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A's in the ALCS: A Look Back

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67MARQUEZ pulls a Bill Simmons and dives into the archives for today's post. Enjoy.

As we wait another day for the American League Champions Series to begin (well, some of you are waiting), here’s a little (ok, a lot) of A’s ALCS history to get you through ‘til tomorrow

The A’s have been to baseball’s version of the Final Four eleven times in the forty-three seasons since calling Oakland home, although they have only one ALCS appearance since the current format was introduced in 1995.

And it has truly been feast-or-famine for the Green-and-Gold when they have gotten within three or four victories (depending on the year) of the World Series.  Six times they moved on to represent their league; five times they watched the Classic from the couch. In those five ALCS losses, they won a total of two games, both in the same series (1992).

A closer look at the A’s in the ALCS:

1971

Oakland was the newbie and Baltimore the seasoned veterans, having won the World Series the year before.  In the first two American League Championship Series’ ever played, the Orioles had swept both of them (the Twins were twice the victim).

 ALCS '71

Vida Blue faces the O's in the '71 ALCS.

Oakland seemed unfazed by the playoff pressure, staking Vida Blue to a 3-1 advantage heading into the last half of the seventh of Game 1. But the Robinson’s (Frank and Brooks) sandwiched a walk and a single around a Boog Powell strikeout, and one out later the O’s hit paydirt with a single and consecutive two-baggers to forge ahead 5-3. And that’s how it stayed. Catfish Hunter took the mound in Game 2, and allowed seven hits in his eight innings of work.  Unfortunately four of them left the yard, and the A’s fell, 5-1.  Back home and trying to avoid a sweep, Oakland hit three homers off Jim Palmer- including a pair by Reggie Jackson- but was constantly playing catch-up in a 5-3 defeat.

My brother John attended the A’s first playoff game in Oakland: 

"I remember being in this big crowd of people in the first deck for game three. I was used to sitting in the bleachers with much smaller crowds. It was strange to see this many people at a game and so many in business attire. The game seemed liked it lasted twenty minutes. I had no idea of the magnitude at that time. It started out with big roars on every pitch and it stayed loud until the end. I can’t recall a single play by either team that stuck with me. It was all a blur and like I said a quick end to our first taste of the post season. However, this taste was all they needed, as this team would never again be overwhelmed or intimidated by anyone or anything."

1972

The playoffs- complete duds in the first three years of action- were about to become mainstream, thanks to five-game thrillers in both leagues. For a minute, it looked as if the ALCS was going to end in the minimum amount of games for the fourth consecutive season, with the A’s taking a 2-0 advantage over Detroit. 

Oakland won its first post-season game since 1932, 3-2 in eleven innings, scoring two runs in the final frame to win it.  Gonzalo Marquez provided the key hit and Gene Tenace scored on Al Kaline’s error to send the Oakland fans (all 29,000 of them) into a frenzy.  Both "Uncle Gonzalo" (as we Marquez’ called him) and Tenace would be heard from time and time again as the playoffs progressed, but they would take a back seat to the Campy Campaneris drama that unfolded in Game 2.

 ALCS '72-2

A's win wild one in Game 1 of '72 ALCS.

And poor John Odom, who pitched a stirring 5-0 three-hit shutout, got overlooked, too.  Campaneris had already gone 3-for-3 in the game when he was hit by a Lerrin LaGrow pitch.  Taking exception to what he deemed an intentional throw, the Cuban shortstop did some throwing of his own, flinging his bat at the Tiger reliever.  Bedlam on the field ensued and both the batter and the pitcher were tossed out of the game.  Meanwhile, Detroit manager Billy Martin challenged the A’s to a fight they saw no point of getting involved in.  But Martin did achieve one aim: he fired up his club enough to win the next two games at home and even the series.  Three outs from the pennant in Game 4, Oakland’s normally sturdy bullpen allowed three runs in the bottom of the tenth to lose it, 4-3.

