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For the last three seasons, the Oakland A's have spent September mathematically eliminating opponents and setting up their pitching rotation for the playoffs. Not this year. Oakland's string of three straight American League pennants has come to an inglorious end. After a lifeless 6-0 loss to the White Sox on Sept. 18, A's manager Tony La Russa closed the clubhouse doors, blasted his team and canceled the postgame spread by dismissing the caterers. "The way we're playing," said A's pitcher Dave Stewart, "we shouldn't be hungry after the game."
On Aug. 11, the A's were 64-48, three games out of first place and seemingly primed to make a run at their fourth consecutive American League West title. Since then, however, they have gone 14-23, and at week's end they were only three games out of last.
Still, La Russa insists, "I don't think it's the beginning of a decline. It's not like a lot of guys are over the hill."
Not everyone agrees. Some say the A's got old in a hurry. Stewart and Bob Welch, who combined for 49 wins last year, have won 22 this season; both will be 35 next year. Dennis Eckersley, 36, has been a very good reliever but not the untouchable closer he was from '88 to '90. Third baseman Carney Lansford, who played in only five games this year because of a knee injury, will be 35 when next season begins; the question is whether he will ever be effective again.
Then there's first baseman Mark McGwire, the only man ever to hit 30 homers in each of his first four major league seasons. He had only 20 at week's end, with 71 RBIs, and was hitting .200. A's hitting coach Rick Burleson has publicly criticized McGwire for not making adjustments at the plate. "His swing is so long and he pulls off the ball so badly that he never hits a line drive," says one American League scout. "It's always a fly ball." As always, there is the question of which Rickey Henderson will show up in Oakland next year—the one who won the league MVP award in 1990 or the one who had 13 homers and was hitting .253 through Sunday. Henderson moped and pouted in spring training because the A's wouldn't renegotiate his contract, and he never really got going this season. "If he has any pride, which he does, he will come back next year because people think he's a dog after this year," said one of the A's.
There has been no dog in Jose Canseco this year—he'd matched his career-high with 42 homers through Sunday—but he still enjoys barking. He complained last week about the home fans booing him.
La Russa might have had his two superstars, Henderson and Canseco, in mind when he talked about the attitude problems of some of today's players. "There's a big, big potential danger in this game now," he says. "Players get more attention, more money. If you understand it's Fantasy Island, you know you're lucky to be playing. You're careful to preserve it. But too many guys think, Hey, the team is lucky to have me. They take it for granted, they abuse it. Their frame of mind gets warped. I see it a lot these days."
Still, La Russa is confident that he will have Henderson and Canseco at their best in '92 and that with two or three personnel moves, the A's will once again be strong contenders. Stewart, too, thinks the A's will be back. "We had some attitude problems, but they can be adjusted for next year," he says. "When we're home watching other teams play in October, that will be enough to wake us up."
Farewell, My Lovely