The A's do not even look the same this year. Far too many of them have shaved off their beards and mustaches so that en masse they now tend to resemble a 1950 college glee club more than an acid rock group, even in their new all-green uniforms.
More noticeable, however, is their bizarre play afield. Williams is a strict baseball fundamentalist, a puritan who sees beauty in the simple things, like a ground ball hit behind the runner. Lord knows what agonies this man of faith must now be enduring, for the A's are playing the game not so much by his book as by one written by Max Shulman. In a single game last week against Milwaukee, which the A's lost 2-0, they committed enough sins of omission and commission to suffice the Texas Rangers for an entire season.
In the first inning Bert Campaneris was caught off third base after changing his mind about running home on a double steal. In the fifth Jackson and new Centerfielder Bill North nearly collided in right field chasing a fly ball. Actually, North was the only one chasing the ball since it was hit directly at Jackson, who somehow caught it. After lecturing North on territorial rights, Jackson started to jog to the dugout with the ball, unaware, quite obviously, that the catch was only the second out. In the A's half of the same inning Deron Johnson, the designated hitter, was ignominiously tagged out at home after Ray Fosse missed the ball on a suicide squeeze bunt play. And finally, in the eighth inning, Campaneris inexplicably cut off a throw from North that seemed certain to catch a runner at home. Campaneris was guilty of more than just bad judgment, for he should not have been in position to cut off the ball at all, that being First Baseman Gene Tenace's responsibility.
In that same dreadful three-game series Campaneris was to be picked off first base, North was to be caught stealing for the seventh time this young season and Jackson was to misjudge three fly balls in right field. World champions do not play baseball this way.
"It's been like this all year," said team captain and Third Baseman Sal Bando, reflecting on the boo-boos. "We just haven't been executing. You can win a third of your games and you can lose a third of your games. Then there is another third that you can either win or lose by doing the right things, the fundamental things. We won that third last year. We have to win them again this year."
Since they have not been winning those games so far, is it just possible the A's are succumbing to the subtle pressures applied to all defending champions?
"I don't think we feel the pressure of being on top enough." said Jackson. "People are coming out headhunting and we just have to realize this."
Other reasons have been suggested for the A's mediocre showing, notable among them the trading away of hitters Mike Epstein, Dave Duncan and Matty Alou. The A's concede they miss Alou's late-season clutch hitting and the 45 home runs Epstein and Duncan contributed to the pennant, but they would argue that the slack has been picked up by Tenace, who has hit 11 home runs while playing regularly at first base; by Bando, who has also hit 11 homers in a comeback year; by newcomer North, who is hitting in the .280 range, and by Fosse, who has long been recognized as one of the league's better defensive catchers.
Where the A's seem to be weakest now is where they have been traditionally strongest, on the mound. Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter are enjoying outstanding seasons—indeed, by throwing a two-hit shutout at the Tigers on Saturday, Holtzman won his 11th game and lowered his league-leading ERA to 1.50. But Vida Blue still is far from regaining his 1971 Cy Young Award form and John (Blue Moon) Odom, who won 15 and lost six a year ago, is one and eight this season. Odom was dropped from the starting rotation two weeks ago, leading, thank goodness, to more griping. He came back in relief of Blue last Friday to pitch 4? scoreless innings.
Blue, who went through last season in a funk after his salary hassle with Finley, has opted for whimsy this year.