It's not as if the Oakland A's couldn't use Jose Canseco, or Mr. 40-40, as he's known to the highway patrol in three states and to folks around the San Francisco municipal courthouse. After all, he was the American League's MVP last year, and the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season.
It's just that, well, the A's are not exactly pining away while Canseco recuperates from the wrist fracture that has kept him out of the Athletics lineup all year. Besides, a little time away from the limelight might not be such a terrible thing for a 24-year-old slugger whose maturity lags about 12 years behind his physique. Canseco might even have time to find a buyer for his $75,000 candy-apple-red Jaguar before it drives him straight to the calaboose.
Fact is, the question of when Canseco will return to play rightfield for Oakland is about the last thing on anyone's mind in the A's locker room these days. Sunday's 5-4 win over the Boston Red Sox gave the A's a 29-14 record, the best in baseball—without Canseco. "It motivates us. We want to win because Jose's not here," says relief ace Dennis Eckersley, whose 14 saves led the majors. "We want to show we're a team, and not just a couple of sluggers."
The A's have certainly done that through the first quarter of the '89 season. Not only has Canseco missed 43 games and counting—he has a stress fracture of the hamate bone in the heel of the left hand, probably caused by the knob of the bat during a missed swing in spring training—but also 25-year-old Mark McGwire (81 homers in his first two seasons) missed 14 games in April with a herniated disk in his lower back. Between them, Canseco and McGwire hit 74 home runs in the A's championship season of 1988, overshadowing many of the team's more subtle attributes. "We were viewed as the Canseco-McGwire show," says Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson. "And one of the benefits of Jose's absence is that the team has developed a newfound sense of independence and self-respect."
And if the absence of Canseco weren't motivation enough, the Athletics have also been spurred on by division rivals who have granted Oakland precious little breathing room in the potent AL West. After being pressed early by a hot start from the Texas Rangers, the A's lately have been feeling the heat from the surprising California Angels, who at week's end were sitting just a game behind Oakland. And close behind the Angels lurked the Kansas City Royals, who had the third-best record (25-17) in the division, which also happened to be the third-best in the major leagues.
Indeed, the division is so much stronger than the AL East that as of Sunday, teams in the West had the five best records in the American League. Put it this way: If the once sorry Seattle Mariners (23-21) were in the East, they would be leading the division by a game and a half. The East, with not a single team playing .500 ball at the quarter-season mark, had a pitiful 83-115 record against the West.
But for all the successes of the Western upstarts, they were all still looking up at the A's. The reasons for Oakland's early success are many: good managing, good coaching, depth, speed. And one other thing. "What we are most of all is a good pitching staff," says Eckersley. "That got overlooked last year in the magic."
It would be pretty hard to overlook the A's pitching this year. The ace of the staff, Dave Stewart, the only pitcher in baseball to win 20 games in each of the last two years, is off to a blistering start. He was 8-1 after beating the Red Sox last Saturday, and he just may even make the All-Star team for the first time in his career—especially since the A's manager, Tony La Russa, will be selecting the American League pitchers. Stewart still bristles at having been bypassed for the All-Star Game the past two years. When asked recently if he would accept a spot on the 1989 All-Star roster even if he thought he didn't deserve it—an unlikely scenario given the way he is pitching—Stewart replied, "Sure I would. I wouldn't mind making it unfairly, because somebody's made it unfairly over me the last two years."
Righthander Bob Welch is also off to a strong start (6-2, 2.98 ERA), as is Mike Moore, the free-agent acquisition from Seattle; opposing batsmen were hitting just .162 against Moore as of Sunday, the lowest average chalked up against any starting pitcher in either league. Unfortunately, the A's offense has been just as anemic on his behalf, and Moore's record—which includes 2-0 and 2-1 losses—was only 4-3, despite a sparkling 1.92 ERA.
Oakland's fourth and fifth starters, Curt Young (1-4, 5.30) and Storm Davis (3-3, 6.14), have been much less impressive. But a bullpen like the one the A's have assembled can hide a lot of flaws. La Russa likes to go with an 11-man pitching staff, which enables him to dress six full-time relievers. "There are a lot of weapons out there," he says. "It's a hellacious pen."