On the last day of August. Olivia Flippens and Georgina Renda were bent over their machines at Raleigh Reconditioners in New Rochelle, N.Y., trying to sew up a division title for the Oakland Athletics. Specifically they were sewing the names S. DAVIS and LAVELLE on the backs of A's uniforms—stitches in time for that night's game with the New York Yankees.
Other seamstresses across the land were doing much the same thing last week, as teams in the American League West attempted to acquire the one or two or three players they thought they needed to win the division race, which could be classified as a claiming race for nonwinners of 70 games as of Sept. 1.
The California Angels got second baseman Johnny Ray from the Pirates for a minor leaguer and a player to be named later. The Kansas City Royals picked up reliever Gene Garber from the Braves for a player to be named later. The Minnesota Twins acquired DH-èminence grise Don Baylor from the Red Sox for, you got it, a player to be named later. The A's signed Gary Lavelle, who'd been released by Toronto, and received pitcher Rick Honeycutt from the Dodgers for a player to be named later and pitcher Storm Davis from the Padres for a player to be named sooner (two days after the trade he was identified as pitcher Dave Leiper) and a player to be named later.
Life was imitating art, or, in this case, baseball was imitating those Rotisserie leagues. The reason for this frenzied dealing was that almost everybody in the AL West had a shot at the championship. As September began, only 3½ games separated the first-place Twins from the fourth-place Royals, and even the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, 7 and 7½ back, respectively, had hope. If the Brewers—the fourth-place team in the AL East—were in the West, they would be leading the division. Which is why Peter Schmuck, who covers the Angels for The Orange County Register, calls the West the Lifeboat Division. "This is the one division in which women and children would be first," says Schmuck.
"The whole thing reminds me of one of those funny frog races," says Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry. "The frogs are jumping in all different directions, and you just hope that your frog will jump straight long enough to win."
With that in mind, join us now as we hop around America to look into the eyes of the AL West contenders, to search out a division winner to be named later.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 1
NEW YORK—Frank Ciensczyk (pronounced Ciensczyk) has his hands full. He's the clubhouse man for the A's, and six new players have joined the club. "I've never seen it like this," says Ciensczyk. "But it shows we're pretty serious about winning this thing."
Even before the avalanche of new arrivals, he had had a very busy season. The A's have been beset by injuries and for extended periods have lost three of their four best starting pitchers, their bullpen stopper, their second baseman, their centerfielder and their Reggie Jackson. Yet manager Tony La Russa has kept spirits up, and the A's start the day 1½ games behind the Twins. "Injuries have plagued us, and there are a lot of new faces," says Dave (Smoke) Stewart, the only pitcher on the Oakland staff who'll have more than 200 innings. "But I believe we're going to win it."
Stewart may also win the Cy Young Award. With an 18-9 record and a 3.52 ERA, he has made a remarkable turnaround. Two years ago he was a washed-up reliever who had to live down an arrest for lewd conduct after he was found in his car with a transvestite prostitute. But then Smoke discovered God and the fork ball, not necessarily in that order.
For quite a while all you could read about the A's was Mark McGwire, Mark McGwire and Mark McGwire, who despite a post-All-Star Game swoon, still has 42 homers, 100 RBIs and a .279 average. But two other rookies, catcher Terry Steinbach (.290, 13 homers, 51 RBIs) and outfielder Luis Polonia (.290, 44 RBIs, 24 stolen bases), have helped keep Oakland afloat, and last year's phenom, Jose Canseco, has quietly put together some nice numbers—like 28 homers and 96 RBIs.
Tonight the A's erratic Steve Ontiveros holds the Yanks in check through six innings, while Dwayne Murphy, Canseco and Steinbach each homer. Eric (Ker) Plunk shuts down a threat in the ninth, and Oakland wins 8-3. The Twins have lost 9-0 to the Red Sox, which means the A's are now just half a game out.
With several heroes to choose from, the press gravitates toward the retiring, but hardly shy, Jackson, who has had to sit out his farewell swing through New York because of a pulled hamstring. "Even though the Twins are in first place, I believe we're the team to beat," says Jackson. "Baylor might help them, but scoring hasn't been the Twins' problem. I respect Gene Mauch, and it worries me that George Brett might hit .500 for the month, but with our new pitchers, I really think we're in the driver's seat." Reggie's eyes look tired, though.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 2
TORONTO—In the visitors' dugout one hour before the start of the 12:35 p.m. game, Mauch, the California manager, is using an emery board for its intended purpose. You might think that 25 years of managing without winning a pennant would have ground Mauch down, but it hasn't. He's almost indignant that the Angels are three games behind the Twins with a month to go.
"When the season started, I figured that by September 1st we'd be five or six games in the lead," says Mauch. "In fact, I thought we were the only team capable of winning 90 or more games. But we lost some pitchers, [Kirk] McCaskill for three months, [John] Candelaria for two months, [Donnie] Moore for almost five months. I hate making excuses, though."
The Angels have other excuses. They're last in the league in hitting. They're long in the tooth—if Mauch wanted to, he could field a 10-man lineup that would total 355 years of age and 137 years of big league experience. If designated hitter Bill Buckner and pitchers Jerry Reuss and Don Sutton can hang on for just a little longer, each will have appeared in the majors in four different decades. (For all you Red Sox fans, we're happy to report that Billy Bucks is hitting .280 for California, back to wearing low-tops and reminding nobody of the Gateway Arch.)
