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Of taters and bristles

Reggie Jackson slugs the former and everybody sports the latter on his upper lip as the talent-rich Oakland A's rip through their division

In baseball, as in anything else, appearances can be deceiving. Take the Oakland A's. Mustachioed to a man, they might easily be mistaken in a hotel lobby for six barbershop quartets, the world's largest rock group or the centennial celebration committee of the Carson City, Nev. Junior Chamber of Commerce. On the field, turned out in their stunning new ensembles of Kelly green, California gold and polar bear white, they could as well be a celebrity softball team or a barnstorming religious sect. But beneath all that bristle and tinsel they are, in real life, the best team now playing in the American League and, in the opinion of their winningest pitcher, National League migrant Ken Holtzman, possibly the best team in baseball.

The mustaches, which expose them to the japes of clean-shaven opponents, are simply another manifestation of Owner Charles O. Finley's prepubescent sense of humor. On the return flight from a series in Boston, Finley observed that Outfielder Reggie Jackson and several bullpen pitchers were sporting fresh foliage. What, Finley asked Jackson, is going on around here? Jackson explained that this year he decided to keep the mustache he normally grows in the off-season. The others, he said, were not so much stylistic disciples as put-on artists seeking to embarrass him into shaving. Finley, always one to appreciate a joke, was intrigued. Why, he asked himself, have a team only half shorn? Why not an all-mustache team? Or a stadium filled with mustachioed men, women and children? The result of this encounter was Finley's decision to hold a Mustache Day on Father's Day at the Oakland Coliseum, a logical successor to his earlier Bald Headed Day. For his participation in this attraction, each player with a full upper lip will be rewarded with a bonus of $300. Holtzman's response to his boss' brainstorm bespoke the majority's. "For $300," he said, "I would grow hair on my feet."

For that matter, Holtzman would not be displeased if his teammates took the field wearing fright wigs and panty hose, such is his admiration for their ability to score runs in his behalf. In one game last week with Cleveland, Holtzman gave up 14 hits. The A's, meanwhile, had 14 hits of their own. Holtzman went the full nine innings and won the game 10-4 for his ninth victory of the season. "Every now and then," he said afterward, "you'll win when you don't have it." But that did not happen often enough during Holtzman's seven years with the Chicago Cubs, a team for which he had some good seasons (back-to-back 17-winners) and a bad one last year (9-15, 4.48 ERA). He was traded to the A's this past winter for Rick Monday in a rare transaction that seems truly to have benefited both teams. Holtzman, at any rate, could not be happier.

"This is just a super team," he says of the A's, "one of the best all-round in either league. When I was with the Cubs I used to think we had a super team, too. Better even than Pittsburgh. But we didn't win. This team does, so it's just gotta be better. And Dick Williams is a super manager." Williams would generally agree with this assessment, but he vigorously disapproves of superlatives like "super." Williams is such a baseball fundamentalist that he cannot accept the concept of superness. Ted Williams, he will say of one superstar, could only hit; Stan Musial, he will say of another, couldn't throw; Brooks Robinson can't run; and even those with all of the skills are of little use unless they are team players.

A perfectly executed hit-and-run play pleases him more than a tape-measure home run. A throw to the right cutoff man will make his day, not a Herculean fling from the outfield fence to home plate. Mental mistakes drive Williams out of his mind. After his team had beaten Cleveland's Gaylord Perry 3-2 last week, Williams called a clubhouse meeting to lacerate several players for thoughtless base running.

"I liked that," said Reserve Catcher Gene Tenace afterward. "It showed he cares. Some managers will let you get away with a mistake. Not Dick."

"Williams insists on winning," says Jackson, an occasional target of managerial wrath. "If you don't win he's ready to fight. I'm loyal to him. I respect him. He's the best baseball man I've ever known. He keeps you scared enough so you've just gotta do the job."

This year's team is Williams' favorite as a manager. It has such depth that it could afford to lose a Vida Blue for almost a month and still reach first place, thanks in no small measure to Holtzman, who took up the left-handed slack. The A's could also absorb the loss for the season of a top fielding second baseman, Dick Green, now recovering from surgery to remove a herniated disk in his back. Green's replacement is Larry Brown, a sobersided little man who declined to grow a mustache until the lure of riches finally overwhelmed his sense of decorum. Brown is almost as embarrassed by his mustache as he is by his batting average, which is under .200, but his function in the A's scheme of things is defense. The offense is taken care of by such productive sluggers as Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan and Mike Epstein. Of these, Jackson is the most impressive, Rudi the most surprising.

When Williams took command of the A's last year he inherited in Jackson his philosophical opposite. Jackson has the superstar's tools: he can hit, hit with power, run and throw. But he had been something of an individualist who seemed more occupied with personal goals than the common good. Williams apparently has had a profound influence on him, for Jackson is evolving into the sort of self-sacrificing team player his manager most reveres. He is one home-run hitter who now worries about his weaknesses as a base runner, and he willingly has made the shift on defense from right field to the more challenging center field.

Jackson is as much a fan as he is a player. He knows the averages and the home-run totals of players in both leagues, and he frankly idolizes the Dodgers' Frank Robinson, who once managed him in winter ball.

"Frank is the Bill Russell of baseball," says Jackson, a fan, too, of other sports. "He's a winner. He leads by his actions. He makes only one or two mistakes a whole season. Me, I'm short on base running. I overhustle. To walk in Frank's shoes, I've got to minimize my mistakes."

But for all of his newfound concern with the game's finer points, Jackson is still basically a connoisseur of the long ball.

"The home run is very important to me," he says. "Sure, I like to keep a respectable average, like .280 or .290, but average is like the wind: it can disappear overnight. Those taters [his expression for homers], them they can't ever take away from you."

Jackson had 12 taters they can't take away from him at the week's end and was the league leader. And Rudi now appears to be a bona fide contender for the batting championship. Although he has home-run power, the blond, lanky Rudi considers himself a spray hitter who gets home runs only by accident. He is so accomplished at hitting to all fields that he has become nearly impossible to defense. In his first time at bat in the 10-4 rout of Cleveland, the Indian outfielders played him to hit to right field. He put a two-strike pitch over the left-field fence for his fourth homer. By his third at-bat the outfielders were deployed to the left side. Rudi responded to this stratagem by lining a triple to the fence in right-center. "I love it when they try to defense me like that," he said. We dare not quote the fielders.

Rudi has always been a solid hitter, but until 1970, when he was .309 in 106 games for the A's, he had not enjoyed a full .300 major league season. Last year he hit only .267. He blames these comparatively low averages on military reserve duty which caused him to miss as many as 35 to 40 games a season over the last six years. Now, still only 25, he is free of that obligation and able to play without interruption. Unburdened, he has raised his average into the .330 range.

The A's, in fact, have a nice balance between the tater hitters and the high-average boys. Jackson could be both in one. When he was called out on a close play at first in Cleveland, he raged in the dugout for minutes afterward. If he'd beaten out that hit, he explained, his average would have reached .290.

Catcher Dave Duncan is another tater man, staying close to Jackson in home runs with 10, and Bando, though off to a relatively slow start, is a consistent clutch hitter. The A's pitching, both starting and relieving, is now the class of the league. And Blue is back.

They are, of course, a bizarre-looking group with their mustaches and fancy clothes. Even the stern Williams, mustachioed with the rest, is beginning to look like Gaylord Ravenal. But as Jackson has said, "In mustaches, beards, polka dot vests, pink shoelaces, Panama hats or what-have-you, we're still winning."

In these circumstances, to criticize their appearance is surely to split hairs.