down with back injuries had O’s manager Earl Weaver hitting the Raleigh packs and pop-top Schlitzes with increasing gusto. The A’s also dealt with some injuries in the early going. Young slugging right fielder Tony Armas missed several weeks with torn knee ligaments, and would play in just 80 games for the whole season. Backup outfielder Glenn Burke had a pulled hamstring. Infielder Mickey Klutts sustained a broken cheekbone when he tried to catch a line drive with his face instead of with his glove, and was glumly carted away on a stretcher to mild, sympathetic applause. Shortstop Mario Guerrero was beaned by a wayward batting practice pitch and missed several days with lingering headaches. So it goes on bad teams. Infinitesimal Crowds Associated Press photo April 17 was the date of the famous game in which just 653 patrons bought tickets (and most of them didn’t even bother to show). There were certainly some valid reasons for much of the fan base to skip this game besides the fact that two horrible teams – the A’s and the Mariners – were engaging in a languid struggle for basement supremacy. It had rained so hard early in the day that Steve Vucinich, the visiting clubhouse manager, was certain the game would be postponed. The temperature was in the forties and dropping. The game was also one of only 10 contests on that season’s television schedule, so perhaps it was better to stay home and watch on the tube than to go out in this crap. If the A’s were 9-2, perhaps another 3,000 would be willing to brave the elements. The A’s were definitely not 9-2. But, also… “People don't want to come to the ballpark because they don't want Finley to get his share of the tickets,” Donna Oneto, then the membership secretary of the Oakland A’s Booster Club, told Sports Illustrated in 1979. Finley had been actively trying to sell the A’s to Denver oil magnate Marvin Davis, who planned to relocate the franchise to the Mile High City. To make a long story short, the sale eventually fell through because the A’s were locked in a valid lease with the city to remain in the Coliseum through 1987; as the negotiations drew longer and the stalemate hardened, Davis eventually gave up. But for a time, with the threat of relocation dangling over the fan base like the sword of Damocles, many around the region braced themselves for the news. “We were always waiting for the shoe to drop that the team was going to be gone," A’s fan Erik Hoffmann recalled years later, “because nobody was going to the games. We were checking the newspaper every morning.” The concession stands also left a lot to be desired. “There were like three things on the menu,” recalled radio personality Rich Lieberman, who attended A’s games as a kid. “There was a hot dog that tasted like it was made with jet fuel in a Moscow whorehouse, and then there was coffee, and then there was Coke.” Not surprisingly, there was a funereal quiet inside the ballpark on that April 17 evening, the kind of silence that allows you to easily hear the nuances of the game that would normally be blunted or obscured by ambient crowd buzz. The crack of the bat echoed off of thousands and thousands of empty seats. A typically noiseless 83 miles-per-hour changeup would pop the catcher’s glove like a Goose Gossage heater. An infielder calling for a popup might sound like an angry father admonishing a miscreant child. According to Wayne Gross, “we were talking to people in the second deck: ‘Come on down close to the field!’” Few heeded the A’s third baseman’s request; the smell was less noxious up there. There was a bonus to such tiny crowds, as quotable A’s relief pitcher Dave Heaverlo noted. “If your wife was sitting in the stands,” he said, “and someone tried to hustle and pick her up, you could see who the hell it was.” Whatever else could be said about the sparsely populated Coliseum environment of 1979, at least the baseball inamoratas had some protection against the indignity of being hit on by a random drunk male with a bad mustache, a trucker hat, and high-waisted bell-bottoms. The game ended with flu-ridden backup catcher Jim Essian, who was making a spot start for an ailing Jeff Newman, sending a hard smash past third base to drive in the winning run as the A’s prevailed over the Mariners 6-5. “It’s discouraging as hell,” Heaverlo mused after the game, “but I think we should dedicate this one to the 600 who showed up and stuck with us.” “I didn’t hear anybody on the bench complain about the crowd,” said A’s manager Jim Marshall, who had played for the Oakland Oaks of the old Pacific Coast League in the early 1950s. “We were too involved in trying to win to be distracted by something we couldn’t control.” Not one single time did the A’s break 20,000 in any home contest. Their largest crowd came, not surprisingly, with the defending World Series champion Yankees in town, as 19,538 filed through the turnstiles to watch the A’s drop a doubleheader to Reggie, Catfish, and company. Jackson was relatively quiet in both games; Hunter tossed 5 ⅔ innings of two-run ball, scattering eight hits, and receiving a no-decision. The A’s topped 10,000 only five times: three times against the Yankees, once