ALCS '72

"Blue Moon" Odom slides into third during Game 2's victory. 

The finale would be played in Detroit, too.  With the Tigers in front 1-0, Reggie Jackson stole home as part of a double-steal to tie the game.  It proved costly, as the slugger tore his hamstring and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs.  In the fourth inning Tenace broke an 0-for-17 skid with an RBI single to put the A’s in front, 2-1.  There would be no more scoring as starter-turned-reliever Vida Blue pitched the final four innings to preserve the pennant-clinching win.

My sister Tonianne recalls how John Muir Junior High School erupted after the final out: 

"Loved the pressure of the playoffs; a stomach ache like no other. I remember listening to (Game 5) at school, and the roar that echoed through the halls of John Muir when we beat Detroit. I had my radio in a lunch bag and held up to my ear. Mr. Thane was the lunch-duty teacher. Any other time he would have snatched it away in a heartbeat. He slowly walked towards me, stopped, stared a minute and then walked away. As he did, he asked me how my "lunch" was doing!  I was in Mr. Walker's Algebra class (at the game’s conclusion) and he wouldn't let us listen. When we heard the roar, we all ran out of the classroom. I get chills to this day thinking about that sound."

1973

The A’s were surely getting the hang of this October stuff and entered the ’73 ALCS as defending World Champions.  Waiting in the wings were the Baltimore Orioles, the same club that had made short work of Dick Williams’ squad two seasons before, and took Game 1 of this series by a 6-0 count.  Captain Sal Bando slugged two homeruns the next day (and just missed a third) to draw the A’s even with a 6-3 win.  The series then shifted to Oakland, and Campaneris ended Game 3 in dramatic fashion- a lead-off, walk-off homerun in the eleventh inning.  Both starting pitchers went the distance with winner Ken Holtzman allowing just one run on three hits.  Given a chance to close it out, Vida blew a 4-0 seventh-inning lead and the Orioles headed into the fifth and final game flying sky high.  But Catfish Hunter had a way of bringing teams back to earth, and his complete-game, 3-0 shutout earned the A’s their second consecutive trip to the World Series.

ALCS '73

A champagne scene such as this happened a lot in the '70's.

1974

After that little formality known as the regular season (the A’s "celebrated" their fourth consecutive division title by taking the champagne home rather than spraying it), the bell rang for the playoffs to begin.  Baltimore again.  I finally got to go to my first post-season game and Catfish was on the mound to boot!  Or it was someone that looked like Catfish because he sure didn’t pitch like Catfish- the Orioles lit him up for three homeruns en route to a 6-3 win.  Oakland shrugged off the aberration and won the next three games, giving up one run in the process. Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue tossed shutouts in Games 2 and 3, and Catfish kept Baltimore scoreless through the seventh inning of Game 4.  By then the A’s had already plated the two runs they would need to advance to their third consecutive Fall Classic.  Oakland batters walked eleven times and recorded just one hit- a double by Reggie Jackson that gave the A’s a 2-0 cushion.  Rollie Fingers pitched an uneventful eighth (replacing Hunter after Don Baylor reached on a single) but made it every bit of an exciting ninth inning, allowing a run, and putting two men on with two outs before striking out Baylor to end it.  

1975

The A’s motto for the next year was to "Keep it Alive in ‘75".  But Finley’s magic was about to run out, on and off the field.  Jim "Catfish" Hunter, perhaps the greatest pitcher to ever don an Oakland uniform, won his claim against Finley in December and was declared a free agent due to breach of contract.  On New Year’s Eve of 1974, Hunter signed a $3.75 million contract with the Yankees, which tripled every other salary in all of baseball.  Somehow the A’s managed to win more games (98) without Hunter in 1975 than in any of the previous three seasons with him.  But where his departure hurt the champs was in the post-season, and the A’s three-year reign ended on the very field that had been home to so many celebrations.  Boston, like Baltimore in ’71, swept Oakland three straight.  Back then they were on the verge of something magnificent; this time it was the end of the road.  Gene Tenace, so much a part of the greatness of the A’s, didn’t hesitate to lose the one thing that symbolized the uniqueness of Finley’s Heroes; immediately after the game, Geno shaved off his mustache. 

