For the last three seasons, the Oakland A's have spent September mathematically eliminating opponents and setting up their pitching rotation for the playoffs. Not this year. Oakland's string of three straight American League pennants has come to an inglorious end. After a lifeless 6-0 loss to the White Sox on Sept. 18, A's manager Tony La Russa closed the clubhouse doors, blasted his team and canceled the postgame spread by dismissing the caterers. "The way we're playing," said A's pitcher Dave Stewart, "we shouldn't be hungry after the game."
On Aug. 11, the A's were 64-48, three games out of first place and seemingly primed to make a run at their fourth consecutive American League West title. Since then, however, they have gone 14-23, and at week's end they were only three games out of last.
Still, La Russa insists, "I don't think it's the beginning of a decline. It's not like a lot of guys are over the hill."
Not everyone agrees. Some say the A's got old in a hurry. Stewart and Bob Welch, who combined for 49 wins last year, have won 22 this season; both will be 35 next year. Dennis Eckersley, 36, has been a very good reliever but not the untouchable closer he was from '88 to '90. Third baseman Carney Lansford, who played in only five games this year because of a knee injury, will be 35 when next season begins; the question is whether he will ever be effective again.
Then there's first baseman Mark McGwire, the only man ever to hit 30 homers in each of his first four major league seasons. He had only 20 at week's end, with 71 RBIs, and was hitting .200. A's hitting coach Rick Burleson has publicly criticized McGwire for not making adjustments at the plate. "His swing is so long and he pulls off the ball so badly that he never hits a line drive," says one American League scout. "It's always a fly ball." As always, there is the question of which Rickey Henderson will show up in Oakland next year—the one who won the league MVP award in 1990 or the one who had 13 homers and was hitting .253 through Sunday. Henderson moped and pouted in spring training because the A's wouldn't renegotiate his contract, and he never really got going this season. "If he has any pride, which he does, he will come back next year because people think he's a dog after this year," said one of the A's.
There has been no dog in Jose Canseco this year—he'd matched his career-high with 42 homers through Sunday—but he still enjoys barking. He complained last week about the home fans booing him.
La Russa might have had his two superstars, Henderson and Canseco, in mind when he talked about the attitude problems of some of today's players. "There's a big, big potential danger in this game now," he says. "Players get more attention, more money. If you understand it's Fantasy Island, you know you're lucky to be playing. You're careful to preserve it. But too many guys think, Hey, the team is lucky to have me. They take it for granted, they abuse it. Their frame of mind gets warped. I see it a lot these days."
Still, La Russa is confident that he will have Henderson and Canseco at their best in '92 and that with two or three personnel moves, the A's will once again be strong contenders. Stewart, too, thinks the A's will be back. "We had some attitude problems, but they can be adjusted for next year," he says. "When we're home watching other teams play in October, that will be enough to wake us up."
Farewell, My Lovely
This is the final season for one of baseball's most storied ballparks, Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. "The House of Magic" has provided the stage for the best third baseman in American League history, Brooks Robinson; fellow Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Frank Robinson; and should-be Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Larl Weaver. As one who saw and covered hundreds of games there, I'll always remember Memorial Stadium for the grace of Paul Blair in centerfield...the elegance of shortstop Mark Belanger...the 0-21 start in 1988...the 50,402 fans who came out to support that team when it was 1-23...the remarkable turnaround team of 1989...great, great pitching...catcher Rick Dempsey's pantomime routines during rain delays...an aging Brooks's 268th and last homer, a pinch-hit, three-run blast that beat the Indians 6-5 in 1977...the night in 1980 when base runner John Lowenstein was carried off on a stretcher after getting hit by a throw, only to abruptly sit up and raise his arms in triumph just before entering the dugout.
If a single game could capture the magic of Memorial Stadium, it was the one on Aug. 24, 1983, against the Blue Jays. The Orioles tied the score 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, but there were so many player moves that Lenn Sakata, a 5'9" infielder, made his first and only professional appearance as a catcher in the 10th. After a solo homer by Toronto's Cliff Johnson and a single by Barry Bonnell off Baltimore's Tim Stoddard, Oriole reliever Tippy Martinez came on. He picked off Bonnell. Dave Collins walked, but Martinez picked him off. Willie Upshaw singled, and Martinez picked him off too. In the bottom of the 10th, Sakata hit a three-run homer to win the game 7-4.
"People think Tippy had the greatest pickoff move ever because of that game," says Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan, with a laugh, "but Tippy had the worst move of any lefty I've ever known. I don't remember him ever picking off another runner. I'm serious."
The O's will have a fine new facility in 1992, but the thrills of Memorial Stadium won't soon be forgotten.
Hits and Misses
Cincinnati's Hal Morris, who as of Sunday had a league-leading .321 batting average, could finish with the lowest number of hits by a National League batting champ since the Pirates' Bill Madlock (153) in 1983, a season in which Madlock missed 32 games due to injuries. Morris's low total—he had 143 hits at week's end—is because he often doesn't play against lefties. Through Sunday, he had sat against 32 lefthanded starters. He was hitting .255 with one homer against lefties, .339 with 11 homers against righties.
Cal Ripken Jr. had more than 30 homers and 40 doubles through Sunday, the first shortstop in major league history to achieve those levels in the same season....
Most catchers take off their masks for tag plays at the plate so that they can see the incoming throw better. Seattle catcher Scott Bradley leaves his mask on. On Sept. 18, Toronto's Rob Ducey tried to steamroll Bradley at the plate and was knocked unconscious when his head hit the latter's mask. Bradley says that if he can catch Randy Johnson's 97-mph fastball with his mask on, he can catch a throw from an outfielder with it on too.
McGwire's decline in productivity is one of many A's ills.
Even after the Orioles depart Memorial Stadium, sweet baseball memories will linger.
BETWEEN THE LINES
•Spectator on the Base Paths
The baserunning gaffe of the season was committed by the Dodgers' Brett Butler on Sept. 16. The scene: bottom of the 11th inning, L.A.'s Jose Offerman on third, Butler on first, one out and the game against the Reds tied 3-3. The Dodgers' Lenny Harris hits a grounder to third. Offerman tries to score but fails to touch the plate and is tagged out. Harris, however, is called out when he passes Butler who, inexplicably, stood watching the play at home. "I was ready to run home and hug [Offerman]," says Butler. "I don't know what I was thinking." The Dodgers did win the game 6-5 in the 12th.
•Spoken Like a True Ballplayer
On a flight from Ontario, Calif., to Chicago in the early morning of Sept. 16, one of the two engines on the White Sox's chartered plane blew out, causing the plane to make an emergency landing in Des Moines. "I thought we were going to die," said White Sox pitcher Charlie Hough. "I was ticked, because it was only two days from payday."
•Say, Didn't You Used To Be Donnie Scott?
Reds catcher Donnie Scott, 30, who recently played in his first major league game since 1985, is a good example of the power of persistence. He was released from the Orioles' organization in April 1987, got his bartender's license and also worked as a groundskeeper at a golf course. "I didn't think I'd play again," he said. But Scott hooked on with the Brewers' chain and then with the Reds' before his recall to Cincinnati on Sept. 1. "One of the umpires asked me the other day, 'Do you know another Donnie Scott who played for Texas in the '80s?' " said Scott. "I told him, 'I think you're thinking of me.' "
•By the Numbers
>With six assists in an 11-day stretch that ended on Sunday, Oriole outfielder Joe Orsulak ran his major league-leading total to 20, equaling the 1990-91 total of the Philadelphia 76ers' backup center, Manute Bol.