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They're alone at the top

Rejected by other teams and their own fans, the young A's are surprise winners

The way one of Charles O. Finley's legion of former employees tells it, Charlie O. was sitting around thinking up trades in a Chicago bar one day this spring when he was approached by a sprightly little fellow wearing a red necktie. "Mr. Finley," the intruder began, "my name is Applegate, and I've got a deal for you."

"I'm always interested in deals, sir," Charlie supposedly replied. "Whom do you represent, the damn Yankees?"

"Never," snapped the little man.

"Well, then, state your business, because I'm expecting a call from Denver."

Applegate took a swallow of his Bloody Mary and fixed the A's owner with a malevolent eye. "Forget Denver," he said. "I have it on low authority that you're staying in Oakland. Now here's my proposition: if you agree to my terms, I will have that ragtag assortment you call a baseball team on top of the American League West by April 25."

"Terms? What terms? What do you want, the franchise?"

"Certainly not," said Applegate. "Charlie, I want your soul."

"Sounds reasonable. It's a deal."

They shook on it, and as the little man went downstairs, Finley turned to the bartender, chortling. "That's the best trade I've ever made," he said, smoothing the lapels of his green blazer. "I got a lot more out of it than he did."

That, asserts the old Finley hand, is why Oakland astonished everyone by taking the lead in its division last week. Could be, but there are those—Bowie Kuhn among them—who say that not even the Devil could do business with Finley. Others stoutly insist that from a motley assemblage of minor-leaguers and bench warmers winnowed from other organizations, Finley actually has assembled a hustling, exciting young team that may be a good deal better than anyone expected. Certainly the handful of fans who saw the A's win three straight from the Twins last week, including back-to-back extra-inning thrillers, would support this notion. And so would the players, most of whom were forgotten men or lost boys in more substantial franchises.

"A lot of us just weren't given a chance before," says Jim Essian, formerly of the White Sox, after his 12th-inning single helped beat the Twins and give the A's their eighth win in a row and their 13th in their last 14 games. At 14-3, they had the best record in the major leagues. And even though Oakland's streak was broken in a 6-1 loss to the Twins Thursday, followed by a 6-2 defeat by the Indians Friday night, the A's remained in first place by finishing the week with a 5-1 victory over Cleveland.

The A's have a starting lineup that barely averages 25 years of age. Pete Broberg, who ran his record to 3-0 during that win over the Indians, is at 28 the eldest of the five starting pitchers. Only three members of the roster are more than 30. Seventeen Oakland players were not with the team a year ago, and most of these didn't come aboard until late in spring training, a period during which Finley bargained like a Cairo rug merchant. The best publicized of the myriad transactions sent Vida Blue to the Giants for seven players, most of whom were unheard of, six of whom are now regulars for the A's. At the end of last week, 21-year-old Pitchers John Johnson and Alan Wirth were 2-1 and 1-2 respectively, with earned run averages of 1.24 and 2.25. Both would have been in the minors this season had they remained with the pitcher-rich Giants. Gary Alexander, who had lost the San Francisco catching job to Marc Hill, wasn't behind the plate for the A's either, but he was being used regularly as a designated hitter and occasional outfielder, and he was leading the team in home runs (five). Mario Guerrero, a second-string shortstop with the Giants, was the A's leading hitter (.349) and RBI man (12). Relief Pitcher Dave Heaverlo, another ex-San Franciscan, had an ERA of 2.37. Gary Thomasson, the only regular involved in the populous trade, emerged from a slump to pump home runs in each game of a doubleheader with the Twins. He had not contributed earlier, he explained, because he felt burdened with the responsibility of his seniority.