Tonianne again: 

"Losing in ‘75 was hard because of school (she was starting her junior year).  Even before the season started, people were telling me how the A’s weren’t going to win again.  And then when we lost, they were mean about it.  Someone even left a note in my locker that said, ‘Told you the A’s were going to lose!’  I just told them that we had won three straight World Series and when was the last time someone did that?"

1981

It was déjà vu all over again.  The once-dormant A’s were back in the ALCS, spearheaded by Billy Ball, the style of play put on by manager Billy Martin.  Martin, of course, was once on the opposite side of these playoffs, having worked the Detroit dugout in 1972.  He was also formerly employed by the New York Yankees, who happened to be Oakland’s post-season opponent in 1981, and, like Baltimore exactly ten years before, were no stranger to October baseball.  A prominent player in the heyday of the Swingin’ A’s- Reggie Jackson- was now playing right field in a pinstriped uniform.  The only thing that made sense in this series was the Yankees winning it in three straight, and making a certain 14-year old believe that, as was the case in 1971, great things were coming.

Boy was I ever wrong.

1988

Ah, but great things were coming; they just took a little longer than expected. 

I was at work when the playoffs got under way at Fenway and I can still hear Lon Simmons’ call of Jose Canseco’s fourth-inning blast that gave the A’s a 1-0 lead.  Now I understood what Tonianne meant when she talked about the pressure of the post-season.  My heart was pounding the entire game.  The Red Sox got one off Dave Stewart in the seventh, but Oakland got it back in the eighth, thanks to a double by Carney Lansford, and a single by Dave Henderson, whose flair for the bright lights began in Boston in ’86.  Stew had worked out of a couple of jams early on, most notably in the second when he struck out four-time batting champion Wade Boggs with the bags juiced.  Boggs had only gone down on strikes 34 times during the regular season.  Eck came on in the eighth and retired the first five batters before Boston mounted a two-out rally in the ninth.  Boggs stepped up to the plate with two men on and a chance to be the hero but for the second time in the game, he K’d.  Game over. (Bill King, with as much mustard on the call as was on Eck’s last pitch: "He struck him out!") Later La Russa would describe this type of game as one that "makes your breath stink."  Indeed.  But the A’s were feeling minty fresh in Game 2, even after Boston staked Clemens to a 2-0 lead after six.  The lead lasted two batters as Hendu singled and Jose did the Monster Bash over the Green Monster (Lon Simmons, who was becoming quite masterful at making predictions late in the season, bragged on the air after Canseco’s shot, "And I told you we’d be tied!")  It wasn’t tied for long as a clearly shaken-up Clemens gave up a single to Lansford, balked him to second, and wild-pitched him to third.  Mark McGwire brought him home with a single.  3-2, A’s.  The Sox squared it in the bottom half but Oakland went ahead in the ninth thanks to three singles by the non-bashers: Ron Hassey, Tony Phillips, and the game-winner by Walt Weiss.  Eck closed it out again and the A’s were coming home with a chance to sweep.

 ALCS '88

Jose Canseco bashed three homeruns in the 1988 ALCS.

Me and my sister Rose were there for Game 3 but Bob Welch’s pitches appeared be to somewhere else.  The first four Sox of the game reached base (three of them scored) and when Mike Greenwell homered in the second, Welch’s night was done with the A’s in a 5-0 hole.  My third ALCS game in person was shaping up like the first two.  I told Rose that I wanted to go home.  She slapped me.  Big Mac led off the second with a homerun to get us on the board; Carney’s two-run dinger after Weiss’ RBI double made it 5-4.  With two outs in the bottom of the third, Hassey hit a rocket into the right-field seats, the A’s led 6-5, and the place went bonkers.  Just like that we were in front, and you knew it was over, even with six innings left.  When Eck struck out Jim Rice to end it, the A’s were 10-6 victors, and one win away from a Classic trip.  The next day, Sunday, Stew took the mound again and he was staked to a 1-0 lead on a missile by Mr. 40-40.  It was Canseco’s third homerun of the series.  Meanwhile our pitcher was Stew-pendous, and he left to a thunderous ovation after seven innings of four-hit ball.  We tacked on two more in the eighth for a 4-1 lead and with me and Rose screaming our approval, Eck sealed the deal in the ninth.  How Sweep it Was! 

