It was one of those occasions that cried out for leadership. The Oakland A's had been playing poorly and their once-formidable advantage in the American League West had diminished, if not alarmingly, at least annoyingly. It was time for Third Baseman Sal Bando to exercise his prerogative as team captain.
"When we were 10½ games ahead," said Bando, addressing key personnel, "I was hitting .200. Now we're only 5½ games ahead and I'm still hitting .200." He paused to let this declaration of his own depressing consistency sink in. "So don't blame me."
As of last weekend Bando, alas, was still hitting .200—or not quite his weight—and the A's were playing so-so ball again, splitting six games with the Yankees and Red Sox. But they were still in first place by 7½ games. In all likelihood they would still be in first place if Bando were hitting .100 and Woody Allen were their shortstop, such is their tenacity, their imperviousness to hard times. Few teams in any sport are less discomfited by adversity, undoubtedly because the A's have had so much of it. For one thing, they are persistently bedeviled by an owner who might charitably be described as eccentric. The latest burden he has imposed on his troops is a travel schedule that would challenge the resources of a Presidential candidate. Finley—for that is the man's name, Charles O. Finley—has concluded that precious pennies may be saved by transporting his team around the American League aboard regularly scheduled commercial airplanes. Chartered flights, which leave at the team's convenience, are in Finley's view an extravagance that can be afforded only by owners who are either better fixed than he or solicitous of their employees' well-being to the point of idiocy.
The result has been that the A's have been confronted with some tricky situations. Twice they have flown into cities on the day of doubleheaders, once arriving at the airport less than three hours before the first game. They finished a night game in Texas at 10:30 p.m. recently, then waited until 1:30 a.m. to catch a flight to San Francisco. Since most of the A's live on the other side of the Bay, many did not retire until well past three in the morning Pacific time, or five in the morning Texas time. They played the Red Sox that night, bleary from lack of sleep and jet lag. On another occasion they played a game with Detroit in Oakland on a Wednesday afternoon and did not leave until the next morning for a game that night with Milwaukee. If the A's have appeared sluggish of late—and they have—their travel arrangements are at least partly to blame. "I sometimes wonder," said Reggie Jackson last week, "if this is a championship season or an endurance test."
Finley's already minuscule front-office staff was reduced to a couple of relatives and the cleaning woman early last month when John Claiborne, director of minor-league operations, resigned in the usual huff. Finley, said Claiborne, has jeopardized the team's future by trading away minor-league prospects for experienced utility players during the annual pennant drives. It is a shortsighted policy, said he, speaking like a conservationist forecasting the depletion of natural resources, that will bring the three-time world champions to ruin. Nonsense, replied Finley in the manner of an oil baron, "Prospects are a dime a dozen."
But the future does not concern the current A's so much as the troubled present. Their stars, practically all of whom were developed in the farm system, are struggling in a variety of ways. Bando has not been hitting, and Jackson, by his own admission, is a bit pooped. Neither will consent to a rest, fearing that by doing so they will provide Finley, in whose doghouse they jointly reside, with the opportunity to crow, "I told you so."
"Maybe I'm not hitting," says Ban-do, "because I'm trying too hard to make Finley eat his words," the words being the deprecatory ones the owner used to describe his captain during preseason salary arbitration (lost by Bando). "I'm willing to drive myself to exhaustion," says Jackson, "because I know he's ready to crack the whip on me."
Bando will probably emerge from his slump soon, and a couple of taters—Jacksonese for home runs—will undoubtedly revive Reggie. Indeed, Bando had the game-winning hit on Saturday and Jackson provided it on Sunday, an 8-6 A's win in which he drove in five runs. But Joe Rudi and Campy Campaneris, the team's steadiest regulars, were out of action for all or most of last week. Campaneris had a pulled groin muscle. Rudi tore ligaments between his left thumb and forefinger not long ago while checking his swing, a freakish accident all too representative of this unusual season. Earlier in the year Claudell Washington suffered a recurrence of fainting spells that have plagued him since he was 16. Hospital tests disclosed that he was an extraordinarily healthy young man given, unaccountably, to the vapors. "They don't know what caused them," says Washington.
Not the least of the A's problems is the absence of Catfish Hunter, the result of another well-publicized Finley venture into penny pinching. This loss was brought home forcefully early last week when the Catfish trounced his former teammates for the fourth consecutive time. Cumulatively the champions have scored but three runs and hit but 16 singles off their old chum in 36 innings. If by some miracle the A's should actually lose in the AL West to their laggardly pursuers in Kansas City, Hunter may well be the cause. Oh irony of ironies!
And yet the A's have contrived somehow to compensate for this considerable handicap. On the last day of spring training Finley added to his roster one Jim Todd, a pitcher who labored in the Cubs' farm system for five years before reaching the big leagues last season. A player with such undistinguished credentials would seem an unlikely substitute for one apparently destined for the Hall of Fame. But Todd gives the A's a commodity they sorely required—a third capable reliever to join two of the best, Rollie Fingers and Paul Lindblad.
The A's have two excellent starters in lefthanders Vida Blue and Ken Holtz-man, and a number of lesser lights named Bahnsen (Stan), Bosman (Dick), Abbott (Glenn) and Siebert (Sonny) to complete what passes for a starting rotation. Blue and Holtzman can go the distance when Manager Alvin Dark permits them; they have 21 of the team's 31 complete games. The other fellows seemingly cannot. That is where—usually about the sixth inning—Fingers, Lindblad and Todd come in. In Friday's 6-1 loss to the Red Sox, for example, Bahnsen lasted but two inglorious innings. Lindblad went four and Todd and Fingers one each. The latter two were in merely for the exercise. Much more frequently they are game savers.
