The Best Ever In Bay Area Baseball
THE 1989 A’S. In the 1988-90 period, the A’s were the best team in baseball but only won one World Series, in ’89, with what was the best team in that stretch.
The 1988 A’s had won 104 games, but general manager Sandy Alderson had strengthened the team in the off-season by signing starter Mike Moore as a free agent, which gave the A’s the best rotation they’d had since the 1972-74 A’s: Dave Stewart went 21-9, Moore and Storm Davis each won 19 games and Bob Welch won 17.
Then, in midseason, Alderson made the biggest move of all, trading for Rickey Henderson.
In 1985, the A’s needed players, so Alderson had traded Rickey for multiple players. In 1989, they needed a particular kind of star player, so Alderson traded bodies – pitchers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk and outfielder Luis Polonia – to the Yankees for Rickey.
“We needed something to pick us up,” Alderson said in an interview for my book, “Champions”. “It worked out perfectly for us. Rickey was just what we needed that year.”
Henderson was the best leadoff man ever. With his hunched-over stance, he was difficult to pitch to, and a walk to Rickey often meant the same as a double, because he would steal second. If a pitcher came in with a fat pitch, Henderson could hit it out of the park. In 85 games with the A’s after the trade, Rickey stole 52 bases and scored 72 runs, while playing great defense; Henderson and the young Barry Bonds are the best defensive left fielders I’ve seen.
The A’s needed Henderson’s contribution that season because injuries limited Jose Canseco to 65 games, and Dennis Eckersley missed 40 games with a pulled rotator cuff muscle. By the postseason, both were healthy, and Canseco put an exclamation point on that by hitting a towering drive where nobody ever thought one could be hit, into the upper deck at Skydome in Toronto, rattling the windows of a luxury suite.
The A’s had been shocked by the Dodgers in the 1988 Series, and they were as intense as manager Tony La Russa going into this Series, so intense that Eckersley drilled Canseco in the middle of he back when he thought Jose was digging in too much in batting practice.
But that A’s team never got the credit it deserved, because the 1989 World Series will forever be known as the “Earthquake Series,” as the Loma Prieta earthquake stopped it before the third game. When the Series resumed, the A’s continued their sweep, and there was one moment that summed up the A’s team: In the fourth game, with Henderson on second, Giants reliever Kelly Downs was so concerned about Rickey that he forgot who was at the plate. It was Canseco, who crushed a fastball for a three-run homer.
THE 1974 A’S: This was the third straight of three World Champions for the A’s and probably the least-recognized of the great teams in baseball history because they were overshadowed by owner Charlie Finley.
Finley was known as a great promoter, but his reputation was undeserved. A great promoter is one who promotes his product. Finley promoted only himself. He didn’t market the team, he didn’t sell season tickets, he didn’t provide enough ticket takers, so for big games, people didn’t get into the game until the third or fourth inning – and they rarely came back.
Finley’s champions only once drew over a million fans, and that was just barely, 1,000,763 in 1973. It became obvious whose fault that was when, in the first year the Haas family owned the team, though a strike limited home games to 51, the A’s drew almost 300,000 fans more any of the Finley champions.
For the relatively few who saw them, though, those A’s champions were a delight because they knew how to play the game. They didn’t worry much about statistics because they knew the only really important one was the W-L record. Hitters knew how to cut down on their swings with two strikes and put the ball in play, and how to get a run in from third base with less than two outs, with a fly ball or ground ball to the right side. Dick Williams, the manager of the 1972 and ’73 champions, had constantly emphasized the need to cut down on mental errors, so the A’s seldom beat themselves.
Their pitching was superb, with Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue and John (Blue Moon) Odom as starters and Rollie Fingers as the closer. Their defense was excellent and, though Reggie Jackson was the only consistent power hitter, they had enough hitting to win because their pitchers always kept them in the game.
That A’s team might have even won four in a row, but Finley violated a provision of Hunter’s contract, which allowed Catfish to become a free agent and sign with the Yankees for the 1975 season. The next year, the reserve clause was invalidated, which started the free agent era. Finley either traded or lost his stars, and the A’s sank to the bottom of the league.
But it was a great run while it lasted.
THE 1962 GIANTS: If the vote was for most popular team, this Giants team would undoubtedly win it. The Giants had the Bay Area to themselves – the A’s wouldn’t move to Oakland until 1968 – and everybody was crazy about them. People would walk down the street with plugs from transistor radios in their ears, listening to games.
They’d even do that at other games. Forty-Niner players were startled at a late September game to hear a roar from the crowd when nothing was happening on the field – but fans were listening to the Giants game and Willie Mays had just hit a home run. The Giants won that game, setting up a playoff with the Dodgers which they won.
The fans had every reason to be excited. This was a team with great players: Mays, who I still regard as the best all-round player I’ve ever seen; Willie McCovey, a great power hitter; Orlando Cepeda, a great all-round athlete who could hit home runs to right field, his opposite field; Juan Marichal, who had an incredible mastery of all his pitches. All of them are now in the baseball Hall of Fame.
The Giants of the ‘60s won only this one pennant. Part of that was due to the incredible strength of the National League at that time; baseball people who had watched games as far back as the 1920s thought that National League baseball in the ‘50s and ‘60s was the best the game had ever seen.
The other problem for the Giants was that they were usually one pitcher short, but in ’62, they had outstanding pitching. Jack Sanford won 24 games, by far his best season. Billy O’Dell won 19, Marichal won 18. Billy Pierce won 16, and was 13-0 at Candlestick. And Stu Miller provided great relief.
It wasn’t quite enough to win the World Series, though they came very close, losing the seventh game, 1-0, to the Yankees, as McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson with Matty Alou on third and Mays on second.
On the previous play, with Alou on first, Mays had doubled and third base coach Whiey Lockman had held up Alou as Roger Maris fired the ball in from right. Some criticized Lockman, but Lon Simmons had the best summation: “The only man who could have scored on that play was the man who hit the ball.”
SO, WHICH team is best? My mind tells me the 1989 A’s, who had it all, but my heart goes with the 1962 Giants, mostly because I was young. I saw my first World Series that year, and the memories will always remain with me.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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