There was just no stopping them. In the late innings of the fourth and final game of the American League Championship Series, a conga line of fans carrying brooms swept along the aisles of Oakland Coliseum. As it passed through the stands, the procession grew longer and longer and more mind-boggling.
As had the Oakland Athletics' postseason winning streak. Their 3-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox and the 4-0 sweep of the series gave the A's 10 postseason wins in a row, and wins in 12 of their last 13. As the A's readied themselves for the Cincinnati Reds and a third straight World Series appearance, there appeared no way of stopping them.
"How do you beat them?" asked Red Sox second baseman Jody Reed. "Well, if they play real bad...but that's not going to happen, so forget that."
"How do you beat the A's?" asked Red Sox leftfielder Mike Greenwell, who went 0 for 14 in the series. "If I knew the answer to that question, I'd quit playing and become the greatest manager ever." Greenwell's own manager, Joe Morgan, compared the Athletics to Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, the world champions in 1975 and '76. "Of course, I didn't see the '27 Yankees," said Morgan.
"Sweep" doesn't quite describe what Oakland did to Boston. "Steam-clean" maybe. The Bosox were outscored 20-4 and outhit 38 (.299) to 23 (.183). The A's had nine stolen bases, the Red Sox one. The A's made one error, the Red Sox five.
Moreover, the two incidents that sealed Boston's fate last week were the result of Red Sox mistakes that would be almost unthinkable for the A's. The first was when Boston's Tony Pena was crashed into by fellow catcher Terry Steinbach and dropped the ball on a sure out at home in the sixth inning of Game 3. In spring training, Oakland coaches drill their catchers on just such collisions at the plate by using tackling dummies.
The second incident was, of course, the ejection of Roger Clemens by home plate umpire Terry Cooney in the second inning of Game 4, after the Rocket misfired and yelled several of the magic words that umpires consider grounds for dismissal. Asked if such a thing had ever happened to him, Series MVP Dave Stewart, whose Oakland record against Clemens is now 8-0, said, "If you mean, Have I ever been thrown out of a big game? the answer is no." (The dig at Roger improved Stewart's record to 9-0 in some books.)
The blowup could never have happened to Stewart, or any Athletic, for that matter. The A's are taught not to show up umpires. Said Oakland manager Tony La Russa, "Umps have a tough job to do, and you don't mess with them. In this league, you respect the umps or you don't stay around."
When the game finally resumed after 10 minutes of turmoil, Oakland's Mike Gallego promptly doubled off reliever Tom Bolton to increase the lead to 3-0. The Athletics are impervious.
But are they invincible? They did lose 59 games this year and eight of 13 to the Chicago White Sox. And two years ago, the Los Hershiser Gibsons took the World Series away from the A's in five games. So the Reds can beat them. But how?
Yeah, yeah, keep Rickey Henderson off base, keep Dennis Eckersley out of the game, get to Stewart early. To get beyond the obvious, we set out, before the Series began, to gather the advice of several American Leaguers: three advance scouts, a manager, a pitching coach, a catcher, and a pitcher for the Red Sox ("You can identify me that way," said the pitcher, "even though people will know it's not Roger"). Why aren't we doing a similar report on Cincinnati? Well, baseball is not obsessed with beating the Reds.
All the experts agreed that Cincinnati would be a worthy adversary. As opposed to the Red Sox, the Reds play aggressively, which a team must do against the A's. The Reds, said our panel, would be able to run on Oakland's catchers: Steinbach has an average arm and Ron Hassey, Bob Welch's personal catcher, has a below-average arm. However, the A's pitchers are very adept at holding runners on. "They will step off more than any other club to disrupt a base runner, to confuse him," said Scout A. Another thing, said Scout B, is, "La Russa loves to pitch out. He'll even do it when the count is 2 and 0 if he thinks you're going."
The Reds can and should run on Oakland's outfielders. "Go first to third whenever you can," said the catcher on the panel. "If you play station-to-station, it's going to come down to getting a two-out hit with a man on second, and the A's don't give up many of those."
Cincinnati also has a very good advance scout, Jimmy Stewart, although no team can match the Athletics in preparation. Said Scout B, "They know exactly where to play hitters, what a pitcher's and catcher's tendencies are at certain counts, everything. You can't steal their signs because Tony gives most of them verbally. On the other hand, he gets his jollies by stealing your signs. Their base runners will give batters the location of pitches. And maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I think there's something going on in that outfield scoreboard in the Coliseum."
Perhaps the most important thing Cincinnati brought into the World Series was its swaggering attitude. The Red Sox pitcher advised the Reds to hold that feeling. "You can't be in awe of the A's or uptight and still hope to beat them," he said. "We became that way after the first game, and we lost the series right there." Said Scout C, "You can't get caught up in the David and Goliath syndrome."
PITCHING TO THEM
Despite their .299 average in the Red Sox series, the A's were not hitting very well. For one thing, they became the first team to win a postseason series without hitting a home run since the 1919 Cincinnati Reds. (The '19 Reds, amazingly enough, didn't hit a home run in their eight World Series games—it was a best-of-nine affair—against the Black Sox.) For another, Jose Canseco is clearly not himself, either because of his ailing back or because of the finger he hurt in a refrigerator-door accident. (Imaginary headline: JOSE MAYTAGGED OUT.)
The general advice to the Reds is to pitch inside—a lot. "That's what the White Sox did," said Scout B. "Pound 'cm in. Pound 'em in. For all their macho, the A's hitters like to lean out over the plate and get comfortable." Of course, said Scout C, "Tony will come running out of the dugout if you throw inside on his guys."
