The race—if it may so be dignified—in the American League West calls to mind the waggish forecast of Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown for the 1945 World Series between those wartime casualties, the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs: "I don't think either team can win." The division's four leading contenders—if such they may be called—engaged each other in a 14-game round-robin tournament in California last week, and when it was completed, the conclusion that none of them wanted to win it seemed inescapable. Whenever one or the other of these reluctant adversaries gained a purchase on the top rung, he would generously pause for a rest, thereby allowing the nearest pursuer time to catch up.
By week's end, even the callow Oakland A's, losers of 11 straight during one recent stretch, were back in the thick of the battle. It is significant, perhaps, that Richard Nixon should have selected one of last week's games in the West, the Angels against Kansas City at Anaheim, to make his first appearance at a baseball game since he departed the White House four long seasons ago. Nixon's home team, the Angels, rose to the occasion, getting shut out 4-0.
The Angels at that point seemed perilously close to dropping out of the competition entirely, which at least would have helped to resolve some of the confusion. They had not been hitting, pitching, fielding or winning. Entering the game of June 27, the Angels had been shut out three times in a row, and four times in their last five games. Among their batters, only Ron Jackson at .316, Lyman Bostock at .286 and Don Baylor with 18 homers and 46 RBIs had been notably productive. Joe Rudi, the Angels' costly catch from the 1976 free-agent market, was hitting .193 and reclining on the bench, and their celebrated righthanded pitcher, Nolan Ryan, was on the disabled list with a hamstring pull. The flamethrower had not been so hot even when he had been healthy; after 13 starts, his record read three wins, six losses and an earned run average of 4.05. California's heralded Big Two, Ryan and Frank Tanana, who was 11-5, had been reduced to a Big One.
Then, the day after Nixon's visit, Rudi socked a pinch-hit grand-slam homer in the seventh inning to knock the Kansas City Royals from the top spot they then shared with Texas. Thus inspired, the Angels set off on a four-game winning streak that put them in a tie with Texas for the lead by Saturday. Meanwhile, the Royals were losing their next five games, a descent that under ordinary circumstances would have left them threatening only fifth-place Chicago in the standings. But not in the American League West. For the Rangers, whose two wins early in the week had run their victory string to seven and had put them atop this undulating heap, lost their next three and stood still. On Sunday the Royals were only 1� games back. If they had been in the league's Eastern Division, they would have been in fifth place, 13� behind Boston.
And unbelievably, right there with the Royals were the A's. They began the season with a cast of mystery guests who, because no one had ever seen them before, confounded the league. By May 3 Oakland was 18-5 and leading the division by 3� games. Then, in the middle of May, the A's began playing with the big fellows, and as skeptics predicted, they dropped like a stone through the standings. From their May 3 apex to the beginning of last week, they were 16-32. On May 23 Manager Bobby Winkles quit with scarcely a word of explanation, save that provided by team owner Charles O. Finley, who said, "Maybe my phone calls were driving him to the nuthouse."
Winkles was replaced by Jack McKeon, whom Finley had fired last season. The seven-for-one trade of Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants was given as the main reason for the A's early surge, but by last week, because of more trades and Finley-style attrition, only three of the former Giants—Pitchers John Henry Johnson and Dave Heaverlo and Shortstop Mario Guerrero—remained on the roster. Finley had unloaded two home-run threats, Gary Thomasson and Gary Alexander, and replaced them with the likes of Joe Wallis, Mickey Klutts and Dell Alston. The A's have the fewest fans in the majors and the lowest team batting average in the league. Predictably, they have scored the fewest runs, too. At one time they had two 18-year-olds fresh from high school in their pitching rotation. Oakland's 55% rate of success in stolen-base attempts made stealing a crime, even in Finley's larcenous eyes. And yet the A's closed to within 1� games of the lead by taking consecutive extra-inning games from the Rangers—2-1 in 15 on Wednesday and 8-7 in 10 on Thursday—and edging the Royals 2-1 and 4-2 on Friday and Saturday, before splitting a doubleheader with K.C. on Sunday.
What should have encouraged Finley most about this mini-resurgence was a concurrent revival of the team's time-honored tradition of dissension in the ranks. Credit this to Bob Lacey, a Lincolnesque relief pitcher who, at age 24 and with all of one major league season behind him, is considered a grizzled veteran on a team where Clearasil is more prevalent in the clubhouse than Gillette Foamy. A skirmish Lacey had two weeks ago in Kansas City with the Royals' Darrell Porter seemed to loosen his tongue. Porter, he told reporters, was "kind of ugly," and Royals' Reliever Al Hrabosky was "no day at the beach, either." Hal McRae was simply "the dirtiest guy in the league."
Properly warmed up, last week Lacey turned the heat on his own team. Starting teen-agers Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy—both of whom have since been dispatched to the minors—in five games was tantamount, Lacey said, to informing the rest of the division that "we don't want it," it being the championship. Besides, the A's are not properly motivated by the manager and his coaches. These layabouts, Lacey said, never argue with umpires, never support the players when they need it and do nothing to "pump up" the youngsters on the team. The A's bunt too much, which takes the bats out of the hands of some free swingers who need to take their cuts. "You can't take aggression away from young guys," said Lacey.
Furthermore, he maintained, there are too many late-inning lineup changes for pinch hitters, pinch runners and defensive specialists. As a result, players "get labeled as bad hitters, bad base runners and bad fielders," and labels are hard to live down. Lacey does not miss Winkles, who, he said, "had it in for me," but McKeon, too, must go. "We need a new philosophy and a new manager," Lacey declared. When reminded that Finley himself calls all the shots, Lacey smiled and cited a suggestion made by
Columnist Ron Bergman that McKeon be called "Jack O. McFinley."
This diatribe followed a thrilling 8-7 A's win in which Lacey stifled a Texas rally by getting the side out with the bases loaded and nobody out. Ah, shades of Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Billy North and the other wonderful malcontents of championship seasons. "This could get me in a lot of trouble," Lacey concluded. Nonsense. It merely makes him an A of the old stripe.