Other organizations have not been as philanthropic as the Giants, but Mike Edwards, who would have been playing in the Pirates' minor league system had he not come to Oakland, was hitting better than .300 and playing second base as it had not been played in the East Bay since Dick Green hung up his glove in 1974. Essian, who arrived from the White Sox for Pitcher Pablo Torrealba, is the starting catcher and a valuable clutch hitter. Miguel Dilone, also a former Pirate, is one of the swiftest of outfielders. The most famous newcomer is Dave Revering, whose celebrity was earned not on the playing field but as the "other player" in Finley's Kuhn-aborted trade of Blue to Cincinnati for $1.75 million and a minor-leaguer. Revering, who is batting .274, finally came to the A's in February along with a paltry $300,000 in exchange for Pitcher Doug Bair.

Playing for Oakland and its obstreperous owner might seem more like a sentence than a break to some players, but the new A's share an intense desire to make the big leagues at any cost. "As long as I get to play," says Alexander, "I don't care if it's in Cucamonga. With the Giants, I thought I was the best-kept secret in baseball."

The only malcontent on the team is the player who has been with Finley the longest, Bill North, the lone high-paid survivor of the owner's purges of the 1972-73-74 world championship teams. North is in his option year, and despite his acknowledged skills as a base runner and leadoff man, Finley has refused to play him, preferring instead to use inexpensive youngsters who may be on the premises longer. Unlike his youthful comrades, North, nearing 30, has felt the sting of Finley's wrath, but he wishes the children well. "Right now," he says, "we are the best of the worst. We'll see what happens when we play the big boys." Except for the Angels, who have handed Oakland three of its losses, the A's will not confront a Western Division contender until May 17, when they play Texas for the first time.

Even if the A's nosedive when the competition gets tough, this will have been an especially bizarre year in Oakland, which is saying a lot, considering Finley's renowned penchant for the unorthodox. This season's team was not supposed to belong to Charlie O. and it was not supposed to be in Oakland. But the preposterously elongated and unnecessarily complex negotiations—involving Colorado oilman Marvin Davis, who would have moved the A's to Denver; the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Commission, which wanted its lease with Finley paid off; the city of San Francisco, which was reluctant to allow the Giants to play half their schedule in Oakland; the Giants; the baseball commissioner's office; and both leagues—finally collapsed of their own weight.

The Denver negotiations left the A's with even fewer fans than they had in the unremunerative past. After 10 years of divided loyalties, Bay Area spectators have turned—at least in the early weeks of the season—to the only team that seems reasonably certain to stick around, the Giants. In its first nine dates of the season, San Francisco drew 199,217 to Candlestick Park, an average of 22,135 per game. In their first 11 games, which included a half-price night home opener and a doubleheader, the A's drew 54,521 to the Coliseum, an average of 4,956. At this less than whirring pace, the turnstiles at Oakland Coliseum should turn only 401,436 times this season and give the A's the lowest attendance in the majors since their Philadelphia forebears drew 304,666 in 1954.

For the first month of the season, it was impossible to hear Oakland games on the radio unless the listener happened to be standing in the shadow of the University of California's Campanile, because Finley initially awarded the broadcast rights to KALX-FM, a student-operated station of 10-watt range. But late last week the A's were putting the final touches on a contract with KNEW, a considerably stronger AM station. It will replace student broadcasters Larry Baer and Bob Kozberg with veteran announcers Bud Foster and Cliff Haynes and, of all people. Curt Flood, whose tilts against the reserve clause in the dark ages of owner-player warfare contributed to Finley's troubles with his championship players. It also has not been easy to read in detail about the A's, because newspapers have for the moment virtually abandoned the team. No paper sent a reporter with Oakland on its first road trip out of California; the missing included the Oakland Tribune, which had never before failed to cover an A's game.

Amid all the confusion and unexpected success, A's Manager Bobby Winkles has kept his wits about him. After Essian's hit and a Minnesota error had given the A's a second straight extra-inning win last Wednesday, Winkles said, "I look great right now, sure." Then, ambling off to the showers, he added, "But once we start losing a few, I'll be a jackass all over again."

There is, of course, one thing to be said for working for Finley's A's—you're never the only jackass around.


As a typical Oakland throng watched, ancient Pete Broberg, 28, started his team's sixth straight win.