On Wednesday Fingers entered in relief of Blue in the ninth inning with one out and two men on and the A's leading 3-2. He promptly struck out the dangerous Bobby Bonds, mesmerizing him with two straight fastballs. Bonds had been anticipating curves. Then Fingers induced Sandy Alomar to fly to center field to conclude the game. It was Rollie's 59th appearance of the season and his 18th save. Friday night he showed up for the 60th time, Lindblad for the 54th and Todd for the 48th. Todd and Fingers were back again on Saturday in a victory that fairly typified their season. After Abbott gave up five runs in an inning and two-thirds, Todd pitched 6‚Öì nearly flawless innings, allowing but one run in a game the A's eventually won in the 10th inning 7-6. Fingers pitched the final two scoreless innings, getting his ninth win against six defeats. On Sunday he won his 10th. Lindblad has won eight, lost nary a one and has six saves; Todd is 5-3 with 10 saves. All three have now pitched in more than 100 innings. Without Todd, though, Fingers and Lindblad would be grossly overworked.
"When I heard we lost Catfish I saw me pitching 95 games," says Fingers, who retains his handlebar mustache despite his own joshing threats to shave it off. "Without him, we were losing about 25 complete games. Todd has been the key. He's given Paul and me a big break."
"We wouldn't be where we are now without the bullpen," says Catcher Gene Tenace. "Rollie may be the best reliever in either league and Paul is certainly one of the best. I'd never seen Todd before, but he has done what we've asked him to do. He's stepped right in."
Todd is a rangy man with a proper A's mustache. His amiable manner and a slightly high-pitched voice belie what has become an ominous presence on the mound. Todd is not afraid to intimidate a hitter, and when he beaned the Angels' Bruce Bochte earlier this season an uncommonly fierce brawl ensued. When the A's acquired him from the Cubs for a minor league player—pity poor Claiborne—and cash, Todd expected to be placed immediately on the roster. Instead he was advised that 1) he was being sent to the Tucson farm club and 2) he must pitch that very day in an A's intrasquad game. At first he was inclined to reject both propositions and enter a vigorous protest with the owner. Then he had a sobering thought: "Finley is the kind of guy you can get off on the wrong side of. I decided to pitch." He did well in the intrasquad match and pitched a shutout in an opening-day start for Tucson. By April 17 he was in the A's bullpen. He knows why he is there. "If Catfish were here," he says, "I wouldn't be."
With Todd the A's cope even better with misfortune. Coping is what they do best. In the game Fingers saved on Wednesday the winning run was scored by Matt (the Scat) Alexander, Finley's surviving designated runner. This is a position Finley more or less invented, although only a team as rich in talent as the A's can afford the luxury. At one time this year the A's had not one but three runners. Herb Washington, the incumbent last season, was released and Don Hopkins was farmed out. Hopkins reportedly is now on his way back. Finley shamelessly gloats when a runner wins a game. And that is what Alexander did Wednesday. With the score 2-2 in the top of the ninth, Designated Hitter Billy Williams led off with a single. The Scat ran for him. He stole second on Doc Medich's second pitch to Tenace and scurried to third when Yankee Catcher Thurman Munson's hasty throw went into the outfield. Tenace then lofted a fly ball to right field that traveled perhaps 230 feet. Somewhat to his surprise the Scat heard Third Base Coach Bobby Winkles instruct him to "tag up and go hard." He did, sliding in for the winning run.
"I won't even say I'm the fastest on this team," said the Scat, a sad-eyed young man who, like Todd, knows his place. "We got some really fast guys here."
Speed also contributed to the 10-inning 7-6 thriller in damp and cold Fenway Park Saturday night. With two outs in the 10th Claudell Washington walked, stole second and scored the winning run on a suddenly revived Bando's single to right field. It was the A's first win in five tries in Boston this year, and it served, as Centerfielder Billy North so eloquently put it, to "psychologically enlighten" the Red Sox, the A's probable opponents in the playoffs.
The A's were in for some psychological enlightenment of their own when their ordinarily meek and pious manager behaved as crazily as any of them while protesting Umpire Rich Garcia's decision that Boston's Jim Rice had stolen second base in the ninth inning. Dark, the devout Baptist, raised such holy heaven with Garcia that the umpire ejected him from the game. On his return to the dugout Dark unexpectedly reached down and snatched up third base, carried it to the stands and pitched it into the box seats as umpires, players and fans alike watched in paralyzed astonishment. Rice had stolen second; now Dark had quite literally stolen third. At first his players were stunned by their ministerial manager's larceny—does not the Bible say, "Thou shalt not steal"? Then they cheered him.
"We came to life after he did that," said Bando, who certainly did come to life. "It was like a pep talk at halftime."
The A's make much of their longing to be recognized as champions in the dignified tradition of the old Yankees. The "clubhouse capers," as Jackson calls them, serve only to detract from the image of respectability they supposedly seek. In truth they rather like themselves for what they are, and in that one bizarre moment, at least, Dark, the accused Finley flunky, the goody-two-shoes, the conservative among radicals, became, perhaps for the first time, one of them.
Sitting in quiet amusement by his locker, North entreated visitors not to regard the A's as zanies. "Why, we may be the sanest team in baseball," he said with apparent sincerity. Then he laughed hard at such a crazy notion.