Even with a home-run hitter like Canseco in the middle of his order, La Russa says, "You've got your best chance to win when you've got good sharp line drives all over the park. Canseco stays in control with discipline, just trying to hit the ball hard. He can hit .290, even in the .300s, he's got that good a stroke. And he's so strong that every once in a while, there goes one."
Even in a year when Canseco gets 40 or more every-once-in-a-whiles, he hits a lot more singles than home runs, in fact more singles than extra-base hits. What is true of Canseco is true of baseball generally. In 1988 there were more than twice as many doubles (6,386) as home runs (3,180) hit in the majors, and 25,838 singles. Baseball is still what it always has been and always will be—a 90-feet-at-a-time game.
Baseball people love numbers, but there are limits to what can be quantified, even in baseball. Part of the game's charm is the illusion it offers that all aspects of it can be reduced to numerical expressions and printed in agate type in the sports section. La Russa—who when younger was considered the archetypal numbers-crunching modern manager—has no such illusions. He constantly recurs to one intangible: intensity. One way to build it is to keep pushing for small achievements. Remember the law of cumulation: The result of many little things is not little. Playing "little ball," scrambling to manufacture runs—"looking for just 90 feet every once in a while," La Russa says—energizes a team. It puts a team up on the balls of its feet, ready to run. And the intensity carries over into its defense.
"When a team comes in to play the A's, its dugout should not be comfortable," says La Russa. "The other team should be thinking, Uh-oh, the A's steal third, they hit-and-run, they bunt for a base hit, they try to hit the hole, they knock the pivotman down. I remember when I was playing second base against a team like that I'd be worn out when the day was over. A station-to-station club is easy to play against because you just play the ball."
A station-to-station team, meaning a team that puts runners on base and waits for the batter alone to make something happen, has fewer ways to score runs. You do not often string together three singles in an inning. True, if you take risks you can run yourself out of a big inning. Or as La Russa says, "You don't want to shoot down your chance for a crooked number [more than one run]."
However, if you are aggressive in ways other than by blasting extra-base hits, you can put together big innings that are built in part out of the other team's anxieties. La Russa wants the other team to look out from its dugout "and get real bad vibes" about his club's physical and mental aggressiveness. He wants the other team to be saying, or at least thinking, "Oh, man, do you see those A's, with all that talent? They're not just out here letting the numbers fall into place. Did you see that slide into second base? He just knocked our pivotman into leftfield. Did you see the way Jose handled that two-strike situation, the way he spread it out, put the ball in play? See what Mark McGwire did? They're down by three runs so he took the 2-and-oh pitch. See McGwire take the ball to rightfield with a runner on second base?"
La Russa says, "That's what happened last year. I had managers tell me, 'I hate to say it, but your club is fun to watch.' "
The Athletics' aggressiveness was not fun for the Toronto Blue Jays to watch in the sixth inning of the first game of the American League Championship Series of 1989. With the score tied 3-3, Oakland had the bases loaded with one out. Carney Lansford hit what could have been an inning-ending double-play ball to Tony Fernandez, the Blue Jay shortstop. Fernandez fielded the ball a tad too casually and tossed the ball so that it reached the glove of second baseman Nelson Liriano a fraction of a second later than it should have.
Unfortunately for Liriano, the runner arriving from first was fast and was not feeling friendly. It was Rickey Henderson, who had reached first base by being hit on the wrist by a pitch. He barreled into Liriano, whose throw went down the rightfield line allowing two runs, including the game winner, to score. "Rickey had just been hit by a pitch, and he's out there with a lot of adrenaline pumping," La Russa said later. "You see that pivotman pay the price. That's our style."
Compare conditions in baseball with those in another American industry. From the 1920s through the 1950s, competition in the automobile industry was not nearly as fierce as it has become (thanks to industrious foreigners—and I do mean thanks). Back then, if the door seal let the rain in or a door handle fell off, the industry just shrugged. Those were little things, common to all brands, and they were not taken very seriously. But in recent decades, increased competition has raised standards. Something similar has happened in baseball.