with the Red Sox in town, plus the home opener, against the Twins. Midseason Swoon Starting pitchers Rick Langford (left) and Matt Keough (right) struggled so badly midseason that each was sent to the bullpen for brief spells. Photos: Langford via ESPN.com; Keough, Getty Images The month of May featured an eight-game losing streak that was part of a larger stretch in which the Athletics dropped 11 out of 13. In June, the A’s endured losing streaks of seven and eight games enroute to a 5-24 mark. They simply couldn’t score runs. It wasn’t as if they were being shut out on a consistent basis, but three runs could be considered an offensive explosion. It put pressure on a young and largely inexperienced pitching staff to not only be close to perfect, but to rely on a defense, especially on the dirt, that wasn’t great. “We can’t keep an offense together for more than five minutes,” Marshall groused. “We can’t get to where we can give our pitchers some runs, and it always seems like we get behind early, something happens right away.” Rick Langford, the A’s ace by virtue of being the oldest (twenty-seven) and with the most experience, struggled so much that he spent most of June pitching out of the bullpen. Matt Keough lost every decision in May, June, and July and also received several no-decisions. He would finish with a 2-17 mark. In one instance, Keough held the Red Sox to just two runs in a complete-game effort, but took the loss. Another time, he took a shutout into the eighth inning at Cleveland and received a no-decision. John Henry Johnson, the curly-haired lefty whom the A’s received in the Vida Blue trade, began the year 2-8 and on June 15 was traded to the Texas Rangers for catcher Mike Heath and infielder Dave Chalk. July saw the A’s “rebound” to an 8-20 record, but four of those eight wins came in the month’s final six games. Dwayne Murphy, the team’s speedy young centerfielder, missed several weeks with a broken finger; at the time he was placed on the disabled list, he was hitting .273 with a .427 on-base percentage. Upon returning to the lineup on July 15, Murphy foundered, collecting just three hits in 26 at-bats to finish out the month. Third baseman Wayne Gross, who cobbled together a 23-game on-base streak spanning from April 24 to May 20, suddenly found the basepaths to be foreign territory, as he reached in just 20 of his 75 July plate appearances. On the mound, Keough failed to pitch into the seventh inning in three of his four starts (including a disastrous outing on July 9 in which he was pulled in the second inning after allowing a single, a wild pitch, a walk, another wild pitch, an RBI single and an RBI double), and was sent to the bullpen for a short spell to get his mechanics right. “He isn’t driving off the mound and directly towards the batters,” Marshall explained to the scribes the next day. “We are going to work on him to take a step directly behind him before release and come driving directly toward the plate. The way he comes at the hitters now is slightly from the side and it’s missing up his accuracy.” Keough made one relief appearance, at Yankee Stadium, and was hammered for four runs on six hits (with a pair of walks) in two innings, as the Yanks thumped the A’s 10-2. Keough would return to the rotation four days later. A Pair of Youngsters Begin Long Careers Focus on Sport/Getty Images Mike Morgan and Rickey Henderson. You’ve heard of one. You may not recall the other. A right-handed pitcher, Morgan actually debuted the year before, as a slender, feather-haired, baby-faced eighteen-year-old, making a trio of starting assignments that resulted in losses (though he did last nine innings against the powerful Orioles). By 1979, Morgan was a slender, feather-haired, baby-faced nineteen-year-old who began the year at Triple-A Ogden of the Pacific Coast League, toiling for manager Jose Pagan, the former Giants infielder. Morgan was recalled to the big club in late June and made his season debut on the twenty-seventh, failing to last four innings against a formidable Kansas City Royals squad that could torture you with the likes of George Brett and Frank White and Willie Wilson and Amos Otis and… Pete LaCock? A large, flame-haired, lefty-hitting first-baseman with good gap power but very little over-the-fence power, LaCock tormented the kid with a game-tying RBI double in the fourth, part of a four-run barrage that sent Morgan trudging from the hillock and into the showers. Morgan would make 13 starts, post a 2-10 record with a 5.98 ERA, and disappear from the big leagues until 1982, when he would resurface with the Yankees. By 1985, he was in the big leagues to stay, working for nine more teams and fashioning a long career initially as a reliable mid-rotation starter, and later as a reliever. Morgan retired in 2002, at age forty-two, a year after winning his only World Series ring while a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Henderson, of course, is a Hall-of-Famer, a local kid who made good, and perhaps the most beloved player in Oakland Athletics history. Drafted in 1976 out of Oakland Technical High School, Henderson was a three-sport star in baseball, football, and