The Oakland A's had the American League playoff well in hand. Sure, they had lost the opener 3-1 at Yankee Stadium, but now they were leading by the same score in the fourth inning of the second game, and their winningest pitcher, Steve McCatty, was on the mound. If anything, the A's seemed headed for a rout. New York's Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, had left the game an inning earlier with a pulled leg muscle, the A's had bombed starter Rudy May, and they appeared ready to feast on the soft underbelly of the Yankee bullpen, Ron Davis and Goose Gossage needing a game's rest. Then the best-of-five series would move to Oakland Coliseum, a pitcher's park favoring the A's starters.
Or so it seemed until the fatal fourth, when McCatty, the league leader in earned run average (2.32), got into trouble. Graig Nettles led off the inning with a single, Rick Cerone reached base when a pitch grazed his helmet, Willie Randolph singled home a run, and Jerry Mumphrey walked on four pitches. With that, Dave Beard, a fine young reliever, replaced McCatty, but he was no match for the experienced Yankees. Beard allowed a single by Larry Milbourne, a double by Dave Winfield, a homer by Lou Piniella and two more singles, by Oscar Gamble and Nettles. By the end of the inning, 12 Yankees had batted and they had scored seven runs en route to a 19-hit, 13-3 victory that set playoff records for hits and runs. The Yankees at their "worst" had beaten the A's at their "best." Their bats, their spirits and, eventually, their bodies broken, the A's would lose the series' clincher 4-0 in Oakland. A heady dream had become grim reality.
In retrospect, the New York- Oakland series seems a hideous mismatch, the worst in the 13-year history of interdivision playoffs. That the A's made it this far is testimony to the weakness of the American League West and the brilliance of Oakland's diabolical Manager-General Manager Billy Martin. The A's roster has six Yankee castoffs, including four platooned players and one regular.
It was no surprise that the A's, basically untested, should have fallen apart under pressure. Outscored 20-4, they batted .120 with men in scoring position. Their pitchers surrendered two killing blows on 0-2 counts and a third on an ill-advised fastball late in a scoreless game that was hit out. Even the Oakland outfield, baseball's best, made defensive mistakes. "It's like a boxer who throws right crosses when he's supposed to throw left hooks," said Pitcher Mike Norris. Billy Ball? Silly Ball.
The Yankees, however, didn't reach the World Series by default. As usual, they earned it. How do they love October? Let us count the ways:
?It's the month they execute. Davis and Gossage yielded no earned runs in the two 1981 playoff series, 12? innings against the Brewers and six against the A's. The Yankees' victorious lefthanded starters, Tommy John and Dave Righetti, limited the A's predominantly righthanded lineup to one run in 12 innings.
?It's the month they show the meaning of poise. Dropped from first to ninth in the batting order, Randolph kept any feelings of displeasure to himself, batted .333 and powered the Yankees into the World Series with a clutch home run with the score tied 0-0 in the sixth inning of Game 3.
?It's the month they don't show their age, just their experience. "When a player reaches 35, that's the danger period," says Piniella, 38. "You start to lose hand-eye coordination. But if you get by 35, you can stay around as long as you pay the price. It's emotion." A sub, Piniella went 3 for 5.
New York's success is often attributed to owner George Steinbrenner's bankroll—"the best team money can buy"—but there must be something special about those Yankee pinstripes, too. Remember, this is a team with 10 men who once played for the Blue Jays, Padres or Cubs. "I think of the guys who wore this uniform—Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard," says Milbourne, late of Seattle, who batted .462 last week while continuing to replace the injured Bucky Dent at short. "The uniform is pride."
It's somehow fitting that the series' Most Valuable Player was the Yankee of longest continual service, 37-year-old Nettles. Nettles, who has been with New York since November 1972, batted .500 and drove in a playoff-record nine runs—producing all the Yankee scoring with a three-run double in the first game, adding three more with a homer in the second and contributing three insurance runs with another bases-full double in the ninth inning of the third victory.