1989

The playoffs started on a Tuesday evening in Oakland; with the Eastern champion Toronto Blue Jays standing in the way.  Me and Rose were back in our customary seats in Section 127, Row 9.  Stew was on the hill and, well, he was the Stew We All Knew.  Struggled at the start, settled down, and got himself a 7-3 win.  Same as it ever was.  His Oakland partner in crime, Rickey Henderson, was also a big hit.  Without even getting a hit.  After Mac led off the bottom of the sixth with a game-tying shot, Phillips and Gallego stroked back-to-back, one-out singles.  Rickey, who also walked twice, got hit by a pitch.  Lansford then hit a shot to short for a sure inning-ender but Rickey slid hard into second and the throw to first sailed wide, scoring two runs.  In the bottom of the eighth, with Gallego on third and two outs, Henderson walked, stole second (forcing a wild throw that plated Gags), and came home on a single by Carney.  "Rickey Runs".

ALCS '89

MVP Rickey Henderson did it all in the 1989 ALCS. 

Rickey ran even more in Game 2, adding a little relish to the festivities.  Once again, I was present with Rose.  Canseco was not, out with a migraine.  Rickey, with a little help from his friends, simply caused migraines.  Felt in Canada.  The top of the order made the most noise, with the first four batters collecting seven of the 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.

The Series shifted up north and the Jays got on the board with a 7-3 win.  They didn’t exactly stop Henderson, but they contained him enough.  Meanwhile, Toronto’s attention turned to Parker, who went deep again, and took his usual slow trot around the bases, his fingers wagging like Yosemite Sam waving his pistols.  Oh, those Swaggerin’ A’s!  Game 4 was a thriller, a nail-biter, good to the last drop.  On this day, Rickey let his bat do the talking.  He homered in the third to give the A’s a 1-0 lead.  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.  Rickey couldn’t keep quiet for this one, noting afterwards, "It was hit so hard, I fell of 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.  But the Jays bounced back.  Eck relieved Honeycutt with two on and one out in the eighth and promptly allowed both runners to score, making it 6-5.  But Dennis closed it out in the ninth and the A’s were one win away.

ALCS '89-2

McGwire and Steinbach celebrate a return trip to the Series.

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 nail the coffin shut.  Not so fast. Stew gave up a one-out homer to Lloyd Moseby (yet another Oakland prep star) in the eighth and a ringing blast by 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.  The game was then held up as the umpires checked Eck for possible substance abuse. On the baseball.  Supposedly, the Jays felt that Dennis was scuffing the ball, an accusation that Eck took great exception to.  When play resumed, the closer struck out Junior Felix to end it.  As the A’s rushed to the mound, Eckersley 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! 

1990

The A’s put on a pitching clinic to earn their second sweep of Boston in three years and their third consecutive trip to the World Series.  They did it without hitting a single homerun in the series.  Stew beat Clemens 9-1 in Game 1, followed by Welch’s 4-1 victory the next night.  Me and John skipped out on work for Game 3, won by Moore, 4-1.  The Bash may have been absent but the A’s were still plenty brash.  Said Canseco, after the A’s took a 3-0 series lead: "I’ll say it’s over.  Use common sense."  The next afternoon it was officially over, with Stewart besting Clemens, 3-1.  One run allowed in each of the four games.  Yikes.  As for Stew-Clemens, it could hardly be called a rivalry.  This was more like Roadrunner-Coyote.  The Boston ace was ejected arguing balls and strikes during Oakland’s three-run second while Stew pitched shutout ball into the ninth.  Honeycutt came on to close and the A’s were off to their third straight Series.

