Scrapbook Memories celebrates the 20th anniversary of Oakland's last World Series triumph. In this segment, we look back at a closer-than-it-seemed American League Championship Series.
I was barely a month into 2nd grade the night the Swingin' A's wrapped up their third consecutive World Series title. So I remembered, but I didn't really remember, you know?
Thankfully I had older siblings who were all-too-pleased to share stories of the Mustache Gang. Those tales were especially helpful from 1977-79, also known as the leanest years in Oakland A's history. Not that anyone noticed. While the A's stumbled to 99 losses a year, only the most loyal fans (ahem) were there to cheer them on; the team averaged 5,470 paying customers over those three dismal seasons.
Billy Ball brought brief relief, but from 1982-84, the A's were pretty much Rickey Henderson, and not much else. Though not a single soul could have predicted it, the direction of the club began to change on July 7, 1986, when Tony La Russa made his Oakland debut and inserted Dave Stewart to start opposite Roger Clemens, well on his way to both the American League MVP and Cy Young awards. Before a nationwide audience, Stewart, who had bounced around both leagues his first six years in the bigs, bested Clemens (behind homeruns by Dave Kingman and the A's own rising star, Jose Canseco), 6-4.
All the pieces were in place for a World Series revival in 1988. The A's boasted the league's MVP in Canseco, a third straight Rookie of the Year in shortstop Walt Weiss, the top manager in La Russa, and best bullpen in the business. That it ended the way it did, it not only left a sour taste in the mouths of the Oakland A's, it left one in mine. When would my turn come?
Turns out I wouldn't have to wait very long. (Even though it felt like forever).
The 1989 American League Championship Series started on a Tuesday evening in Oakland with the Toronto Blue Jays standing in our way of a return to the Fall Classic. My sister Rose and I were back in our customary seats in Section 127, Row 7. Dave Stewart was on the hill and, well, he was the Stew We All Knew. Struggled at the start (three runs in the first four frames), settled down (allowed just one baserunner in the next four innings), and got himself a 7-3 win.
Oakland played Bashball in the early going to keep them in it. Dave Henderson homered to pull the A's to within 2-1 in the third, and an RBI-single by Dave Parker made it 3-2 Jays after five. Mark McGwire's blast to left leading off the bottom of the sixth tied the game, and the A's would not trail again.
Rickey Henderson was also a big hit. Without even getting a hit. While the middle of the lineup provided the power, Rickey wreaked havoc in every other way. He set the tone for an unforgettable series by walking to lead off the game, and promptly stealing second base. With two men on and one out in the game-altering sixth, Rickey was hit by a pitch. Carney Lansford then hit a shot to short for a sure inning-ending double play, but Henderson slid hard into second and Nelson Liriano's throw to first sailed wide, scoring Tony Phillips and Mike Gallego with the lead runs. In the bottom of the eighth, the speedster walked, stole second, and came home on a single by Lansford. "Rickey Runs", folks.
Rickey ran even more in Game 2, adding a little relish to the festivities. Once again, I was present with Rose. Jose Canseco was not, out with a migraine. Maybe in 1988, that would have been cause for concern. But these A's were too good, too focused. And their manager didn't mince words in making that point:
"We have proven we can win without Jose Canseco. Could we have done it last year? I don't know. All I know is that it's better that we practiced being without Jose for three months. It made us a better, tougher team."
While Jose's noggin was hurtin', Rickey, with a little help from his friends, caused more than a few headaches up north. The top of the order made the most noise, with the first four batters collecting seven of Oakland's nine hits, including some valet work by Parker, who parked one into the seats in the sixth. The very top of the order- yes, that guy- was noisy, nagging, and not to be denied. Two hits in two at-bats, two walks, two runs scored, and a playoff-record four steals. Rickey also clapped his hands, pumped his fists, shimmied at third base, chatted with fans, and earned himself a Sports Illustrated cover. Oh, and he ruffled more than a few, blue feathers on the opposing team:
"Rickey hasn't changed since he was a little kid. He could strut before he could walk, and he always lived for the lights. When he was 10, we used to say, 'Don't let Rickey get to you, because that's his game.' Twenty years later, I'm telling my teammates the same thing. But it didn't do much good."
The Toronto scouting report began with "Keep Henderson off base." Sure. In the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, as Dave Stieb got ready to deliver his first pitch, Henderson called time, stepped out of the box and tied his shoe. "He was saying, ‘I'm going to get to you, and you can't beat me,' "said Moseby. "That's Rickey."
