The 1988 World Series was supposed to be a coronation for the 104-win Oakland Athletics. It ended up being a stunning upset for the Los Angeles Dodgers, as an iconic baseball moment started the series and the dominance of LA ace Orel Hershiser took over from there.
You can read more about the paths each team took to its division title during the regular season, and then to their LCS triumph in October, at the links below. This article focuses exclusively on the 1988 World Series.
The Dodgers entered the series with one big disadvantage—aside from already being seen as the decisively inferior team—their MVP rightfielder Kirk Gibson was hurt and available for pinch-hit duty at most. They still had homefield advantage though, thanks to the rotation system that existed prior to 2003, so for the second straight series, LA opened at home against a team that won 100 or more games.
Hershiser had pitched Game 7 of the NLCS win over the New York Mets, so rookie Tim Belcher would pitch the opener against Oakland’s 21-game winner, Dave Stewart. The Dodgers staked the kid to an early lead, when Steve Sax was hit by a pitch and Mickey Hatcher homered in the first inning.
Belcher couldn’t hold the lead though. Throughout their ALCS sweep of the Boston Red Sox, the A’s had immediately responded to scoring by the opponent, and that pattern continued here. In the top of the second, Glenn Hubbard singled. Belcher walked Stewart, who hadn’t batted all season.
Carney Lansford also worked a walk and it brought up Jose Canseco, the MVP of the American League, with two outs. Canseco unloaded a grand slam and it was 4-2.
Los Angeles chipped away for a run in the sixth, on consecutive singles by Mike Marshall, John Shelby and Mike Scioscia, but Stewart kept the lead at 4-3, and that’s where it stood in the ninth inning when the A’s ace turned the game over to Dennis Eckersley, baseball’s best closer and the MVP of the ALCS.
Eckersley got two outs, when Mike Davis walked and then stole second. Gibson was summoned to pinch hit. The physical ailment in his lower body was obvious when he got to the plate. If he reached base as the winning run, he would without question need a pinch-runner.
It turned out not to be necessary. Eckersley threw a backdoor slider. Gibson was ready and he pulled a line drive into the rightfield stands. He hobbled around the bases, his arm thrust of celebration now an indispensable part of baseball highlight montages. So is the voice of national radio announcer of Jack Buck, who exclaimed “I don’t believe what I just saw…I don’t believe what I just saw!”
The Dodgers not only had an improbable win and some momentum, they had Hershiser on the mound for Game 2. And the momentum rolled right into this game. With one out in the bottom of the second, Hershiser singled off Storm Davis. It was followed by singles from Sax, Franklin Stubbs and Mickey Hatcher. The score was 2-0, two men were aboard and then Mike Marshall blasted a home run.
A 5-0 lead for Hershiser in 1988 was piling on and he threw a complete-game three-hitter. The final was six-zip and the Dodgers were in command.
The Dodgers saw an old friend on the mound for Game 3 in Oakland. They had traded Bob Welch to the A’s in the offseason and he would be the starter for Tuesday night’s must-win game. John Tudor was on the mound for Los Angeles, but he had to be removed in the second inning. Tim Leary came on.
Oakland got a run in the third when Hubbard singled, stole second and scored when catcher Ron Hassey went the other way for an RBI single. Los Angeles tied it in the fifth, with a leadoff single from Hamilton, who moved up on a bunt and scored on a two-out hit from Stubbs.
LA missed a chance to take the lead in the sixth when they loaded the bases with none out. Greg Cadaret, part of a deep A’s bullpen, came on with his team’s hopes hanging in the balance. He got a pop out, a ground ball force play at home and pulled a Houdini-like escape to keep the game tied 1-1.
The A’s made it pay off in the ninth, when Mark McGwire hit a line drive home run to left off Dodger closer Jay Howell and Oakland was back in the series.
With Stewart on the mound for Game 4 and available for a potential Game 7, there was every reason for Oakland fans to still feel like this World Series was theirs for the taking. But early mistakes hurt them. Sax had worked a leadoff walk and Hatcher singled. With one out, a passed ball, an error on Hubbard and productive groundball out gave the Dodgers two quick runs.
Belcher was back on the mound, and Oakland again immediately responded against the rookie. Luis Polonia singled, took second on a passed ball and two ground ball outs brought the run around.
Los Angeles added a run when Oakland shortstop Walt Weiss committed an error off a line drive with a man on second and two outs. The A’s then missed a big chance with two on and none out in the fourth, when Belcher struck out Dave Parker and retired McGwire.
The A’s did add a run in the sixth on a two-out single by Dave Henderson, a walk to McGwire and a base hit from Lansford. But the Dodgers got it right back in the seventh, on a walk to Griffin, a base hit from Sax and a groundball out to bring the run in.
Oakland had nine outs left or they were going to be facing Hershiser on Thursday night with all margin for error gone. And they rallied. Weiss singled with one out and scored on Henderson’s two-out double. Howell came on with a chance to redeem himself. He walked Canseco. Parker hit a line drive at Griffin, but once again a shortstop failed to snare the ball, and the bases were loaded.
McGwire was at the plate with a chance to be a hero again, or at least tie the game. But he popped out and the inning ended. Howell took over and nailed down the final six outs to close out a huge save. Everything was pointing the Dodgers’ way with the 4-3 win.
The last thing Oakland wanted against Hershiser was to fall behind early, but that’s what happened. Stubbs singled in the first inning and Hatcher homered. The A’s got a run back in the third, but Davis gave up a two-run blast to Mike Davis in the fourth. Rick Dempsey drove in another Dodger run in the sixth with a double.
Hershiser kept the 5-1 lead into the eighth when Oakland made its last-gasp rally. Stan Javier hit a one-out RBI single, and Henderson worked a walk. The tying run was up in the person of Canseco. Hershiser got the MVP to pop out, and then struck out Parker. The game was all but over and the ace completed his four-hitter and the celebration was on in Hollywood.
The Series MVP award went to Hershiser, for his 18 innings of work and allowing only two earned runs to the most feared lineup in baseball. He was also 3-for-3 at the plate with an RBI. An honorable mention goes to Hatcher, who was 7-for-9 and had two big home runs. But the ultimate memory of the 1988 World Series goes to Gibson, who turned the tide with a scene that appropriately happened in Hollywood.
The 1990 Oakland Athletics were the gold standard of baseball. They had won consecutive American League pennants and the 1989 World Series. They spent all of 1990 looking ready to claim a special place in history before a shocking ending dented the legacy.
Oakland is remembered in this era for “The Bash Brothers”, the power-hitting duo of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Both had vintage years in 1990. McGwire hit 39 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Canseco’s numbers were 37/101. Both had on-base percentages of .370-plus. But the A’s were much more.
It was in the small-ball aspects of the game—walks, steals and on-base percentage—where Oakland excelled. No one was better than Rickey Henderson. The leadoff man and future Hall of Famer finished with a .439 OBP and slugged .577. He stole 65 bases, scored 119 runs and popped 28 home runs. He won the AL MVP award.
Oakland’s pitching was better. Dave Stewart was a 22-game winner and one of the great big-game pitcher of his era. Dennis Eckersley was a Hall of Fame closer, and his 48 saves and 0.61 ERA rendered him virtually unhittable in 1990. And Bob Welch racked up an astonishing 27-6 record and finished with a 2.95 ERA on his way to the Cy Young Award.
The star talent of Henderson, Stewart, Welch, Eckersley, McGwire and Canseco was augmented by a bona fide star in the dugout. Manager Tony LaRussa got the most out of the rest of the roster and Oakland finished with the AL’s best ERA and its third-most runs scored.
