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There will be stiff resistance from the Eastern elements, as there generally is, but this could be the year that baseball experiences the continental tilt, when the World Series will become merely an intramural exercise between teams of Californians. The game's defending champions are the inimitable Oakland A's, and the biggest obstacle in the way of a third straight Series win would seem to lie only 400-some-odd miles to the south, in Los Angeles. A sort of commuter-airline Series was a distinct possibility as the two Western stalwarts peered ahead last weekend to the league playoffs beginning this Saturday.
Neither team finished its season impressively. The A's backed into the American League West title, losing to the White Sox on the evening the tenacious Texas Rangers mathematically eliminated themselves by losing to Kansas City. And the Dodgers required the services of their season-long whipping boys, the San Diego Padres, whom they defeated Saturday night for the 16th time in 18 meetings, to clinch at least a tie for their division championship. Neither team was annihilating the opposition in the last days of the long season, but the demolition potential nonetheless exists. The major concern for the Westerners in the playoffs was that they would be confronting Eastern Division champions sharpened at the finish by far keener competition.
The A's, at least, should be equal to the challenge. They have not seemed quite as fundamentally sound, quite as alert under their God-fearing new manager, Alvin Dark, as they were in the two previous championship seasons, but they are well-fortified and, as always, sardonically entertaining. The A's deplore their Mephistophelean owner, Charles O. Finley, their drafty and mostly uninhabited ball park, their sanctimonious manager and, on occasion, even each other. But they win. Like true professionals, they set pettiness aside when they "step between the lines."
Actually, the A's are more outspoken than acerbic. Their public squabbles, even the celebrated altercation between Reggie Jackson and Bill North, can be interpreted as the manifestation of a contemporaneous fervor for uninhibited expression. Mostly they are jolly good fellows, amiable and droll, as exemplified by their captain and leading runs-batted-in producer, Sal Bando.
Asked last week which of the two contending Eastern Division teams he would prefer meeting in the American League championship series, Bando replied, " Baltimore is an experienced team, but the Yankees might come in with all that luck working for them. Frankly, I'd rather play a team of plain ballplayers than face somebody who's got an in with the Man up there."
The A's do well enough with the men they have down here. If their team batting average is not high—it is under .250—they must be the timeliest hitters in the game. Bando, for example, had only 119 hits through last week, but he had driven in 103 runs. Gene Tenace's batting average is under .220, but of his 102 hits 44 have been for extra bases. Four A's—Jackson, Joe Rudi, Bando and Tenace—have hit 20 or more home runs and three—Bando, Rudi and Jackson—have driven in more than 90 runs.
The A's are as swift as they are powerful. They have stolen more bases than the speedy Dodgers, North leading the American League with 54. Campy Campaneris, a terror in last year's World Series, has stolen 34, and Jackson, despite his usual succession of muscle pulls, has 25. Oakland also has on hand—or foot—the former world-class sprinter, Herb Washington, possessor of the most unusual statistics in baseball history. Washington, whose chores are confined to pinch running, has appeared in 90 games, been at bat not at all, scored 29 runs and stolen 28 bases in 43 attempts. When he enters a game it is for the sole purpose of stealing second base and subsequently scoring from there. That he succeeds as often as he does is a tribute to his speed and his willingness to learn at least this aspect of a game with which he had scant familiarity. Washington is a Finley creation and, like so many of that great experimenter's schemes, he seems to be working out.
Herb is only one of the A's Washingtons. The other, Outfielder Claudell, though only 20, is a somewhat more complete player. Brought up from the minors in midseason, Washington has hit over .280 much of the time and looks to be a future star. His first major league hit was a triple off Gaylord Perry, whose formidable reputation impressed him not in the least. Washington did not play baseball or much of anything else in nearby Berkeley High School, but his confidence is exceeded only by his inexperience.
With the return of Catcher Ray Fosse, who injured his neck intervening in the Jackson-North imbroglio, the A's are secure at every defensive position and better off than that in some. Rudi is generally considered to be the best defensive leftfielder in the league, perhaps in the game, and the virtually unregarded Dick Green is among the finest second basemen. Jackson is an erratic but occasionally spectacular rightfielder, and Bando and Campaneris are superb in combination on the left side of the infield.
But in a short series, such as those in prospect in the A's immediate future, hitting and fielding are, as even Jackson concedes, "a poor second and third to pitching." And in pitching the A's have an advantage over all their prospective foes, even the Dodgers.