Indeed. The Blue Jays were less than appreciative of what they perceived to be excessive showboating from their opponents. Third baseman Kelly Gruber felt Dave Parker's home run trot was a bit too pedestrian for his taste, and catcher Ernie Whitt accused Rickey of "hotdogging" when he stole second base standing up in Game 2. Rickey's reply? "I can steal on Whitt whenever I want."
So when the ALCS moved across the border, Rickey reiterated his retort by whispering to Whitt as he stepped to the plate in the first inning of Game 3: "I can steal on you anytime I want." Meanwhile Parker went deep again and made sure to take the scenic route around the bases, stopping to glare at Gruber. Afterwards, the veteran offered this gem:
"What is the Kelly Gruber School of Baseball Etiquette? Have you ever heard of anyone who graduated from it?"
Almost as if the bullied grew tired of the bully, the Blue Jays rose up to topple the A's 7-3 to cut Oakland's series lead to 2-1. Perhaps that would be enough to keep the A's from swaggering? Silly reader. While Rickey was somewhat contained in the third game (1-for-4, 1 walk, 1 stolen base, 2 runs) his mouth kept moving:
"If they think my stealing is hotdogging, I tell you what I'll do. Tomorrow I won't run. I'll just hit a couple of homeruns - and go as slowly around the bases as they want."
The Oakland A's would not taste defeat again in 1989. Even more amazingly, they would not trail at any point in any of those half-dozen games. I am no expert, but that has to be some kind of record.
I watched Game 4 at Mom's house with my sisters Rose and Tricia. Rickey, as he predicted, let his bat do his talking. He homered in the third to give the A's a 1-0 lead. Sports Illustrated's Peter Gammons:
"Henderson drove a ball to centerfield that landed 30 feet beyond the 400-foot sign, prompting a home run trot that included a stutter-step at every base and an eight-part forearm bashing at home plate."
Two batters later, Canseco, who had been curiously missing amid the A's Hot Dog Stand, hit one where even the hot dog vendors dare not go. Try the fifth deck. We don't even have five decks in our stadium. But they did in the Sky Dome, and Jose sky-rocketed one into that section. "Biblical proportions", said Oakland outfielder Billy Beane. Rickey couldn't keep quiet for this one, noting afterwards, "It was hit so hard, I fell off the bench." The Blue Jays wish he had fallen because in the fifth, the Oakland native went deep again, upping the lead to 5-1.
The Jays bounced back to make a game of it (La Russa: "If we'd played anything less than great they'd have swept us in the Dome."). Toronto scored one in the sixth to make it 5-2, then the teams traded runs in the seventh. Dennis Eckersley relieved Rick Honeycutt with two on and one out in the eighth, and promptly allowed both runners to score, closing the gap to 6-5. But Eck closed it out in the ninth and we were one win away. At Mom's we breathed a sigh of relief.
More drama ensued for what we hoped would be the clincher in Game 5. The locals were at it again, with Rickey walking in the first, stealing second, and scoring on Jose's single. Surely realizing that he didn't have a triple in the series, the left-fielder went out and got one in the third to drive in Weiss. The A's struck for two more without Rickey's aid, and led 4-0 after seven. Now it was up to Oakland's Stewart and Fremont's Eckersley to seal the deal. It wouldn't come easy. Stew allowed a one-out homer to Moseby (yet another Oakland prep star) in the eighth and a ringing blast to George Bell leading off the ninth. Eck gave up a single and a steal, the runner scoring on a sac fly for the second out. Now it was 4-3. This was about the time that Toronto manager, Cito Gaston, decided he wanted to play some Controversy before the Celebration. Supposedly, the Jays felt that Eckersley was scuffing the baseball, an accusation that he took great exception to. When play resumed, the closer struck out Junior Felix to end it. As the A's rushed to the mound, Eck pumped his fist towards the Toronto dugout. Meanwhile, back at Mom's, our hearts were still pumping long after the game. Back to the Series!
Hard to imagine where the A's would have been without the addition of Rickey Henderson. Playoff pressure? Pfft. Said Gammons:
While the (final) game was being delayed and the umpires were milling around the mound, Henderson, Hendu, and Canseco stood together in left center looking toward the upper decks of the Sky Dome.
Three outs from the World Series and a major controversy brewing in the infield: What were the three outfielders staring at?
"Girls", said Hendu. "What do you think outfielders do between pitches?"
But in the playoffs? "Better girls. More fun."
And what was (Rickey) saying out there? "I couldn't understand him. He was singing."
Scrapbook Memories wraps up with the World Series, as I will recap each game on the actual anniversary of each contest (beginning with Wednesday October 14). There will also be a special earthquake retro piece on Saturday.