By Memorial Day the A’s were 30-12, but they were in a tight race In the days when baseball had just two divisions in each league and only the winners advancing to the postseason, Chicago and Minnesota were hot on Oakland’s heels for the AL West lead, four games back and 5 ½ respectively. No one in the AL East comparable.
On June 14, Oakland visited the South Side of Chicago. Stewart took the mound on Thursday to open a four-game series. He fell behind 3-0, but settled in the rest of the way. The problem was that in spite of thirteen hits, the A’s couldn’t get the big knock and they lost 3-2. When they trailed 4-1 in the eighth inning on Friday night, the race was poised to tighten further.
But a four-run rally won that game and it rolled into Saturday night when the offense unloaded for seven runs in the first inning of a 12-3 win. Mike Moore pitched well in Sunday’s finale and kept his team in it, trailing 2-1 after seven. McGwire homered to tie it and three consecutive singles gave the A’s the lead. Eckersley closed out the 5-2 win.
Oakland had the chance to open up the race further when Chicago made came west the following weekend. But the opportunity was missed. The A’s scored five runs the entire weekend. Stewart was on the wrong end of another tough 3-2 decision and the White Sox swept the series. By the All-Star break, even though the A’s were 51-31, they were only two games up.
August was the decisive month. Oakland went 18-9. Chicago lost four straight at mediocre Baltimore and went into a slump against the rest of AL East. The A’s extended the lead to 6 ½ games by Labor Day and it never got close again.
The clinching moment came with a week left in the regular season. With the magic number at two, A’s were in Kansas City. Twenty minutes after getting word of a Chicago loss, Stewart put the finishing touches on a complete-game five-hitter.
Oakland met Bostonin the ALCS. The A’s spotted the Red Sox the first run of the opening three games of the series and then came back and won. Games 1 & 2 at Fenway (homefield was decided by a rotation system, not W-L record) were each tied 1-1 going into the seventh. The A’s won the opener 9-1 and then grabbed a 4-1 win. They won again by a 4-1 count at home in Game 3.
Inn Wednesday afternoon’s Game 4, Oakland quit toying—they scored three runs off Roger Clemens early, keyed by a two-out/two-run double by infielder Mike Gallego. Stewart earned his ALCS MVP trophy with eight dominant innings and the sweep was complete.
To the shock of the baseball world, this was the last great high point of the Oakland Dynasty. Stewart was rocked in Game 1 of the World Series at Cincinnati. Eckersley lost an extra-inning affair in Game 2. The offense never woke up. Oakland was swept.
These A’s still have a place in history—not many teams have won three straight pennants and Oakland went 12-1 in ALCS play over those three years. Their World Series title of 1989 came in a sweep. But 1990 denied them a place as a winner of multiple championships. The team slipped to 84 wins in 1991 and though they rebounded to win the AL West in 1992, they never returned to the World Series.
It was a dream come true for the sports fans of the Bay Area when the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants each won pennants and met in the 1989 World Series. The dream turned into a nightmare when the Loma Prieta earthquake, registering a 7.1 on the Richter scale, rocked the region just prior to Game 3, wreaking terrible damage, taking lives and causing huge human suffering.
This post will focus on the game-by-game narrative of the battle between the A’s and Giants, both of whom stepped up and contributed to their communities in the aftermath of the devastation. You can read more about the season-long paths and key players that helped each team reach this point at the links below…
The series opened in Oakland and the A’s sent their ace, Dave Stewart, to the mound to face Scott Garrelts. Oakland got on the board in the bottom of the second when Dave Henderson drew a walk, and then with one out, Terry Steinbach and Tony Phillips each singled to make it 1-0 with runners on first and third.
A groundball out scored Steinbach and moved Phillips up to second. Rickey Henderson finished the rally with a line drive single to right and a quick 3-0 lead.
The A’s went to the long ball in the third and fourth inning, when Dave Parker and Walt Weiss each hit leadoff home runs. Stewart took over from there. He threw a complete-game five-hit shutout and Oakland had a 5-0 win.
Stewart had finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, and the A’s also had the man who finished third. Mike Moore took the ball on Sunday night, facing San Francisco’s Rick Reuschel, and again Oakland jumped out early.
Rickey Henderson drew a leadoff walk to start the home half of the first, stole second and scored on a double by Lansford. In the top of the third, San Francisco finally scored their first run of the Series.
Terry Kennedy singled and then was replaced on the bases by the faster Jose Uribe after a forceout. The unintended switch worked well. Uribe went first to third on a single to left and scored on a sac fly.
In the bottom of the fourth, Oakland all but put it away. Jose Canseco walked and Parker drove him in with a double. Dave Henderson drew a walk, then Steinbach banged a three-run blast. It was 5-1 and Moore took over.
He pitched seven innings of four-hit baseball, and let Rick Honeycutt and Dennis Eckersley clean up. The series would shift across the Bay to San Francisco with the A’s firmly in command.
The national TV audience was already tuned into ABC as pregame warmups for Game 3 were being concluded. Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were on the air, when the rumbling started. TV viewers heard Michaels say “We’re having an earthquake…”, and the power went out. This was on October 17. The World Series would not resume until October 27.
When play began it was Stewart facing Garrelts again, as each team re-set its rotation. Oakland picked up where they had left off. Lansford and Canseco each singled with one out in the first, and Dave Henderson hit a two-out double that made it 2-0.
Stewart finally gave up a run in the bottom of the second, when Matt Williams homered. Oakland answered back twice in the top of the fourth, when Dave Henderson and Philips each hit solo blasts to make it 4-1. In the bottom of the inning, Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell singled and Ken Oberkfell drew a walk. With two outs, Kennedy popped a two-run single and San Francisco wasn’t going away, down 4-3.
No one could hold back the A’s offense though, and over the next two innings they put another game away. In the fifth, Rickey Henderson and Lansford worked walks and Canseco ripped a three-run blast. Dave Henderson hit the add-on, solo blast. In the top of the sixth, Lansford hit a solo shot.
It was 9-3 and stayed that way until the eighth. Oakland tacked on four more runs, while San Francisco added four of their own in the ninth after Stewart was out The final was 13-7.
Moore went again for Oakland, while San Francisco manager Roger Craig, looking for anyone who might slow the tide of the A’s offense, gave a start to Don Robinson. Nothing worked. Rickey Henderson led Game 4 off with a home run.
In the top of the second, Dave Henderson doubled, and with two outs, Weiss was intentionally walked to bring up Moore. The pitcher doubled and both runs scored. Rickey Henderson singled in Moore and it was quickly 4-zip
The game got further out of hand in the fifth when Canseco hit a one-out single and Dave Henderson walked. This was followed by a bang-bang sequence of Steinbach tripling and Phillips hitting a double. Now it was 7-0. In the sixth, another run was added on when Rickey Henderson tripled and Lansford singled him home
But on the way to oblivion, San Francisco rallied. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Will Clark singled and Kevin Mitchell homered. It set the stage for a bigger rally in the bottom of the seventh.
Kennedy started it with a walk and Greg Litton homered. Honeycutt came in out of the Oakland bullpen, but he was greeted with a Candy Maldonado triple, a double by Butler and a single from Robby Thompson. Now it 8-6, there was only one out and the two more feared hitters in the San Francisco lineup—Clark and Mitchell—were at the plate.
Honeycutt, a lefty, stayed on to face the lefty Clark and got the out. Oakland manager Tony LaRussa went to the righthander Todd Burns to face righty Mitchell. The leftfield who won the NL MVP in 1989, got a hold of one, but it ended up as a fly ball out. The World Series was effectively over. The A’s got an insurance run in the top of the eighth, while Burns and Eckersley closed the game without further incident.
