A's turn legend into just another tall tale with loss


OAKLAND, Calif. -- The legendary Oakland A's never showed up in this World Series. In fact, Jose Canseco, the most legendary of them all, didn't even start last night. And Dennis Eckersley never got out of the bullpen.

Are the mighty A's a myth? All I know is that the Cincinnati Reds were the team writing all the epic poetry.

A sweep. Imagine. Nobody could have, and even last night, for most of a game, it didn't seem quite possible. Didn't you see all those Reds dropping like the flies that Canseco had been dropping?

Billy Hatcher down. Eric Davis down. There were more Reds left in East Berlin than in the Cincinnati dugout. And they were also up against Dave Stewart, whose poor showing in Game 1 set the tone for this entire Series. Stewart showed up big time, just not as big as Jose Rijo.

The A's made their best showing after the game, when they sung their own praises, since nobody else would.

"I don't want to take anything away from Cincinnati," Stewart said, "because they played as well as any ballclub can play. But I'll say now what I said before the Series began: The best team doesn't always win; the team that plays the best wins.

"There's no doubt in my mind, we're the best team in baseball."

You're right. They didn't look it. Stewart is the first to admit as much.

"I'm a sore loser," Stewart said. "It wouldn't be so bad if the talent was equal, but when you lose to a team with less talent, it really hurts. . . . We let them outplay us. They were aggressive, and we weren't."

They were aggressive, and even when the Reds were hurting the most, they managed to rally. No team ever deserved to win a Series more. They got two runs in the eighth when Herm Winningham, playing for Davis, laid down a two-strike pitch for a base hit, and then, after a throwing error by Stewart, the tying run scored on a ground ball by Glenn Braggs, playing for Hatcher.

Weird? Sure. Almost as weird as Tony La Russa's decision -- again -- not to go to Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in the game, maybe the best ever, when the Reds loaded the bases in the eighth. In the regular season, you stay with Stewart, who was still pitching well. In the fourth game of a World Series, when you're down three games to none, you go to Eckersley. That must be in the computer somewhere.

They had to shut out the Reds because Rijo, after giving up a run in the first, was spectacular. All pitchers should go with blisters. All pitcher should have Juan Marichal as a father-in-law. After giving up a two-out walk to Rickey Henderson in the second, he retired -- get this -- 20 batters in a row.

Then Reds manager Lou Piniella pulled him. I guess Piniella would have pulled Don Larsen in 1956. He didn't want Rijo to face Harold Baines, who hadn't gotten a ball out of the infield. Instead, he went to Randy Myers, the nastiest of the Nasty Boys, against the forgotten and abandoned Canseco, sent up to pinch hit. And it worked. Canseco, who was benched because of a bad back and bad glove, grounded out to third. Carney Lansford fouled out, and that was it.

It was 2-1 in Game 4 and a Reds runaway.

"It wasn't that Rijo was so dominant," Rickey Henderson said. "We just weren't on. He threw strikes, but we didn't connect on the pitches we got to hit. They played great, and we didn't. We definitely have a better team than Cincinnati, but it just wasn't meant to be."

For La Russa, the losing was bad enough. But the idea that anyone believes the A's of this World Series are the real, stand-up A's of would-be legend drives La Russa just a little crazy.

"They feel great about the way they're playing, and they feel great about the lack of a quality opponent," La Russa said of the Reds. "I'm surprised we haven't heard any cracks about how we'd finish fifth in the National League West."

The losing rankles. God, does it rankle, especially after racing through the American League with 306 wins in three years.

But playing wonderfully opportunistic, aggressive baseball, the Reds did just about everything right. They played in the postseason the way they were playing when the season began, when they were winning 33 of their first 45 games and looking a lot like candidates for greatness themselves. They were so good, you could almost forget that the team owner's best friend really is a dog.

The Reds cooled off considerably, of course, but they came together again when it mattered. When it most mattered, Hatcher and Chris Sabo (three more hits last night) and Joe Oliver and the Nasty Boys have stepped forward to make mockery of conventional wisdom, which gave them virtually no chance. It was as Jim Valvano said back in '83 when his N.C. State team upset Houston: "We had to have a chance. We were the only other team there."

The A's, who have been in the World Series the past three years, have come away with one victory. This was to be the season when people could start using the d-word. Now, we have to wait. Stewart doesn't think we'll have to wait long, however.

"I may take some heat for this," he said. "But I'm going to go record now: We'll be back next year. The question is, will Cincinnati?"

The Reds may not make it back, but at least, when it counted, they were easy to find. They were the ones drenched in bubbly.

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