Remember the Oakland A'S? Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s, they were baseball's dynasty: American League champions three years in a row; World Series champs in '89. Why, as recently as 1990 they had 103 victories and won the American League West by nine games. But then...well, all good things must come to an end. In '91 the era of the A's came to a crashing conclusion: fourth place, 11 games out. Remember?
It is early, very early, in this season of 1992, but did you notice who was sitting atop the American League West as of Sunday night, back on their customary throne? It may be too soon to proclaim that the Athletics are once again their mighty, mashing selves, but two weeks of baseball indicate that any preseason rumors of Oakland's demise—sixth place, said some of the doomsayers—were definitely premature.
The Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, are again hitting rockets into the sky, ace Dave Stewart has a new delivery and his old swagger, leftfielder Rickey Henderson is playing with enthusiasm, and everyone in the clubhouse appears bent on winning the West again. In this thunderous division that will be no small chore. But the A's have gotten the early jump—they were 9-4 through last weekend—and they've done it despite losing seven players to the disabled list and having a wobbly bullpen, a reliever as the team leader in victories and names like Mike Bordick, Scott Hemond, Vince Horsman and Bruce Walton in the lineup.
But it isn't who's playing; it's how they're playing. "This team is focused." says A's pitcher Ron Darling. "Last year there was no focus at all. Pride has a lot to do with it. Also, we realize other teams in the division are as good as we are. We have to sustain, no matter what lineup we put out there. I'll put our talent up with anyone's, but unlike the past, other teams can put their talent up with ours."
One of those other teams is the Texas Rangers, who stood just a half game behind Oakland after winning two of three from the A's last weekend at Arlington Stadium. Another is the pesky and powerful Chicago White Sox, who also were a half game out. Yet another is the Minnesota Twins, who happen to be the defending world champions.
The Oakland-Texas series provided a preview of what seems sure to be a season-long war in the West: All three games were close, no lead was safe, and two of the games were decided by late-inning home runs. "This is how a lot of games will be played in this division," said Stewart last weekend. "No team is going to run away. We'll be there. We have a new attitude. Guys are interested in playing rather than whatever they were interested in last season."
The only thing third baseman Carney Lansford was interested in last year was rehabilitating his left knee, which he tore up in a snowmobile accident in January 1991. Henderson was mostly interested in a contract extension; he had intimated during spring training that he might not play hard if he didn't get one. He didn't, and he didn't. Manager Tony La Russa was primarily interested in finding whole bodies to put in his crippled lineup: Last season he used nine third basemen, eight second basemen and seven shortstops. Finally, the once vaunted Oakland pitching staff was interested in just getting out of the season alive. A's pitchers allowed more homers (155) than any other stall' in the majors.
In the off-season the Oakland front office did little to improve the team and, because of financial concerns, didn't sign anyone to a long-term contract. With 14 players eligible for free agency after this season, the Athletics, said skeptics, were a slow start away from being dismantled. Instead, their quick getaway has reaffirmed their commitment to winning. "We're concentrating on the competition," says La Russa. "In spring training it was as if someone said, 'O.K., cut the ——.' We're doing that."
The biggest attitude adjustment has come from McGwire, who went from being the first player in major league history to hit more than 30 homers in each of his first four seasons (1987 through '90) to being a .201 hitter with 22 homers last year. As The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst puts it, his career took "an unexpected southbound turn onto the Dave Kingman Memorial Off-Ramp." Last year the game was difficult for him for the first time. He lost interest in playing, and he didn't respond to batting instruction.
McGwire's reawakening began during a trip to Las Vegas in October, the first October since 1987 that he hadn't been involved in postseason play. "I wasn't planning on watching the playoffs or the World Series, but I did," he says. "It hit me what I'd had. Sometimes you don't realize what you had until you see someone else in your place. Watching the playoffs and the Series got me pumped up."
He returned to his old off-season conditioning program, which included lifting weights six days a week. "The winter before, I'd cut back, and paid for it," McGwire says. He gained 20 pounds, to 240, and grew a menacing-looking goatee. As a result he no longer resembles an enormous Richie Cunningham.
"I feel good physically and mentally," he says. "Last year I had a lot of problems and pressures on and off the field [including a parting of ways with his live-in girlfriend]. I didn't have the concentration I needed. But I dealt with it. I had the worst year I could possibly have, but I ran my act out there 150 times. I could have faked an injury, but I faced it because this is what I love to do. I decided to turn it around."
