Remember the Oakland A'S? Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s, they were baseball's dynasty: American League champions three years in a row; World Series champs in '89. Why, as recently as 1990 they had 103 victories and won the American League West by nine games. But then...well, all good things must come to an end. In '91 the era of the A's came to a crashing conclusion: fourth place, 11 games out. Remember?
It is early, very early, in this season of 1992, but did you notice who was sitting atop the American League West as of Sunday night, back on their customary throne? It may be too soon to proclaim that the Athletics are once again their mighty, mashing selves, but two weeks of baseball indicate that any preseason rumors of Oakland's demise—sixth place, said some of the doomsayers—were definitely premature.
The Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, are again hitting rockets into the sky, ace Dave Stewart has a new delivery and his old swagger, leftfielder Rickey Henderson is playing with enthusiasm, and everyone in the clubhouse appears bent on winning the West again. In this thunderous division that will be no small chore. But the A's have gotten the early jump—they were 9-4 through last weekend—and they've done it despite losing seven players to the disabled list and having a wobbly bullpen, a reliever as the team leader in victories and names like Mike Bordick, Scott Hemond, Vince Horsman and Bruce Walton in the lineup.
But it isn't who's playing; it's how they're playing. "This team is focused." says A's pitcher Ron Darling. "Last year there was no focus at all. Pride has a lot to do with it. Also, we realize other teams in the division are as good as we are. We have to sustain, no matter what lineup we put out there. I'll put our talent up with anyone's, but unlike the past, other teams can put their talent up with ours."
One of those other teams is the Texas Rangers, who stood just a half game behind Oakland after winning two of three from the A's last weekend at Arlington Stadium. Another is the pesky and powerful Chicago White Sox, who also were a half game out. Yet another is the Minnesota Twins, who happen to be the defending world champions.
The Oakland-Texas series provided a preview of what seems sure to be a season-long war in the West: All three games were close, no lead was safe, and two of the games were decided by late-inning home runs. "This is how a lot of games will be played in this division," said Stewart last weekend. "No team is going to run away. We'll be there. We have a new attitude. Guys are interested in playing rather than whatever they were interested in last season."
The only thing third baseman Carney Lansford was interested in last year was rehabilitating his left knee, which he tore up in a snowmobile accident in January 1991. Henderson was mostly interested in a contract extension; he had intimated during spring training that he might not play hard if he didn't get one. He didn't, and he didn't. Manager Tony La Russa was primarily interested in finding whole bodies to put in his crippled lineup: Last season he used nine third basemen, eight second basemen and seven shortstops. Finally, the once vaunted Oakland pitching staff was interested in just getting out of the season alive. A's pitchers allowed more homers (155) than any other stall' in the majors.
In the off-season the Oakland front office did little to improve the team and, because of financial concerns, didn't sign anyone to a long-term contract. With 14 players eligible for free agency after this season, the Athletics, said skeptics, were a slow start away from being dismantled. Instead, their quick getaway has reaffirmed their commitment to winning. "We're concentrating on the competition," says La Russa. "In spring training it was as if someone said, 'O.K., cut the ——.' We're doing that."
The biggest attitude adjustment has come from McGwire, who went from being the first player in major league history to hit more than 30 homers in each of his first four seasons (1987 through '90) to being a .201 hitter with 22 homers last year. As The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst puts it, his career took "an unexpected southbound turn onto the Dave Kingman Memorial Off-Ramp." Last year the game was difficult for him for the first time. He lost interest in playing, and he didn't respond to batting instruction.
McGwire's reawakening began during a trip to Las Vegas in October, the first October since 1987 that he hadn't been involved in postseason play. "I wasn't planning on watching the playoffs or the World Series, but I did," he says. "It hit me what I'd had. Sometimes you don't realize what you had until you see someone else in your place. Watching the playoffs and the Series got me pumped up."