First, a look at the bright side of the Oakland Athletics' season: The A's have won more games than any other team in the major leagues (86-51 through Sunday); they have been in first place in the American League West since the third week of April and have led by at least three games since April 30. They have already set a home attendance record and will soon become the first Bay Area team to surpass the two million mark (the Giants drew 1,917,863 last year). They have the big league home run leader, who may, incidentally, become the first player in history to hit 40 or more homers and steal 40 or more bases in the same season, and who is the odds-on choice to become the American League's Most Valuable Player. They have last year's phenom who, while not quite the Ruthian presence he was then (49 homers), is still on a pace to hit more than 30 homers and drive in more than 100 runs. They have the majors' most productive relief pitcher and two of the league's five winningest starters, as well as a slick-fielding shortstop who has at least an outside chance of becoming Oakland's third straight Rookie of the Year. That's not all, of course, but you get the idea.
And now the bad news. Well...uh...that is...O.K., how about this? The ball doesn't carry in the Oakland Coliseum. Otherwise, rightfielder and prospective MVP Jose Canseco would be on course to hit 50 home runs, and first baseman Mark McGwire 40. And Canseco is peeved because people tend to think of him as some kind of machine instead of the sensitive sort he really is. And McGwire just wishes everyone would shut up about last year and take him for what he's worth this season. "Look, I don't think I'll ever hit 40 home runs again." he said last week after clouting his 26th and 27th in a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. "I'll be very happy to hit between 25 and 30 every year. Not many guys have done that." True enough. Says Canseco, "What Mark did last year was incredible. I don't see how anyone can expect him to do that again playing in this ballpark. Balls that go 440 feet in most parks don't reach the warning track here. If you want to set big goals for yourself, this isn't the place to do it."
And yet Canseco, who averaged 32 homers and 15 stolen bases in his first two full seasons, set a whopper for himself at the beginning of the season when he said he saw no reason why he couldn't become the league's first 40-40 man. Only 15 players have hit 30 or more homers and stolen 30 or more bases in the same season—Bobby Bonds did it five times, Willie Mays twice—and Canseco wants to go them 10 better. Not that anyone questioned his raw power—the 6'3", 230-pound Canesco's tee shots were already part of baseball legend. It's just that no one considered him much of a threat on the base paths.
That's because they hadn't been paying attention, says Canseco, who is, if anything, prouder of his speed than of his power. "People see me run, and they say I look lazy, lackadaisical," he says. "Then they time me, and they can't believe it. I've done a 3.8 from home to first, and that's from the right side of the plate. I've run races against just about everyone in this organization, and no one's beat me yet. My stride is deceptive. The smaller guys just look as if they're running faster, with their quick little steps. But I can beat them all."
Through Sunday, Canseco had 34 steals and 35 homers—the last of them a line drive, opposite-field, three-run shot that beat the Yankees 5-4 on Saturday—which puts him right on schedule for 40-40. And, says Oakland manager Tony La Russa, "He's not shooting for numbers, but to win games."
It somehow doesn't seem fair that so much speed and strength should reside in the same magnificent 24-year-old body. In fact, Canseco doesn't look so much like a ballplayer as a chiseled Mayan god. But he's offended, even hurt, when it's suggested he's that good only because his natural gifts give him an enormous advantage over lesser mortals. He prefers to be thought of as just another guy named Jose who has had to work hard for everything he has.
"There's so much talk about his power that people overlook the work he's done to correct his limitations," says Athletics hitting coach Jim Lefebvre. "He's spent hours working on his stroke, on his concentration, his patience at the plate. He's walking more now, not swinging at so many bad pitches. He's a better two-strike hitter."
"I don't think the average person has any idea of the amount of effort that goes into the kind of play he's giving us," says La Russa. "And I don't mean just his hitting. I'm looking at the whole package—his defense, his baserunning. He plays this game intelligently."
Canseco appreciates such comments because he sometimes suspects that no matter what he does, it isn't good enough for some people, including his own father, Jose Sr. "I hit three homers in a game earlier this year, and my father called from back home in Miami afterward and said, 'Hey, what happened in your other at bats?' I mean, give me a break, Dad, will ya?"
Part of Canseco's problem lies in the great expectations he arouses. "Jose didn't exactly sneak into this league," says La Russa. Indeed, his arrival late in the '85 season was trumpeted as if he were the reincarnation of the Babe himself. After an astonishing climb through the minors—he hit 25 homers in just 58 Double A games in '85—he had fans everywhere he played gaping at his monstrous homers. Crowds around the league assembled early just to watch him rattle the rafters in batting practice, until the A's told him to save his big swings for games. But the poor man had become a legend before his time.
"I was built up to be some kind of monster robot," Canseco says. "All you had to do was oil my joints and I'd hit .390 and lead the league in every category. If I hit a long home run, I'd hear people say, 'I thought he could hit it farther than that.' If I hit 40 this year, someone will say I should've hit 50. And if I hit 50, they'll say it should've been 60."
