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Battle of the Bay
Bashing A's, Thrilling Giants, and the Earthquake World Series
By Gary Peterson
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Gary Peterson
All rights reserved.
Tony Phillips settled into his crouch in the left-handed batter's box. His team trailed by three runs with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The count was full. A runner was on third base. If Phillips could reach base, the tying run would come to the plate. And at that point, who knew what might happen?
It was the kind of win-or-go-home moment that the 1988 Oakland Athletics embraced with relish en route to winning 104 regular-season games — second most in the 88-year history of a franchise that boasted a colorful, checkered resume of sublime highs (three clusters of American League pennants that resulted in eight World Series championships) and slapstick lows (extended periods of benign neglect under owners Connie Mack and Charles O. Finley).
As recently as 1979, the A's had lost 108 games while drawing 306,763 fans. But in August 1980, Finley sold the team to Levi Strauss chairman Walter Haas. In midseason of 1986, Haas hired onetime A's bonus baby Tony La Russa to manage the club. And in 1988, La Russa guided the A's to their first World Series in 14 years. It was an eminently winnable World Series at that, against a Los Angeles Dodgers team that captured the National League West with 94 wins and rode the right arm of Orel Hershiser to a National League Championship Series upset of the New York Mets but entered the Fall Classic an uninspiring collection of wounded warriors and role players.
That collection stunned the A's with Kirk Gibson's epic Game 1 home run and Hershiser's Game 2 three-hit shutout. The teams split Games 3 and 4 in Oakland. Now in the ninth inning of Game 5, it was up to Phillips, Oakland's eight-place hitter, to keep the A's breakout season in play. With Carney Lansford on third base and eventual Rookie of the Year Walt Weiss on deck, Phillips looked out at the Oakland Coliseum's pitching mound and saw Hershiser, about to apply the capstone to perhaps the greatest six-week run of pitching in baseball history, staring back.
Hershiser stood straight as a tin soldier, tugged at the long sleeve on his right arm, hitched at his belt, got the sign from catcher Rick Dempsey, and then swung into his windup. He elevated his left knee as he tucked his left shoulder. Then he exploded in a riot of body parts toward home plate. Phillips swung through Hershiser's high fastball. Hershiser walked a couple steps off the mound, spoke a few words while looking at the sky, and then was hoisted off his feet by the onrushing Dempsey.
The Dodgers had won. The A's had been ushered into a disquieting offseason, a fate they could not have imagined when they convened for spring training as a team of dreams coming off an 81–81 season. In the short span of seven months, they had established themselves as a sexy, swaggering, star-laden potential dynasty. Jose Canseco had chartered the 40–40 club, becoming the first player in major league history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. Mark McGwire had encored his record-setting 49-homer effort as a rookie with 32 round-trippers and 99 RBIs. Dave Stewart, released by the Phillies in 1986, had turned in his second consecutive 20-win season. Bob Welch, acquired from the Dodgers during the offseason, had transitioned successfully to the American League with a 17–9 record. La Russa had begun construction of the modern bullpen with set-up men and a one-inning closer, making a star of Dennis Eckersley. The A's ripped off a 14-game win streak in late April and early May, establishing an eight-game lead in the AL West. They won the division in a romp.
They were more than good. They were intimidating by virtue of their ability and their physical stature. They quickly came up with a quirky, unique manner in which to express their size and strength to each other and — perhaps more importantly — to their opponents. It happened one day in spring training of 1988 when McGwire and Canseco banged arms while comparing their considerable muscles. The forearm bash was born.
Its architects could scarcely have been more different. Canseco was outgoing, flashy, demonstrative, and sassy. (He once referred to Giants first baseman Will Clark as "a three-toed sloth.") Canseco had every physical skill in the book. He also had a chip on his shoulder, having been the last pick in the 15th round of the 1982 draft. He had, he said, transformed himself into a superstar through hard work. He was proud of the transformation. McGwire was quiet, content to be just one guy on a 25-man roster. He had stupendous power. Although in time he would become a solid defensive first baseman and a .300 hitter in two different seasons, he was not the epitome of the five-tool player.
But they had one thing in common — they were big, strong, proud, power-lifting, power-hitting new generation A's. And now they had a signature move. Soon all A's players were celebrating home runs by raising one arm, clenching their fist, and clinking forearms with a similarly posed teammate. It was as an action as subtle as Paul Bunyan's blue ox. And it was a perfect fit. "We were looking to do something a little different," McGwire said. "We have a lot of guys who look like they'll hit home runs and we didn't want to just do high fives."
Size mattered to those A's. According to the official 1988 World Series media guide, the muscular McGwire stood 6'5" and weighed 220 pounds. Canseco was an equally muscular 6'3" and 210. Dave Parker was 6'5" and 230; Don Baylor was 6'1" and 210; Dave Henderson was 6'2" and 220; Terry Steinbach was 6'1" and 195; Ron Hassey was 6'2" and 195, and Carney Lansford was 6'1" and 195. The bash became an exclamation point after a home run into the 23rd row, the cherry on top of a bases-loaded double. No vanquished opponent could miss it. But perhaps its greatest value was giving the A's an identity they had lacked for a half-decade.
