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Baseball ’89: Can Oakland Make it Straight A’s

March 28, 1989

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ If the Oakland Athletics are headed for a big fall in 1989, the warning signs remain invisible.

Ten straight American League champions have succumbed to injuries, age, contract woes or a general letdown in failing to defend the pennant. But entering the final countdown to the regular season, the A’s are all signed up, mostly healthy and deeper in talent than ever.

Even a wrist injury that will sideline Jose Canseco for at least the first half of April leaves barely a chink in the A’s armor. His replacement, able rookie Felix Jose, has been one of the team’s toughest outs all spring.

Manager Tony La Russa just hopes they don’t get too happy. His pet peeve is ″mental comfort,″ and he wants his players to remain somewhat uncomfortable until they can achieve the World Series victory that got away last year.

″We have a good team, we’re more experienced, we have talent and depth and we should win it,″ La Russa said of the AL West race. ″If we don’t, we’ll have no excuses. If we fail, it will be very embarrassing.″

The A’s had it all last year, at least until suffering an offensive drought in a five-game World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They had baseball’s best player in Canseco, the best bullpen headed by the top reliever (Dennis Eckersley), and a troika of starting pitchers (Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Storm Davis) that went 54-28. They were second in the league with 156 homers and 800 runs scored, and third with just 105 errors.

Virtually the entire roster, except for designated hitter Don Baylor, is back. And the A’s shelled out $3.95 million over three years to add former Seattle right-hander Mike Moore (9-15, 3.78 ERA, 182 strikeouts) to the starting rotation.

La Russa knows he can’t count on his team having only minimal injuries again this season. But he spent the offseason poring over the symptoms of the ″no-repeat″ syndrome like a medical researcher searching for a cure to the common cold.

The manager studied books, including one by Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley on maintaining peak performances. He talked to successful NFL people such as former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and Seattle coach Chuck Knox. He went over a videotape by Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, among other people. He even enlisted political pundit and baseball buff George Will as a motivational speaker for his ballclub in spring training.

It’s a different approach from last year, when the A’s were coming off an 81-81 season and went on to record an Oakland-record 104 victories.

″The books, tapes, they all make similar points,″ La Russa said. ″The idea is you have to, one, work just as hard; two, enjoy the competition; three, take nothing for granted; and four, learn to handle your success.″

Oakland gets ’A’s for hard work and a competitive atmosphere in Phoenix this spring. The question now is how the team deals with its role as prohibitive favorite in a much-improved division.

″If we keep our intensity, I don’t see any problem with our repeating,″ said Stewart, who will be the Opening Night pitcher against Seattle on April 3 after a second straight 20-win season (21-12). ″But we’ve got to avoid injuries.″

Aside from the slight ligament tear in Canseco’s left wrist, the A’s have few worries.

The most compelling issue left for La Russa as spring training wound down remained a decision on who to start at second base from among Glenn Hubbard, Tony Phillips and Mike Gallego, the trio that shared the position a year ago.

Hubbard, 31, had a firm grip on the job a year ago but missed 57 games and the AL playoffs due to injury. He hit .255. Phillips, 29, hit just .203 in an injury-shortened season and played every position but catcher and pitcher. Gallego, 28, has the best range and hands of the three but hit only .209.

None emerged as the obvious choice in Phoenix, so La Russa may go with a platoon system. That could leave an opening later in the year for top prospect Lance Blankenship (.265 with nine homers, 40 stolen bases and 96 walks with Triple-A Tacoma last year), who needs to polish his defense.

Luis Polonia has solved the only other question about the A’s starting lineup with an outstanding spring that has earned him the left field job and leadoff spot. Polonia hit .292 and stole 24 bases in 84 games a year ago, and the A’s are convinced he has improved in the outfield and will be able to draw more than 21 walks.

Stan Javier (.257, 20 stolen bases) is an outstanding fielder but may not get the chance to prove his claim that he can hit .300 if he plays every day. The team’s third young Dominican outfielder, the 23-year-old Jose, made enough waves in the left-field derby to win the temporary starting job in right and has a chance to oust Polonia or Javier when Canseco returns if he shines.

The rest of the lineup appears rock-solid.

Canseco is expected to reclaim his right-field spot no later than the beginning of May. He has vowed to reduce his strikeouts (128) and boost his batting average (.307) on the heels of his first-ever 40-40 season (42 HR, 40 SB, 124 RBI). He was hitting the ball hard and deep in practice before injuring the wrist March 7.

The A’s three other biggest bashers - first baseman Mark McGwire (.260, 32 HR, 99 RBI), center fielder Dave Henderson (.304, 24, 94) and designated hitter Dave Parker (.257, 12, 55) all had excellent springs.

Last-name Jose was hitting .354 in the final days of spring training and appears destined for major-league stardom; the only question is when. Last year at Tacoma, he hit .317 with 12 homers and 83 runs batted in.

Rookie of the Year Walt Weiss says he can improve on his .250 average while continuing to turn all the plays at shortstop. And third baseman Carney Lansford (.279, 29 stolen bases) has a new, straighter batting stance he thinks will get him closer to the form that produced a .402 average through last June 2; he hit only .196 the rest of the way.

La Russa predicts Terry Steinbach (.265, 9 HR, 51 RBI) will knock in 90 runs if he gets 500 at-bats, and he plans to play him occasionally at third base or DH to get them. The 1988 All-Star MVP led the league’s catchers by throwing out 43.5 percent of baserunners. He has a capable backup in left- handed-hitting Ron Hassey (.257, 7, 45).

Stewart, Welch (17-9, 3.64 ERA) and Davis (16-7, 3.70) will be joined in the league’s best rotation by lefty Curt Young (11-8, 4.14) and Moore, who had an impressive spring in his debut with a winner.

The 34-year-old Eckersley comes into the season in tip-top shape and determined to prove that last year’s 45-save, AL-playoffs MVP season was not an aberration. As for the fateful ninth-inning homer he served up to Kirk Gibson in the World Series opener, he said he fretted for about a month but ″now it seems like years ago.″

Eric Plunk, Eckersley’s heir-apparent, had trouble getting batters out this spring and could be hard-pressed to repeat a stellar 1988 season in which he was 7-2 and struck out 79 batters in 78 innings. But the A’s are deep enough in the bullpen to be able to survive a slight falloff in their relief performance. Gene Nelson (9-6, 3.06), Rick Honeycutt (3-2, 3.50, 7 saves) and lefty Greg Cadaret (5-2, 2.89) all are healthy. So is Todd Burns (8-2, 3.16 as a rookie), who may get sent back to Tacoma as a starter-in-waiting because of Moore’s arrival.

There isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement on the A’s. They may not win 104 games again, or 14 straight, or the division by 13 games - they may not have to. Repeat performances from most players would suit General Manager Sandy Alderson just fine.

″Many people think we had a lot of career years last year,″ Alderson said. ″I don’t think we did. Jose Canseco, maybe. Dave Henderson, definitely. But we’ve got a lot of people who didn’t.″

The A’s executive, content to make no trades after a frenetic 1987-88 offseason, put McGwire, Weiss, Steinbach, Lansford, Welch and the Polonia- Javier duo, among others, in the ″room-for-improvement″ category. Perhaps most important, Oakland has a better pitching staff than a year ago, he said.

″We have as good a chance as anybody if we stay healthy,″ Alderson said.

Wrong. They have a much better chance than anyone else in the AL West.

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