basketball. As a youth, Rickey had sharpened his baseball skills while ruling the diamonds at Bushrod Park in north Oakland, frequently at the expense of completing his household chores, to his mother’s displeasure. “He got a good whupping once when he was about twelve,” Bobbie Henley recalled in 1982. “He got up to go to the park and I told him it was his turn to mop the kitchen floor. He went to the park anyway. I went to the park, brought him back, and whipped him and then he went right back to the park.” Upon reporting to Single-A Boise, the seventeen-year-old Henderson wasted no time flashing the ability he became best known for: stealing bases. In addition to hitting a robust .336, Rickey swiped 29 bases in 36 tries At the time of his callup from Triple-A Ogden in late June 1979, Henderson had already pilfered 44 bags in just 71 games played. Although he was just twenty years old (he wouldn’t turn twenty-one until Christmas), Rickey Henderson had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. He made his Majors debut on June 24 in a doubleheader against the Texas Rangers at the Coliseum, going a combined 2-for-8 with a double – in his first at-bat – and a stolen base as the A’s, naturally, lost both games (including one to the recently deposed pitcher John Henry Johnson, who was now 2-0 with his new club. Johnson would lose his next six decisions while pitching poorly, validating why the A’s were willing to unload him). Henderson recorded his second hit - a single - and his first stolen base two innings later. Jim Sundberg’s name will always be remembered as the first catcher Henderson stole a base off of. (Side note: if you’re curious, Henderson’s final steal came in 2003 against catcher Gregg Zaun, who began his big-league backstopping career six years after Sundberg retired.) Henderson acquitted himself well, hitting .274 with a .338 on-base percentage – he hadn’t yet developed the keen batting eye that would enable him to draw 2,190 career walks and post an OBP 122 points higher than his batting average – and captured 33 bags in 44 tries. In one notable late-August game, Henderson stole three bags against Cleveland catcher (and future A’s teammate) Ron Hassey, while also contributing a pair of hits, a run scored, and an RBI as the A’s prevailed at Cleveland’s cavernous “Mistake by the Lake” 8-6, giving Rick Langford his ninth victory against 13 defeats. As a rookie, Henderson’s base-stealing statistical form was more drip than deluge; on only six occasions did he steal multiple bases, and 20 times he stole only one bag. Of course, some context is needed. Henderson played in just 89 games after his promotion, and one’s ability to steal a base is dependent on two things: getting on in the first place, and not having the next base occupied by a teammate. (Of course, when Billy Martin took over as manager in 1980, the second point became moot, as the cunning and combative skipper had no compunction about ordering a double-steal.) The “Quest” for 100 Pictured here in 1977 with pitcher Bob Lacey, Wayne Gross (left) was the A’s starting third baseman for seven years. Photo: Russ Reed/Oakland Tribune There was no quest for 100 losses, per se. But if you followed the A’s regularly in 1979 (full disclosure: I didn’t, as I was only a year old), there undoubtedly came a point when the century mark felt inevitable. That feeling of inevitability likely sank in around August 26, after the A’s lost three of four in Cleveland (the one win was the aforementioned Henderson three-steals game) to drop their record to 41-90 with still over a month remaining in the season. Then, the A’s somehow won seven of nine games from August 31 through September 9, including a pair of walk-off wins against the Chicago White Sox (and future A’s manager Tony La Russa), temporarily blunting any suspense. But then the Athletics lost 5-0 and 7-0 in Milwaukee on September 11 and 12, giving them 96 defeats with 16 games remaining on the schedule, and the century mark loomed as clear as daylight. It happened on Tuesday, September 18. Only 750 of the heartiest and most masochistic souls clambered through the Coliseum turnstiles to witness history. The A’s opponent was the Texas Rangers, a mediocre outfit piloted by second-year manager Pat Corrales that boasted an uninspiring 75-76 record while sitting fourth in the American League West. Oakland jumped out to a 2-0 first-inning lead when Revering clobbered a two-run homer off Ferguson Jenkins. The A’s bats went impotent as the Rangers scored three in the third, two more in the fifth, then one in the sixth to take control. Steve McCatty gamely hung on into the ninth inning, turning the ball over to Heaverlo after allowing a Bump Wills double and an Al Oliver single. Heaverlo allowed both of them to score, then loaded the bases, and finally plunked Pat Putman to force in yet another tally before the erratic righty miraculously retired the next three hitters. With Texas holding a seemingly insurmountable 9-2 lead, that hundredth loss seemed secured. Except. The A’s would not go quietly. Jenkins, age thirty-six, with 245 career victories and more than 3,400 innings on his résumé, and sliding down