Athletics march in single file toward AL flag


OAKLAND, Calif. -- So it turns out that the Oakland Athletics have used the American League Championship Series to, of all things, answer some philosophical questions. Can you build a fortune collecting pennies? Yes! Can you flog a man with a feather? Yes! Can you -- and this one has stumped our deepest thinkers for years -- actually make a mountain out of a molehill? The answer is yes! Yes! Yes!

And you thought the only pieces of philosophy Jose Canseco comprehended were that a) winning was good and b) losing not so good. Ha. Clearly, we have underestimated these A's. It isn't enough for them just to beat the Boston Red Sox. No, there was never an ounce of challenge in that. The challenge the A's clearly have undertaken is to beat the Red Sox, in the grand manner of Popeye the Sailor Man, with one hand tied behind their backs. Flog them with feathers, if you will.

From the first pitch of the series, in which the A's now hold a 3-0 lead, it has been as if there were impostors in Oakland's dugout. The A's have been no mightier than a collection of senior citizens playing softball. They haven't indulged in any semblance of that base-circlin', fence-bashin', scoreboard-lightin' celebration to which we have grown accustomed. (Fummmble!) They have been, and there is no other way to put this: They have been wimpy.

Just look it up. The A's have a total of 32 hits in the three games. That in itself is respectable enough, especially considering that the Red Sox have only 19. (There is, incidentally, no truth to the rumor that the Sox aren't permitted to score more than one run per game.) Anyway, 29 of Oakland's 32 hits are singles. Yes, the big, bad A's are burying the teenie-weenie Red Sox with itty-bitty single-wingles. They have hit not one home run, just three doubles. They haven't bashed a soul.

In Game 3 yesterday, they drove in their four runs on a sacrifice fly, an error and two singles by Willie Randolph, the first a droopy little nubber that wouldn't have caused a cat to jump, the second a Mitch Miller follow-the-bouncing-ball up the middle that almost stopped before it left the infield. How's that for some muscle-pumping big blows, sports fans?

A year ago, if you recall, the A's performed all sorts of wrecking-ball feats in dispatching the Blue Jays and Giants in the postseason. Canseco hit that one ball through the roof of SkyDome, and Rickey Henderson ran round and round the bases until he got so tired they had to take him out. In the famous words of Lawrence Welk: It was one-ah ah-heck-of-ah-show-ah. And it ah-continued this year, with Canseco and McGwire combining for 76 homers and Rickey just running wild.

But in this series, for crying out loud, the key moment for the A's in Game 1 was a sacrifice bunt from their cleanup hitter. Bashing? These A's are just bashful. They're winning by bunting, hitting behind runners, taking extra bases -- yes, all those little baseball things that are so important, like making sure you hit the spittoon. "It's been a struggle, for sure," Henderson said yesterday. "No runs are coming easy for us."

Boston's starting pitching has had something to do with it, of course, as has the fact that Canseco is playing injured. And anyway, as the stat-hearted will point out, a run is a run and a win is a win. The truth is that the A's actually are extending their legend with this little travail, demonstrating yet another manner in which they can pulverize you until you're out of breath and screaming for a week of tee times in Florida.

As a spectacle, it may not be pushing the Arbitron pin to the edge of the meter -- people at home just don't jump up and shout, "Honey, c'mere and look at this single!" -- but the A's are downright proud of it.

"We've played three games of smart baseball," manager Tony La Russa said. "Some people seem to think I'm upset that we aren't hitting homers. Not at all. I'm proud. I think we're doing great."

Perhaps, but it all still somehow smacks of a conspiracy. Doesn't it? It just seems like the A's looked over to the other dugout before the series began and said, "Hey, this is too easy. Let's experiment." The Red Sox certainly have done nothing to damage this perception. You can see in their faces that they know these games are over as soon as they fall behind. Rarely, if ever, have the outcomes of such big games seemed so inevitable.

So maybe the whole thing is just an exercise, eh? The A's recognized that they were going to win this thing unless they all screwed up and went to lunch with Howard Spira, so they decided to try on a new fashion. They would kill softly, as soft as a feather, a satin sheet, a fastball from a Boston reliever. And yes, they would make it work. They would prove that you can do ZTC more with less, build big with little blocks, score a knockout with baby taps. What a bunch of radical dudes.

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