Sometimes there is no accounting for a revelation. It may come, as it did to the recumbent Sir Isaac Newton, when an apple disengages itself from an overhead branch. Or it may come, as it did for Oakland Athletics Pitcher Chuck Dobson, while knotting the laces of his white kangaroo shoes.
As Dobson recalls his moment of truth, he was assembling himself in the Oakland locker room one day earlier this season when he suddenly found it necessary to ask himself just who it was the A's were playing.
"Ah," he answered himself, "the Twins." Then he stopped short. "The Twins!" And it came to him, just as if he had discovered the law of gravity. The Twins were just another ball club. No big deal. His team was better.
The Minnesota Twins had won the American League's Western championship the first two years of the division's existence. And in both those years Oakland, the logical contender, had contrived somehow to fritter away its opportunities. But no more. The A's took over first place for good on April 20 this season and then calmly—and that is the operative word—pulled away from the pack. They were 17 games ahead at the beginning of this month, and on the 15th, after winning the opening game of a doubleheader in Chicago, they became the first major league team of 1971 to lay claim to a divisional title.
For at least the first half of the season, however, the A's had appeared to be a one-man band. It was Vida Blue this and Vida Blue that. Indeed, to quote A's power hitter Reggie Jackson, a mean hand with a clich�, the young pitcher "astounded the sports world." But when Blue's red-hot pace cooled after the All-Star Game, the A's continued to win, establishing firmly that they are a team of substance.
They are also, as they see it, relaxed, composed and mature, words that might better describe their all-but-certain opponents in the impending league playoffs, the world champion Baltimore Orioles. The two teams, for sure, are similar in many ways, not the least of which is their taste in clothes. The A's, with their various uniforms of Fort Knox gold, Kelly green and wedding-gown white, have been, even in this period of sartorial flux, baseball's flashiest dressers. But last week the Orioles showed up—somewhat sheepishly—in uniforms of double-knit siena for a game with the good gray Yankees. With all this finery, the American League playoffs may look to baseball traditionalists like a ladies' softball game.
But beauty is only skin deep, and both the A's and the O's have more to them than looks. For one, they have excellent pitching. The A's have three fine starters in Blue, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, himself a 20-game winner, and Dobson; the Orioles go them one better with Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and their own Dobson, Pat. But the A's are deeper in the bullpen. Both teams hit with power. The A's have more team speed, but the Orioles have a better defense. The Baltimore infield of Brooks Robinson at third base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, Dave Johnson at second and Boog Powell at first is the best in baseball. For that matter, the Orioles may be the best team in baseball. And if they are not, they are the coolest.
"Our attitude," says their star, Frank Robinson, "is no different from what it's always been."
"We are," says their star, Brooks Robinson, "the same."
If the A's are composed, the Orioles are positively blas�, perhaps a little too blas� while losing game after game last week. What seemed to concern them most was not that they should win their division but by how much. When the issue became sufficiently clear to him (if not quite so clear to the Tigers), Manager Earl Weaver decided to dedicate himself to more sophisticated heights. First, he wanted to have four 20-game winners on his pitching staff. Then he wanted his team to win 100 games. And finally he wanted one of his Robinsons—especially Frank—to win the league's Most Valuable Player award.