Until manager La Russa arrived, the A's were largely a faceless, featureless bunch. Canseco began to change the dynamic when he arrived at the end of the 1985 season. His Rookie of the Year season in 1986 was encored by McGwire's in 1987. Parker and Baylor were added to the roster during the 1987–88 offseason. When they began exchanging forearm shivers in 1988, it was as if they were kicking sand in the faces of their undersized opponents. Soon there was a video set to the tune of the 1962 Bobby "Boris" Pickett tune, "Monster Mash," and a Bash Brothers souvenir poster featuring McGwire and Canseco outfitted to resemble John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the film, Blues Brothers. "We had been looking for something that would be all ours," McGwire said. They succeeded una-bash-edly.
But their quest for a World Series title had been thwarted by a collection of superlative efforts and confounding, unexplainable turns of events. How confounding and unexplainable? Gibson's Game 1 homer, launched off two bad legs, made a loser of Eckersley, who led the majors with 45 saves during the regular season. Hershiser had as many hits as he allowed the A's in Game 2.
McGwire's walk-off homer in Game 3 gave the A's hope on an evening when the Dodgers lost starting pitcher John Tudor to an elbow injury in the second inning; lost right fielder Mike Marshall — their leading RBI man during the regular season — to a stiff back in the fourth; and had already gotten all they would get from Gibson.
NBC announcer Bob Costas set the stage for Game 4 by assessing the Dodgers starting lineup as "possibly one of the weakest to take the field in World Series history." And that was before catcher Mike Scioscia left with a bad knee in the bottom of the fourth. That weak lineup beat the A's and their ace, Stewart, 4–3.
Hershiser closed it out in Game 5, capping a phenomenal stretch in which he went 8–0 with one save in 12 appearances, struck out 66 in 972/3 innings, allowed a miserly 55 hits, tossed seven shutouts, and compiled an ERA you needed a microscope to read: 0.46. Oakland's swaggering stars fell silent. Canseco was held to one hit, a roaring grand slam in Game 1, in 19 at-bats. McGwire had one hit, his Game 3 game-winner, in 17 at-bats. Lansford was 3-for-18; Weiss was 1-for-16. There was no disguising the A's disappointment. "My heart is broken," La Russa told The New York Times. "When you feel you're the best team and you don't win," Oakland designated hitter Dave Parker told reporters, "that bothers you. This will haunt us all winter."
The frustration was already bubbling over for Eckersley, one of the team's straightest shooters, both on and off the field. Eck shook his head over what he considered Hershiser's overly dramatic mannerisms, specifically the way he would reach in his back pocket for a card containing scouting reports on Oakland hitters, study it for several pregnant moments, and then shove it back in his pocket before climbing atop the mound. "His style, the way he plays to the crowd, really pisses me off," Eckersley told reporters as the Dodgers were still celebrating their conquest. "But you have to give him credit. He's the best in the business."
* * *
The Giants' offseason of discontent was already 18 days old when Phillips took the A's final, futile swing of the year. The two Bay Area teams had this much in common — both had at one time or another entertained visions of a World Series parade in 1988. If the A's had reported to spring training in February of '88 with cautious optimism, the Giants had convened with unbridled ambition. General manager Al Rosen threw out the ceremonial first boast at a pre-spring training luncheon by predicting his team, coming off its first division title in 16 years, would win the World Series.
His optimism was understandable. Rosen had been hired during a disastrous 1985 season in which the Giants had lost 100 games for the first time in franchise history. He hired Roger Craig as his manager and with several shrewd personnel moves remade a roster that hadn't won a postseason game since Willie Mays was the team's center fielder. Rosen inherited Clark, selected with the second pick in the 1985 summer draft. Clark was at the fore of an influx of young talent that made the 1986 club and inspired an upbeat marketing campaign: "You gotta like these kids."
Clark made a fabulous series of first impressions, homering in his first spring training at-bat in 1986, homering off Nolan Ryan in his first major league atbat, and homering in his home debut at Candlestick Park. Clark pulsed with confidence and intensity. Incredibly, the team, which finished 33 games out of first place in 1985, led the National League West at the All-Star break the following year. The Giants eventually faded to third. (An elbow injury cost Clark most of June and July.) There was no fading in 1987.
Buoyed by Rosen's midseason deals — he acquired slugger Kevin Mitchell and pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts in early July and then secured Pirates pitchers Rick Reuschel and Don Robinson in separate transactions — the Giants assumed sole possession of first place for good on Aug. 21.
They met the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, taking a 3–2 lead after five games. Needing just one win in the final two contests (played in St. Louis) to reach the World Series, the Giants failed to score a run. Right fielder Candy Maldonado's attempt at a sliding catch on a blooper hit by Cards catcher Tony Pena (Maldonado would later contend he lost the ball in the stadium lights) resulted in a triple that led to the only run in Game 6. Starting pitcher Atlee Hammaker was rocked in Game 7. A three-run homer by Jose Oquendo, just his third home run in more than 900 major league at-bats, was the coup de gras in the Giants' series and season-ending 6–0 loss.
