Darold Knowles of the Oakland Athletics stood stock still on the mound for a moment in Boston's Fenway Park last Thursday, his normally animated face as expressionless as a death mask. One of the better relief pitchers in the American League, he had just walked Carl Yastrzemski with the bases loaded to force in the winning run in the second game of a doubleheader. And since the A's had lost the first game on a paltry squeeze bunt, Knowles felt doubly crossed.
The jeers of the pitiless Red Sox fans resounded in his ears, and he knew that in the clubhouse a wrathful and uncompromising manager awaited him. Under the circumstances, Knowles took the only course available to a reasonable man: he removed his baseball glove and kicked it just as hard and as far as he could.
Such acts of peevishness are not common to the Oakland A's, normally a carefree and cheerful lot, but this was an uncommon week on an inhospitable road. They were bedeviled by rain, three doubleheaders, a midnight plane flight and the Red Sox, a team they had beaten just once in their last six tries.
Only the night before, in Milwaukee, Catcher Dave Duncan had succumbed to an even more violent outburst. It must be said that Duncan had already endured a bad night even before the game started. It had been his fondest hope to be named to the American League All-Star team, either by a vote of the fans or by the All-Star manager, Baltimore's Earl Weaver. Duncan was convinced he had the statistics—14 home runs, 48 runs batted in—to justify this aspiration. But only a few hours before the game with Milwaukee he learned he had been passed over by Weaver in favor of Boston's Carlton Fisk, a mere rookie, and the Brewers' Ellie Rodriguez, who had been ill.
That was bad enough. Then, in the first six innings of the game, Duncan failed to get the ball out of the infield in three at bats and was struck on the arm three times by the bats of wild-swinging Brewers. His patience was worn thin by the time he stepped to the plate in the seventh to face Milwaukee's Jim Colborn. Colborn threw a pitch that looked like it was going to break. It didn't. It hit Duncan on the shoulder. Why, he inquired of the pitcher, can't someone who throws such palpable rubbish contrive at least to get it over the plate? Stung by this implied slight, Colborn said something unpleasant in reply, whereupon Duncan lowered his head and charged for the mound, seeing in Colborn, perhaps, the embodiment of the All-Star voters, Weaver and all those careless batters.
Fortunately, he was intercepted by cooler parties and mayhem was averted. But an injury did occur. In leading a charge from the bullpen to assist Duncan, A's Coach Vern Hoscheit, age 50, toppled off a 10-foot-high fence and very nearly broke his right arm.
The coach's sore arm was the subject of much mock concern on the chartered aircraft that took the weary A's out of Milwaukee at midnight. Hoscheit, a short man with a Warner Baxter mustache that is at odds with the A's prevailing handlebar style, grimaced cooperatively from time to time as semisolicitous colleagues tendered advice to the handicapped.
"I will pitch batting practice," he promised reserve Catcher Gene Tenace, "if I have to pitch left-handed."
The air was damp, the runways wet and the plane late after a getaway game that had lasted nearly three hours. The A's had won 9-6, Duncan's despairs notwithstanding, but they were more drowsy than spirited. Ahead lay six games with the Red Sox. There was no particular pleasure in being carted off to face a team they just couldn't seem to beat. (Baseball fans think their heroes always relish combat, and baseball fans are wrong. On Monday night in Milwaukee when the sound system in their dressing room had played Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the A's had booed. The modern ballplayer is very much an auditory being, and the old song was just not their kind of music on this rainy Wisconsin night. They were delighted when the game was postponed.)
Once they were airborne, Blue Moon Odom sought out Traveling Secretary Tom Corwin. "What does this do to my ERA?" Odom asked. He had won the Milwaukee game, but only after tiring in the late innings and being charged with all six Brewer runs.
"Not much," said Corwin. "You won't be over three."
"That's good," said Odom, a man who survived both a sore arm and a shooting to pitch again this year. ERA aside, it was Odom's ninth win against only two losses. Like Hoscheit, he could live with a sore arm; he was lucky to be alive at all. Last January he had halted two young men who were prowling outside a neighbor's house in Macon, Ga. One of them drew a gun and shot Odom in the neck and the side.
"I'm here," he said, forgetting his ERA for a moment, "so this is already a good year for me."
It was after 3 a.m. when the A's reached their Boston hotel, resembling sobered drunks leaving a late party as they filed through the silent hotel lobby on the way to what little rest was left to them before Thursday's doubleheader at Fenway.
