Scrapbook Memories celebrates the 20th anniversary of Oakland's last World Series triumph.
The A's opened the month of May looking up at the Texas Rangers, one game off the pace in the American League West; the major's toughest division in 1989. Tony La Russa's team not only survived minus the services of Jose Canseco- the reigning MVP missed all of April with an injured left wrist- it excelled. The A's bolted out of the gate with an 18-8 record.
As he did to start the season, Mark McGwire homered in Oakland's first game of May, and it came in grand style. No one could have counted on this meeting between the A's and the Blue Jays to be an early ALCS preview, what with Toronto struggling at 9-16 heading into their two-game set with the defending American League champions. Ultimately the Jays would slump to 12-24, at which point they fired manager Jimy Williams, and replaced him with Cito Gaston.
The host Blue Jays jumped out to a 4-0 first inning lead, and were clinging ever so precariously to a 5-4 advantage with three outs to go. After the first two A's struck out to start the ninth, Luis Polonia and Dave Henderson singled, and Dave Parker worked a walk to load the bases. Up stepped McGwire, who turned on a Tom Henke fastball for a game-winning grand slam. Said a smiling Hendu afterwards:
"Once we get this machine rolling, watch out league."
If and when the Green Machine took the night off, the A's would turn to ace Dave Stewart to bail them out. Stew ran his record to 6-0 with a 5-3 decision over the Detroit Tigers. The next night Oakland fell 6-3, and while the A's (20-10) held on to first place despite the loss, the news off the field was nowhere near as cheery:
With Mr. 40-40's rehabilitation suffering a major setback, his Bash Brother McGwire picked up the slack with his eighth homerun as the A's took the series from Detroit, thanks to a hard-fought 5-4 victory. McGwire's long ball leading off the seventh came moments after the Tigers had tied the game at three. Surgery on the most famous hamate bone in team history was ruled a success, but Canseco would not appear in a game that counted until after the All-Star Break.
And still the A's played on. After winning four of seven on their tour through Toronto, Detroit, and Baltimore, they returned home to take three of four from Milwaukee, and two of three from New York and Boston.
Dave Henderson sent the 30,000-plus fans in attendance home happy with a two-run, walk-off homerun on May 12, as Oakland beat the Brewers, 5-4. Pinch-hitter Billy Beane started the late rally with a one-out double. Milwaukee looked to return the favor the next night, scoring three runs in the ninth, and cutting a 4-0 deficit to a single run. But Dennis Eckersely got future A's coach and current Red Sox manager Terry Francona to pop up to third base to end it. Two days later the A's bashed the Brew Crew, 12-2, with Hendu again the hitting hero (2-for-3, HR, two runs, 3 RBI's). Interestingly enough, Francona appeared in that game as a pitcher, retiring the side in order, and striking out Stan Javier on three pitches.
The Yankees were next in line, and they drew first blood with a 3-2 win. New York took an early 3-0 lead the next night, but the score was the least of Tony La Russa's concerns, as shortstop Walt Weiss was knocked out of the game attempting to turn a double play. His replacement Tony Phillips promptly hit a two-run homerun, and the A's stormed back to win, 8-3. Before a Thursday afternoon crowd of 40,758, the walking wounded pounced on New York again, 6-2.
I remember the next game against Boston all too well. Stationed in my usual seat seven rows up in Section 127, I saw the A's score two in the ninth to tie the game at three, but fail to win it when McGwire hit into a bases-full, inning-ending double play. The Red Sox loaded the bases in the tenth with no outs, and La Russa turned to Eckersley to work his magic. Facing former teammate Dwight Evans, Eck gave up a game-breaking grand slam. The closer was swiftly removed, as we sat stunned in our seats.
But those resilient A's got up off the mat once more and beat Boston the next two games to win their eighth consecutive series of three or more games (they had swept one two-game set and split three others during that time). Eck saved both games, the first for Stew, who was making his 101st consecutive start without missing a turn, logging over 700 innings in three years. La Russa, who in his first game as A's manager in 1986, sent Stew to face Roger Clemens, in what is widely considered as the beginning of the next dynasty, even if it took a couple of seasons to come to fruition:
"Pitchers like Stew, they simply do what it takes to give themselves a chance. Today Dave threw 40 pitchers in the first two innings. But he hung in there and worked his way out of it. It's his mark as a great pitcher that he can do that. This place ought to be packed every time he pitches."
Said Eck after saving Stew's win, a night after bombing out to Boston:
"Now I can get some sleep tonight. It was a rough night. I'm glad my wife wasn't home. She was on her way to a college reunion or she wouldn't have gotten any sleep either. I was doing a lot of rolling around."
The second win- the one to close out the 7-3 homestand- came at the expense of Oakland's favorite whipping boy, Roger Clemens, who could not have picked a better day to face the A's. Not only had his nemesis Stewart pitched the day before, but the A's trudged out a lineup missing Canseco, McGwire, Weiss, and Henderson. And still the good guys won, 5-4, leaving their manager to shake his head in wonderment after the A's defeated one of the league's premier pitchers with a makeshift batting order:
"Scared ‘em to death, didn't we?", said La Russa in a giddy moment afterward.
All of baseball was surely frightened of that amazing ball club from Oakland who, after defusing the Rocket, stood at 29-14, tops in the majors. Simply put the A's found ways to win, and not having their power did not make them any less powerful. Said Eck:
"It motivates us. We want to win because Jose's not here. We want to show we're a team, and not just a couple of sluggers."
After dropping two of three in Milwaukee, the A's swept a three-game set at Yankee Stadium, the first two without allowing a run. All told the Yankees scored three runs in the series. Todd Burns was sensational in the opener, combining with Rick Honeycutt and Eric Plunk to one-hit the Bronx Bombers (a fourth-inning single by Rickey Henderson was New York's lone knock).
The injury bug struck the A's once more the next night, as Eckersely hurt his shoulder during the A's 3-0 win. Like Canseco, the closer would not return to action until after the Break, missing a total of forty games. Without Eck, Oakland lost two ten-inning heart-breakers in Boston, sandwiched around a 4-2 win that saw Stewart run his record to 9-2. That closed out a 5-4 trip, and the A's said goodbye to May with a 34-18 record, good enough for a first-place tie with the California Angels. Unlike the Rangers, who began the month atop the division but now sat five games back, the Halos would not go away so easily.
Oakland's aura of invincibility would be severely tested over the next four months, not only by California, but by Kansas City as well. But the A's had one thing going for them, despite the nagging injuries, for which they made no excuses: Carney Lansford. The San Jose-born third baseman headed into June with gaudy numbers (.356/.419/.468), and the type of leadership that would not allow the A's to slip:
"The most consistently excellent part of that club was the grind-it-out, competitive attitude,'' La Russa said. "That's not really glamorous, but that club played hard every stinking day because of guys like Carney."