Sandy Alderson is baseball's best dresser, which is not to say he's among baseball's best-dressed. On the day last week that Alderson dressed Willie McGee in an Oakland Athletics uniform, for instance, he dressed himself in blue jeans and a muted blue Hawaiian shirt. The day before, Alderson put Harold Baines in the home whites of the A's, but he put himself in khaki shorts and white sneakers.
These are the clothes Alderson wears to work as the vice-president of baseball operations for the world champion Athletics. But if you think Alderson suffers sartorially in the company of the rest of baseball's general managers, think again. As the Sept. 1 deadline for setting postseason rosters passed, the game's G.M.s came clothed in one of two fall fashion lines: There were those wearing barrels, and there was Alderson, dressed in fleece.
"I'm mad," says Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell, whose team, it appears, will be fed to Oakland in the American League playoffs.
"It's unbelievable," says Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan.
It is. As of Aug. 28, the day before the trades, the A's had lost five of their last seven games, had recently lost center-fielder Dave Henderson to a knee injury, had watched Jose Canseco struggle with back ailments and had begun to hear gleeful whispers from around the league: Ha! Look at Oakland! Chinks in the armor!
If there are chinks, said Alderson & Co., we will fill them. And they did, with gold.
Other contenders, of course, made their own last-minute repairs for the stretch drive. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Zane Smith and Carmelo Martinez. The New York Mets traded for Tommy Herr, Pat Tabler and Charlie O'Brien. The Cincinnati Reds picked up Bill Doran. And the Red Sox bagged relief pitcher Larry Andersen. Not exactly the kind of moves to strike fear in opponents' hearts. No white flags were reported.
Alderson, meanwhile, traded two minor leaguers—players to be named later—to the Texas Rangers for designated hitter Baines, an All-Star in four of his last six seasons. While Baines is batting .285 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs this season, he has hit .333 in 36 lifetime at bats against Roger Clemens and .367 in 49 at-bats against Mike Boddicker. Clemens and Boddicker are righthanded; Baines bats lefty. Clemens and Boddicker are Boston's aces; Baines is one of baseball's most notorious clutch hitters. (Warming up for a Labor Day clash with the Red Sox, Baines, on Sunday, hit a homer in Oakland's 4-2 win over Texas.)
Three hours after the Baines announcement broke loose, on Aug. 29, the A's announced that all hell had done the same. Alderson had peddled reserve outfielder Felix (the Other) Jose, who had been filling in for the injured Henderson, and two more minor leaguers to St. Louis for centerfielder McGee, whose .335 average with the Cardinals may well be good enough to win the National League batting race—at just about the time McGee swings into the American League Championship Series.
Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart admitted to being astonished that Baines and McGee could be gotten "as easy as we got them. I figured it would take a lot more than two minor leaguers to get Harold Baines."
So did White Sox general manager Larry Himes, who also figured it would take a team outside the AL West, the Rangers' own division, to land Baines. "Texas has spent a lot of time building a contender," says Himes, whose team trailed Oakland by 6½ games as of Sunday. "Why they would then trade Harold Baines to Oakland, I don't know."
You have to hand it to Alderson and the Athletics, and at times baseball appears to be doing just that. You may wonder why teams keep trading with Alderson, why his counterparts even get on the phone with him, go near him, lest they lose a limb and a leadoff hitter. The overwhelming perception after last week's deals was, once again, that only Oakland could have pulled them off.
"I don't know if that's the perception," says Alderson, 42, a soft-spoken, curly-haired, bespectacled attorney given to the careful measuring of words. "But I'm aware that that is at least a commentary, and it's unfair. A lot of [our success] has to do with our nucleus, which allows us to compete. A lot has to do with luck. A lot has to do with 15th-round draft choices."
All of which have to do with Alderson, whose moves no longer amaze A's relief stud Dennis Eckersley (himself an Alderson acquisition, plucked from the Chicago Cubs in a trade for three minor leaguers in 1987). "It's not a surprise," Eck said when Baines and McGee became A's. "When we got Rickey last year, that was a shock. I'm not surprised at anything after that."
Rickey, of course, is Rickey Henderson, baseball's best leadoff hitter, the American League's top hitter this season and a front-runner for the league's MVP award. In June last year, the New York Yankees shipped Henderson to Oakland. Oakland shipped the Yankees a package. When the Yankees turned the box upside down and shook out the styrofoam packing peanuts, they found...nothing, in the persons of Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk and Luis Polonia. Henderson, in turn, became the MVP of the '89 playoffs, hitting .441 for Oakland in the league championship and the World Series.
That deal, understandably, put starch in the shorts of Alderson's rivals, and most of them are still chafing. "Who the hell's got Rickey Henderson?" says Himes. The question is rhetorical. "Who the hell's got Jose Canseco? Dennis Eckersley? They're one of the best teams in all of baseball—not just in this generation or era."
The A's have the leading hitter in the American League (Henderson). The A's have the second-leading hitter in the National League (McGee). The A's have the second-and third-most prolific home run hitters in either league (Canseco and Mark McGwire). The A's have two of the best starting pitchers in the game (Bob Welch and Stewart). The A's have the best reliever in baseball (Eckersley). The A's have the best player in baseball (Canseco). Take a breath, and we'll continue in the next paragraph.
The A's have current or former All-Stars at catcher, first base, second base, third base, leftfield, centerfield, right-field, designated hitter, starting pitcher (three of them) and reliever. In all, the A's have 13 players who have made a total of 40 appearances in the All-Star Game. "We realize the team has a chance to be remembered as one of the good ones," says Alderson, "and we're trying to fulfill that."
