Scrapbook Memories celebrates the 20th anniversary of Oakland's last World Series triumph. We begin in Arizona, where the defending American League champions arrive with a four-month old hangover, having suffered a devastating upset at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous October.
(I have no idea how many chapters this will entail; we'll just see how it goes).
The man who signed my very first paycheck shared my devotion for baseball. Larry Hines grew up in New York idolizing "Dem Bums" from Brooklyn, those lovable losers for whom "Wait ‘til Next Year" finally became this year in 1955. His wife Beth had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on your point-of-view) of being raised in Kansas City where she'd watch the Athletics play at the old Municipal Stadium. The A's enjoyed great success during the four-plus years (1987-91) I was employed by Larry and Beth; it was often that I was a guest at their Fremont home for dinner and a ballgame. Those were truly good times.
The 1988 World Series, on the other hand, was anything but a good time. After hearing my older siblings gush about the glory days of Oakland and their back-to-back-to-back titles in the early 70's, I was convinced that 1988 was my year. That team was stacked. The A's ran off 14 wins in a row in late April-early May, wrapped up the American League West crown on September 19, finished 104-58, and swept the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. I was at the division clincher against Minnesota, and the two home playoff games against the Sox.
The accolades piled up for the bashers from Oakland: Tony La Russa was Manager of the Year, Walt Weiss was the league's top rookie, Jose Canseco hit and ran his way to the first 40-40 season and Most Valuable Player, and Dennis Eckersley earned Fireman of the Year honors. But when it came time for the biggest and shiniest piece of hardware, the A's fell short. It remains to this day, the worst I have ever felt as a fan. Sure, the more recent playoff failures left a certain sting, but the 1988 A's- whose 104 regular season wins are an Oakland record- had too much going for them to have it fall apart so abruptly.
I guess I should have known something bad was about to happen...
Man, has it really been twenty years? Sigh. Feels like I've lived two lives since then. My first life started when I met her, "her" being Maria Rosario Cerda Flores, the mother of my only son. Known to family and friends as Rocio, she had the softest, yet saddest eyes I have ever seen. Oh, but to hear her laugh. It was in 1989 that she came to the United States from Mexico, the last of her eight siblings to do so, and against her will (she didn't want to leave behind her beloved grandparents). But Rocio was quick to adapt, and after working part-time at Yum Yum Doughnuts (she pronounced it "Jum Jum", which I thought was the most adorable thing ever), she decided to look for more permanent work; you see, steady money meant a quicker return to the tiny town of San Juan, Michoacan she swore she'd never abandon. She interviewed at two different places, and while both companies were interested in her services, she happened to choose the place where yours truly was working. Her plans of going home thwarted forever by fate, Rocio has set foot on her native land just twice since arriving here twenty years ago.
The A's set foot in Arizona clearly a club on a mission. In those days the majors were split up in four divisions (rather than six), and if you didn't finish first, you didn't get an invite to the October ball. It was long considered that the most arduous task in team sports was to win a division title in baseball, the proponents pointing to the 162-game grind each team must endure. During the 1980's, playoff qualifiers paid a steeper price than usual, as one season's champ became next year's chump. Only the 1984-85 Kansas City Royals managed to finish first in consecutive seasons, and they did so by winning just 175 games over those two years, the beneficiary of a mediocre American League West. So not only were the A's facing the daunting task of becoming only the second team since 1979 to repeat as division champions, no club since the 1977-78 Yankees (and Dodgers) had made a return trip to the World Series.
But if there was concern over the team's mindset it was squashed before the first sweet sound of baseball-smacking-mitt echoed in the desert. It helped that the team remained intact over the winter; only seven players from the 1988 squad did not return, and of those seven, only Don Baylor (92 games) saw any significant action. All told, there were twenty-seven returnees from the previous season's roster. Back to finish what they started.
As the A's tried to put their Series collapse behind them, my oldest sister's near-perfect world- "We were living the good life. Promotions for both of us, a new baby..."- took a sudden and unexpected turn. Tonianne, the woman who as a teenager used to count down the days to Spring Training in her school notebook:
I called Kaiser right away, and the lady on the line told me it was probably nothing. I told her about the sharp pain in that (breast) area and she said experiencing pain there didn't mean anything serious. But we made an appointment. The doctor who saw me was an older man. He was supposed to have retired six months earlier but stayed because they were short-staffed. He sent me to Mammography that same day. As I'm led to the x-ray room, the tech reads my information sheet and says in a cheerful voice, ‘Oh honey, you're too young; we don't do mammograms on women under thirty-five'. I tell her I've just come from my doctor and could she please check with him. When she returns her bouncy mood is gone - I'm so scared I want to cry. She apologizes for the delay and asks me to remove my gown and step up to the white line. A day after the mammogram, they called me at work (she was a supervisor at Great Western Bank) and asked me and (husband) Michael to come in. I said, ‘Sure, is tomorrow ok?' And they were like, ‘Uh, no. Right now.' So I said ‘ok' and called Michael to tell him; still as calm as I was with Kaiser earlier. But the second I hung up, I went back to the vault and started bawling. The doctor showed us the mammogram, and said, ‘See this spot right here?' Hearing him use the word ‘cancer' was strange to me. Soon after it was like I was hearing his voice through a tunnel, like in the movies. His mouth was moving, but I couldn't hear anything. I looked closely at the mammogram, not at the ‘spot', but to make sure it was my name on there. Looking at Michael next to me; he was doing the exact same thing. But it was my name alright.
The A's acquired just one "name" before reporting for duty in February: Mike Moore, a steady right-hander who had toiled in Seattle for seven seasons before getting his shot to play for a winner, was signed as a free agent on November 28. (Two days later, Oakland signed a player whose impact would not be felt until a decade later. Billy Beane would play thirty-seven games in 1989 before hanging up his spikes for good).
The pieces were in place for another run at the title, and A's manager Tony La Russa had a simple message for the troops:
Success changes people - it will change us. The biggest thing I worry about is players remembering the success of last season and getting too comfortable. But one way you get away from being comfortable and establishing the right attitude is to readjust what is important to you. It would be very special for this club to win again. We have to see that as the A's mission.
Meanwhile, my sister Toni was experiencing changes of her own, her own worries, and her own mission:
Cancer changed me. It put things into a whole new perspective. I appreciated Michael and (their son) Patrick, who was one-and-a-half at the time, a whole lot more. After the initial shock wore off, Michael cleared his throat and said to the doctor, ‘So what do we do now?' And it became clear that cancer didn't have to mean the worst, that there were ways to overcome it, and just the way Michael asked told me that everything was going to be ok.