The Red Sox pitcher had one specific bit of advice. "The Reds should pitch Danny Jackson as often as possible. He and that nasty slider of his will give the A's the most trouble."
Rickey Henderson. "Rickey's not swinging the bat very well," said the Red Sox pitcher. "Plus, he has this little blind spot down and in—he'll swing right through that pitch." Even when he isn't hitting, Henderson draws walks. "If you walk him," said Scout C, "you might as well build a freeway from home plate, over the mound and right to second base." But Scout B said, "You can pick him off if you throw over to first base enough. Rickey gets bored after a while and takes off."
Carney Lansford. Try to jam him up and in, said the pitching coach. "You can change up on him successfully, too. But nothing is a sure thing when he has two strikes on him because he battles."
Jose Canseco. "He just doesn't want to swing," said the Boston pitcher. "It was almost sad to see. Mike Flanagan used to call him Jose Don't Make A Mistake-o. But the way he's swinging now, you can."
Harold Baines. "You really, really have to jam him," said Scout C. "If you just pitch him on the inside corner, he'll kill you." Said the pitching coach, "Change speeds on him and change your patterns. He is a very intelligent hitter."
Mark McGwire. "Go at him mostly with fastballs," said the coach. "Just don't throw them down. It's O.K. to start him with a breaking ball, but don't throw him one with two strikes."
Dave Henderson/Willie McGee. Hendu is a low-fastball hitter. "Move him off the plate," suggested the pitching coach, "but absolutely stay away from him with both the fastball and the breaking ball."
The American Leaguers weren't quite as familiar with McGee, the National League batting champion, but Scout B said, "He looks like he likes the ball up so he can beat down on it. He also looks like he guesses, which is pretty unusual for a batting champ."
Terry Steinbach/Ron Hassey. Steinbach is a good low-ball hitter, said the Boston pitcher, but he doesn't like changeups or sliders away. Hassey is a pure guess hitter who tries to hit low-and-inside pitches into the seats, up-and-away pitches to the opposite field.
Walt Weiss. Lefthanded, he likes the ball down; righthanded, he likes the ball up a little more. Either way, jam him. Said Scout B, "If he doesn't play because of his [sprained left] knee, they're really going to miss him. He sets the tone for that team. Heck, he gets madder than Bo Jackson when he strikes out."
Mike Gallego/Willie Randolph. "We call Gallego the Ewok," said the Red Sox pitcher. "Not only does he look like one, but he bounces around like one. You can get him out with breaking balls, but you have to get them over." Randolph's bat has slowed down, but as Scout C said, "He's a big-game hitter."
HITTING AGAINST THEM.
The consensus, once again, is to be aggressive. If the Reds let the A's get ahead early in the game, it's too late; and if the Reds let their pitchers get ahead in the count, it's also too late. "I tell my club to go up and look for something to hit early," said Scout A. "They'll be around the plate with the first pitch. If you get behind, they start dropping split-fingers and whatnot on you, and you're done."
The same scout noticed something else about the A's pitching staff this year. "They change their pitching patterns when runners are in scoring position. All game they'll be pitching you a certain way, then in an RBI position, you'll be looking for a split-finger and—pow!—a fastball is by you."
Dave Stewart. Of course, he's not unbeatable, yet nobody had any advice on how to beat him. He did garner a lot of praise, though. "His velocity is not outstanding," said Scout B. "But unlike 98 percent of the guys who throw the fork-ball, he can get it over for strikes. He has very quick feet for his pickoff move, and he's an excellent fielder, which nobody ever talks about."
Said the manager on our panel, "No matter what kind of stuff Stew brings to the mound, he can figure out a way to beat you."
Bob Welch. Said Scout B, "He's still got a little bit of National League in him: He'll challenge you [with the fastball]. But you can disrupt his tempo—the Red Sox tried, but didn't succeed. One way to do it is to complain to the umpire about the way he blows in his hand, especially if it's not cold. That will bother him."
Mike Moore. Said the manager, "He doesn't have the confidence in his fastball that he had last year, so he's really been nibbling this year." But, said Scout B, "The reason La Russa went with Moore instead of Scott Sanderson [in Game 3 against Boston] tells you a lot about their organization. They wanted Moore to get his confidence back, not just for the postseason, but for next year."
The Setup Men. It is widely held that no manager uses his relievers better than La Russa does. "If the starter gets into the seventh with the lead," said the pitching coach, "it all becomes academic." Of Gene Nelson, the righthanded setup man, the manager said, "The changeup is his best pitch, and if he's ahead in the count, his off-speed pitches are usually out of the strike zone. He'll throw you more fastballs early in the count, so it's best to go up there aggressive." Of Rick Honeycutt, the left-handed lead-in to Eckersley, the manager said, "He has a deceptive motion, but the thing to do is make him throw the ball over the plate. Patient hitters can work him for a walk or get a good pitch to hit."
The Eck. Four walks and 73 strikeouts in 73‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings! Forty-eight saves! An 0.61 ERA! How does Eckersley do it? "Great location and a strange motion," said Scout B. "His stuff, though, is not unbelievable. I still think if you have some good lefthanded hitters on the bench in the ninth, you can beat him." The Reds don't have Kirk Gibson riding the pine but do have switch-hitters Luis Quinones, Todd Benzinger and Ron Oester and lefthanded Herm Winningham.
So maybe these Athletics will fall. Then again, maybe the conga line will dance for years to come. Said Scout C, "The A's have an inner strength throughout their organization. It's self-sustaining, and it's tough to beat."
"The scary thing," said Scout B, "is that even if the Reds win, we'll be talking about how to beat the A's again next year."