There were encouraging signs last week that the Oakland A's, who simply have not been their World Champion selves, were finally emerging from the doldrums of .500 baseball. They were starting to gripe again, and this is a team that is not truly happy unless it is unhappy—about its eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, maybe, or its stern manager, Dick Williams, or the multitudes in Oakland who do not come out to see them play. The A's griped all the way to the pennant and the World Series last year and, when it was over, they griped all the way to the bank.
But the new season started on a depressingly happy note, for the A's were the defending champions and their enemies would have to catch them. This they quickly did, and instead of grousing about that appalling development, the A's assumed the aspect of chastened puppies.
Last week, however, things were back to normal. Joe Rudi, the team's premier hitter of a year ago, was griping because Williams had benched him for not hitting. Rudi's .217 average merely depressed him at first, then he was hurt by not being allowed to play and finally, happily, he was really angry.
"I know what I can do," the ordinarily placid outfielder snapped, "but I can't prove anything sitting on the bench."
At first slugger Reggie Jackson grieved for his pal Joe. "I hate to see him suffer like this." Then, suddenly, Rudi was back in the lineup banging out a couple of therapeutic hits and Jackson himself was on the bench, "resting" by Williams' fiat. The sympathy he lavished so generously on his friend turned now to self-pity. He, too, was griping.
"Why should I need a rest?" he asked plaintively. "I just had a birthday, but I'm 27, not 37. I'm not tired. What's he thinking of? What did I do wrong? I'm hitting .285 and driving in runs."
On the very night he was supposedly resting, Jackson was sent in to pinch-hit for his replacement in right field, the volatile Angel Mangual. That was enough to arouse Mangual's strangely dormant ire, which he expressed on his way back to the dugout by tossing his batting helmet high in the air.
Now it was Williams' turn to be angry. He fined Mangual $200—the highest he had ever levied against an A—and denounced the gripers with the reminder that "I can't be concerned whether a guy is unhappy or not. I just want them to go out and play."
The next night the A's, muttering to themselves and exchanging dark looks with their manager, trounced the Brewers 11-1. Rudi had two more hits and Jackson drove in five runs.
This restoration of ill-humor is a salubrious development, but it will require much more than griping, valuable as it may be to team morale, to right the capsized champions.
The A's do not even look the same this year. Far too many of them have shaved off their beards and mustaches so that en masse they now tend to resemble a 1950 college glee club more than an acid rock group, even in their new all-green uniforms.
More noticeable, however, is their bizarre play afield. Williams is a strict baseball fundamentalist, a puritan who sees beauty in the simple things, like a ground ball hit behind the runner. Lord knows what agonies this man of faith must now be enduring, for the A's are playing the game not so much by his book as by one written by Max Shulman. In a single game last week against Milwaukee, which the A's lost 2-0, they committed enough sins of omission and commission to suffice the Texas Rangers for an entire season.
In the first inning Bert Campaneris was caught off third base after changing his mind about running home on a double steal. In the fifth Jackson and new Centerfielder Bill North nearly collided in right field chasing a fly ball. Actually, North was the only one chasing the ball since it was hit directly at Jackson, who somehow caught it. After lecturing North on territorial rights, Jackson started to jog to the dugout with the ball, unaware, quite obviously, that the catch was only the second out. In the A's half of the same inning Deron Johnson, the designated hitter, was ignominiously tagged out at home after Ray Fosse missed the ball on a suicide squeeze bunt play. And finally, in the eighth inning, Campaneris inexplicably cut off a throw from North that seemed certain to catch a runner at home. Campaneris was guilty of more than just bad judgment, for he should not have been in position to cut off the ball at all, that being First Baseman Gene Tenace's responsibility.
In that same dreadful three-game series Campaneris was to be picked off first base, North was to be caught stealing for the seventh time this young season and Jackson was to misjudge three fly balls in right field. World champions do not play baseball this way.
"It's been like this all year," said team captain and Third Baseman Sal Bando, reflecting on the boo-boos. "We just haven't been executing. You can win a third of your games and you can lose a third of your games. Then there is another third that you can either win or lose by doing the right things, the fundamental things. We won that third last year. We have to win them again this year."
Since they have not been winning those games so far, is it just possible the A's are succumbing to the subtle pressures applied to all defending champions?
"I don't think we feel the pressure of being on top enough." said Jackson. "People are coming out headhunting and we just have to realize this."
Other reasons have been suggested for the A's mediocre showing, notable among them the trading away of hitters Mike Epstein, Dave Duncan and Matty Alou. The A's concede they miss Alou's late-season clutch hitting and the 45 home runs Epstein and Duncan contributed to the pennant, but they would argue that the slack has been picked up by Tenace, who has hit 11 home runs while playing regularly at first base; by Bando, who has also hit 11 homers in a comeback year; by newcomer North, who is hitting in the .280 range, and by Fosse, who has long been recognized as one of the league's better defensive catchers.
Where the A's seem to be weakest now is where they have been traditionally strongest, on the mound. Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter are enjoying outstanding seasons—indeed, by throwing a two-hit shutout at the Tigers on Saturday, Holtzman won his 11th game and lowered his league-leading ERA to 1.50. But Vida Blue still is far from regaining his 1971 Cy Young Award form and John (Blue Moon) Odom, who won 15 and lost six a year ago, is one and eight this season. Odom was dropped from the starting rotation two weeks ago, leading, thank goodness, to more griping. He came back in relief of Blue last Friday to pitch 4‚Öî scoreless innings.
Blue, who went through last season in a funk after his salary hassle with Finley, has opted for whimsy this year.
"I am not greedy," he said last week. "I don't want to win 30." So far, he has won four.
Odom, who is mystified by his repeated failures, fell back on a paraphrase of Wee Willie Keeler to explain his troubles: "Last year they were hitting 'em where we were. This year they're hitting 'em where we ain't."
There is also speculation that the designated hitter is depriving the A's crack bullpen crew of enough regular employment. And the DH may have affected the A's in yet another way, according to the analytical Bando. "We could exhaust the other team's pitching staff last year. We could make them play catch-up, force them to pinch-hit for their best pitchers and then use second-liners while we kept coming at them all the way with quality. Now, with the designated hitter, a team like Detroit, say, can keep a pitcher like Lolich in right up to the end. This has hurt us."
It is true, of course, that when a team is losing there is much that can hurt it. But for those who know the A's best, it is heartening that now at least they are no longer taking their punishment lying down. Instead, they are out there griping for all they are worth, which is considerable. And at griping they are still, indisputably, the champions of the world.