Oh, where are the A's of the good old days,
Those pitchers and hitters elite?
They won every crown that there was to win,
This team that no one could beat.
Oh, where are the A's of the good old days
And that bristling Oakland pride?
Reggie and Rollie and Rudi are gone,
And even the mule has died.
Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
Mr. Finley, they're blaming you.
And now we are hearing the awful news
That Vida is going, too.
Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
McKeon has our regrets.
The second division's a certainty
For all these rookies and vets.
Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
That's the cry of the fan.
All that's left are the legal briefs,
For they took the money and ran.
The team that ambition built and penuriousness and avarice brought down made its 1977 debut in Oakland last week. Who was on first. What was on second. I-Don't-Know was on third. Even faithful A's fans found they couldn't tell the players without a scorecard.
Since last season, Oakland has gotten a new manager, Jack McKeon, a new coaching staff, a new director of minor leagues, a new traveling secretary, a new clubhouse carpet, a new lineup and, very likely, a new place in the standings. Among the missing is Charlie O, the team's mascot mule, who died Dec. 15 of liver deterioration. According to the A's players, he drank himself to death.
On Opening Day, just about all that remained of Oakland's glorious past was owner Charlie Finley's inscrutability and three world championship flags waving in center field. Compare, if you will, the crew that started the '76 opener to last week's inaugural lineup:
As an appropriate welcome, there was a banner in left field that said HOWDY, STRANGERS. And strangers they were. Of the 26 players in uniform (including temporarily disqualifed Pitcher Vida Blue) nine were rookies and eight had played with another major league club in 1976. Only North, Torrez, Blue and Reliever Stan Bahnsen could be considered returning A's regulars, and of these four, Bahnsen is alone in not loudly campaigning for baseball asylum elsewhere. Blue emphasized his despair by going AWOL for three days last week. The trip back home to Louisiana cost him not only his plane fare but $1,500 in fines and a payless disqualification period that was expected to continue until late this week. "I had to get away, man," he said after rejoining the A's the day before the opener. "People were coming, people were going, the phone was ringing off the hook. Whoowhee, man. It was too much." Apparently, it soothes Vida's blues not at all that Finley is trying hard to trade him.
This incredible dispersion of a superb team began soon after the A's won their third World Series in 1974. That winter Catfish Hunter became the Daniel Boone of baseball free agents by blazing a trail to New York. Before the start of last season Reggie Jackson and Pitcher Ken Holtzman were traded. Then the dam broke, and last winter the trickle became a torrent. Billy Williams retired and Reliever Rollie Fingers joined Rudi, Bando, Campaneris, Baylor and Tenace in a $9.2 million free-agent raffle. The exodus continued this spring when Finley sold Reliever Paul Lindblad to Texas, traded Washington to the Rangers and peddled Garner to Pittsburgh. Altogether, some 60 players paraded through the A's training quarters, and the smart ones kept their clothes in their suitcases.
"A ballplayer can get callous about people coming and going," says North, "but not in this quantity." Torrez compares the A's situation to a soap opera; As the Clubhouse Turns, he calls it. "Everybody is mixed up," Torrez says. "It would help a lot if Finley would tell us what he is planning for the team. We're professionals, we'd understand. But I doubt he would even consider it."
In fact, Finley has stated his intentions very clearly, but he cannot get many people to believe him. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for one. "There may be a plan, developing or developed, to substantially liquidate the established talent of the Oakland club," Kuhn has said. The other major league owners have even offered to buy Finley out in order to move his team to Washington. But Finley says he is not selling, moving or liquidating. Instead, he is rebuilding by getting rid of unsigned players whose contract demands he cannot meet and acquiring the best green talent (and greenbacks) he can scrounge from other clubs.
"We're going to be a damn good team," Finley says with typical bravado. He made that declaration the night before the A's defeated Minnesota 7-4 on Opening Day. And at the same time he invited First Brother Billy Carter "to be our guest at Game 1 of the 1977 World Series." Carter, who was on hand to throw down the first six-pack and throw out the first ball, said he'd be there.
Chances are nil that Carter will get an opportunity to honor that commitment. Five of the A's new starters are rookies, and two others, Allen and Williams, are rejects from Philadelphia and Montreal. Oakland was the only team to pick Allen in the November free-agent draft, and Finley signed Williams on April Fool's Day after the hapless Expos released him and he was waived by the 25 other teams. Sanguillen is the only newcomer with old luster intact. He hit .290 at Pittsburgh in '76. Finley got Sanguillen in a most unusual—and one-sided—trade, the Pirates giving up their regular catcher and 100 grand to acquire the A's 1976 manager, Chuck Tanner.
The members of Oakland's rookie crop were expected to blossom on one big-league field or another someday, but no one thought this would be their year. They are a convivial and well-mannered, if slightly wide-eyed, lot. In contrast to the old two-fisted A's, they seem like fraternity pledges. "There's not any turmoil among the players like there used to be," North says with obvious disappointment. "None of them are bad kids, and they all want to do good. I just wish they had more experience. I can help them on where to play the hitters, but there ain't nothing I can say to give them five years of experience. There's no substitute for that. I have seen some expansion teams with more experience than we've got."
"When I signed with Oakland in '73," says Gross, "I said to myself, 'How will I ever break into that lineup?' I figured Triple A was as far as I could go. Then all those guys left, and I got my chance. I'm still getting over the shock of being here."
Until they came to Oakland, Page and Armas expected to be sent down to Pittsburgh's Columbus, Ohio farm team this season. "The Pirates had too many guys in the outfield," says Armas, a Venezuelan. "I knew I wouldn't make it with Pittsburgh as soon as I got to spring training," says Page, who was sent to the A's four weeks ago and batted .352 in exhibition games. "Being traded to Oakland was the best thing that ever happened to me."
None of the rookies is as well traveled as Scott. He was drafted by Kansas City in 1972, traded to Montreal last year and sent from the Expos to the Rangers to the A's during spring training. He is a daring base runner, a good fielder and a solid hitter who batted .307 at Denver last season. Despite his talents, Scott is properly reverent of the reigning stars. "Call me Rodney," he says, "because there is only one Rod. That's Rod Carew."
After Opening Day, Carew may begin to ask people to call him Rodney. Scott doubled, walked twice, stole a base, scored two runs and generated Campaneris-like excitement. Page contributed two hits, and Gross drove in two runs. And despite a modest defensive reputation, he turned an important double play. Positioned well in front of the third-base bag to protect against a bunt, he speared a Carew liner and doubled a runner off first. But it was the two rejects, Allen and Williams, who played the biggest roles in Oakland's win. Allen drove in two runs, and Williams brought the A's from behind for the third and final time by hitting a long homer in the sixth inning.
The next day Gross had his first major league homer and three RBIs and Allen, Page and Sanguillen had two hits each as the A's beat the Twins 9-6 in the opener of a doubleheader. In the nightcap, Finley's rookies and rejects were not as fortunate, losing 7-1 to Paul Thormodsgard, who pitched in Class A ball last season.
Of course, no accurate prognosis of the A's chances can be made on the basis of three games. But even if they are young and vulnerable now, who is to say that they won't some day be worth a poetic tribute of their own. Does anybody know a rhyme for Picciolo?
In the A's Opening Day victory, rookie Wayne Gross had two RBIs and started a big double play.
The A's inexperience worries Bill North, one of three holdover regulars.