Measured against even their own Dickensian standards for adversity, this has scarcely been a salubrious season for the Oakland A's. Granted, the clubhouse brawls have been no more frequent than in any elementary school playground, and the team owner, Ebenezer O. Scrooge, has not yet fired any of his players outright. But suffice it to say of the 1976 A's that nobody else in baseball has known the trouble they've seen. Gene Tenace, the catcher whose eight years of service with the club have made him a connoisseur of such matters, commented only last week that "things have been tougher this year than ever before." That is saying something.
So what in all damnation, then, were the A's doing in the thick of the race for the championship of the American League West, menacing the front-running Kansas City Royals, scratching and clawing their way toward what could be a sixth straight divisional title? Tenace explains: "We have too much pride to let anything keep us down. We're a special breed. We're winners. People like us don't come along every day."
The A's, of course, have more working for them than their honor and reputation. In Vida Blue and Mike Torrez they have two of the top late-season pitchers and they have a better running attack than the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the A's keep stealing bases at their present pace, they will soon become the most larcenous team in baseball history. When Campy Campaneris stole second in the sixth inning of last Saturday night's defeat of the Texas Rangers, it was the team's 311th theft of the season, which moved the A's into third place on the post-1900 stolen-base list, ahead of the 1910 Cincinnati Reds. Only the 1912 Giants (319 steals) and the 1911 Giants (347) have stolen more.
It will be observed that the records the A's are breaking were set more than 60 years ago, before the name of the game became long ball. In truth, the A's are not really playing modern baseball. Though they have occasional power, they hit pretty much like the deadballers of antiquity. Their collective batting average of .246 is only 10th in the league, but they are fifth in runs scored. They score, as it were, on the ground. Six A's—Billy North (68), Campaneris (53), Don Baylor (47), Phil Garner (33), Claudell Washington (32) and Larry Lintz (30)—have accounted for more than 25 steals apiece.
As in that other sport played this time of year, the running game opens up many other avenues of attack. Almost all of the A's except the aged and frequently infirm Willie McCovey (newly acquired from San Diego) and the slow-footed Ken McMullen, are threats to steal. Even Joe Rudi, whose six steals barely qualify him for the relay team, draws throws to first base, as if, as Manager Chuck Tanner says, "he was Maury Wills."
No defender can safely relax when the A's are on the track. Saturday night's narrow but vital 1-0 win over the Rangers was not the direct result of a steal but of the threat of one. With one out in the eighth, Garner doubled down the left-field line. Calculating that he would be taking the usual huge A's lead, Ranger Shortstop Toby Harrah edged toward second to intimidate further progress. As he did so, Bill North stroked a soft ground ball into the area he vacated. Harrah could not reach the ball in time to toss out the speedy North, nor could he catch Garner running safely to third, from which point he scored on Campaneris' sacrifice fly. Torrez, meanwhile, did his part by pitching his third consecutive shutout and running his string of scoreless innings to 37.
The A's realized earlier in the day that they would have to win this game to stay close to Kansas City. From their Dallas hotel rooms they had watched the slumping Royals pull out an 8-6 victory over Minnesota on Amos Otis' three-run, ninth-inning homer. It was bad enough that the Royals had won, but the way they did it was alarming. Would Famous Amos' clout provide the spiritual lift Kansas City seemed so desperately to need? "We're playing like we're scared to win," Royals Manager Whitey Herzog had said earlier in the week.
Indeed, before Saturday's heroics, the Royals had lost 10 of their previous 12 games, a backward charge that brought them nearly abreast of their pursuers. The collapse was not as disastrous as it might have been, because the A's themselves had been playing only .500 baseball since mid-August. Still, early last week Oakland trailed by just five games, after having been 12 behind on Aug. 6.
At that juncture, however, a somewhat ludicrous pas de deux began. On Wednesday, the A's had a glorious opportunity to gain a game, the Royals having already lost to the Angels, but Oakland blew a 5-0 first inning lead and lost to Chicago 6-5. Partners, resume your positions. On Friday in Texas, with the Royals losing 18-3 to the Twins, the A's broke up a pitching duel between Blue and Bert Blyleven with successive 10th-inning homers by Campaneris and Baylor. They entered the bottom of the 10th ahead 4-2, with Blue apparently in command and the demon reliever Rollie Fingers at the ready. Blue had allowed but two earned runs in his last four starts and had completed seven of his last eight games. Fingers, in the wings, had four wins and six saves in his last 16 games. Alas, Blue gave up three hits and a run and Fingers, his successor, allowed two more runs, the winning one scoring on a long fly ball to center that North, playing shallow, reached but could not hold. Back to position one. Same thing after Saturday. And there was still no change after both clubs won on Sunday.
The two teams still have six games to play against one another, three each in Kansas City and Oakland. "It will all come down to those games," predicts Tanner, whose deserved reputation for affability has been sorely tested this chaotic season. "I like to break the season down into thirds. Any team will have a problem in at least one of those thirds. We had ours in the first two thirds. The Royals are having theirs in the last third."
The Royals' problems have at least, been confined to the diamond; Oakland's have led them into court and the infirmary. The team has played the season with six unsigned players—Tenace, Sal Bando, Campaneris, Rudi, Fingers and Baylor—and McCovey now makes a seventh. None of them expects to be in an Oakland uniform next year. Back in June, after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn vetoed Charlie Finley's multimillion-dollar plan to sell Fingers and Rudi to Boston and Blue to the Yankees, the three missed 12 days in legal limbo.
It can only be speculated where the A's might be today if their stars had been in the lineup then or where they might be if they had not lost Tenace, Rudi again, Washington and Pitcher Paul Mitchell to injuries for periods ranging from two to five weeks. Then there is the Finley Factor. On Sept. 1, with his A's gaining on the Royals, Charles O. opened negotiations with the Rangers for the sale of Bando. This, his stunned players concluded, was hardly the act of a man in pursuit of a pennant. He was destroying the team even as it was pulling itself together. Bristling at such criticism last week, Finley announced that it was he who had rejected the Rangers' reported offer of $500,000 for Bando, and that it was he who requested that a hearing in federal court in Chicago on his suit against Kuhn (which might have kept the three players in question out of the lineup again) be postponed until after the season. The records show only that the judge continued the Kuhn case. In the Bando matter, Rangers' General Manager Danny O'Brien remains under the impression that it was, fie who turned down the Bando deal because the player's salary demands were too high.
Anyway, Finley has lately come out four-square for his players, announcing last week that he would be prepared to take the field himself as a designated hitter. The proposal prompted Fingers to regret anew that he was not wearing some other uniform. "You can bet," said he, "that I wouldn't walk him."
Sadly, if the A's do not catch the Royals this year, it is unlikely they will be catching, anyone for many seasons to come. Gone already from a team that had won three consecutive World Series are Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman. Soon to be gone are Rudi, Fingers, Campaneris, Tenace and Bando. Survivors, such as North and Washington, now refer to themselves as "The Last of the A's."
"It would have been nice to have kept everybody together," says Tenace. "We knew each other so well. There was always something standing in our way, but we always overcame it. But now...."