Stewart was named World Series MVP. There was a good case to be made for Rickey Henderson, who went 9-for-19 with two walks, a homer and three steals and seem to be involved in almost every critical Oakland rally. But it’s tough to argue against the selection of a pitcher who averaged eight innings in two starts, only gave up a combined three runs and won half the games his team needed.
It was Oakland’s first World Series title since 1974 and their most recent. They made it back to the Fall Classic one year later, but suffered an upset loss to the Cincinnati Reds. In spite of several good teams in recent years the A’s have not won the American League pennant since.
San Francisco disappeared for a few years before winning the NL West again in 1997. The more recent years have been incredibly good to the people of San Fran, with four pennants in the 21st century, including World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
The Oakland A’s were on a mission of redemption in 1989, trying to return to the World Series and atone for their 1988 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Toronto Blue Jays had survived a tough AL East fight against the Baltimore Orioles. The A’s were a solid favorite and that’s how the 1989 ALCS played out—the Blue Jays had their share of moments, and led at some point in most games, but Oakland had too much firepower and they took the pennant in five games.
You can read more about the paths each team took to get the ALCS, and about the key players that defined the season for each team, at the links below. This post will focus on the games of the 1989 ALCS itself.
Both teams had their aces ready for Game 1 in Oakland, as Dave Stewart went for the A’s and Dave Stieb took the ball for the Blue Jays. It was Toronto who struck first, in the top of the second. George Bell and Tony Fernandez singled, setting up runners on the corners. Fernandez stole second. Ernie Whitt picked up one run with a sac fly and Nelson Liriano delivered a two-out base hit for a 2-0 lead.
When Oakland met the Boston Red Sox in the 1988 ALCS, the A’s consistently answered rallies immediately, and they picked up where they left off a year later. Dave Henderson hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the second. The score stayed 2-1 until the top of the fourth, when Whitt homered for Toronto.
The A’s chipped back in the fifth, when Carney Lansford singled, stole second with two outs and scored when big Dave Parker singled the other way to left field.
One inning later, Mark McGwire hit a leadoff home run and it was tied 3-3. Tony Phillips followed by beating out a bunt and Stieb was removed for reliever Jim Acker, a somewhat curious quick hook given Stieb’s status as the ace.
A soft rally ensured. An infield hit and hit batsman loaded the bases. Lansford hit a groundball to short and it looked like the Jays might get the double play they needed to keep the game 3-3. Instead, Liriano threw it away off the turn, two runs came in and the score was 5-3.
Stewart locked in with the lead and retired the side in both the seventh and eighth, setting up closer Dennis Eckersley to do the same in the ninth. The A’s added two insurance runs in the eighth for good measure and took the opener 7-3.
The teams came back right away the following afternoon for a noon start local time. Toronto went to Todd Stottlemyre to try and pick up a road win, and while Oakland sent Mike Moore to the mound. And once again, it was the Blue Jays who struck first.
In the top of the third, Lloyd Moseby singled with one out. Mookie Wilson hit a ground ball to first base—not unlike the one he’d hit at Bill Buckner in the iconic moment of the 1986 World Series. This time he got credit for an infield hit, but also got the error, from McGwire. It sent Moseby to third where a ground ball out could pick up the game’s first run.
Rickey Henderson was the leadoff hitter for Oakland and began putting his imprint on this series in the fourth. He walked, stole both second and third and scored on a Lansford single. McGwire then doubled to bring home Lansford for a 2-1 lead. In the sixth, Parker homered. After McGwire singled, Stottlemyre was pulled for Acker. A ground rule double by Dave Henderson, a sac fly from Ron Hassey and a base hit from Tony Phillips stretched the Oakland lead to 5-1.
The A’s got insurance in the seventh in the ultimate manufactured rally. Rickey Henderson walked and stole second. Lansford walked, and Henderson stole third. Lansford stole second, and the errant throw brought Henderson in.
The extra run gave Oakland some breathing room when the Blue Jays rallied in the top of the eighth. Rick Honeycutt had come on from Moore, but allowed a single and two walks to load the bases with none out. Eckersley came on. Fred McGriff hit an RBI and the tying run was at the plate. But George Bell hit into a double play, which brought in a run through the backdoor, but killed the rally. Oakland won 6-3.
Jimmy Key was a reliable lefty for Toronto and on Friday night, his team’s season was essentially in his hands when he took the mound to face Storm Davis in Game 3 at the Toronto Skydome. It looked like the A’s would put this game and series to bed early. Rickey Henderson and Lansford each walked to start the game, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire each hit sac flies and it was 1-0. In the third, Rickey Henderson doubled, stole third and scored on a Lansford single. In the fourth, Parker homered and it was 3-0.
In the bottom of the fourth, Toronto answered. Moseby drew a leadoff walk, followed by a Wilson infield hit and McGriff single to load the bases. Bell picked up the team’s first run with a sac fly and then Fernandez cleared the bases with a double that tied the game 3-3. Whitt tacked on an RBI single and for the third straight game, Toronto had a lead.
This time, the Blue Jays made it stand up. They scored three more runs in the seventh, again with a Fernandez double being important, this time to start the inning. Acker and closer Tom Henke combined to close the door and with the 7-3 win this was a series again when the teams returned to the field early Saturday afternoon.
Two veterans, Bob Welch for Oakland and Mike Flanagan for Toronto were on the mound. Each had been a key World Series performer in their younger days, Welch for the Dodgers and Flanagan for the Orioles.
Oakland continued the pattern of the road team scoring first in each game. Walt Weiss doubled with one out in the third, then swiped third base. Rickey Henderson, having already shown his speed, now showed his power He homered to dead center. Canseco hit a solo blast, and it was 3-0.
Toronto got a run back in the fourth when Fernandez singled, stole second, took third on an infield hit and scored on a groundball out. But Oakland hit right back in the top of the fifth. With a man aboard, Rickey Henderson homered again. The Blue Jays got a run back in the sixth, the teams traded solo home runs in the seventh, and it looked like Oakland’s 6-3 lead was comfortable in the bottom of the eighth.
An infield hit, walk and wild pitch from Honeycutt gave Toronto first and third with one out. Eckersley was summoned. Wilson hit a groundout that scored a run and McGriff singled to cut the lead to 6-5. Bell had a chance to tie or take the lead and he got a hold of one. But it ended up a deep fly to center, Eckersley slammed the door in the ninth and Oakland’s 6-5 win gave them firm command of this series.
Stewart and Stieb returned to the mound on a late Sunday afternoon in Toronto. Rickey Henderson wasted no time in putting pressure on Toronto, as he drew a walk to start the game, stole second and scored on a Canseco single. In third, Rickey ripped an RBI triple. Stieb got settled in after that, but Stewart gave no ground and the score was still 2-0 in the seventh.
Dave Henderson drew a walk in the seventh, followed by singles from McGwire and Terry Steinbach. Acker was called on to keep Toronto in the game, but a sac fly and squeeze play pushed over a key run to make it 4-zip.
The run was needed, because the Blue Jays didn’t roll over. Moseby homered in the eighth. Bell homered to start the ninth to make it 4-2, and Eckersley came on for Stewart. Fernandez singled and stole second. A groundout and sac fly scored the run, but now the Jays were down to their last out. Eckersley closed the door one more time and with the 4-3 win, Oakland had back-to-back American League pennants.
