To almost no one's surprise, the first run of the American League Championship Series, in the fourth inning of the opener, came on a homer by the Oakland A's Jose Canseco—it landed atop the Green Monster in Fenway Park. As he strutted out to rightfield for the bottom of the inning, Hollywood Jose was greeted with a variation on the DAA-ryl! DAA-ryl! chant Boston Red Sox fans used to jeer New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry in the 1986 World Series, and which surfaced again last week during the National League playoffs in Los Angeles. "STEH-roids! STEH-roids!" rose the chorus, playing off an unsubstantiated charge that Canseco used steroids to go from a 165-pound high school weakling to the 230-pound hunk of today who will soon star—shirtless—in an advertisement for American Express. "STEH-roids! STEH-roids!" the Fenway fans repeated. Canseco stopped when he reached his position, looked around, smiled and began flexing his right biceps.
"They were having fun, and so was I," said Canseco. "This is too big a show to get uptight. Anyway, it's a compliment." The next night, Canseco was greeted with the chant, "Just Say No! Just Say No!" and he tipped his hat to the fans for what he termed "their originality."
Clearly, Canseco was the focus of attention. He was the Athletics' 40/40 man—actually 42 homers and 40 stolen bases—during the regular season, and this series had been billed as a clash between the Bash Brothers of Oakland, with Canseco as the No. 1 basher, and Boston's trio of exceptional starters, Bruce Hurst, Roger Clemens and Mike Boddicker. Four days later, however, the A's had swept the Red Sox, and the series MVP was Oakland's ace reliever Dennis Eckersley. "I'm happy for Eck," Athletics third baseman Carney Lansford said of the decision, "but this was a team MVP. People around the country may have thought we were a one-dimensional, homer-hitting team, but we've been a complete team all season. We're going to the World Series with 108 wins because we've got a great bullpen, great starting pitching and great defense."
And let's not forget power. Not only did Canseco hit a homer in Game 1 to set up the A's 2-1 victory, but he also clubbed a two-run dinger off Clemens to tie the score in Game 2, which Oakland won 4-3, and hit a solo shot off Hurst in Game 4 to get the A's rolling to a 4-1 win. In Game 3, first baseman Mark McGwire led a four-homer assault to give Oakland a stunning 10-6 come-from-behind victory.
October 16, 1988
Boston may be used to losing in October, but this was the first time in 12 attempts that it won fewer than three games in postseason play. So when it was all over, even the Red Sox had come to the conclusion that the 1988 Athletics are a magnificent team. "I realized how great they are in so many areas," said Hurst, "but I never dreamed we'd see four games in which they'd get to show off everything they can do. It was like an entire season of highlights crammed into a short series."
Eckersley was the dominant figure of the series, with a save in each game. "A measure of this team is, Who was second to him?" said Oakland manager Tony La Russa. Canseco had a Reggieesque series with his three go-ahead or game-tying homers, but he could easily have finished sixth in the MVP voting behind Eck, centerfielder David Henderson (one homer, four RBIs and one superb catch), righthander Dave Stewart (two starts, one win and a 1.35 ERA) and the double-play duet of shortstop Walter Weiss and second baseman Mike Gallego.
Granted, Boston had won only 89 games in the regular season and had a 3-9 record against the A's going into the series. But Stewart, Storm Davis and Eckersley overpowered the Red Sox in the first two games, scattering a total of eight hits and not allowing one Boston batter to reach the Wall. Stewart made Canseco's homer stand up in the opener until the seventh, when a walk, a hit batsman and a single by catcher Rich Gedman loaded the bases for batting champion Wade Boggs. Earlier in the game, Stewart had struck out the left-handed-hitting Boggs with the bases full, but now La Russa brought in lefthander Rick Honeycutt. Boggs hit a sacrifice fly to left—the only time Boston would score in four bases-loaded situations in the series. But the A's got the run back quickly the next inning on a double by Lansford and a groundball single to right by Henderson.
Then came one of the two most dramatic moments of the series. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Eckersley, who had come in for Honeycutt in the eighth, gave up a double to Jody Reed and walked Gedman, bringing Boggs to the plate with two runners aboard. Eckersley, as he almost always does, threw strikes. Boggs, who almost always takes the first pitch, watched two of them go by. After Boggs fouled off a sinker, Eck fired a high fastball, which Boggs waved at unsuccessfully. "There was this weird frozen moment when I looked at him as if to say, 'How did you swing and miss?' " said Eck later. "And he looked at me as if to say, 'How did you strike me out?' It seemed like about 10 seconds, but it was only a flash."
Davis held Boston scoreless for five innings in Game 2, but in the sixth he allowed two walks, a line drive to center, which Henderson muffed, and a single by Ellis Burks to give Clemens a 2-0 lead. And though Gedman had a brilliant series defensively, the threat of Oakland's running game got to Clemens, as did the soreness in his back and shoulder, which was a big reason that he had gone 3-7 over the last two months of the regular season. After Henderson led off the seventh with a single, Clemens got ahead of the count on Canseco, 0-2, but then he made what he later called a "terrible" pitch. "I thought Henderson was stealing," he said, "so I slidestepped [a maneuver to quicken his delivery to the plate], only I didn't get my leg into it." The pitch was clocked at only 80 mph instead of the usual 90-plus, and Canseco put it in the net.
