The only Oakland Athletics team to win the World Series since the back-to-back-to-back champions of 1972-73-74 was the 1989 squad.
Looking back on that team, which swept the San Francisco Giants, with two wins in the Oakland Coliseum and two more at Candlestick Park separated by 10 days thanks to the Loma Prieta earthquake, it’s easy to fall into a remembrance thinking of who easy that team had it.
Before the World Series sweep, the A’s won 99 games in the regular season, took the American League West title by seven games and needed just five games to dispatch the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Championship Series.
The thing was, the 1989 season wasn’t easy. Yes, the A’s had returned most of the great talent that brought the 1988 team 104 wins. But too much of the time in the first half 1989, that talent wasn’t available.
All-Star right fielder Jose Canseco, who was coming off the first 40-homer, 40-steal season in Major League history, suffered a broken hamate bone in spring training and didn’t play until the All-Star Game.
Shortstop Walt Weiss, who had been the 1988 Rookie of the Year, suffered a leg injury on May 17, suffered another leg injury as he was recovering and ultimately missed 10 weeks.
All-Star closer Dennis Eckersley was rolling through the first half of May, got hurt and missed seven weeks, returning after the All-Star game.
The rest of the A’s tried to make up for it the best they could. And their best was pretty good, too. As of June 20, the A’s were two games up in the American League West and 16 games over .500, but there was a sense that level of play wasn’t sustainable given the injuries.
On June 21, A’s general manager Sandy Alderson, who had traded Rickey Henderson to the Yankees after the 1984 season, made a deal that brought Henderson back.
"We were hurting at the time," Alderson said Saturday. "We needed something, Rickey was available and I think maybe he'd worn out his welcome a little in New York. But he was just what we needed.
So, on this day in 1989, Rickey Henderson returned. That new energy was palpable. Rickey picked out center fielder Dave Henderson, who hadn’t been around for Rickey’s first tour, embraced him and said, “Now we’ll see who the real Hendu is.” Everybody laughed. Henderson’s arrival almost immediately took the pressure off everybody.
And it was clear that he wanted to be in Oakland. The A’s were one of the teams to which Henderson had a no-trade clause, but he waived that right without asking for any money.
“Oakland was the only place I knew I’d like to go,” Henderson told The New York Times when the deal was done. ''I knew that if we didn't come to an agreement by the All-Star break, I'd be a free agent anyway, and we had the opportunity to do it now, so I decided to go back home.”
It had been Alderson who traded Henderson to New York after the 1984 season, but baseball had changed plenty since then. The Yankees had two second-place finishes in Henderson's first two years, but they were under .500 come 1989.
The A's had been an also-ran at the time of the original trade, but by 1988 Oakland ranked with the best teams in baseball.
"Our needs had changed and so had the Yankees," Alderson said. "We needed one more guy, and Rickey put a charge into us."
Henderson would play 85 of the final 92 games for the A’s and Oakland would play at 20 games over .500 for that stretch and go from scoring 4.1 runs per game to 4.6 runs per game. Along the way, they’d stretch their lead from two games to seven in the West before beating the Blue Jays and then the Giants.
Henderson would be named the ALCS Most Valuable Player in 1989 and, after resigning with the A's in 1990, was the AL MVP as Oakland went on to finish first in the West five times in seven years 1988-1992.
Easy? Well, let’s put it this way: It was much easier once Rickey returned.
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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