There were several good individual performances from the A’s. Lansford went 5-for-11 and drew two walks. Stewart went eight innings in each of his two winning starts. Eckersley saved three games, pitching 5.2 innings and only giving up one run. But no one dominated this series like Rickey Henderson. He went 6-for-15, drew seven walks, homered twice and stole eight bases in five games. He was a deserved selection as the 1989 ALCS MVP.
Oakland went on to a Bay Area World Series against the San Francisco Giants. It was a series that has been marred by history because of an earthquake that rocked the region just prior to Game 3 and caused a ten-day interruption of play. It put a damper on the celebration when the A’s ultimately got the vindication they were after.
Neither the A’s nor Jays were going anywhere anytime soon. Oakland won another pennant in 1990. Toronto returned to the ALCS in 1991, and these same two teams played each in this round in 1992, with the Blue Jays getting the upper hand. But in 1989, no one was better than the Oakland A’s.
The 1988 MLB season wasn’t filled with drama when it came to pennant races, but that didn’t stop the year from having an epic ending that was seemingly written in Hollywood and literally ended there.
Three teams—the Oakland A’s, the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers got a hold of their division leads and pulled away by comfortable margins. The most exciting race, in the AL East, was the excitement of shared mediocrity, and even at that, the eventual win of the Boston Red Sox didn’t have a dramatic finish. It was the individual achievments and iconic moments that truly defined this 1988 MLB campaign.
Oakland produced the first 40/40 man in MLB history, as Jose Canseco hit forty home runs and stole forty bases, even if the accomplishment has since become disgraced by his PED use. Boston had a memorable mid-summer hot streak after a managerial change. Los Angeles got one of the great pitching performances of all time, when Orel Hershiser threw 58 scoreless innings. And the Mets won 100 games for the second time in three years.
But when it comes to making history, nothing topped what happened in the first game of the World Series. Kirk Gibson, the LA rightfielder, was the NL MVP, but hobbled badly by injury and unable to start against Oakland. With his team trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, and the great A’s closer Dennis Eckersley needing just one more out, Gibson was summoned to pinch-hit.
Gibson hobbled up to the plate, and with a man aboard, got a hold of backdoor slider and hit a line drive into the rightfield stands. It was a stunning moment, straight out of The Natural and in Hollywood’s own backyard. It set the stage for a stunning upset as Los Angeles dispatched the 104-win A’s.
The links below contain all the key moments for the teams that defined the 1988 MLB season, from their big regular season wins, to the times when it seemed like things might get away, to the game-by-game narratives of each postseason series. The heart of the 1988 season is all here.
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.
The Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox had considerably different resumes when they came into the 1988 ALCS. The A’s had dethroned the defending World Series champion Minnesota Twins in the AL West, won 104 games and were the favorite to win it all. The Red Sox had fired a manager in midseason and crawled to the top of a weak AL East, winning the division with an 89-73 record.
The results of the American League Championship Series were predictable—an Oakland sweep—but the Red Sox made each game competitive and the ALCS was filled with could’ve, should’ve moments that might have altered its course.
Homefield advantage was determined on a divisional rotation basis, and it was the East’s turn, so in spite of the records, the series opened in Fenway Park on the first Wednesday afternoon of October. Dave Stewart, a 21-game winner, got the start for the A’s, while the Red Sox went to lefty Bruce Hurst, who was about to be voted MVP of the 1986 World Series before a certain infamous two-out rally and ground ball got in the way.
Stewart and Hurst each pitched well, and no one scored until the fourth, when Oakland’s MVP leftfielder Jose Canseco hit a solo home run. In the bottom of the seventh, the Red Sox tied it. Jim Rice drew a one-out walk, Stewart hit Jody Reed with a pitch and Rich Gedman singled to load the bases.
Lefthander Rick Honeycutt was summoned to face Wade Boggs. The third baseman hit it hard, a line drive to left, but it was caught. The tying run was still able to score.
Even though Boston had tied it, the opportunity for a big inning with Boggs at the plate had been missed. Oakland immediately made it hurt. Carney Lansford led off the top of the eighth with a double down the left field line and Dave Henderson promptly slapped a single the other way to right. A’s closer Dennis Eckersley came on, and with two outs in the ninth, Reed doubled and Gedman walked. Boggs had another chance, but struck out, ending the 2-1 game.
The Red Sox hoped Roger Clemens could win what was close to a must-win game at Fenway Park on Thursday night in Game 2. The A’s went with Storm Davis, and once again, both starting pitchers were sharp. No one scored through five innings.
It was Boston who broke through with two outs in the sixth. Dwight Evans and Mike Greenwell each walked, and then Rice’s line drive to centerfield was muffed by Henderson. It called to mind key outfield errors made by the A’s when these same franchises met in the 1975 ALCS. The Red Sox had the game’s first run and a base hit by Ellis Burks made it 2-0.
Once again, Oakland not only responded, they did it within two batters. Henderson singled to start the seventh and Canseco homered to tie the game. Dave Parker singled. After a ground ball force out put the faster Lansford on the bases, he took second on a balk, third on a two-out wild pitch and scored on a single to left by Mark McGwire.
The Red Sox had their own response, getting a Gedman home run to wrap around the Pesky Pole in right field and tying the game 3-3. The game would go into the hands of the closers, Eckersley and Boston’s Lee Smith.
With two outs in the ninth, Smith was ready to give his lineup a chance, but three rapid singles by Ron Hassey, Tony Phillips and Walt Weiss scored the go-ahead run. The lightest hitters of the Oakland lineup had beaten one of the game’s better closers. Eckersley—the game’s very best closer, slammed the door on the 4-3 win.
The ALCS shifted west for an early evening local start in Game 3 and Boston didn’t show any signs of quitting against A’s starter Bob Welch. The top of the first began with consecutive singles by the Red Sox’ Killer B’s—Burks, Marty Barrett and Boggs. Greenwell cleared the bases with a double and a 3-0 lead. One inning later, Burks doubled, was bunted over and scored on a Boggs sac fly. Greenwell, who finished second to Canseco in the MVP voting, came through again, with a solo home run.
With a 5-0 lead and Mike Boddicker, the MVP of the 1983 ALCS for the Baltimore Orioles, on the mound, it would have seemed Boston was ready to get back in the series. But Oakland wiped almost the entire lead by the time the second inning was over.
McGwire led off the bottom of the second with a home run. Hassey singled, and then scored on a two-out double from Weiss. Lansford homered and it was 5-4. In the bottom of the third, Boddicker again got two outs but couldn’t finish. McGwire singled and Hassey homered, and the A’s had the lead by the time the game went to the middle innings.
Welch had been removed and reliever Gene Nelson got out of two key jams. In the third inning and fifth innings, the Red Sox had runners on the corners with one out. Both times, Nelson got a double play grounder. In the fifth, the combination of McGwire and Hassey again delivered, and with two outs. A single and double from the duo made the game 7-5.
An Oakland mistake helped Boston pick up a run in the seventh, when Boggs was able to take second on a two-out single due to another Henderson error in the outfield. Evans picked up the RBI with a base hit. But the notion of a shutdown inning was something the Red Sox staff just couldn’t pull off. Parker doubled with one out in the bottom of the seventh and Stan Javier drilled a two-out single to widen the lead back to 8-6.
The ball went to Eckersley who set down six straight Boston batters and a two-run homer by Henderson stripped whatever drama was left in the 10-6 final.
A comeback by the Red Sox looked hopeless, and there wasn’t even a 2004rallying cry to invoke at this time. Not to mention, Stewart was on the mound for Game 4, ready to make three starts in this ALCS if necessary. Hurst would try and extend the series for Boston.
