Sometimes there is no accounting for a revelation. It may come, as it did to the recumbent Sir Isaac Newton, when an apple disengages itself from an overhead branch. Or it may come, as it did for Oakland Athletics Pitcher Chuck Dobson, while knotting the laces of his white kangaroo shoes.
As Dobson recalls his moment of truth, he was assembling himself in the Oakland locker room one day earlier this season when he suddenly found it necessary to ask himself just who it was the A's were playing.
"Ah," he answered himself, "the Twins." Then he stopped short. "The Twins!" And it came to him, just as if he had discovered the law of gravity. The Twins were just another ball club. No big deal. His team was better.
The Minnesota Twins had won the American League's Western championship the first two years of the division's existence. And in both those years Oakland, the logical contender, had contrived somehow to fritter away its opportunities. But no more. The A's took over first place for good on April 20 this season and then calmly—and that is the operative word—pulled away from the pack. They were 17 games ahead at the beginning of this month, and on the 15th, after winning the opening game of a doubleheader in Chicago, they became the first major league team of 1971 to lay claim to a divisional title.
For at least the first half of the season, however, the A's had appeared to be a one-man band. It was Vida Blue this and Vida Blue that. Indeed, to quote A's power hitter Reggie Jackson, a mean hand with a cliché, the young pitcher "astounded the sports world." But when Blue's red-hot pace cooled after the All-Star Game, the A's continued to win, establishing firmly that they are a team of substance.
They are also, as they see it, relaxed, composed and mature, words that might better describe their all-but-certain opponents in the impending league playoffs, the world champion Baltimore Orioles. The two teams, for sure, are similar in many ways, not the least of which is their taste in clothes. The A's, with their various uniforms of Fort Knox gold, Kelly green and wedding-gown white, have been, even in this period of sartorial flux, baseball's flashiest dressers. But last week the Orioles showed up—somewhat sheepishly—in uniforms of double-knit siena for a game with the good gray Yankees. With all this finery, the American League playoffs may look to baseball traditionalists like a ladies' softball game.
But beauty is only skin deep, and both the A's and the O's have more to them than looks. For one, they have excellent pitching. The A's have three fine starters in Blue, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, himself a 20-game winner, and Dobson; the Orioles go them one better with Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and their own Dobson, Pat. But the A's are deeper in the bullpen. Both teams hit with power. The A's have more team speed, but the Orioles have a better defense. The Baltimore infield of Brooks Robinson at third base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, Dave Johnson at second and Boog Powell at first is the best in baseball. For that matter, the Orioles may be the best team in baseball. And if they are not, they are the coolest.
"Our attitude," says their star, Frank Robinson, "is no different from what it's always been."
"We are," says their star, Brooks Robinson, "the same."
If the A's are composed, the Orioles are positively blasé, perhaps a little too blasé while losing game after game last week. What seemed to concern them most was not that they should win their division but by how much. When the issue became sufficiently clear to him (if not quite so clear to the Tigers), Manager Earl Weaver decided to dedicate himself to more sophisticated heights. First, he wanted to have four 20-game winners on his pitching staff. Then he wanted his team to win 100 games. And finally he wanted one of his Robinsons—especially Frank—to win the league's Most Valuable Player award.
These are lofty goals, and Weaver will be lucky to reach one out of the three. This frustrates him, for he is the incurable overreacher, a man who has been up so long it looks like down to him. Still, when Weaver shakes his tiny fists at the heavens, he does so with some righteousness, for the Orioles have been playing under a cloud all year. Fourteen times they have been rained out at home, and when the season ends they will have played at least four fewer games than the scheduled 162. He might well have had his four 20-game winners and his 100 wins with those extra games.
A mediocre box office is yet another characteristic the Orioles share with the Athletics. But Baltimore's stay-at-home fans are as rabid as South American soccer enthusiasts when compared with Oakland's legions of the lost. The champion A's will draw perhaps 950,000 spectators this year, which is 50,000 fewer than Baltimore and a bit more than half of what also-ran Boston will attract in the East. Oakland's loyal nonsupport bewilders and enrages both management and players. Lord knows, Owner Charlie Finley has tried hard enough to dragoon the reluctants. He has favored them with mules, clowns, balloons, mechanical rabbits, livestock, free cars, fireworks, hot pants, panty hose and even championship baseball. Still, the citizens of the East Bay avoid his ball park as if it were a branch office of the Internal Revenue Service.
"It's depressing to the players," said Manager Dick Williams. "I think they perform better before large crowds. What seems strange is that, because of San Francisco, Oakland always has wanted an identity of its own."
"There is," Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland's identity crisis, "no there there." But the fans cannot be blamed for an unfortunate accident of geography. The San Francisco Giants and the A's together will draw well over two million this year, a more than representative turnout for a big-league community where the two ball parks are only half an hour's drive apart.
Baltimore itself suffers from its near contiguity with Washington, and the chances now are that the playoffs will not be a sellout. Pity, because as the A's Tommy Davis, who has played in both leagues, says, "The toughest series will be with Baltimore, not the National League's winner." Weaver thinks that the entire American League is much stronger this year and that Oakland's emergence is just one symptom of it. Owner Finley agrees. His team rolled over the stiffer competition, he says, because of "maturity, togetherness, aggressiveness, determination, Vida Blue, a steady Sal Bando, a happy Reggie Jackson and a manager who knows how to get along with me."
Williams and Weaver provide an interesting stylistic contrast. Williams came to the A's with a reputation from Boston—where he won a pennant in 1967—as a strict disciplinarian. His attitude is crisp, almost military, but instead of further tensing up the perennially uptight A's, he has taught them the art of relaxation. The looser A's no longer make the mistakes on the field that have crippled their chances in the past. The loosest of all may be the once emotionally knotted Jackson. With a healthier attitude, he is contending for the league lead in homers. "Just give me a bat and a glove and point me," he says. "That's my new philosophy."
Weaver seems fussy and disorganized. By last week he still had not decided who his starters would be for the playoffs. And yet he has the smoothest-functioning team in baseball.
Both managers ought to have the luxury of resting their key players before their series. Williams will not allow his three starters to work more than five innings in their remaining games. Blue, particularly, has shown evidence of fatigue these past few weeks. Weaver wants to give his starters five days' rest before the playoffs. Baltimore has the advantage of having the first two games at home and, as Frank Robinson says, "If we can beat Blue in that first game we'll get them thinking."
Finley is already thinking. He has hired, at considerable expense, former Detroit Manager Mayo Smith to trail the Orioles through this last month of the season. Smith seems happy enough with the assignment, although he confesses to some awkwardness when confronting Weaver face to face.
Smith was on duty last week watching the Orioles closely. Had he seen something new, some hidden secret that might help the A's? He thought a moment, shifted in his seat, then said, "No."
Where Oakland is concerned, no news is bad news.