The 1988 baseball season is remembered for an incredible home run in the first game of the World Series, one that capped a season-long run that seemed straight off the Hollywood set. But there was a whole lot of context that set the stage for that October moment, including the following…
*The Los Angeles Dodgers had been on uncharacteristic downward spiral for two years with no sign of pulling out of it. The acquisition of Kirk Gibson and a historic pitching run by Orel Hershiser enabled the Dodgers to not only win a surprising NL West title, but do it with even more surprising ease. If those results were surprising, what happened in October—consecutive upsets of the New York Mets and Oakland A’s—were simply breathtaking.
*Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire have had their reputations tarnished because of admitted PED use, but in the summer of 1988 they were simply “The Bash Brothers” and they led a great Oakland team that overran the rest of the American League.
*The Mets were still loaded with the talent that seemed to promise a dynasty when they won it all in 1986. New York blew away the NL East and looked primed for a showdown with Oakland until they ran into the Dodgers.
*The Boston Red Sox were the weakest of the four postseason teams, but that meant their regular season path to win the AL East was the most interesting. The only division race that stayed compelling all year, the Red Sox used two big midseason changes—one on the pitching staff and the other in the dugout—to trigger some summer magic.
*The Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds didn’t advance to the playoffs, but each had seasons of historical note. Sparky Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager who led both teams during his career, had his last real contender with Detroit. This was also the realistic swan song for Reds’ manager Pete Rose– by the following summer the gambling problems that would lead to his banishment from the sport had engulfed him and the organization.
And we haven’t even gotten to October…
*The Mets-Dodgers NLCS had so many plot turns that it clearly came straight out of Hollywood
*The A’s kept beating the Red Sox back at the key moments in every game of the ALCS.
*And nothing could match what was in store for the opener of the World Series, as Los Angeles set an improbable tone for an improbable upset that capped an improbable year.
The nine articles below–one on each of the six teams mentioned and three others on each postseason series–tell the story of the 1988 MLB season through the eyes of its best teams.
The Oakland A’s had been off the radar since winning the AL West in 1981, with losing seasons each ensuing year through 1986. Midway through that ’86 campaign, the A’s hired Tony LaRussa as their manager. A year later they went .500. The big breakthrough came when the 1988 Oakland Athletics rolled to 104 wins and the American League pennant before a shocking World Series loss finally ended the run.
LaRussa’s team did everything well. They were second in the American League in runs scored, even playing in the pitcher-friendly park that is Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The A’s ranked in the top five in every notable offensive category, from on-base percentage to slugging percentage to batting average to walks to stolen bases. And they could pitch—the staff took full advantage of their home park and produced the best ERA in the American League.
No one did it better than Jose Canseco. The rising star became the first player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. He would later be joined by other disgraced PED users, in Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds in this exclusive club. Canseco also finished with a .391 OBP/.569 slugging percentage and won the MVP award.
And speaking of disgraced PED users, 24-year old first baseman Mark McGwire hit 32 home runs and finished with 99 RBI. Canseco and McGwire were “The Bash Brothers”, and they had a good supporting cast. Dave Henderson played centerfield and finished with a .363 OBP/.525 slugging. Third baseman Carney Lansford swiped 29 bases, and leftfielder Luis Polonia stole 24 more. Glenn Hubbard and Walt Weiss were consistent defensively up the middle.
Dave Parker and Don Baylor were well past their prime, ages 37 and 39 respectively, but the two former MVP winners still provided valuable leadership. Although the price of acquiring Parker from the Cincinnati Reds—a young pitcher by the name of Jose Rijo—would come back to bite Oakland in 1990.
Another trade worked out extremely well for the A’s. As part of a three-team deal with the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, they got Bob Welch to help in the starting rotation, and Welch won 17 games with a 3.64 ERA.
The price was shortstop Alfredo Griffin and closer Jay Howell. Griffin hit below .200 in 1988 for the Dodgers. Howell was good, but the bullpen wasn’t exactly Oakland’s problem—Dennis Eckersley saved 45 games with a 2.35 ERA and was the best closer in baseball.
And there was a lot of help, both in the rotation and the setup team, to get the ball to Eckersley. Dave Stewart won 21 games with a 3.23 ERA and was the #1 starter. After Welch, there was also Storm Davis, a 16-game winner with a 3.70 ERA. Curt Young chipped in 11 wins and 24-year-old Todd Burns made fourteen starts and posted a solid 3.16 ERA.
The bullpen depth was outstanding, as LaRussa had two different righty-lefty combos that could bridge from the rotation to Eckersley. Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret was one “team”, with Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt the other. The ERAs ranged from 2.89 to 3.50, as LaRussa brilliantly got the most out of everyone.
After splitting their first twelve games, Oakland took off. They won 18 of 19 between April 18 and May 9 and spurted out to a nine-game lead on the Minnesota Twins, who had won the 1987 World Series. The summer saw the A’s move along a little more sluggishly.
After they took two of three from the Twins and saw their lead climb to ten games, Oakland lost eight of ten. They dropped three of four to Minnesota at home and closed the first half of the season by losing five of seven to the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. The A’s still had the best record in baseball at 54-34, but the Twins were within 5 ½ games.
The second half didn’t start out a lot better, with three losses in four games to the Toronto Blue Jays. With the margin down to three games, Oakland turned it around against the same teams they had sent them into the break on a down note—the A’s won six of seven games against the Indians and Tigers in the return series and regained their footing.
Oakland’s lead was back to 6 ½ games, and from August 3rd to September 7th, the A’s reeled off a 25-9 stretch that put it away. They were 10 ½ games up. That decisive stretch had no head-to-head games with the Twins, although for good measure, Oakland beat their nearest rival five times in six tries over the last two weeks to seal the deal.
All that was left in September was the drama of Canseco’s push for the 40/40 club. On September 18, he hit home run #40. Five days later, he stole two bases in Milwaukee to make history. By an odd coincidence, the last historic stolen base by a player in an Oakland uniform had also been in Milwaukee—Rickey Henderson broke the single-season stolen base record in an A’s uniform in 1982, with the record steal coming on the road against the Brewers.
Oakland kept churning in the 1988 ALCSagainst the Boston Red Sox. The games were all competitive, but the A’s consistently beat back every Red Sox threat, and Eckersley saved four games in succession to complete the sweep. The A’s were returning to the World Series for the first time since 1974, when they became the only team not named the New York Yankees to win three straight Fall Classics.
When the Dodgers upset the Mets in the 1988 NLCS, it seemed to set up the World Series to be a coronation for Oakland. It didn’t work out that way. Eckersely finally cracked in Game 1, giving up a now-historic home run to a hobbled Kirk Gibson. The Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser was dominating everyone on the mound and LA upset Oakland in five games.
The ending was disappointing, but this was the start of a great run for LaRussa’s Oakland A’s. Before they were done, they would win the AL West three more times, take two more American League pennants, and one year later, they won the World Series.