Hurst pitched reasonably well, but he fell behind early. Canseco got him for an opposite field home run in the first, and Henderson hit an RBI double in the second. Hurst settled in and kept the game at 2-0 and the Red Sox tried to rally in the sixth.
Barrett worked a leadoff walk and Boggs followed with a single. Boston picked up a run with productive ground ball outs from Greenwell and Rice, but once again, the chance for a crooked number at a time when it was badly needed was missed. Stewart was removed in the eighth after surrendering a leadoff single to Burks, but Honeycutt promptly got a double-play ball from Barrett.
Eckersley, the Mariano Rivera of his day, was ready for the ninth, so a 2-1 lead seemed insurmountable. But in case there was any doubt, the A’s tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the eighth. Eck slammed the door for his fourth straight save to clinch Oakland’s first pennant since 1974.
The 1988 ALCS MVP went to Eckersley, for his four saves, encompassing six innings and zero runs. It was the right pick, as his ability to close out games while Smith struggled and gave up three runs in 3.1 IP, was the single biggest difference in this series.
But it was far from the only difference. Nelson worked 4.2 IP of shutout ball, including the key moments of Game 3 when Boston was in its strongest position. Canseco hit three home runs, all of them significant. The only Red Sox performer of note was Boggs, who hit .385.
The biggest surprise was not that Oakland won this ALCS, or even that they swept it. It’s that they only had one more win ahead of them. The A’s were heavy favorites against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, but a stunning loss in Game 1 that has a unique place in MLB history, got the ball rolling the wrong way and Los Angeles won in five games.
But whatever happened in the World Series, the A’s were entering a three-year run of dominance in American League Championship Series play. They won three straight pennants from 1988-90 and their record in those series was 12-1. That’s dominance and it started in 1988.
The Oakland A’s were baseball’s royalty in the early 1970s, winning three straight World Series from 1972-74. Oakland fell off the radar following a close second-place finish in 1976, but the 1981 Oakland Athletics returned with a vengeance. Manager Billy Martin and a starting rotation with four outstanding pitchers led the team to an AL West title in a strike-shortened season.
Martin’s four aces were Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Mike Norris and Matt Keough. In a season that went little more than 100 games thanks to the strike that covered about two months between June and August, two of the starters (Langford and McCatty) got close to 200 innings. The rotation as a whole produced 60 complete games—the next highest in the American League was 33.
The pitching was supported by an offense that was fifth in the league in scoring runs, thanks to leading the AL in home runs, in spite of playing in the vast expanse of Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The lead slugger was Tony Armas and the rightfielder hit 22 home runs. Centerfielder Dwayne Murphy popped 15 out and designated hitter Cliff Johnson went deep 17 times.
But the best offensive player was a base-stealer. Rickey Henderson was starting a Hall of Fame career and the leadoff man and leftfielder finished with a .408 on-base percentage and stole 56 bases. Almost exclusively on the strength of Henderson, Oakland finished fourth in the league in stealing bases.
Oakland’s talented outfield of Henderson, Murphy and Armas made up for a subpar offense at the rest of the positions. The infield and catching spots are marked by OBP’s hovering around or below .300, and no power to speak of.
The A’s came blazing out of the gate and won their first eleven games. They built the record to 17-2, then to 20-3 and held a seven-game lead in the AL West on May 2. A trip to play the top teams in the AL East went poorly—Oakland lost ten of eleven to the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. The lead dwindled to a 2 ½ games, and by the end of May was a narrow half-game, with the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers in hot pursuit.
Oakland righted the ship in June and that proved to be the critical stretch in this strange season. The A’s went 6-3 to start the month, with the key being a home doubleheader sweep of Baltimore. The resurgence kept Oakland atop the division, by two games, when the players went on strike on June 12.
The strike ended in mid-August and the MLB hierarchy made a decision on how to pick up the pieces of the season. They declared that 1981 would be a “split season.” The teams leading what was then four divisions (the leagues were split into an East & West) were declared “first-half champions.” These teams, including Oakland, would play the “second-half champions” in the first-ever Division Series.
MLB then made the unfortunate decision not to give the first-half winners anything to play for after the strike. It was ruled that if the same team won both halves, rather than advancing directly to the LCS, the Division Series would still go on, but with the runner-up in the second half.
The incentive Oakland had was an additional home game—instead of playing Games 1 & 2 on the road, they would only have to play Game 1, if they won both halves. It’s nice, but not enough to sustain motivation in the dog days of August.
Oakland didn’t play badly after the strike and they went 27-22, while the Kansas City Royalswent 30-23 to take the second half. But when the Division Series came around, the A’s were ready. Norris was brilliant in setting the tone with a Game 1 win, and Oakland won the AL West title with three straight wins.
The American League Championship Series didn’t go quite as well. Martin faced his old team, the Yankees, and the A’s looked like either a team not quite ready for prime-time, or a team whose lack of depth beyond the rotation and the outfield finally came exposed. New York won close games in Games 1 & 3, a blowout in Game 2 and swept Oakland home.
Unfortunately for Oakland fans, that was the end of the good times. The workload the starting pitchers undertook early in their careers would become the impetus for the pitch-count obsessions that persist to this day. None of the four had extended careers and most burned out quickly after.
Oakland fell apart for a few years and didn’t come back until Tony LaRussa came to town later in the decade and won three straight pennants with the Bash Brothers of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and captured the World Series in 1989.
The New York Yankees and Oakland A’s had combined to mostly own the American League in the 1970s. The A’s won three straight pennants from 1972-74, taking the World Series each time. The Yankees won three straight pennants from 1976-78 and grabbed two Series titles. But the teams’ paths had never crisscrossed in October. That changed when they met in the 1981 ALCS.
An interesting subplot was that Oakland’s revival was under the leadership of manager Billy Martin, who had also restored to the Yankees to prominence five years earlier. New York fans would now be rooting against their old favorite.
You can read more about each team’s regular season path, including the performance of key players, at the links below. This article will focus on the games of the 1981 ALCS.
LCS play was a best-of-five round at this time, and homefield was determined on a rotation basis. The series would begin with two games in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then go to Oakland for the balance of the series.
It was veteran sinkerballer Tommy John pitching the opener for New York, with Mike Norris going for Oakland. Norris had pitched brilliantly all year and in the Division Series, but the Yankees got to him right away in Game 1.
Larry Milbourne hit a one-out single, and Dave Winfield drew a walk. After another walk to Oscar Gamble, and two outs in the inning, Graig Nettles hit a bases-clearing double and New York had a 3-0 lead before anyone was settled in.
Norris did get settled in, and the Yankees never scored—or even seriously threatened again. But the first-inning damage was enough. John allowed two singles to start the top of the second, but got out of it. Oakland got a run in the fifth, when Rob Picciolo singled, Rickey Henderson doubled him to third with one out and Dwayne Murphy picked up the run with an RBI grounder.
It was still 3-1 in the eighth, with hard-throwing setup man Ron Davis on the mound for New York. Davis lost his control and walked two with one out. The equally hard-throwing closer Goose Gossage—who had better control and better movement—came on and retired five straight batters to close the Game 1 win.
The teams had a quick turnaround, coming back on Wednesday afternoon. Oakland turned to Steve McCatty, while New York went to Rudy May. The Yankees again wasted little time getting on the board. Jerry Mumphrey led off the first with a double, took a third a base hit to left by Milbourne and then came home when Reggie Jackson delivered a productive ground ball out.
Oakland tied it up in the third with a double by Rick Bosetti and a one-out triple from Henderson. But the A’s couldn’t get their first lead of the series, as May struck out Murphy and went to escape the inning.
