Must the Oakland A's forever endure the melancholy fate of the clown who longs to be taken seriously? Or is it time now to look beyond the harlequin pose and see the A's for what they have become—one of the finest baseball teams of the past half century?
By demolishing the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, the A's last week become only the third team in history and the first not wearing New York Yankee uniforms to win as many as three consecutive World Series. The Yankees won five straight from 1949 to 1953 and four straight from 1936 to 1939, but if the A's can avoid tearing themselves asunder in civil warfare, even these extraordinary achievements are within reach.
And yet, for reasons not entirely of their own device, the A's are seen by many fans as career funnymen who, in the manner of The Three Stooges, are mainly intent upon rapping pates. The A's do have truculent moments. This past season they led the major leagues in clubhouse punchups and they seem constantly to be wrangling either among themselves or with their Owner, the megalomaniacal Charles O. Finley, whose toy the team is. The A's also wear funny clothes and they play in a city about which a former resident, Gertrude Stein, once said, "There is no there there."
There was a there there last week, though, and the A's were responsible for filling the void. Pouncing on every Dodger mistake, they won all three games in the Oakland Coliseum and saved themselves the inconvenience of traveling south for the weekend. The Dodgers, who hit .272 during the season, hit .228 against the A's superior pitching and only once scored more than twice—in their sole victory, the Series' second game. The loser in each of the games scored only two runs, and four of the five scores were 3-2, which is a measure of the sort of pitching that characterized this World Series.
The teams were closely matched, save for the A's almost uncanny ability to convert an opponent's slightest error, mental or physical, to their advantage. This, ultimately, separates champions from almost-champions.
Dodger Manager Walter Alston had said before the Series began that if his fine young team had one flaw it was defense. The Dodgers were capable of making the difficult plays, but they were also capable of botching the easy ones. A team with the A's instinct for the jugular could ask for no more. Indeed, in each of the climactic games in the East Bay, a Dodger botch, though seemingly trivial at the time, led to disaster. The A's, meanwhile, were converting base hits into double plays, which is their style.
The final three games of the California Series were played in some sort of weather inversion. October, with rare exception, is a balmy, clear-skied month in the San Francisco Bay area. Last week was not balmy, it was hot—in the 90s in some communities. It was not clear, it was smoggy. This was August in Los Angeles, not October in Oakland. The brownish air, the windless skies, the stifling heat should have made the Dodgers feel right at home, whereas the A's should have choked on the strange vapors.
"I wish the damn Dodgers would leave," a San Franciscan muttered one day over his beer in the Templebar, "so we can get our weather back."
But not even Mother Nature can repress the A's. They played in these conditions as skillfully as if their natural habitat had been Chavez Ravine, not the flatlands alongside the Nimitz Freeway.
With game-time temperatures in the 80s—game time being 5:30 p.m. as a convenience for Eastern television audiences—the A's quickly applied the heat to their Southern neighbors. What finally brought the Dodgers down, though, was the heat they inadvertently applied to themselves through errors.
In the first of the three games, an error by Dodger Catcher Joe Ferguson on a third-inning fumble of a hopper in front of the plate led directly to the A's first two runs. Ferguson made another error in the fourth, missing a throw from center field, after the A's had scored their third run. The irony is that Ferguson had been a defensive hero playing right field in the first two Series games. For their part, the A's choked off Dodger rallies with double plays in the fourth, eighth and ninth, the last one ending the game. Dick Green, the fielding star of the Series, participated in all three, tying a record for second basemen. The Dodgers' runs came on homers by Bill Buckner and Willie Crawford off Starter Jim (Catfish) Hunter and Reliever Rollie Fingers.
The only big inning of the entire Series was set in motion by yet another Dodger miscue. In the sixth inning of the penultimate game Oakland's Bill North led off with a walk. North stole 54 bases during the regular season, so Dodger Pitcher Andy Messersmith, protecting a 2-1 lead, was anxious—too anxious, it developed—to make certain that he did not advance into scoring position through further thievery. After a number of uneventful tosses to First Baseman Steve Garvey, Messersmith finally threw the ball away and North hurried to second. He scored from there when Sal Bando blooped a single to right field. Suddenly the A's were off to a four-run inning and a 5-2 victory. This game also ended with a double play, the result of a sensational diving catch and hasty feed to second by the acrobatic Green.
It was 81° when the fifth and final game of the Series started, but the skies were returning to their traditional blue and the clouds were pinkened by the late-afternoon sun, not browned by impurities. The weather seemed to be on its way home, taking the Dodgers with it.
In the first inning, North, on base after forcing leadoff hitter Bert Campaneris, attempted to steal. Steve Yeager, catching this night for Los Angeles, threw hard to intercept him. The ball sailed untouched into center field and North pressed on to third. He scored from there when Bando, patiently fouling off pitches he could not hit solidly, finally found one he could and sent a long sacrifice fly to left.
In the second inning, Ray Fosse, a .196 hitter in the regular season, stroked a line-drive homer to left for a 2-0 A's lead. But the Dodgers tied the score in the sixth on a sacrifice fly by Wynn and a single by Garvey, the noblest Dodger of them all and the leading hitter (.381) among Series regulars. The A's now had to wait for another mistake or two. It was not a long wait.