He also has been accused—wrongly, he insists—of being distant, even arrogant, in dealing with the press and public. "They mistook my shyness for moodiness," he says.
Canseco's personal and public relations are vastly improved this year. Along with McGwire, he's Oakland's biggest draw at autograph sessions, and he patiently sits by the hour signing anything dropped before him. He has also been showing newsmen a previously unsuspected witty side. "Maturity is the key word with him," Lefebvre says. Canseco isn't so sure about that. "I don't think my attitude has changed since high school," he says. "I'm really just an easygoing guy with a good sense of humor. I just let things fall where they may." Which is usually about 400 feet from home plate. Maturity, however, could arrive with a rush on Nov. 5, when he marries 21-year-old Esther Haddad, a Miami beauty queen.
Canseco may be having the season of a lifetime, but he's not the only reason the A's are cleaning up in the American League West. Pitching and defense are two other pretty good reasons. The Canseco of the Oakland bullpen has been Dennis Eckersley, a starter for 12 of his 14 major league seasons who at week's end had 37 saves in his first year as a full-time closer. Eckersley joined the A's as the result of what appeared to be nothing more than a minor trade with the Cubs last year, but he arrived at the Oakland spring training camp too late to break into the starting rotation. La Russa and A's pitching coach Dave Duncan told Eckersley that he would begin the season in the bullpen and then they'd see what happened. As a reliever, Eckersley was a revelation.
"It was eye-popping just watching him work," says La Russa. "He was so cool, so competitive. It was just boom, boom, boom, and you're out." So even after starters Moose Haas and Joaquin Andujar broke down with injuries, Eckersley stayed in the pen, working as a setup man for Jay Howell, the incumbent closer. Then in August, Howell got hurt, and Eckersley stepped in as the short man. He finished the year with 16 saves, the same number as Howell. Still, Eckersley wanted to start, and he asked La Russa and Duncan to think hard over the winter about restoring him to the rotation. They said they would consider it. But in December, when Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson traded Howell and shortstop Alfredo Griffin to the Dodgers in a complicated three-way deal that also involved the Mets, La Russa got on the blower to Eckersley. "The situation has changed," the manager said. "You're my closer."
"I figured that," said Eckersley.
Coming out of the pen in the late innings—seldom earlier than the ninth—Eckersley is an electrifying presence. "He gives the whole team a burst of energy," says catcher Terry Steinbach.
"There's a lot of glory in this job," Eckersley acknowledges, "but it's terrible when you screw it up. Anybody who does what I do and says he doesn't feel the pressure is giving you bull——. The only thing you can do is go out there not being afraid to fail."
Actually, all the elite members of the A's relief corps—Gene Nelson, Rick Honeycutt, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret—are reformed starters, and that, says Duncan, "is a plus, because they've all been in every type of situation in a game." Despite the presence of Dave Stewart (17 wins through Sunday), Bob Welch (15) and Storm Davis (14) in the Oakland starting rotation, La Russa goes to the pen so freely that the A's are almost sure to set a big league team record for saves. They had 53 at week's end, just five shy of the American League mark of 58 and seven short of the major league record of 60 set by Cincinnati in '70 and '72. In completing the Oakland sweep of Boston last week, Plunk, Honeycutt, Nelson and Cadaret all pitched, providing 3‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings of scoreless relief for a grateful—and victorious—Davis.
Of immeasurable benefit to this surprisingly good pitching staff has been an improved defense. Centerfielder Dave Henderson, finally getting a chance to play regularly after part-time assignments at Seattle, Boston and San Francisco, has shored up a once uncertain outfield and through week's end was hitting .305 with 22 homers and 78 RBIs. "To me, this year is no surprise," Henderson says. "It's normal. It was tough sitting on the bench all those years knowing I was better than whoever was out there and not being able to convince anybody of it."
The infield, with Carney Lansford and McGwire at the corners and rookie flash Walt Weiss and the latter-day Singer's Midgets, Glenn Hubbard and Mike Gallego, up the middle, has been superb. The A's were able to trade Griffin last winter because director of player development Karl Kuehl convinced Alderson and La Russa that Weiss could do the job at shortstop. And Weiss has, spectacularly, although his .243 batting average may keep him from Rookie of the Year honors. Oakland has already passed its double play total of a year ago, with Weiss either feeding or being fed by one of the two stumpy second basemen, Hubbard or Gallego. La Russa plays whichever of these two shorties—they're both about 5'7"—has the hot bat; lately, that has been Hubbard.
At a team meeting during spring training, La Russa told the A's that they would need at least 95 wins this year to make the playoffs, and no matter how big their lead has been, just trying to reach that mark, he says, has kept them pushing. Still, the way things are going in Oakland, 95 wins seems a rather modest goal.
And, while we're at it, so does 40-40. Just kidding, Jose.