In the fourth, the A’s did break through against May. Three straight singles produced one run and left runners on second and third after a throw home. May was pulled and George Frazier, who had pitched well all year, came on in long relief. Frazier did his job. After an intentional walk and an infield hit made it 3-1, Frazier got Henderson to bounce back to the mound and Frazier started a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.
And in the bottom of the frame, the avalanche came for New York. Nettles singled. McCatty hit a batter with one out. Randolph singled to cut the lead to 3-2. Mumphrey walked, and Martin came out to remove McCatty.
The Oakland staff was heavily dependent on the starters, and Dave Beard couldn’t stop the carnage. Milbourne singled to tie the game. Winfield doubled and the score was 5-3. Then Lou Piniella administered the coup de grace, with a three-run blast and it was 8-3.
Nor did New York stop—the scored a run in the sixth and four more in the seventh, thanks to a three-run blast by Nettles and the final was 13-3.
No team had ever lost the first two games of LCS, a round that went back to 1969, and come back to win. But in the Division Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off the feat. And the Yankees survived a scare, going up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Brewers, before being pushed to the brink in Game 5. With the series going back west, and Martin having a quality starter at his disposal each night, this wasn’t over.
Only it was. The A’s bats weren’t going to wake up and the Yanks’ power lefty, Dave Righetti dominated Oakland in Game 3. The A’s never registered any rally worthy of the name.
Matt Keough, the Oakland starter, responded well and matched zeroes with Righetti for five innings but Willie Randolph hit a home run with two outs in the sixth. The game stayed 1-0 into the ninth. After a walk and an error to start the inning, Keough was removed.
Piniella promptly singled, though Oakland threw out Mumprhey at the plate. The bases were re-loaded with two outs and Nettles ended any doubt when he delivered a double that cleared the bases. The game ended 4-0.
Nettles finished 6-for-12 in the series, had a home run, along with two bases-loaded doubles with two outs, each in huge spots. His double in the first inning of Game 1 set the tone and then he repeated the feat in Game 3 to seal the deal. He was an easy choice for 1981 ALCS MVP.
New York went to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and kept the momentum going for two games, winning Games 1 & 2 at home. Then it all came apart quickly. The Yankees lost three straight one-run games at Dodger Stadium and then came undone in a Game 6 rout at home.
It turned out to be the last hurrah—at least for a little while for both teams, at least as presently constituted. Oakland’s starting pitching worked too many innings, burned out and they didn’t again contend until Tony LaRussa managed a series of outstanding teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No one would have guessed that the Yankees were about to disappear from the landscape. They would never again win the AL East, as it was constituted prior to the realignment of 1994, with seven teams. New York didn’t return to postseason play until 1995, and didn’t win the AL East until the revival of the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter years that began in 1996.
The Division Series, the best-of-five round that takes place among the last four teams left in both leagues, came about by design in the realignment of the 1994 season. But more than a decade prior, the first Division Series came about by accident and it produced an ironic result–not only did the New York Yankees advance, but so did their old manager, who moved on with the Oakland A’s.
A players’ strike from mid-June to mid-August called for some creativity. MLB decided to have teams leading at the strike play those that won the post-strike period after starting from scratch. Out of the blue, everyone was told an extra round was added to the playoffs. Here’s a look back at the 1981 ALDS, who got there, and how it unfolded day-by-day.
The Yankees and A’s led their divisions when the strike began on June 12—with no Central Division in existence yet, there was just an East & West. After play resumed in August, the Milwaukee Brewers won the AL East’s second-half and the Kansas City Royals took the other berth in the AL West.
You can read more about all four teams regular season paths, the key players and decisive moments in their push to October at the links below. This article will focus on going day-by-day through the Division Series.
The 1981 ALDS began on a Tuesday afternoon in Kansas City, as the Royals hosted the A’s. Kansas City, who had won the AL West four times in the previous five years, and the pennant in 1980, sent their ace, Dennis Leonard to the mound. Oakland had been the superior team in 1981, with a workhorse starting rotation and Billy Martin as their manager. The A’s countered with young Mike Norris on the hill.
Kansas City got the first threat of Game 1, loading the bases with one out. Norris, pitching like a postseason veteran, got two Royal vets, Frank White and George Brett, to escape unscathed. Oakland quickly made KC play. Dwayne Murphy drew a one-out walk in the fourth, and then Brett committed a two-out error. Oakland third baseman Wayne Gross ripped a three-run blast and the A’s had a 3-0 lead.
Norris was only challenged one more time, when Kansas City loaded the bases with none out in the fifth. Norris got leadoff hitter Willie Wilson to pop up, and then a White line drive went right at Gross, who turned it into a double play. Murphy gave Oakland some insurance in the eighth with a solo home run.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 7
Both series would be in action today and Oakland-KC, being two small market teams, again got stuck playing a weekday afternoon game. The A’s sent Steve McCatty to face KC righthander Mike Jones. The Royals had gotten decent work from Jones in 1981, but turning to him in this spot underscored that both Rich Gale and Paul Splittorff had struggled during the season and why Kansas City wasn’t quite as good as in previous years.
Murphy again got Oakland going, this time right away in the first, with a one-out single. He scored on a double by DH Cliff Johnson. The inning might have been bigger, but Johnson mysteriously only advanced one base on a subsequent double, and Kansas City was only behind 1-0.
It looked like Oakland’s failure to make the first inning bigger would hurt them. Both pitchers settled in, and with two outs in the fifth, the Royals tied it on successive singles from John Wathan, U.L. Washington and Wilson.
But Murphy once again came through, this time in the eighth inning for Oakland. He singled to lead off, was bunted up by Johnson and scored on a double by Tony Armas. McCatty delivered a complete-game six-hitter and Oakland had come into KC’s house and taken the first two games.
The focus of the American League stayed in the heartland, but went several hours north, as the Yankees and Brewers met in the old Milwaukee County Stadium in prime-time. New York had a former Cy Young winner, lefty Ron Guidry, while Milwaukee would rely on Moose Haas, a consistent, if unspectacular righthander.
Milwaukee could hit, and they got after Guidry in the second, with a two-out double from Sal Bando and an RBI base hit from Charlie Moore. In the third, Jim Gantner doubled off Guidry to start the inning. Paul Molitor laid down a sac bunt that was flubbed and the Brewers had runners on the corners.
It might have been a big inning, but Guidry settled down. Robin Yount picked up Gantner with a sac fly, but at 2-0, the Yankees had the bats to bet back into it. And that’s what they did immediately, starting in the top of the fourth.
After Haas walked Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble went deep and the game was quickly tied. Then Bob Watson singled and pesky Larry Milbourne beat out an infield hit. Rick Cerone doubled to clear the bases. Haas was gone and the Brewers were staring at a 4-2 hole.
Milwaukee’s offense got Guidry out of the game in the fifth, when the sequence of a Yount single, a walk of Cecil Cooper and a base hit by Ted Simmons made it 4-3. New York manager Bob Lemon called in his hard-throwing young reliever Ron Davis.
The move paid off—Davis got out of the inning with the one-run lead intact and he worked 2.2 innings of perfect baseball. Milwaukee never threatened again, and New York picked up an insurance run in the ninth to win it 5-3.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 8
Oakland and Kansas City were traveling, and New York and Milwaukee got it going in an afternoon game. Both teams sent lefthanders to the hill, although that was about all Dave Righetti and Mike Caldwell had in common. New York’s Righetti was a hard-throwing young arm. Milwaukee’s Caldwell was a veteran finesse pitcher. Both were brilliant on this day.