In the first six games of 1992, he turned it around five times on opposing pitchers for home runs. McGwire gives a share of the credit for his improvement to Oakland's new batting coach, Doug Rader. "Doug keeps it simple," he says. "Now I'm doing things I'm capable of doing rather than trying to do what I'm not capable of doing. I find it amusing when everyone talks about home run hitters and no one mentions me anymore. I've hit more homers  than anyone else the last five years."
Over the past six years Canseco has been the game's most destructive hitter and its worst driver. The latter fact has sometimes overshadowed the former. "People don't give him the credit he's due because of the stuff that happens to him off the field." says teammate Willie Wilson. True enough. Canseco is the only player to have had a slugging average of better than .500 in each of the past four years. The last players to have longer such streaks were Mike Schmidt (1979-87) and Willie Mays (1954-66). Canseco is off and slugging again, batting .327 through Sunday, with 15 RBIs, a .692 slugging percentage and a major league-leading six homers. Still, he hasn't received nearly the early attention that McGwire has.
"That's because I'm expected to do this," Canseco says. "I can't get a break. I hit 40 homers with 100 RBIs every year, but people don't know how hard that is."
Almost anyone, though, can appreciate how hard he hits. In the eighth inning last Saturday, with Texas leading 3-2, Canseco stepped to the plate against reliever Terry Mathews with a man on base. "Before the inning," said Rader later, "[A's trainer] Barry Weinberg had said in the dugout, 'Our ultimate weapon will defy nature in this inning.' "
And he did. Canseco hit a 432-foot line drive into a stiff wind to put Oakland ahead 4-3. It was the kind of blast that leaves people shaking their heads. "It's impossible to swing the bat that hard and center the ball like that," says Rader. "It's like swinging a golf club as hard as you can and hitting the ball right on the screws."
Even Canseco, who is rarely impressed with his monster homers, marveled at this one. "That ball was crushed," he said. "That wind was bad. With no wind, or with the wind blowing out, that one would have gone 600 feet. That ball would have gone through quicksand. It was perfect. It was the complete domination of the ball. The mass of the bat—35 ounces—overpowered the mass of the ball."
The only thing hit harder this spring has been La Russa's lineup—by injuries. The A's opened the season with center-fielder Dave Henderson, pitchers Bob Welch, Joe Klink and Kirk Dressendorfer, shortstop Walt Weiss and infielder Randy Ready on the disabled list. Catcher Terry Steinbach joined them four days later. The good news is that the A's have survived without them. "We're used to playing this way," says McGwire.
Steinbach's hole behind the plate has been filled in part by the gun-armed Hemond, whom teammates call Fred because of his likeness to Bedrock's most famous citizen. "Look at him," says Stewart, pointing at Hemond. "He looks exactly like Fred Flintstone."
Hemond smiles and says, "I think I do look like him. You know, stocky build, dark hair, heavy beard. I could grow a beard in one day."
In the bullpen La Russa has found work for unknowns like Walton, Horsman and especially Jeff Parrett, a 30-year-old journeyman who was 1-2 with a 6.33 ERA with the Atlanta Braves in 1991. At week's end Parrett led the Athletics in wins, with three. "Last year I had an arm problem that was connected to my head," says Parrett, who has consulted with Oakland instructor Harvey Dorfman. "He got my perspective back."
Stewart had a mound problem connected to his motion. Though he had won more games (95) over the previous five years than any other pitcher in baseball, Stewart finished 1991 with an 11-11 record and a 5.18 ERA. Some of that falloff has been attributed to the fact that Stewart was tipping his pitches, so pitching coach Dave Duncan has changed Stewart's motion. "Last year [Duncan] could call every pitch I was about to throw," says Stewart, who now is bringing his hands to his chest, not over his head. In his first three starts he was 1-0 with a 3.24 ERA.
All the individual adjustments appear to have served the collective good. When the A's came from behind to win Saturday's game 5-3, they improved their record to 5-1 in games in which they had trailed after six innings. Last year they were 6-61 in such games. Oakland didn't win a single game in 1991 in which it was trailing entering the ninth inning. "Last year when we were down late, everyone's head was down," says Canseco, who this year has already helped erase deficits of 6-0 and 6-1 in different games. "This season we're feeding off each other."
On Sunday, though, it was the Rangers' turn to win one late, as outfielder Kevin Reimer hit a two-run homer in the seventh, sending Texas on to a 6-4 victory. Says Rangers pitching coach Tom House, "Good teams find a way to win no matter who's hurt. Bad teams make excuses. They're a good team. So are we."
So are the White Sox. So are the Twins. "It's going to be a marathon war this year," says Texas outfielder Jack Daugherty. "Last one standing at the end wins."
The A's have been standing at the end before. Remember?