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"I was built up to be some kind of monster robot," Canseco says. "All you had to do was oil my joints and I'd hit .390 and lead the league in every category. If I hit a long home run, I'd hear people say, 'I thought he could hit it farther than that.' If I hit 40 this year, someone will say I should've hit 50. And if I hit 50, they'll say it should've been 60."
He also has been accused—wrongly, he insists—of being distant, even arrogant, in dealing with the press and public. "They mistook my shyness for moodiness," he says.
Canseco's personal and public relations are vastly improved this year. Along with McGwire, he's Oakland's biggest draw at autograph sessions, and he patiently sits by the hour signing anything dropped before him. He has also been showing newsmen a previously unsuspected witty side. "Maturity is the key word with him," Lefebvre says. Canseco isn't so sure about that. "I don't think my attitude has changed since high school," he says. "I'm really just an easygoing guy with a good sense of humor. I just let things fall where they may." Which is usually about 400 feet from home plate. Maturity, however, could arrive with a rush on Nov. 5, when he marries 21-year-old Esther Haddad, a Miami beauty queen.
Canseco may be having the season of a lifetime, but he's not the only reason the A's are cleaning up in the American League West. Pitching and defense are two other pretty good reasons. The Canseco of the Oakland bullpen has been Dennis Eckersley, a starter for 12 of his 14 major league seasons who at week's end had 37 saves in his first year as a full-time closer. Eckersley joined the A's as the result of what appeared to be nothing more than a minor trade with the Cubs last year, but he arrived at the Oakland spring training camp too late to break into the starting rotation. La Russa and A's pitching coach Dave Duncan told Eckersley that he would begin the season in the bullpen and then they'd see what happened. As a reliever, Eckersley was a revelation.
"It was eye-popping just watching him work," says La Russa. "He was so cool, so competitive. It was just boom, boom, boom, and you're out." So even after starters Moose Haas and Joaquin Andujar broke down with injuries, Eckersley stayed in the pen, working as a setup man for Jay Howell, the incumbent closer. Then in August, Howell got hurt, and Eckersley stepped in as the short man. He finished the year with 16 saves, the same number as Howell. Still, Eckersley wanted to start, and he asked La Russa and Duncan to think hard over the winter about restoring him to the rotation. They said they would consider it. But in December, when Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson traded Howell and shortstop Alfredo Griffin to the Dodgers in a complicated three-way deal that also involved the Mets, La Russa got on the blower to Eckersley. "The situation has changed," the manager said. "You're my closer."
"I figured that," said Eckersley.
Coming out of the pen in the late innings—seldom earlier than the ninth—Eckersley is an electrifying presence. "He gives the whole team a burst of energy," says catcher Terry Steinbach.
"There's a lot of glory in this job," Eckersley acknowledges, "but it's terrible when you screw it up. Anybody who does what I do and says he doesn't feel the pressure is giving you bull——. The only thing you can do is go out there not being afraid to fail."
Actually, all the elite members of the A's relief corps—Gene Nelson, Rick Honeycutt, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret—are reformed starters, and that, says Duncan, "is a plus, because they've all been in every type of situation in a game." Despite the presence of Dave Stewart (17 wins through Sunday), Bob Welch (15) and Storm Davis (14) in the Oakland starting rotation, La Russa goes to the pen so freely that the A's are almost sure to set a big league team record for saves. They had 53 at week's end, just five shy of the American League mark of 58 and seven short of the major league record of 60 set by Cincinnati in '70 and '72. In completing the Oakland sweep of Boston last week, Plunk, Honeycutt, Nelson and Cadaret all pitched, providing 3⅓ innings of scoreless relief for a grateful—and victorious—Davis.
Of immeasurable benefit to this surprisingly good pitching staff has been an improved defense. Centerfielder Dave Henderson, finally getting a chance to play regularly after part-time assignments at Seattle, Boston and San Francisco, has shored up a once uncertain outfield and through week's end was hitting .305 with 22 homers and 78 RBIs. "To me, this year is no surprise," Henderson says. "It's normal. It was tough sitting on the bench all those years knowing I was better than whoever was out there and not being able to convince anybody of it."