The dispirited Giants repaired to their downtown hotel where they were treated to the sound of joyous Cardinals fans honking their car horns for hours after the game. Those horns echoed into the spring of '88. "I stayed up all night," pitcher Mike Krukow said. "Those horns were more motivation than anything Al Rosen and Roger Craig could have provided."
The addition of center fielder Brett Butler, the classic leadoff hitter the team had lacked in 1987, fueled the Giants' optimism for 1988. On August 11 they were just two and a half games off the lead. But a relentless onslaught of injuries to the pitching staff doomed their chances. Dravecky went down first with a bum shoulder. His final appearance was on May 28. He had surgery on June 12. In September doctors biopsied a lump in his upper left arm and found it to be cancerous. During a nine-hour operation on October 7, Dravecky's 10 wedding anniversary, surgeons removed the tumor and much of Dravecky's deltoid muscle. Dr. George Muschler informed Dravecky that, barring a miracle, he had "zero chance" of ever pitching again.
That was by far the worst of it, but it wasn't the end of it. Mike LaCoss, a 13-game winner in 1987, had season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow on July 21. Ten days later, rookie Terry Mulholland suffered a fractured left wrist when hit by a line drive; his season was over. Kelly Downs was shut down after his August 24 start with an inflamed right shoulder and a 13–9 record. Krukow had season-ending surgery on his right shoulder on September 13. Reliever Joe Price was disabled twice. The malaise even extended to Mike Remlinger, the Giants' first-round pick in the 1987 draft, who was limited to 13 innings at Double A by ligament damage in his pitching elbow.
Needless to say, the Giants generated fewer headlines at the 1989 pre-spring training luncheon. This time Rosen was more circumspect. "A lot of people are picking us fourth in the division," he told the assembled Bay Area media, "but I see where Las Vegas has us at 7–1 to win the pennant, second only to the Mets in our league." Said Craig at the same event: "I'm not going to make any predictions."
In the summer of 2013, Craig, the man who both invoked and answered to the baseball expression "Humm Baby," recalled feeling a cautious optimism about his team's chances. "There were probably some teams better than we were," he said. "But we had a solid infield with Will Clark and Robby Thompson and [Jose] Uribe and Matt [Williams], so we could catch the ball defensively in the infield and outfield. Our pitching was okay."
Humm Baby was an all-purpose phrase Craig used when he first joined the Giants. He was coy about its origins. (The consensus was that it was a take-off on a form of infield chatter.) The more he used it — as a noun, an adjective, an exhortation, a homily, an expression of approval — the more its meaning became a subject of debate in the Bay Area. Craig would refer to certain players at times as a Humm Baby. For example, Bob Brenly was called such on the day he made four errors at third base in one inning and then wound up winning the game with a walk-off home run. Over time, people started referring to Craig as the Humm Baby. During the 1987 NLCS, Craig described the expression as such: "Humm Baby means aggressive, hard-nosed baseball. It can mean a great double play, a well-executed hit-and-run, or a beautiful girl." That was its beauty: it could mean anything you wanted it to mean.
Also looking back nearly a quarter-century, Clark recalled having "high hopes" for 1989. If others in the Giants organization felt likewise, it was probably because they were pinning their hopes on him — and for good reason. Clark's first major league game came 26 days after his 22 birthday; he finished fifth in the 1986 Rookie of the Year voting. In 1987 he hit 35 homers with a .308 average and finished fifth in the MVP balloting. In 1988 he made his first All-Star team and led the National League in RBIs. "You're talking about a kid," Dave Dravecky said in 2013. "The stuff he had done up to that point was amazing. You're talking about a guy with Hall of Fame talent and those kinds of characteristics. The organization had compiled a very good baseball club, Will being at the head of that. He really was the centerpiece."
A confident young man with a high-pitched cackle of a voice, Clark relished being the guy people looked to in important situations. "I really enjoyed being able to run out there every day," he said in 2013. "My teammates knew that, hey look, he's going to be there and he's going to give it the max effort. I want to be out there on the field with him." At least one of his managers felt likewise. "He was a great defensive player," Craig said in 2013. "He's a winner. You get a couple guys like him and you're going to win some ballgames. He leads by example."
* * *
Canseco came up with what appeared to be the perfect antidote to postseason baseball heartache. Five days after the final game of the 1988 World Series, he married Esther Haddad in a civil ceremony in Miami. In doing so he pocketed $10,000, winning a wager with teammate Stewart, who had bet Canseco that he wouldn't tie the knot before November 5.
If Canseco needed further balm to soothe his World Series wounds, he got it on November 8, when he was voted the Associated Press Player of the Year (in a landslide over Orel Hershiser) and again on November 16, when he was named American League Most Valuable Player. He was the first unanimous AL choice since another A's right fielder of note, Reggie Jackson, in 1973.
Excerpted from Battle of the Bay by Gary Peterson. Copyright © 2014 Gary Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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