It was one of those occasions that cried out for leadership. The Oakland A's had been playing poorly and their once-formidable advantage in the American League West had diminished, if not alarmingly, at least annoyingly. It was time for Third Baseman Sal Bando to exercise his prerogative as team captain.
"When we were 10� games ahead," said Bando, addressing key personnel, "I was hitting .200. Now we're only 5� games ahead and I'm still hitting .200." He paused to let this declaration of his own depressing consistency sink in. "So don't blame me."
As of last weekend Bando, alas, was still hitting .200—or not quite his weight—and the A's were playing so-so ball again, splitting six games with the Yankees and Red Sox. But they were still in first place by 7� games. In all likelihood they would still be in first place if Bando were hitting .100 and Woody Allen were their shortstop, such is their tenacity, their imperviousness to hard times. Few teams in any sport are less discomfited by adversity, undoubtedly because the A's have had so much of it. For one thing, they are persistently bedeviled by an owner who might charitably be described as eccentric. The latest burden he has imposed on his troops is a travel schedule that would challenge the resources of a Presidential candidate. Finley—for that is the man's name, Charles O. Finley—has concluded that precious pennies may be saved by transporting his team around the American League aboard regularly scheduled commercial airplanes. Chartered flights, which leave at the team's convenience, are in Finley's view an extravagance that can be afforded only by owners who are either better fixed than he or solicitous of their employees' well-being to the point of idiocy.
The result has been that the A's have been confronted with some tricky situations. Twice they have flown into cities on the day of doubleheaders, once arriving at the airport less than three hours before the first game. They finished a night game in Texas at 10:30 p.m. recently, then waited until 1:30 a.m. to catch a flight to San Francisco. Since most of the A's live on the other side of the Bay, many did not retire until well past three in the morning Pacific time, or five in the morning Texas time. They played the Red Sox that night, bleary from lack of sleep and jet lag. On another occasion they played a game with Detroit in Oakland on a Wednesday afternoon and did not leave until the next morning for a game that night with Milwaukee. If the A's have appeared sluggish of late—and they have—their travel arrangements are at least partly to blame. "I sometimes wonder," said Reggie Jackson last week, "if this is a championship season or an endurance test."
Finley's already minuscule front-office staff was reduced to a couple of relatives and the cleaning woman early last month when John Claiborne, director of minor-league operations, resigned in the usual huff. Finley, said Claiborne, has jeopardized the team's future by trading away minor-league prospects for experienced utility players during the annual pennant drives. It is a shortsighted policy, said he, speaking like a conservationist forecasting the depletion of natural resources, that will bring the three-time world champions to ruin. Nonsense, replied Finley in the manner of an oil baron, "Prospects are a dime a dozen."
But the future does not concern the current A's so much as the troubled present. Their stars, practically all of whom were developed in the farm system, are struggling in a variety of ways. Bando has not been hitting, and Jackson, by his own admission, is a bit pooped. Neither will consent to a rest, fearing that by doing so they will provide Finley, in whose doghouse they jointly reside, with the opportunity to crow, "I told you so."
"Maybe I'm not hitting," says Ban-do, "because I'm trying too hard to make Finley eat his words," the words being the deprecatory ones the owner used to describe his captain during preseason salary arbitration (lost by Bando). "I'm willing to drive myself to exhaustion," says Jackson, "because I know he's ready to crack the whip on me."
Bando will probably emerge from his slump soon, and a couple of taters—Jacksonese for home runs—will undoubtedly revive Reggie. Indeed, Bando had the game-winning hit on Saturday and Jackson provided it on Sunday, an 8-6 A's win in which he drove in five runs. But Joe Rudi and Campy Campaneris, the team's steadiest regulars, were out of action for all or most of last week. Campaneris had a pulled groin muscle. Rudi tore ligaments between his left thumb and forefinger not long ago while checking his swing, a freakish accident all too representative of this unusual season. Earlier in the year Claudell Washington suffered a recurrence of fainting spells that have plagued him since he was 16. Hospital tests disclosed that he was an extraordinarily healthy young man given, unaccountably, to the vapors. "They don't know what caused them," says Washington.
Not the least of the A's problems is the absence of Catfish Hunter, the result of another well-publicized Finley venture into penny pinching. This loss was brought home forcefully early last week when the Catfish trounced his former teammates for the fourth consecutive time. Cumulatively the champions have scored but three runs and hit but 16 singles off their old chum in 36 innings. If by some miracle the A's should actually lose in the AL West to their laggardly pursuers in Kansas City, Hunter may well be the cause. Oh irony of ironies!
And yet the A's have contrived somehow to compensate for this considerable handicap. On the last day of spring training Finley added to his roster one Jim Todd, a pitcher who labored in the Cubs' farm system for five years before reaching the big leagues last season. A player with such undistinguished credentials would seem an unlikely substitute for one apparently destined for the Hall of Fame. But Todd gives the A's a commodity they sorely required—a third capable reliever to join two of the best, Rollie Fingers and Paul Lindblad.