As Dodger Leftfielder Buckner assumed his position for the bottom of the seventh inning, he became a target for debris-throwing rowdies in the Coliseum's left-field bleachers. Buckner had annoyed Oakland fans earlier in the week by comparing the A's unfavorably with such National League also-rans as the Pirates and the Reds. Now in retaliation, if it can be assumed that Buckner's assailants were sufficiently literate to read his remarks, the fans were pelting him from on high with garbage, Frisbees, even whiskey bottles. The start of the inning was therefore delayed while the field was cleared. Ordinarily when such a delay occurs, a pitcher will continue warming up. But the Dodger pitcher on this occasion was the academician, Mike Marshall, and nothing Marshall does is ordinary. Instead of tossing a few warm-up pitches, Marshall devoted these leisure moments to declaiming on the vulgarity of Oakland spectators to Buckner and the umpires.
Joe Rudi, a thinking man's hitter, observed all this and, reasoning that Marshall's arm would not be warm, concluded that the pitcher would eschew a breaking pitch in the hope of sneaking a fastball past him. Rudi was ready. He belted Marshall's first pitch, a not-so-sneaky fastball, into those riotous bleachers, and the 1974 baseball season was, for all practical purposes, over.
Buckner was an even more direct participant in the final Dodger boo-boo of the year. Leading off the eighth he singled to center and when the ball skipped past the lunging North for an error, he tried to advance all the way to third. It proved a foolish gamble as Reggie Jackson, backing up North, threw to Green, who relayed the ball perfectly to Bando for the out. Instead of a man on second with nobody out and sluggers Wynn, Garvey and Ferguson coming up, the Dodgers now had no one on with one out. That finished them. They are a young, relatively inexperienced but powerful and aggressive team, and they will be back. But in this Series they played directly into the hands of the opportunistic A's.
"We wait for the door to open," said Jackson in the clubhouse afterward. "And when it does, we go through."
Any of a number of A's could have been named the Most Valuable Player, but the honor finally fell to the industrious Fingers, who pitched in all four Oakland victories and saved the final one for winning Pitcher John (Blue Moon) Odom, his opponent in a clubhouse scrap only six days before.
If for no other reason, the Series was memorable in that the A's players finally upstaged their boss. Not that Finley went unobserved. He was sued by Mike Andrews, the martyr of the 1973 Series, charged with contractual violations by Hunter and accused by First Baseman Gene Tenace of using Manager Alvin Dark as a puppet—not an entirely unfamiliar indictment.
Still, Finley did his best to dance his way into our hearts. He welcomed as a Series seatmate Lucianne Buchanan, the incumbent Miss California. During the first game in Oakland it was solemnly announced to the multitudes over the Coliseum public-address system that Charlie O. would shortly be telephoning President Ford to ask him to throw out the first ball at either of the next two games. The phone was clearly visible resting in front of Finley on the roof of the Oakland dugout. The white-maned, green-jacketed owner seemed puffed up with importance. Newsmen were later advised that because of the press of business, the President had asked for a rain check.
But Charlie O.'s quest for a first-ball-tosser was not that easily sidetracked. Minutes later, the reporters were told over the press speaker system that Finley had urged Richard M. Nixon to come out of retirement and handle the first-ball chores. Nixon, as is his wont lately, "regretfully declined because of health reasons." Finley had managed to develop ordinary tastelessness into something transcendental.
He also called a melodramatic team meeting before the fourth game, at which nothing more consequential than Buckner's unkind appraisal of the A's was on the agenda. Snapped Jackson, "I don't need no pre-game dump to rev me up."
True, the A's are self-starters. They were under tough Dick Williams and they are under God-fearing Alvin Dark, who herded them through the playoffs and World Series quicker than the more renowned Williams ever did. When asked what the essence of the team is, Bando replied without hesitation, "Character. We have a nucleus of guys who give 100% 100% of the time. These are people who are not just satisfied with making a big salary. They want more than that. They want to win."
It is a pity that such stalwarts should so continually be subjected to embarrassment, either by their owner's actions or their own. As true champions, they deserve better, although it is difficult to perceive where they will get it. They seem destined to wear the cap and bells.
Rumors have persisted almost since Finley's arrival in Oakland six years ago that he would soon leave the Bay Area baseball market to the San Francisco Giants and transfer his franchise to a more receptive community—New Orleans, perhaps, or Toronto, Seattle or Washington, D.C. The rumors were revived virtually on the eve of the Series, prompting a familiar denial by Robert T. Nahas, president of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Inc., the nonprofit corporation that manages the ball park.
"In order to assure the fans and press of the stability of the franchise in Oakland," said Nahas, "we want to repeat that our long-term lease with Mr. Finley started on the first day of April 1968 and continues through the last day of the 1987 baseball season."
Jackson, Bando, Rudi, North, Campaneris, Hunter, Blue, Holtzman, Fingers and the rest may be a bit long in the tooth by 1987 and their manager might well be Tatum O'Neal. So figure on a seven-game Series that year.