The Yankees’ Lou Piniella got to Caldwell for a two-out home run in the fourth inning and into the seventh inning, the 1-0 game stood up, with nary a threat from either side. In the bottom of the seventh, Davis came on, but lacked the control of the previous night. Two walks and a single loaded the bases.
New York was stacked in the bullpen, and Lemon simply upgraded to closer Goose Gossage, a future Hall of Famer. With one out, Gossage got Yount to pop up and struck out Cooper. In the top of the ninth, the Yankees got a two-run blast from Jackson. The insurance runs weren’t technically needed, although they undoubtedly improved Lemon’s peace of mind when the Brewers got singles from Bando and Molitor with one out in the ninth. But Yount again popped out, Gossage slammed the door and with the 3-0 win, the Yankees joined the A’s in taking the first two games on the road.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 9
There was no travel day for Brewers-Yanks, so this would be a doubleheader day in the ALDS. The Royals and A’s started with a 2:10 PM local start that was early evening on the East Coast, meaning it could swing into the Brewers-Yankees at 8:20 PM local time in the Bronx.
Kansas City turned to their veteran lefty Larry Gura to try and keep the season alive, with Oakland countering with Rick Langford, who’d pitched as well all year as Norris and McCatty. And Langford continued the trend of great A’s starting pitching.
The A’s gave Langford a quick run when Rickey Henderson drew a walk, stole second with two outs and scored on a single by Armas. In the third, Henderson singled and again took off for second—this time he was out…but for an error by Washington at short that kept Henderson on the basepaths. Then Wathan, the KC catcher, dropped a foul-ball out on Murphy. Then Murphy beat out in an infield hit, and Henderson kept on chugging all the way home.
It was 2-0 and Kansas City did not look like the experienced veteran team. Oakland loaded the bases with no outs, but consecutive strikeouts by the A’s weak bottom of the order forced Martin to try something improbable—Murphy took off on a steal of home, but it didn’t work. The Royals weren’t playing well, but they were breathing.
White led off the KC fourth with a single. Willie Aikens singled to right. White took third on the hit and scored on an RBI grounder by Amos Otis. But as quickly as Kansas City got on the board, Oakland had an answer, and once again Murphy was in the middle of it.
It began with a solo home run by Dave McKay. With two outs, Henderson again singled and Murphy slashed an RBI double and it was 4-1.
Kansas City didn’t go quietly—they got four singles in the top of the fifth, but the combination of Clint Hurdle being picked off, runners moving up just one base at a time and a couple infield popouts, meant no runs. In the top of the eighth, the Royals put two on with one out. Martin summoned Tom Underwood in relief of Langford, and he struck out the power-hitting Aikens who represented the tying run. Martin then turned to Dave Beard to get Otis.
That was the last shot for the Royals. Beard slammed the door in the ninth and for the first time since 1975, the Oakland A’s were AL West champs.
Could Friday be a day of a sweep on both coasts? The pitching matchup certainly suggested it. The Yankees had their terrific veteran lefty Tommy John, while the Brewers put their season into the hands of journeyman Randy Lerch.
But Lerch was terrific. New York got a run in the fourth when Bob Watson delivered a two-out RBI single, but even with John pitching great, the Yankee lead was only 1-0 into the seventh. And then the Brewer offense awoke.
It started small, with an infield hit by Cooper, but quickly went big, as Simmons homered for a 2-1 Milwaukee lead. Gorman Thomas singled, and was sacrificed up by Ben Ogilvie. Bando drove in the run with a single and Milwaukee had a 3-1 lead, with the league MVP—closer Rollie Fingers—in reserve.
But Fingers struggled in the seventh, and New York got four straight one-out singles from Watson, Milbourne, Cerone and Willie Randolph to immediately tie the game back up. Milwaukee could have been forgiven for folding—but they didn’t—Molitor homered to start the eighth and put his team right back on top.
Yount beat out an infield hit. John was removed, and Simmons again had a big RBI, this time a double for a 5-3 lead. Given a reprieve, Fingers rolled through the eighth and ninth. We would come back to Yankee Stadium on Saturday.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10
Milwaukee’s Pete Vuckovich was a year away from an 18-win Cy Young season. He shouldered his team’s fate against New York’s Rick Reuschel, who had been the ace of some disappointing Cubs’ teams in the late 1970s and now had the chance to be on the October stage.
Both pitchers rolled through three innings and the Brewers began chipping away in the fourth. Molitor and Yount both singled. A sac fly from Cooper plated the first run and Ogilvie’s two-out double staked Vuckovich to a 2-zip lead.
An error and a double by Dave Winfield gave the Yankees second and third with no outs in the sixth. Vuckovich was removed for lefthander Jamie Easterly. It wasn’t a long or noteworthy career for Easterly, but this is at or near the top of his greatest moments.
He struck out Jackson, and even though Piniella picked up one run with an RBI groundout, Easterly had maintained the lead.
And a Brewer tag-team of Jim Slaton from the right side, Bob McClure from the left and eventually Fingers, slammed the door. Milwaukee won 2-1 and this strange series, with the road team winning every game, would go to a decisive finale on Sunday night.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 11
It was a Hass-Guidry rematch and the Brewers again showed they could hit the renowned Yankee ace. Thomas homered in the second. In the third, utility man Ed Romero singled, Molitor walked, Young legged out an infield hit, Cooper picked up the RBI with a sac fly and it was 2-0…just like it had been in Game 1.
And just like the opener, Haas couldn’t hold the lead and it was the fourth inning, with the Jackson/Gamble duo doing the Brewer pitcher in. It began with a leadoff single from Milbourne. Jackson then went deep tie the game and Gamble immediately followed with a home run to put New York on top.
Haas was gone and Caldwell was in, but the Brewer lefty didn’t have the stuff of Game 2. Graig Nettles and Watson each singled and with runners on the corners, Rick Cerone picked up the RBI with a productive groundball.
It was still only 4-2, and just like Game 1, the Brewers got a run back. In the seventh inning, with Righetti on for Guidry, Yount tripled and came in on a Cooper base hit. But New York immediately answered when Cerone took Slaton deep.
In a battle of teams with great closers, it was New York who turned a lead over to Gossage, while Fingers could only watch. The Goose gave up a couple walks in the eighth, but got Don Money to fly out and keep the 5-3 lead. New York tacked on two insurance runs in the bottom of the inning, and it was all over, but the shouting, ending 7-3.
Both series of the 1981 ALDS had been taken by the first-half winners, as the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s advanced to the American League Championship Series.
1981 DIVISION SERIES MVPS
This wasn’t an official award then, nor is it today, but it should be. So let’s rectify the omission and give out some hardware. In the Oakland-KC series, Dwayne Murphy is an easy choice. He was 6-for-11 and there was no significant A’s rally that Murphy didn’t have his hands in.
The New York-Milwaukee series has three worthwhile candidates. Gamble went 5-for-9 and hit two home runs, both in decisive spots of the series opener and closer. Righetti won two games—he came on in the fifth inning of Game 5 and got the win in that game and pitched brilliantly in nine total innings.
But the overriding factor in this series was the dominance of the New York bullpen. Gossage saved all three New York victories and they were all legitimate saves (i.e., none of this stuff were you get three easy outs with a three-run lead). The Goose pitched multiple innings in close games. In 6.2 IP of work, he shut out a great offensive team and only gave up three hits. He would be my choice.