 ALCS '90

Ho-hum. Another sweep of Boston.

1992

Oakland and Toronto again.  I watched the opener at Mom’s.  In a game that would have made former "A" Jose Canseco proud (he was traded in August), the A’s bashed Jack Morris for three homeruns.  Mark McGwire and Terry Steinbach took him back-to-back in the second for a quick 3-0 lead.  The Jays got one in the fifth, one in the sixth, and one in the eighth to tie it.  All three runs came off Stew who was just outstanding in this one.  Then Harold Baines led off the ninth inning by crushing a Morris offering into the seats and Eck came on to close out a hard-fought 4-3 win as Dad and I exchanged hard high-fives.  The next night David Cone beat Moore 3-1 and the teams headed back to Oakland knotted at a game apiece.  The bats came alive for both clubs in Game 3 with Toronto winning a 7-5 slugfest.  We played catch-up all afternoon, but couldn’t break through with the big hit. 

The next day, a Sunday, we watched the pivotal fourth game at my brother Ernie’s house.  This was one of those stinky-mouth games that La Russa often talked about.  Made worse by the heart-breaking manner in which we lost it.  The A’s rocked Morris again, to the tune of five hits and five runs in a little over three innings.  Through seven, it was 6-1.  With that bullpen?  This thing was over.  But the Blue Jays showed how resilient they had become, a far cry from the pushovers of ’89.  Roberto Alomar, on his way to the ALCS MVP, led off the eighth with a double, his third hit of the day. Jeff Parrett relieved Welch and promptly surrendered two singles, the first of which plated Alomar.  La Russa wasn’t taking any chances and brought in Eck, who gave up two more singles that scored two more runs.  6-4.  Then Eckersely got the next three to go down and we breathed for a moment.  But Devon White led off the ninth with a single, and the horror that we incurred in 1988 came back to haunt us once more.  Roberto Alomar raked an Eckersley pitch into the right-field seats to tie the game.  Not again.  Not to Eck.  Toronto won the game in the eleventh and the A’s were one loss away from elimination, and perhaps the end of an era in Oakland.  But Oakland was where Game 5 was played, and Oakland-born Dave Stewart was on the hill to give us one more day in the sun, with pride in his heart and ice in his veins.  I listened to the game at work as Stew closed out a gutsy 6-2 win, wondering if it was the last time.  It was for 1992 as the Blue Jays won Game 6 by a 9-2 score to earn their first trip to the World Series, an event that had seemed exclusively Oakland’s for a while. 

2006

After all the heartbreaking first-round losses earlier this decade, it almost seemed that the breakthrough sweep of the Minnesota Twins left the A’s flat against the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.  Barry Zito, who had bested Johan Santana in the ALDS opener, was not nearly as sharp in Game 1 of the next round, a 5-1 loss that turned out to be his last game in an A’s uniform.  Game 2 was just as ugly, and were it not for Milton Bradley, an 8-5 defeat would have been much worse.  Rich Harden gave it a go in Game 3 at Detroit, but the bats were silenced by Kenny Rogers and Company.  Final: 3-0.  Came Game 4 and Magglio Orodonez provided a swift end to Oakland’s first ALCS appearance in fourteen years with a walk-off, three-run homer.  It was the fourth time the A’s had been swept out of an American League Championship Series.

Closing

Aside from Oakland, there are only five other Major League teams that have gone without a victory in league championship play since Dave Stewart's complete-game masterpiece eighteen years ago: Cincinnati (who were swept in their only attempt, 1995), Kansas City, Milwaukee, Washington, and Texas (and that can change as early as tomorrow night).

Lastly, a happy birthday wish to baseballgirl. May the A's still be playing on your day next year.