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A Tricky Mix of Young and Old

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The athletics were a different team without Mark McGwire. Just how much they missed him was obvious when he returned to the clubhouse one day last month after back spasms had kepi him out for a week of spring training. "Glad to see you back in uniform," teammate Mike Aldrete said, "because we're glad to sec the doughnuts are back."

Each morning for the past three springs, McGwire has stopped on his way to the A's camp in Phoenix to buy doughnuts for the team. "Three dozen for nine bucks: you can't beat it," he says. "I guess the girl at the store finally figured out who I was. So she says to me, 'They let you guys eat those things?' "

Truth is, no team is counting on as many veterans to make comebacks as Oakland is, and they had better bring more than jelly-filled and Bavarian-cream to the table. McGwire played in only 27 games last season because of an injury to his left heel that required surgery. Rightfielder Ruben Sierra batted a career-worst .233 after adding too much upper-body bulk. Several others are trying to respond to a situation more troubling than injury: facing the question of how much they have left.

Leading off the lineup of the Oakland aged is Rickey I Henderson, 35, who was signed as a free agent alter hitting .205 in 210 at bats, including postseason, with Toronto. The group also includes Ron Darling, 33, who won only five of 29 starts; Bob Welch, 37, whose 28 starts resulted in 20 Oakland losses; and even Dennis Eckersley, 39, who posted his worst ERA (4.16) in eight years. Those three pitchers were 16-24 with a 5.05 ERA last season after combining for a 33-18 record and 3.21 ERA the previous year.

"It's hard to know what's left in people," Eckersley says. "You certainly can't question the desire. It's a matter of the level of skill. For me, I know the older I've gotten, the more it becomes a motivating factor. Hey, I don't want to get older. I'm vain. I admit it."

The A's are caught in an awkward transition. They have a core of young players emerging, including second baseman Brent Gates and pitchers Todd Van Poppel and Steve Karsay. But even after a 94-loss season, the team remains committed to whatever vestiges are left from a five-year run that brought them four division titles, the last in 1992.

"Last year was very difficult," Darling says. "This team had been so established that the older guys didn't want to accept the younger guys. And the younger guys couldn't understand why they weren't being accepted into the fraternity. Now I don't think it's a problem. Now the older guys know we need the younger guys to have a good year."

Returns by Darling and Welch, as well as the continued reengineering of righthander Bobby Witt, are especially critical because they would ease the indoctrination of Van Poppel and Karsay, Oakland's 22-year-old starters. "Welchy and I don't have to win 40, but 30, 28 or something in that area," Darling says. "We've got to get lots of innings so that when the young guys pitch, the pressure's not on them to give the bullpen a break. When they start, you want to be able to take them out of the game on a positive note."

Says manager Tony La Russa about his rotation, "We've got to get three guys going good. That's what you have to do to win."

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PHOTO

V.J. LOVERO

Javier will try to take his full-time job and run with it.