Oakland's latent speed reappeared with one out in the seventh. Third base umpire Ken Kaiser called Clemens for a balk when Clemens made another slide-step attempting to hold Lansford on first. Lansford advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a single by McGwire, who thus broke an 0-for-10 drought against Clemens. Gedman tied the score at 3-3 in the bottom of the inning with a homer, but in the ninth, Weiss, who was 4 for 66 in clutch situations during the season, singled in the go-ahead run off Lee Smith. Said a relieved La Russa after Eckersley nailed down the win, "Those two games were killers."
So much for bottom-line baseball. Now it was Saturday and showtime in Oakland. "Sometimes you can go weeks without getting opportunities to show what you can do," Gallego would say, "but we got to show almost everything we can do in [the next] two games."
Power? The A's Bob Welch was knocked out in the second inning of the third game as Boston handed Boddicker a 5-0 lead. But that deficit was wiped out completely only 11 batters later. "Boddicker had had a lot of success against us, so we spent a good deal of time talking about trying to stay back and wait for his breaking ball," said Weiss. "We can do that. And where we have some dead fastball hitters who can catch up to Clemens, we have a nice mix of guys who kill off-speed pitchers, like Lansford, McGwire and [Ron] Hassey."
McGwire homered off Boddicker for Oakland's first run, Lansford hit a two-run shot to make it 5-4, and Boddicker left in the third, trailing 6-5, after Hassey homered. "This was a strange night in the Coliseum in that the ball jumped out," said Eckersley. "It sure helps to have the power to take advantage of it." When Henderson finished things off with a shot in the eighth, it was the first time that five homers had been hit in the Coliseum in one game all year.
Pitching? What makes the A's staff so good is the depth of their bullpen, which had a record 64 saves this season. After Welch left in Game 3, La Russa filled in with Gene Nelson, Curt Young, Eric Plunk and Honeycutt. When Eckersley came on in the eighth, Oakland had an 8-6 lead. By the end of the series, the Athletics' bullpen had accounted for three wins and four saves and had given up only one earned run in 14⅖ innings. "I get the credit, but the other guys do the dirty work," said Eckersley.
Defense? Game 3 made household names of Weiss and Gallego. Weiss, who had robbed Gedman twice in Boston, started the fans buzzing by charging a slow hopper in the first inning and turning it into an out. Then he kept the Boston lead at 5-4 in the third by pirouetting over the sliding Reed to complete an inning-ending double play with the runner storming toward the plate from third. "They talk about hitting and pitching being contagious, but the most contagious part of baseball is defense," said Gallego afterward.
Two of the most memorable defensive exhibitions didn't result in double plays—at least not initially in one of the cases. The first occurred with one out in the top of the fifth in Game 3. Boston was behind 6-5 with runners at the corners when Reed hit a high hopper to third. Lansford quickly got the ball to Gallego, who stepped to the shortstop side of the bag and made his relay to first. Reed beat the throw and the tying run scored—or so it seemed. Second base umpire Kaiser ruled that Gedman had interfered with Gallego by throwing a rolling block at him. Thus he called Reed out at first and disallowed the tying run.
Gallego and Weiss nearly turned what appeared to be an impossible double play in the eighth inning. Boston had a runner on first with one out when Burks smacked a grounder through the middle. Weiss had moved a step toward second base after Hassey signaled for a slider, but had to bolt to his left to reach the ball. As his momentum carried him stumbling past the bag in the direction of right centerfield, he flipped the ball backward, and Gallego snatched it bare-handed as he crossed the base. He whirled and came within inches of doubling up the fleet Burks. Said A's pitching coach Dave Duncan, "There's only one other righthanded batter in the league who could have beaten that—Bo Jackson."
In Game 4, Burks led off with a hard grounder, which Lansford grabbed in midair. Burks stopped past the first base bag, turned and stared at Lansford in admiration. "I tip my hat to that sort of defense," he said.
The Red Sox tipped all kinds of hats to the Athletics. "They were better prepared to pitch and play defense against us than any team I've ever seen," said Hurst. An example: In the eighth inning of Game 4, with Oakland leading 2-1 and a Boston runner on first and none out, the A's put Lansford on the line and Weiss near second, leaving a gaping hole in the left side. Honeycutt was about to deliver a slider, which Oakland knew the hitter, Marty Barrett, would probably pull sharply. Honeycutt delivered and Barrett ripped the slider inside third, right where Lansford was waiting to start a double play.
Power, pitching, defense. Oakland has them all, and as the Red Sox now know better than anyone else, the 1988 A's are the best team the American League has sent to the World Series since Charlie Finley's teams of the early 1970s. These A's may even be better.