Scrapbook Memories celebrates the 20th anniversary of Oakland's last World Series triumph. Since the day they set foot in Arizona some seven months prior, the A's mission for 1989 was clear; a wildly successful 1988 season had ended with a thud, leaving a sour taste in their collective mouths, and a sense of unfinished business.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Redemption City. The A's began the '89 campaign sans the services of reigning MVP Jose Canseco, who would miss the team's first 88 games. Fellow Rookies-of-the-Year Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss also spent considerable time on the disabled list. And Dennis Eckersley, who of all the A's had the most to prove, was lost for 40 contests. As a bullpen by committee kept Oakland in the hunt, Eck would later say all the injuries turned out to be a blessing in disguise:
"You really don't know what you have until you're forced to depend on it."
But it wasn't just the casualties that made for a tougher-than-expected run to the American League West crown, it was the season-long push by the California Angels and Kansas City Royals.
All summer long the A's were neck-and-neck with their division rivals, but as the calendar turned to September, Tony La Russa understood the luxury that comes with having a roster full of players who get a certain itch this time of year:
"The expression in our clubhouse is ‘for the money'. There's no doubt that one of the advantages of being in contention is, whether it's late August or September, you come to the ballpark and get that extra juice. When you get close to the end, you smell it. You get some extra pop."
The A's had "extra pop" to compensate for an injured Canseco.
After dropping an extra-inning affair to Milwaukee to open the month, the A's bashed the Brew Crew by scores of 7-2 and 5-0 to conclude an 8-5 trip, and looked to the comforts of home to bring them, well, home. La Russa cautioned against the idea that his club was in the driver's seat, not with the Royals looming just 2.5 games back:
"I think it comes down to a series of challenges. That's why you can't point at one or another will get you. Now we've got Boston. What we've got to do is get home and keep playing good baseball."
The Red Sox got the jump on the three-game series with an 8-5 win, and sent out Roger Clemens in the second contest, who entered with a 1-5 lifetime record against the A's. Opportunistic as ever, Oakland struck for four unearned runs in the second inning, with the only hit a two-run, two-bagger off the bat of Carney Lansford. The Rocket left after seven innings having allowed only three hits, but found himself down 5-1, a victim of shoddy defense and uncharacteristic wildness (five walks). While Clemens showered, the A's put the game out of reach with an 8-run eighth, as the first eight batters reached base. The next day, a Dave Parker grand slam highlighted a 7-5 victory that pushed the A's division lead to a season-high 4.5 games, and reduced their magic number to 19.
Up next were the New York Yankees, and a curious September trend was taking shape. Once again an Oakland opponent gained the upper hand with a victory in the first of a three-game set. And as they had done against Milwaukee and Boston, the A's came back to win the series. Mike Moore spun a complete-game, four-hit shutout while three of his teammates (Rickey, Jose, and Dave Henderson) homered in a 7-0 win, and in the finale, Dave Parker played the hitting hero once more with a first-inning, two-run blast that sent the A's on their way to a 6-2 triumph.
The A's split a two-game set with the Brewers by identical 7-6 scores, but their win felt more like a loss, at least to the man who ended up with the "W" next to his name. Before embarking on a ten-game road trip, La Russa sent Dave Stewart to the mound, in search of his 20th victory. Stew was less than stellar but still left after seven with a 6-4 lead. In came Eck for a two-inning save. He retired future Hall-of-Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount in a 1-2-3 eighth. Eckersley struck out Rob Deer to start the ninth. B.J. Surhoff singled to bring up Greg Vaughn, who homered to tie the game. Gone was the lead and Stewart's milestone. Stunned, Eck bore down to get the next two batters, and Dave Henderson saved the savior with a walk-off homerun leading off the bottom half. In the winning clubhouse afterwards, the two local boys took turns feeling sorry for each other:
"This is the absolute worst you can feel after a win", Eckersley said. "I'd give it back in a second. It hasn't sunk in yet, but I feel horrible."
"As far as I'm concerned, Eck's saved me 1,000 times", Stewart said. "I told him that."
In retrospect the A's may have let the bittersweet victory linger a little longer than they should have, and it showed in an ugly three-game sweep at Fenway Park. Even Roger Clemens beat them, as Oakland fell by scores of 7-2, 5-2, and 7-6, and committed seven errors in the process.
Next stop was Cleveland, and Stew was back on the hill for his second attempt at Number 20. He left after eight, with the A's ahead 2-1, having allowed just four hits. And then it happened. Again. Brook Jacoby took Eckersley deep for a game-tying homerun. Better now than in October, eh? The resilient A's rebounded again, with tenth-inning RBI knocks by Dave Henderson (who else?) and Tony Phillips to win it 4-2. The post-game mood was jovial compared to the first time, perhaps because the A's were happy to escape with a victory after the Boston Massacre.
"I think Eck is just trying to get to 20 before Stew", said Henderson through his famous gap-toothed grin that broke up all listeners in the A's clubhouse.
Mike Moore needed no late-game heroics from Hendu (or any other "A") as he tossed eight shutout innings at the Indians, and the A's finished off the sweep with an 8-6 win the next night.
Wins were suddenly coming in bunches as the A's eked out a 2-1 decision in Minnesota to open a four-game series, and Stewart- finally- got his 20th victory to run Oakland's streak to five games.
All that was left to put the finishing touches on a trying- but ultimately successful- season was to get home and clinch the division in front of friendly faces. The A's split their remaining two games in Minnesota and boarded a plane for Oakland with the title theirs for the taking. A 3-2 loss to Texas merely delayed the inevitable as a hard-fought 3-2 win the following night left their magic number at 1.
On September 27, I took my cousin Scott to the game. We arrived late; in fact we missed a Canseco missile in the first inning. We didn't miss much else. Neither did the A's. On display was the underrated part of this juggernaut: its defense. All season long, when player after player went down, two guys rose up: Tony Phillips and Mike Gallego. Yeah, you're saying "who?" if you're not an A's fan, but we knew how important they were. So did their teammates. That night, my second clincher in as many years, Phillips and Gallego, along with Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss, put together a highlight reel of defensive gems, all of which led to Oakland's 20th shutout of the season, and a second straight AL West crown. La Russa spoke in a reverent tone afterwards:
"There are three things that figure in this: the repeat factor, the injuries, and more importantly, the quality of competition this year. This club feels very good about itself. If you win with all those things, that's a hell of an accomplishment."
"We got a hell of a team."