THE A'S FIND WAYS

Even without its best player, Oakland has put up the best record in the majors
May 28, 1989

It's not as if the Oakland A's couldn't use Jose Canseco, or Mr. 40-40, as he's known to the highway patrol in three states and to folks around the San Francisco municipal courthouse. After all, he was the American League's MVP last year, and the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season.

It's just that, well, the A's are not exactly pining away while Canseco recuperates from the wrist fracture that has kept him out of the Athletics lineup all year. Besides, a little time away from the limelight might not be such a terrible thing for a 24-year-old slugger whose maturity lags about 12 years behind his physique. Canseco might even have time to find a buyer for his $75,000 candy-apple-red Jaguar before it drives him straight to the calaboose.

Fact is, the question of when Canseco will return to play rightfield for Oakland is about the last thing on anyone's mind in the A's locker room these days. Sunday's 5-4 win over the Boston Red Sox gave the A's a 29-14 record, the best in baseball—without Canseco. "It motivates us. We want to win because Jose's not here," says relief ace Dennis Eckersley, whose 14 saves led the majors. "We want to show we're a team, and not just a couple of sluggers."

The A's have certainly done that through the first quarter of the '89 season. Not only has Canseco missed 43 games and counting—he has a stress fracture of the hamate bone in the heel of the left hand, probably caused by the knob of the bat during a missed swing in spring training—but also 25-year-old Mark McGwire (81 homers in his first two seasons) missed 14 games in April with a herniated disk in his lower back. Between them, Canseco and McGwire hit 74 home runs in the A's championship season of 1988, overshadowing many of the team's more subtle attributes. "We were viewed as the Canseco-McGwire show," says Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson. "And one of the benefits of Jose's absence is that the team has developed a newfound sense of independence and self-respect."

And if the absence of Canseco weren't motivation enough, the Athletics have also been spurred on by division rivals who have granted Oakland precious little breathing room in the potent AL West. After being pressed early by a hot start from the Texas Rangers, the A's lately have been feeling the heat from the surprising California Angels, who at week's end were sitting just a game behind Oakland. And close behind the Angels lurked the Kansas City Royals, who had the third-best record (25-17) in the division, which also happened to be the third-best in the major leagues.

Indeed, the division is so much stronger than the AL East that as of Sunday, teams in the West had the five best records in the American League. Put it this way: If the once sorry Seattle Mariners (23-21) were in the East, they would be leading the division by a game and a half. The East, with not a single team playing .500 ball at the quarter-season mark, had a pitiful 83-115 record against the West.

But for all the successes of the Western upstarts, they were all still looking up at the A's. The reasons for Oakland's early success are many: good managing, good coaching, depth, speed. And one other thing. "What we are most of all is a good pitching staff," says Eckersley. "That got overlooked last year in the magic."

It would be pretty hard to overlook the A's pitching this year. The ace of the staff, Dave Stewart, the only pitcher in baseball to win 20 games in each of the last two years, is off to a blistering start. He was 8-1 after beating the Red Sox last Saturday, and he just may even make the All-Star team for the first time in his career—especially since the A's manager, Tony La Russa, will be selecting the American League pitchers. Stewart still bristles at having been bypassed for the All-Star Game the past two years. When asked recently if he would accept a spot on the 1989 All-Star roster even if he thought he didn't deserve it—an unlikely scenario given the way he is pitching—Stewart replied, "Sure I would. I wouldn't mind making it unfairly, because somebody's made it unfairly over me the last two years."

Righthander Bob Welch is also off to a strong start (6-2, 2.98 ERA), as is Mike Moore, the free-agent acquisition from Seattle; opposing batsmen were hitting just .162 against Moore as of Sunday, the lowest average chalked up against any starting pitcher in either league. Unfortunately, the A's offense has been just as anemic on his behalf, and Moore's record—which includes 2-0 and 2-1 losses—was only 4-3, despite a sparkling 1.92 ERA.

Oakland's fourth and fifth starters, Curt Young (1-4, 5.30) and Storm Davis (3-3, 6.14), have been much less impressive. But a bullpen like the one the A's have assembled can hide a lot of flaws. La Russa likes to go with an 11-man pitching staff, which enables him to dress six full-time relievers. "There are a lot of weapons out there," he says. "It's a hellacious pen."

American League batters would surely confirm that. At week's end Todd Burns, Greg Cadaret, Rick Honeycutt, Gene Nelson, Eric Plunk and Eckersley had a combined record of 7-1, with 18 saves in 19 chances, and a 1.84 ERA. During one four-game stretch last week against the Yankees and the Red Sox, the six A's relievers put together nine straight innings of hitless, scoreless ball. "After a while you think nothing bad's ever going to happen," says Eckersley. "Of course, then we fell out of our tree."

The Athletics bullpen, which had been undefeated this season, took its tumble from grace last Friday night in the first meeting between the Bosox and the A's since Oakland's four-game sweep in the '88 American League playoffs. With the game tied 3-3, Nelson hit Ellis Burks with an off-speed pitch to open the top of the 10th. Honeycutt relieved and gave up a blooper and an infield roller that loaded the bases with none out. La Russa brought on Eckersley, who capped the ugly inning by giving up a grand slam to the only batter he faced, Boston rightfielder Dwight Evans. "When it rains, it pours," said Nelson, whose ERA before the game, in 12⅖ innings of work, had been a tidy 0.00. "I knew I wasn't going to go the whole season without giving up a run."

Having proved itself human, the A's pen returned to its abnormally brilliant ways on Saturday, as Eckersley extracted Stewart from a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, pitching 1‚Öì scoreless innings to pick up his 13th save.