These incidents of Oakland's week are recorded simply to prove that even silver clouds can have a torn lining. This season the A's have suffered few reverses in their resolute advance toward a second successive American League West championship. At the All-Star break, even after contending with the Red Sox, they remained comfortably ahead of their nearest pursuers, the Chicago White Sox, and seemingly had nothing to fear until an October playoff date with Detroit, Baltimore or, conceivably, even those accursed Bosox. Their only starting pitcher with an earned run average over three is Vida Blue, of all people, and when you can count Ken Holtzman (13-8), Catfish Hunter (12-4), Dave Hamilton (6-3) as well as Odom among them, you count quality. Reggie Jackson, Mike Epstein and Duncan are all among the league leaders in home runs and runs batted in. Sal Bando is also among the RBI leaders, and Joe Rudi is a contender for the batting championship.
There is just enough defense to get by, even with the eccentric outfield play of Jackson and Angel Mangual. And the team has color. In a season as sartorially extravagant as this one, the A's various uniforms of green, gold and white lead the league. Their long hair and mustaches set them further apart from recent baseball tradition.
Mostly, though, Oakland has character. The word team implies a certain conformity, and the A's do bend to their demanding, if equally long-haired manager, Dick Williams. Off the field he returns their personalities to them. And what a diverse lot they are. Take Mike Epstein, the big, solemn-looking fellow practicing his batting stroke over there. A study in concentration. And worry.
Epstein majored in social psychology at the University of California in Berkeley and is much given to introspection. "Moodiness," he says slowly, "is an outgrowth of pride in a person. My so-called moodiness stems only from desire. Now, at 29, I feel I've matured enough to handle problems. I'm having the best time of my life."
The best time of Vida Blue's life was last year. This year may be the worst time. By the All-Star break last year he was 17-3; this year he is 2-5. But Blue's famous dispute with Charlie Finley did more than burden him with a poor start. It also left him bitter and prematurely disillusioned. Rarely does he flash his former ebullience. At 23, he is quiet and serious. "Yes, I'm bitter," Blue said Wednesday as he sat alone in the clubhouse. "It all seemed unnecessary to me, all that trouble. I feel in tip-top shape, but I'm not helping the team. I'd like to be traded to St. Louis or one of the New York teams."
Blue's conditions for a trade are not likely to be met, but this is not to say Finley has absented himself from the marketplace. On the contrary, since the season began he has negotiated some 40 transactions—trades, sales, releases, farm-system promotions and demotions—involving 29 players. Curiously, Finley players are always corning home again. It is as if the man attaches giant rubber bands to some of his employees. In his latest deal Finley reacquired ex-A's Don Mincher and Ted Kubiak from the Texas Rangers. Kubiak immediately moved in at second base, the fifth player to occupy that injury-riddled position this season. The fourth, Marty Martinez, did not stay long enough to get hurt. He had come over from St. Louis in May and was hitting .057 the night before he left for Texas in the Kubiak-Mincher trade.
Second base aside, however, it is significant that the various transactions have involved second-line players. Williams' eight starters and his pitchers all have reasonable job security, and aside from switching Bando and Epstein in the batting order when a lefthander pitches, he rarely tampers with his starting lineup at all, which reads Bert Campaneris, Rudi, Jackson, Epstein, Mangual, Bando, Duncan and the second baseman, whoever he may be.
One of the happiest starters, usually, is that combative non-All Star, Dave Duncan. Duncan is an attention-getter on the field and off. He has the sloe-eyed baby face and the pageboy hairdo of a rock diety. "I just can't imagine a better situation than the one we've got here on the A's," Duncan said over coffee in Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel. "Nobody dislikes anybody. We do what we want off the field with whoever we want. There is no bed check, no rules on clothes or hair. And Williams makes every man on the team think he's the most important. Ask anybody and he'll tell you the team couldn't win without him. I don't think we have a team leader as such. Oh, when Catfish pitches, we expect him to win. And we expect Reggie to hit home runs. But we're all really leaders. I honestly think I'm part of something unique."
Oakland's biggest assets are probably more spiritual than technical. Even with a blue Blue, the team is as close to being unified as a game like baseball, with its individual skills, will allow.
And that, too, manifested itself on Oakland's road trip last week. On Wednesday Marty Martinez played his last game as an A before being sent downriver to last-place Texas.
Martinez, a Cuban, has a long, sad face. It was longer and sadder as he boarded the team bus after the game. At first he sat alone. The usual raillery with the driver was underway.... "Back up a little farther, Bussy, and you'll be sure to hit him...."
Martinez was not a part of it. Finally he was joined by Relief Pitcher Bob Locker. "I don't know what I can say to make it easier for you," Locker began. "These things happen."
Martinez said something in Spanish, and then offered his own translation: "Life goes on."
He had known about the trade, but he had played—his very best. On this last night with Oakland, Marty Martinez, the .057 hitter, had gotten three hits and the A's had won the game.
A triumph, perhaps, of spirit over flesh.
Never mind that the Red Sox took four of their six. Knowles won in relief on Saturday and Holtzman Sunday, so neither had a kick coming. The A's lead was still 6½ games. At 5:30 Sunday they trooped aboard their bus, headed for Boston's Logan Airport. A team on the move.