MINNEAPOLIS -- Everything is relative. The Oakland Athletics finished six games over .500 last year and look back on 1991 as a lost season. They failed to fourpeat -- imagine that -- and have returned this year seeking redemption in the American League West.
It might be hard to identify with that in Baltimore, where 84 victories last year would have been accepted like so many pennies from heaven, but three straight pennants have a way of raising your expectations.
That's why the A's have come back for more. They stopped this weekend in Minnesota, ostensibly to play an April series against the defending world champion Minnesota Twins, but Metrodome officials might be wise to put an extra guard on the trophy case. The Bash Brothers are still a little banged up, but they are back on top of baseball's toughest division.
"I can't say it was fun watching the two teams that played in the World Series," said pitching ace Dave Stewart, the Most Valuable Player of the 1989 Series. "It had gotten to be the norm that we were there, and we liked that feeling."
What they did not like was watching the Twins and the Chicago White Sox and even the Texas Rangers celebrating their sudden demise and stepping over them in the standings. The same guys who rubbed their forearms in everybody's face for three championship seasons didn't care much for the flip side.
There is a cliche for every occasion, and the A's found out first-hand that what goes around really does come around.
"Losing is definitely a good teacher," Stewart said. "We learned a lot. We watched a lot of clubs having a good time at our expense -- probably the same kind of things we did to them -- and it was not a lot of fun.
The A's took it personally, and they are taking it out on the rest of the West. They entered the weekend with the third-best record in baseball, and they are serving notice that they are not to be trifled with this year. Yesterday, they banged out 18 hits and trounced the Twins 8-4 at the Metrodome.
"The team is hungry again," general manager Sandy Alderson said.
But the team also is hurting again. Seven players were on the disabled list when the A's arrived in Minnesota, including 1990 Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch, shortstop Walt Weiss, outfielder Dave Henderson and relief pitcher Joe Klink. Catcher Terry Steinbach also was on that list, but he was scheduled to return to the lineup yesterday. It should not be long, perhaps no more than a week, before Welch and Henderson also rejoin the club.
Bench strength figured to be a major problem, especially when manager Tony La Russa decided to go with a 12-man pitching staff, but backup shortstop Mike Bordick and a couple of other little-known Oakland reserves have held things together nicely while the club awaits the return of those front-line players.
"The difference this year is depth," La Russa said. "Last year, we were missing people early and some of them all year. The first half of the year we were pretty comfortable. We covered those injuries well, but I don't think we were as tightly knit as we are this year."
There are other, more dramatic differences. First baseman Mark McGwire has bounced back from a difficult 1991 season at the plate to remind everyone of the young slugger who hit a record 49 home runs during his rookie year (1987). He hit his ninth in 17 games on Friday night.
McGwire was one of the most intimidating hitters in the game from 1987 to 1990, averaging 38 homers and 105 RBI, but his average dropped to .201 last year and his power stats fell along with it. He hit 22 homers and drove in 75 runs, enough to force a change in mind set for 1992.
"He's just keeping it simple and letting his talent go to work," La Russa said. "He got screwed up, but in a good way, because he got very determined."
If he has come all the way back, it could be a long, hot summer for the rest of the division. Right fielder Jose Canseco is off to an equally impressive start, ranking among the league leaders with six homers and 16 RBI. Third baseman Carney Lansford is back from a serious knee injury, and he is swinging the bat like he never left. Rickey Henderson is off to a slow start, but you get the idea.
"I think the attitude is a lot different," said Lansford. "A lot of guys are determined to turn things around. We're more determined than ever.
"We still haven't got Walt [Weiss] and Welch and Dave Henderson, but so far, we've been able to hold our own. Within a week or so, we'll be back to full strength."
That sounds promising, but there remains some question whether this is still the same dominating club that looked like it had a long-term lease on the division title just a couple of years ago. The makeup of the team has not changed significantly, but the strong pitching that carried the A's to three straight pennants and a championship can no longer be taken for granted.
Stopper Dennis Eckersley remains a constant; he recorded his league-leading sixth save yesterday. Right-handed starter Mike Moore is off to a excellent start, as evidenced by his 3-0 record and his 1.63 ERA. Ron Darling also was pitching well until he was knocked around Friday night by the Twins. But the heart of the rotation remains a major question mark.
Stewart, who won 20 or more games in four consecutive seasons from 1987 to 1990, is coming off an injury-marred 1991 season in which he won just 11 games and his ERA climbed to 5.18. Welch, who won 27 games in 1990, followed that up with a 12-13 record and a 4.58 ERA. Both must be productive for the A's to win a balanced division.
Welch is throwing well on a rehabilitation assignment, and Stewart has come back from arthroscopic knee surgery to pitch decently in his first four starts. He is 1-1 with a 3.48 ERA, despite walking 15 in his first 31 innings of work.
"I'm throwing great," Stewart said. "I've been struggling with some control problems, but I've gone nine innings twice, seven innings once and six the other time, so I'm throwing the ball well. I felt that this would be a good year. The only thing I was wondering about was how long it would take my knee to respond after the surgery."
That might explain the erratic control, but Stewart insists he is healthy. If only the rest of the club could say the same, perhaps the A's wouldn't have to explain what they're doing at the top of the standings and whether they have what it takes to stay there.
"That's a fair question," Stewart said. "This year and last year are similar in that we are missing some key players. We played well early last year and we ended up in fourth place, so of course it's a fair question."
The answer might be several months away, but it will be no October surprise if the A's end up in the playoffs.