As for the Oakland offense without Canseco, let's just say it gets the job done. The A's don't blow many people out, but they are 10-3 in one-run games. Dave Henderson (.293, seven HRs through Sunday) was tied with McGwire for the team lead in RBIs with 26, evidence that Henderson's totals of last year (.304, 24 HRs, 94 RBIs) were not of the once-in-a-lifetime variety, as many had supposed. Catcher Terry Steinbach, who has been pressed into service in the outfield a few times, was hitting .328 while showing a respect for fundamentals that makes La Russa glow. On Thursday, Steinbach, who had a run of five consecutive hits going, came to bat against the Yankees in the fourth with a runner on second and no one out. The righthanded Steinbach dutifully grounded to the right side, moving the runner over. "I get more satisfaction out of playing the game right than I do out of going 4 for 4," he said. In his next at bat, incidentally, he singled.

Canseco's rightfield position has been filled at various times by Steinbach, gimpy-legged Dave Parker, Stan Javier, Felix Jose, Lance Blankenship and Billy Beane, who have combined to hit .210 with no homers and 17 RBIs while patrolling Canseco's turf. Compare that with the numbers Canseco put up after 43 games in 1988: .287, 11 HRs, 37 RBIs. Yet the A's record after 43 games is exactly the same as last year's. "I'm a little surprised, but I'm not shocked," says La Russa, who used 40 different lineups in the first 43 games, shuffling bodies around like interchangeable parts. He has had to overcome not just Canseco's absence but also injuries to shortstop Walt Weiss (sprained knee) and second baseman Glenn Hubbard (strained hamstring). "Jose's had three great years in Oakland," La Russa says, "but we've only won once. Why? We didn't have a team around him his first two years. Now we do."

The team La Russa put on the field to start Sunday's game didn't include McGwire or Henderson, who rested on the bench. No matter. The A's came from behind to beat Roger Clemens, with RBIs from deluxe utilityman Tony Phillips, backup catcher Ron Hassey, outfielder Luis Polonia, and the game-winner from Parker. Burns, Cadaret and Plunk chipped in 5⅖ innings in relief of Young before Eckersley finished for his 14th save. Says third baseman Carney Lansford, who finished the game hitting a league-leading .353, "I don't think any other team in baseball could have lost a player the caliber of Canseco and kept winning the way we have. The team that endures through the injuries is the one that will end up on top. It's a long, hot summer."

It is apparent that the A's intend to survive the summer and be there in the fall. There is a sense of unfinished business about the team this year. "The world didn't see the real Oakland A's last year," Lansford says of the team's 4-1 drubbing by the Dodgers in the World Series. "We want to get back there and get a Series ring."

"There are two reasons that teams don't repeat," says La Russa, whose A's are seeking to become the first divisional champions to successfully defend their title since Kansas City in 1985. "First, the quality of the competition. There's nothing you can do about that. We may win 104 games this year, and someone else might win 105. The second reason is attitude—if the club isn't hungry enough. So far, this team has taken a special pride in winning without Canseco. That tells me they're hungry. So we tell them, Keep pushing."

The question that haunts the Angels, Royals, Rangers, et al. is: If the A's can play this well without the best offensive player in the league, how good will they be with him? Canseco is expected to have his cast removed and to begin working out in June; if all goes well, he is expected to return to the lineup in mid-July. Oakland officials hope that by then he will have put his recent problems behind him. His litany of transgressions includes 1) getting a ticket for reckless driving in Florida on Feb. 10 for going 120 mph; 2) missing the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association dinner, on Jan. 12, honoring him as baseball's home run king; 3) failing to appear on Feb. 19 at a Rochester. N.Y., card show to which he had accepted an invitation (last week the promoters of the card show sued Canseco for breach of contract); 4) receiving four traffic citations in Phoenix on Feb. 28 while behind the wheel of his Jaguar—the one with the front-bumper vanity plate that reads MR. 40-40, just in case the highway patrol needed a positive ID; 5) being arrested on April 21 for possession of a firearm in a prohibited area, a felony.

In this last episode Canseco (who ultimately pleaded not guilty) had left a semiautomatic pistol on the floor of his car—the same ill-fated Jag—when he parked on the campus of UC San Francisco, where he was having his wrist X-rayed. During his arraignment lawyers, bailiffs and just about everyone but the judge himself stopped by to ask Canseco for an autograph. "It was a circus," says Alderson. "He might as well have been in a dugout as in a Hall of Justice. What does a 24-year-old guy take away from that experience? Not a helluva lot.

"We've been disappointed in him," Alderson continues. "We're not making excuses for Jose, but we also have confidence that he'll adjust to his new notoriety and mature. In some ways this injury will contribute to that, because he hasn't been able to go out and just play and forget about everything else. He's had to sit and cope and think about things."

Oakland, meanwhile, has quietly thrived without their star-crossed slugger. Whether they knew it before or not, the A's now know they can win without him. Which is important when you remember that in losing last year's World Series, Canseco and McGwire went 2 for 36. "We have assembled a group of competitors here," says La Russa. "You can take away Canseco; you can take away McGwire; you can take away Walter Weiss. But you can't take away the game. That's what's important to them. Tomorrow at 7:30 there will be a game, and it's going to start nothing to nothing. Now, let's see who scores the most runs. These guys are going to compete."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPolonia, on a steal, sent Jody Reed flying, and the A's sent yet another East team packing. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYEREckersley usually gets the final call in a six-man bullpen that is simply "hellacious." PHOTORICHARD MACKSONStewart's 8-1 start, tops in the majors, may earn him an invite to his first All-Star Game. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONSpeedy infielder-out fielder Javier is only one of Oakland's many interchangeable parts.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)