THE AFTERMATH FOR THE VANQUISHED
Milwaukee and Kansas City would each be back. The Brewers built on the postseason experience gained, won the AL East in 1982 and reached the World Series, losing a good seven-game Fall Classic to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Royals were a steady organization and though it took a couple more years, they again won the AL West in 1984. One year later, Kansas City saw its dreams come true, with a World Series victory over St. Louis.
THE AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTORIOUS
New York and Oakland’s ALCS matchup featured two good games, but the Yankees won both of those, and took home the pennant in a three-game sweep.
The Yankees then won the first two games of the World Seriesat home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the trip west proved their undoing. New York lost three consecutive one-run games and then were blown out on their home field in Game 6.
Most surprising is that the Yankees and A’s disappeared from the October stage for several years. New York fielded pretty good teams in the coming years, but not up to the usual standards of this franchise and they didn’t make the postseason until the new alignment and wild-card era began in 1995.
Oakland fell completely off the map, as their starting pitching burned out, Martin burned out and the A’s disappeared until a new cast of characters emerged later in the decade. Neither disappearing act would have been expected when the Yankees and A’s were pouring champagne at the end of the 1981 ALDS.
The 1989 Oakland Athletics are a great championship team that has managed to slide under the radar of baseball history. They pulled away in the AL West race, so that most regular season attention focused on more exciting race in the AL East. The A’s rolled through the playoffs, but the big story of the 1989 World Series was the earthquake that devastated a Bay Area battle with the San Francisco Giants, caused a delay for ten days between games and more importantly, caused massive human suffering.
It’s for those reasons—along with the fact that this same basic cast of characters lost the World Series as heavy favorites in both 1988 to the Los Angeles Dodgers and 1990to the Cincinnati Reds, that the 1989 Oakland A’s can slide under the historical radar. But they shouldn’t.
Oakland is renowned for having “The Bash Brothers” of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and McGwire hit 33 home runs in 1989. Canseco though, suffered a wrist injury prior to the season and didn’t return until after the All-Star break, playing in only 65 games The A’s needed other contributors to step up.
It was the pitching that really stepped up and Oakland’s staff was the best in the league. Dave Stewart won 21 games with a 3.32 ERA and rolled up 257 innings as the rotation ace. Bob Welch was a 17-game winner with 3.00 ERA. Mike Moore, signed on the free agent market, won and his ERA was 2.61 Both Welch and Moore worked over 200 innings.
Dennis Eckersley was the game’s best closer, with 33 saves and a buck-56 ERA. The bridge from the rotation to Eck was strong, with Todd Burns, Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt having good years. And no one knew how to handle a bullpen like manager Tony LaRussa.
With that kind of pitching, it didn’t take a lot of offense, but even without Canseco, the A’s still scored the fourth-most runs in the American League. They made up for the power outage by running. Third baseman Carney Lansford stole 37 bases, and on June 21, Oakland swung a trade with the New York Yankees to get Rickey Henderson. The leftfielder anchored the leadoff spot, stole 52 bases the rest of the way and finished with a .425 on-base percentage.
Dave Parker filled some of the power void and the DH hit 22 home runs and finished with 97 RBI. And when Canseco did come back, he hit 17 home runs in less than a half-season of play.
Oakland played well right from the outset and a schedule mostly against the weaker AL East had them at 33-16 on Memorial Day. One notable exception to the schedule was six games against the California Angels. The A’s won four of the six and narrowly led the Angels in the AL West.
We should also note that prior to 1994, each league was split into just an East and West division and only the first-place finisher could advance to the postseason. With no Central Division in play, the Kansas City Royals were another contender in the AL West. The Texas Rangers were also in the mix. Any of the West’s top four would have been leading the East. But after a decade where the balance of power in the American League had tilted eastward, the pendulum was moving back the other way.
And that, combined with no wild-card entry to the playoffs, meant that Oakland had little margin for error. They struggled in June and played sub-.500 baseball. That included losing six of ten in home games against KC, California and Texas. By the All-Star break, the A’s record was still a solid 52-36. But they were now a game and a half back of the Angels. The Royals were 3 ½ back and the Rangers still giving chase at 5 ½ off the pace.
Canseco came back, but he couldn’t stop Oakland from losing another home series to California at the end of July. August is where the A’s finally started to reclaim their mojo. By August 11, they pulled back into a tie for first place. Just in time to go to Anaheim and play a weekend series showdown.
Moore started Friday night’s opener and was brilliant, working a complete-game shutout. Lansford and Phillips each homered, Steinbach had three hits and Oakland cruised to a 5-0 win.
Lansford and Steinbach had two hits apiece again on Saturday afternoon and helped nudge the A’s to a 4-3 lead. Burns was doing some yeoman’s work out of the bullpen and tossed four shutout innings. McGwire finally broke the game open with an eighth-inning blast and Oakland won it 8-3.
The A’s were definitely leaving town in first place and with Stewart on the mound on Sunday, they had a chance to really jam a knife into the Angels. Stewart lost a tough 4-3 decision to future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven who pitched for California. But either way, it was a successful weekend and no one in baseball doubted what way the momentum was flowing in the AL West race.
The Angels started to fade and the Royals picked up the pace. Kansas City took a series from Oakland at the end of August. By Labor Day, the A’s were 83-54 and in the division lead. The Royals were now just 2 ½ out and the Angels fighting to hang on at 4 ½ back. The Rangers had faded in the cruel months of late summer.
Oakland came out of the Labor Day weekend with a home series against Boston. The Red Sox were going through a rough year after winning the AL East in 1988. But they beat the A’s 8-5 and had their ace, Roger Clemens going in the second game. The Oakland offense responded to the challenge.
An early Steinbach home run helped give the A’s a 5-1 lead. And they unloaded late off the Boston bullpen, winning 13-1. Oakland took the series on Wednesday afternoon when Parker’s grand slam keyed a 7-5 win. Over the weekend, the A’s grabbed two of three from what was a bad New York Yankees team. And their lead in the West stretched to a comfortable 4 ½ games.
But the return trip to Fenway Park did not go well. Oakland lost three straight. With two weeks to go, both California and Kansas City were back to within 2 ½ games.
Oakland responded by sweeping lowly Cleveland. While the Angels kept pace, the Royals did not and slipped back to 4 ½ out. And Kansas City was the more pertinent opponent, because the Royals and A’s would play head-to-head in Oakland on the final weekend of the season.
The A’s went to Minnesota for the penultimate weekend. The Twins were just two years removed from winning the World Series and only last season had been the American League’s second-best team behind Oakland. But they were mediocre this year. Welch pitched brilliantly in Thursday night’s opener, Lansford had three more hits, McGwire homered and the A’s won 2-1.
Stewart got the ball on Friday night and kept on rolling, winning 5-2 behind two-RBI games from Parker and Canseco. Even though Oakland lost on Saturday, they bounced back on Sunday. Lansford, one of the underrated stars on this team, had a three-hit day. McGwire drove in four runs. A 9-3 win capped the series.
Taking three out of four from the Twins was decisive, because the Angels and Royals could not keep up. Going into the final week, the margin was up to 5 ½ games. It was all but over and on Wednesday night at home it became official. Canseco homered, the offense staked Moore to a quick 3-0 lead over Texas. Moore rolled to a 5-0 win and for the second straight season, the Oakland A’s were champions of the AL West.
LaRussa’s team took their no-nonsense, workman-like approach in the American League Championship Series. The Toronto Blue Jays often appeared ready to mount challenges, but Oakland kept swatting them back and they took the ALCS in five games.
The World Series was a Bay Area affair and is appropriately remembered for the earthquake. The performance of the A’s—both on and off the field should also be remembered. After completing their four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, the declined to take victory champagne out of deference to their suffering region.