the backside of his career, retook the mound in the bottom of the ninth and was promptly greeted by a Wayne Gross single. After Dave Chalk fouled out, Mitchell Page singled up the middle to put two runners on with one out. Pinch-hitting for punchless ex-Yankee Larry Murray, Jim Essian, the hero of the famous April 17 game, sent a routine fly ball to left-fielder Oliver. That brought up Rob Picciolo, the No. 9 hitter who was in just his third year as a big-leaguer. The Athletics’ first-round pick out of Pepperdine in 1975, Picciolo was an adept fielder who had been Oakland’s everyday shortstop in 1977, but he wielded a bat made out of balsa and eventually fell out of favor. By ‘79, Picciolo was buried on the shortstop depth chart behind Mario Guerrero, Mickey Klutts, and Dave Chalk, while occasionally filling in at second base. He calmly stepped in against Jenkins and delivered a single, plating Gross from second. Rickey Henderson stood in and smacked a ball that eluded slow-footed right-fielder Richie Zisk for a two-run triple. Corrales removed Jenkins from the game, sending in his closer, Sparky Lyle, to diffuse the unexpected A’s uprising. Lyle, the offbeat former Yankee who had been on their 1977 and 1978 championship squads and had captured a Cy Young Award, retired Dwayne Murphy for the final out. For the first time since 1965, when they still called the Paris of the Plains their home city, the A’s were hundred-game losers. Just to drive the point home, the A’s proceeded to drop eight of their final 10 games, finishing 1979 with an unsightly 54-108 record. The Aftermath New A’s manager Billy Martin suggests to an umpire that he undergo cranial-rectal inversion surgery. The ump appears unbothered by the self-described Little Dago’s request. Image via Dreamstime.com. Jim Marshall was fired and Billy Martin, deposed from the Yankees after a tumultuous 1979 season that saw the Bronx Bombers finish fourth (and no doubt emotionally distressed by the sudden and tragic loss of team captain Thurman Munson in early August), was hired to pilot the A’s. Martin was born in Berkeley, attended Berkeley High School, played for Casey Stengel with the Oakland Oaks of the old Pacific Coast League, and was reunited with Stengel as a player for the Yankees during the Fifties. With the Charlie Finley-Marvin Davis deal extinguished, Finley, desperate to nourish his bank account, began casting about for local owners to take the A’s off his hands. He assumed – correctly, as it turned out – that making a splash hire for the manager’s seat in Oakland would boost the franchise’s profile and entice a few local businessmen to step up and make offers. As a manager, Martin was known for making chicken salad out of chicken excrement, taking over bad Twins and Tigers teams and leading them to playoff berths. With the Yankees, he took a team that was not-quite-good-enough and led them to the 1977 World Series title. But trouble always seemed to find Martin, and between clashes with team personnel and his pugilistic tendencies away for the ballpark, coupled with his love of alcohol, Martin took a leave of absence and was not on the bench for the Bombers’ encore performance in the ‘78 Fall Classic. He returned to the Bronx in 1979, only to be fired on October 29 after an altercation with a marshmallow salesman in Minneapolis. The A’s began an immediate turnaround, going 83-79 in 1980, then a total 65-45 in the strike-interrupted 1981 season; their 37-23 pre-strike record gave them the “first-half” A.L. West division title and they would meet the “second-half” winners, the Kansas City Royals, in a divisional-round best-of-five playoff. The A’s swept the Royals in three games, then fell to Martin’s old club, the Yankees, in the League Championship Series. The 1982 A’s lost 94 games, as the pitchers’ arms began to wear down, the offense struggled to score runs, and Martin began wearing out his welcome. The one bright spot: Rickey Henderson cemented himself as one of the game’s most electrifying players, setting a new single-season record by stealing 130 bases. Also coming out of the Martin era: Finley sold the franchise to Levi Strauss & Company chairman Walter A. Haas Jr. for $12 million. Although it would take several seasons, the A’s under Haas would enter a new golden age. Sources for quotes: Fimrite, Ron. “They’re Just Mad About Charlie,” Sports Illustrated/SIVault.com. May 21, 1979, https://vault.si.com/vault/1979/05/21/theyre-just-mad-about-charlie-as-few-as-653-fans-have-seen-the-as-play-but-its-owner-finley-whos-being-sued-for-nonsupport McNear, Claire. “Remembering the Worst Attended MLB Game of All-Time,” Vice. April 16, 2015, https://www.vice.com/en/article/ez3ep7/remembering-the-worst-attended-mlb-game-of-all-time Salter, Stephanie. “A’s Show Signs of Wear and Tear,” San Francisco Chronicle. April 16, 1979, pg. 52. Stevens, Bob. “653 See A’s Win,” San Francisco Chronicle. April 18, 1979, pg. 55. Stevens, Bob. “Baltimore Hands Keough His 11th Loss,” San Francisco Chronicle. July 10, 1979, pg. 47. Wilstein, Steve, “Stop, Thief! — Rickey Henderson Is Stealing Everything He Can Get His Hands And Feet On.” Associated Press, August 8, 1982.