This afternoon the Angels lose 7-6 to the Blue Jays in a game marked by disaster. With runners on first and third and none out in the third inning, Reuss fields a bunt, looks the runner back to third, turns to throw to second, hears someone yell "Home!" turns to home, sees that he has no play and then throws wildly past first. His comic ballet leads to a four-run inning, Coupled with the Twins' 5-4 win over Boston that night, the Angels fall to four games back.
"If that had happened at Fremont High," Mauch says, referring to the error and his alma mater, "we would've been running laps until dark." In the clubhouse there are no eyes to read. They are all looking at the floor.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 3
KANSAS CITY—They have that good starting pitching. They have Brett. They have those 1985 world championship rings. They have a history of strong Septembers. They're the Royals, and the other teams are waiting for them to make a move. The Royals are waiting, too. "I hear that the other clubs are worried about us," says catcher Jamie Quirk. "I don't know why. Not the way we're playing."
K.C. is in a hitting slump. It has scored five runs in its last three games, all close losses, and with Minnesota's 2-1 victory over Boston earlier in the day, the Royals trail by five games. "It's not fun, and it hasn't been fun all year," says Brett. "When it's fun. I come to the park at 2:30. Today I didn't leave the house until after four."
Most of the malaise is left over from the Billy Gardner regime, which ended with his firing on Aug. 27. Gardner, who had been given the difficult task of replacing Dick Howser, fell victim to the Leo Durocher Axiom: He was too nice and the players took advantage of him. Besides, the Royals don't have a first-string catcher or a first-string shortstop, and the bullpen is discombobulated. Can anyone satisfactorily explain how a reliever who averaged 40 saves from 1982 through '85 can disappear into the gulag even though his ERA is a very respectable 2.58? Quisenberry can't.
Then there's the Bo Jackson dilemma. To keep the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner happy, the Royals kept him in the majors this year, when he should have been getting some seasoning. Then they let him sign a contract with the Los Angeles Raiders. Bo's play in leftfield has forced the Royals to use Lonnie Smith, an erratic fielder at best, as his defensive replacement, and Jackson's free swinging (153 strikeouts) has earned him the bottle of champagne the Royals traditionally give those who strike out 100 or more times. "It's a shame they took Bo out of the lineup," says one Royal. "He could have gotten two bottles."
To set the managerial situation right, the Royals needed the Duke. No, not John Wayne but John Wathan. Actually, K.C. first called for Hal McRae, but the 42-year-old DH, who became the Royals' full-time hitting instructor this spring, didn't like the fact that "interim" would come before the title. So Wathan, a very popular and very versatile player for 15 years with Kansas City, was called up from Omaha, where he'd been managing the Triple A club. "I know good things are going to happen," Wathan says. "I just hope they happen sooner, not later."
The Royals get clobbered 8-2 by the Brewers this night as starter Mark Gubicza loses his sixth straight and Garber, the reliever who is supposed to replace Quisenberry, gives up three runs in a third of an inning. They now trail Minnesota by 5½ games. Their eyes are glassy.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 4
MINNEAPOLIS—He looks good in a Twins uniform. Of course, he looked good in a Red Sox uniform, a Yankee uniform, an Angels uniform, an A's uniform and an Orioles uniform. In his 16th full season in the big leagues, Baylor is participating in his 12th pennant race. This is the first time he's been employed essentially as a rent-a-leader.
"We made no secret of the fact that we were trying to add pitching," says Twins GM. Andy MacPhail. "But we would have had to pay a king's ransom for what was there. We determined that it would be best to add a bat if we could. We wanted the best bat who had been through the September wars."
Can Baylor have much of an effect on a ball club in one month? Mauch, who managed him on the Angels, thinks so. "I hate to see Baylor's personality going into the Twins' clubhouse," Mauch says. Whatever Baylor lends to a club, he seems to have brought it to the Twins right away. On Thursday, his first time in the Minnesota lineup, Baylor went 1 for 4 with a single against the Red Sox, who three days earlier had been his teammates. The Twins won 2-1 after Kirby Puckett hit a game-tying homer in the ninth and the winning run was walked home in the 10th.
Before this night's game with the Brewers, Baylor talked about his new team. "They've already earned their spot without me being here," he said. "Each day somebody different will be the hero." Baylor strikes out as a pinch hitter in the 10th with two out and a runner on first, but he is right about somebody different being the hero. With the score tied 1-1 and the bases loaded with two out in the bottom of the 12th, Billy Beane, just up from Portland, steps to the plate for his first major league at bat of the year. He hits Dan Plesac's first pitch over the outstretched glove of shortstop Dale Sveum for the game-winning single. As Beane rounds first, his teammates literally maul him with joy. During the riotous celebration, somebody pokes him in the left eye.
In the clubhouse after the game, Beane jokingly credits his single to an off-season weight program. "I was able to muscle it over the shortstop," he says, wiping a tear from his reddened eye. But it looks very much like the eye of a winner.
As Labor Day dawned, the Twins led the A's by three games and the Angels and Royals by 5½. It seemed as if a division winner would be named sooner, rather than later.