Thus, last week's trades—both of which could have been prevented by any team in the big leagues. Because McGee and Baines were dealt after the July 31 trading deadline, both had to clear waivers before they could be traded. Every player that a team could conceivably want to trade is put on waivers after July 31—the White Sox even listed Carlton Fisk, for instance—and more than 600 names are on the waiver wire in August. Had any other team put a claim on Baines or McGee, the A's could not have traded for them.
Scientists don't yet fully understand baseball's waiver rules, which have been around for decades but are still evolving. Suffice it to say that it is the arcane and labyrinthian system that caused Pirate general manager Larry Doughty last week to accidentally waive two top minor league prospects (outfielders Wes Chamberlain and Julio Peguero) who are now the properties of the Philadelphia Phillies. "Nobody understands [the waiver system]," says Himes. "It's a stupid bleeping rule. I don't have a physics degree, either. It's ridiculous. It's stupid."
"I kind of like the waiver rule," says Alderson. "I kind of enjoy the old rules that don't seem to have any relevance anymore. It's not the attorney in me; it's the Fenway Park in me. What," he says as he sweeps his hand across the antiseptic outfield of the Oakland Coliseum, "is so beautiful about a symmetrical wall?"
Understanding the waiver system, with its odd angles and ivy-covered corners, doesn't require a physics degree. Understanding the waiver system may, however, require a degree from Harvard Law School, which Alderson happens to have, along with a B.A. from Dartmouth. He went to law school from the Marine Corps, for which he served in Vietnam. After Harvard he joined a San Francisco law firm. One of the partners there, Roy Eisenhardt, became the A's president in 1980, when his father-in-law, Walter Haas, bought the team. Alderson was brought on as Oakland's general counsel. In 1983, Alderson became general manager; his only baseball knowledge was that which he'd picked up as an Air Force brat.
"Because I was always moving, I had the luxury of shifting allegiances," he says. "I liked the White Sox, the Washington Senators. I never liked the A's much. I liked the Milwaukee Braves for a long time—I still remember getting Hank Aaron's autograph in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1958."
Twenty-nine years later in Dallas, at the '87 winter meetings, Alderson got the autographs of Welch, Dave Parker and Matt Young on Oakland contracts after trading for them. Ten days later he signed Dave Henderson. "There has never been a time since December of 1987 that we've exceeded expectations," says Alderson. The A's can only meet expectations, and then only by mulching their National League opponent in the World Series.
This has bred some healthy paranoia on the team. "We need to win the division and we need to win the division fast," said one member of the A's organization last week. The reasons: Canseco is playing hurt and playing badly; Dave Henderson, the team's clubhouse firestarter and one of the most dramatic postseason performers in the game, won't return from his Aug. 24 arthroscopic knee surgery until the end of September, at the earliest; and starting shortstop Walt Weiss is on the disabled list with a strained right side. "Despite what some people think," says Alderson, "we had serious concerns about winning the division." In short, the Athletics, though Alderson won't admit to looking beyond September, believe they needed to acquire the players they did, when they did. By clinching the division title early, some of their regulars can rest for the playoffs.
To be sure, Baines and McGee are more than insurance, and both have come at a premium. For now, Oakland will pay Baines the last month of his $1.1 million annual salary and give McGee the last month of his $1.5 million pay. However, as Eckersley says, "This organization is not afraid to spend money."
"Money has never been a problem," says Himes. "That's indicated not only by Canseco, but on down the line." That line, that bottom line, is filled with zeroes. Rickey Henderson signed a four-year, $12 million deal; in June, Canseco signed a contract for five years, $23.5 million; and Stewart and Eckersley have signed contract extensions full of more big numbers. Baines has two more years left on his contract, and McGee can become a free agent after this season. If the A's, whose payroll for next season could be the biggest in the game, choose to keep McGee, they will have to pay him something like $10 million for four years. If they don't resign McGee, the A's will get two high draft picks as compensation, a fact not lost on Alderson. McGee may be joined in free agency by Welch, a leading Cy Young candidate with a 22-5 record through Sunday, who is expected to command similar numbers (box, page 31).
"We realize from time to time that we're forced to make choices," says Alderson. "I do it with my checkbook; we do it with Walter Haas's checkbook. We made decisions last December with Dave Parker and Storm Davis."
Davis was 19-7 last season, but Oakland nevertheless allowed him to sign as a free agent with the Royals in December. Davis is 7-10 this year, and Alderson remains infallible.
Parker is baseball's best designated hitter, and was the only formidable lefthanded batter in the Oakland lineup. The Athletics let him sign with Milwaukee in December. At week's end Parker was hitting .309 with 20 homers and 85 RBIs. Alderson is not infallible.
But wait. For Parker, the Brewers gave the A's the 14th pick in last June's draft. Alderson used it to select Todd Van Poppel, the best pitching prospect in the land, who was, by his own declaration, supposed to attend the University of Texas this fall. Van Poppel's fastball is instead popping in the A's minor league system.
"We've done as much as we can do," Alderson finally said of the front office last week. He was standing on green grass in the sunshine at the time, his arms folded over his short-sleeved floral-print shirt. His words, however, were not those of a man about to take a vacation.
McGee could still win the NL batting title.
Baines is known as a Red Sox wrecker.
Alderson is as serious about augmenting the A's as he is casual about his office attire.
Some thought Alderson and the A's made a mistake letting Parker go to Milwaukee...
...but the resultant draft pick brought Van Poppel, the country's top pitching prospect.