Time Machine: Revisiting the Only 100-loss Oakland A's Team content media
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69
bunter s. thompson
Jun 04, 2022
In Baseball
Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t been great this season. The thirty-two-year-old veteran entered last night’s contest against the Athletics with a 3.77 earned-run average, which would’ve been a perfectly cromulent number in the steroid-infused late 1990s but is a lackluster one for our present nouveau-deadball era. What truly jumps out most is Eovaldi’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark of 5.24, which is beyond dreadful, and no doubt fueled by his aversion to keeping the ball in the ballpark. His 16 homeruns allowed leads Major League Baseball. On this cool evening at the Coliseum, however, the Red Sox right-hander looked more like the All Star from last year whose 2.79 FIP was tops in the American League. Eovaldi worked six shutout innings, allowing just four hits and a walk, while striking out eight, and it was just his second start out of 11 in which he did not surrender a longball. The A’s did hit him hard here and there; for example, in the fifth inning, Sean Murphy and Kevin Smith rocketed deep drives to right field that were snagged by Sox right fielder Franchy Cordero and may have been homeruns – or at least doubles high off the wall – in warmer daytime conditions. But in front of a robust (by modest A’s standards) crowd of 17,852 – less than half were Red Sox fans, which proves that even bandwagons are not immune to planned obsolescence – the A’s bats were largely impotent as Oakland found itself on the sick end of a 7-2 final decision. Not that they didn’t have opportunities to dent Eovaldi’s armor, but they simply could not locate that big hit. In the opening stanza, Jed Lowrie was left to rot in scoring position after Seth Brown whiffed for the final out. In the fourth, the A’s had runners on first and third with one out and came up empty. By then, Boston had merely a 2-0 lead, a not-insurmountable discrepancy except that, well, we’re talking about the 2022 Oakland Athletics, a team that ranks near the bottom in just about every essential hitting category. In the seventh, with the Red Sox holding a commanding 4-0 lead and a fresh arm in Tyler Danish on the bump, Chad Pinder led off with a hit and was promptly erased when Murphy grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, a not-surprising outcome for a .199 hitter who tries to pull nearly everything and has the speed of a sea anemone. Murphy's six twin-killings rapped into is tied for the team best (worst?) with Elvis Andrus. It took an eighth-inning Lowrie double off sinistral Sox reliever Matt Strahm to plate two runs and cut the deficit in half, but, as if offended by this light-hitting bunch in green and gold showing the temerity to make a mockery out of one of their own, the Red Sox responded by adding three runs’ worth of insurance and effectively put the game away. Athletics starter James Kaprielian pitched into the sixth inning, departing with two runners on and one out and his team down 2-0, and replaced by long-time minor-league vagabond Parker Markel. Markel’s tale is one of stout perseverance, and he may be a fine, upstanding fellow to boot, but his pitching gives off serious Chris Hatcher vibes. Perhaps not surprisingly, his sixth offering yielded a two-run double to Trevor Story that give Boston the aforementioned “commanding” 4-0 lead (both runs were charged to Kaprielian). To Markel’s credit, he settled down and recorded the final two outs of the inning without further damage, punctuating his appearance by picking off Bobby Dalbec, whom Markel had issued a free pass to. Pity the Sox first-baseman: Dalbec had to stand there at the scene of the crime while a comrade brought his hat and glove out to him. That his team prevailed handily absolved him of any serious wrongdoing. The fireworks sure were cool, though. Other notes: ** It was country music fireworks night at the Coliseum, and naturally the A’s got into the spirit during the game, outfitting each player on the video boards with superimposed cowboy hats and clothing. ** The attendance total of 17,852 was the highest for the A’s this season, and only the eighth time in 28 home tilts that the A’s surpassed 10,000. This should not be a shock in a year that, so far, has seen the front office dispatch popular players to other locales, only to subsequently increase season ticket prices while slashing perks. ** The Athletics’ minus-52 run differential is, perhaps surprisingly, not the worst in baseball. The Kansas City Royals, at minus-84, have the worst mark, followed by Detroit (-60) and the White Sox (-58). Oakland sits with the fourth-worst. Their run differential yields a Pythagorean won-loss record of 21-33, only one game better than their actual 20-34 record. ** Reliever Austin Pruitt threw 1⅔ scoreless against the Red Sox last night and now has racked up 4⅔ unscored in his two outings with the A’s. No stranger to the major leagues, Pruitt appeared in 67 games, including 10 starts, with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2017 through 2019. ** Tuesday night’s game featured a late-inning moth infestation that gave the airspace above the Coliseum a bleak, ominous Vienna-during-World-War-II appearance. The pesky Lepidoptera were nowhere to be found last night; they got the memo that moths and fireworks are incompatible.
A's Game Recap: 6/3/2022 vs. BOS content media
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bunter s. thompson
Jun 01, 2022
In Baseball
Frankie Montas deserved better. The Oakland right-hander fell to 2-5 after last night’s 3-1 defeat to the Houston Astros, an unsightly mark to be sure, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Montas received just a single run of support – a fourth-inning Cristian Pache single that allowed Elvis Andrus to dent the plate – and has received either one or zero runs of support in six of his 11 starts this season. Montas boasts a very good ERA at 3.20, has averaged over a strikeout per inning, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is a gorgeous 0.99. The twenty-nine-year-old is a certifiable All Star candidate, and if the A’s decided to serve him up in trade talks (quite likely!), he will command quite a haul. Montas has been great, because he’s had to be great. His teammates can’t be bothered to score runs for him. Anything short of a no-hitter is more likely to add to Montas’ loss column than gift him with the delight of, say, the purgatory of a no-decision. Last night, Frankie pitched into eighth inning, and was pulled after allowing a leadoff homerun to Chas McCormick that broke a 1-1 deadlock. Manager Mark Kotsay signaled for Zach Jackson, a beefy rookie right-hander who comes attached to a strong arm – he flings fastballs in excess of 95 miles per hour – but his pitching mechanics have the aesthetic virtues of Slipknot performing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Despite his generally decent numbers, Jackson frequently loses his release point, and as a result, his misguided missiles end up in locations generally preferred by neither catcher nor hitter. The cadre of Houston hitters that dug into the box against Jackson in the eighth inning – Jose Siri, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Alex Bregman – wisely disregarded much of what Jackson had to offer, and several agonizing minutes later, Siri trotted home from third after Jackson set a dubious record by becoming the first Oakland A’s pitcher to walk all four batters he faced. The Astros had themselves an insurance run (not that they really needed it), and Kotsay had no choice but to slam the bottle of Tums down on the bench and go remove the beleaguered hurler. Sam Moll retired all four hitters he faced across the eighth and ninth, and Lou Trivino added to his Low Leverage Lou legend, ending the ninth by sending McCormick and Siri trudging back to the dugout after whiffs. (Side note: any further attempts to foist Trivino into save situations should be met with great derision.) But the greater issue is the Athletics’ inability to capitalize on getting runners across the plate. Last night, the A’s went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring in scoring position, and stranded 11 runners, including leaving the bases loaded in the fourth (following Pache’s RBI single) and marooning a pair in each of the first and fifth frames. In the four-game weekend series versus the Texas Rangers, the A’s went 5-for-45 (.111), including 3-for-20 on Monday, the one game in the series that the A’s actually won (though it required a Jed Lowrie walk-off). On a granular level, the Athletics’ prime issue is an ability to read and recognize spin; the book is out on the A’s, and it’s a single sentence: throw as many breaking balls as possible, preferably over the outer half of the plate, because they will try to pull. At close of business last night, the A’s ranked dead last in all of Major League Baseball in batting average (.213), on-base percentage (.280), and OPS (.608). They are also third from the bottom with just 33 homeruns, though it’s not from a lack of trying. The team’s approach lately has been to muscle up and pull as much as possible, leading to a ceaseless stream of strikeouts and routine grounders to third base or, for the lefty swingers, into the teeth of the shift. In April and much of May, it was fashionable to attribute a somnambulant hitting attack to being behind thanks to the owner-imposed lockout and the shortened spring training, but we’re now in June. If the A’s are going to salvage this season and give us some intermittently watchable baseball, adjustments will need to be made.
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bunter s. thompson

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