High-tech A's too advanced for old-fashioned Sox


October 12, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

OAKLAND,CALIF. — OAKLAND, Calif. -- It wasn't just a defeat for the Boston Re Sox. It was a defeat for Perry Como. That wasn't in the box scores, eh? A defeat for Ike, for Stengel, for martinis, for "Jerry Mathers as the Beaver," for Unitas-to-Berry, for John R. Tunis' old, simple brand of baseball.

The Oakland Athletics' quick, peaceful dismissal of the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series wasn't so much a victory for modern, cutting-edge baseball as it was a defeat for an age passed by, for the game as it once was.

The winners approach the game in a manner you would expect from a team with a lawyer as a manager. They use computers to chart matchups, keep meticulous records of hitters' tendencies, get detailed reports from advance scouts, use videos to aid teaching and scouting, line up their defense off the results of matrix charts.

The losers take a decidedly more old-fashioned approach. The manager, Joe Morgan, relies strongly on hunches, instincts, the lifetime of baseball knowledge stored in his head. It is as scientific as a chaw in the cheek. When a reporter asked Morgan if he ever used a computer, he said, "What does one look like?"

Rarely have two teams approached the same game so differently. The A's are info-maniacs, as modern as a microchip. The Red Sox's only apparent concessions to today are synthetic uniforms and Roger Clemens' creative combining of certain nouns and verbs. This series was a startling cross of generations, a kindly uncle in a faded sweater running headlong into a Wall Street sharpie with a fax machine in his car.

Understanding that such were the sides, it was, on one hand, a little sad to watch the Red Sox get so thoroughly swamped. It's as if the game has been given up entirely to serious men who bring briefcases to the clubhouse. The innocence is gone, not to mention much of the humor and whimsy. Morgan won a division pinch hitting Jeff Stone in the ninth inning of the biggest game of the year. The A's would never offer such a spontaneous, wonderful moment.

But the poet who said that baseball often mirrors life is not wrong. The plain facts are that the day is progressive and the game is played Oakland's way almost everywhere, computers and statistical tendencies very much a part of dugout dialogue. Any team that refuses to play along is putting itself at a disadvantage.

That is not to say this series demonstrated that Oakland's Tony La Russa is a better manager than Morgan. No matter what George Will says, baseball is just not that complicated. If managers and scouting reports didn't exist, the team with the most talent would still win most of the time. The A's certainly were the best team. By far.

Who can say whether the outcome would have been different had the managers switched sides? Morgan knows the game. He may be old-fashioned, but he's more than competent. His team has made the playoffs two of the past three years. Apparently, there is still room in the game for such an idiosyncratic style.

Still, the Sox were indeed at a disadvantage throughout this series. They scored a total of only four runs in four games, but they hit a lot of line drives -- right at the A's. It was apparent, again and again, that Oakland's scouts had done their homework. Sometimes it seemed the A's knew exactly where the Sox were going to hit the ball.

The A's, on the other hand, scored 20 runs, but without hitting one home run or too many balls particularly hard. They hit bouncers and nubbers and soft liners, and the Sox had trouble catching them. Out of position? Some say yes. We will never know for sure. But we do know that the A's will never be so second-guessed. They remove the possibility of committing such errors.

"They do things we don't, and it gives them an edge," Boston infielder Marty Barrett said after Game 3. "They do things to put their guys in position. When I look out at our team from the bench, our guys are playing out of position a lot. When we hit the ball, they have guys in the right place. We just don't do that. It's an old, traditional organization that just doesn't want to conform. We don't want to get into computers and stuff."

That's a strong confession, although it should be noted that Barrett lost his starting position this year and is more than happy to find excuses to criticize. Still, he's in the vicinity of an important truth. If everyone else is charting tendencies, positioning defenders and analyzing matchups, you're starting out behind if you don't. There is useful knowledge in that glut of numbers.

The A's were widely portrayed as technocrats when the series began, but that wasn't fair. The A's are merely practicing a modern ideology to which most teams adhere. The Sox are the anomaly. The A's just appeared to be technocrats when held up to the same light as the Sox.

"We aren't doing anything that other teams aren't doing," A's general manager Sandy Alderson said. "But I think it's possible that, at this time at least, maybe we're just doing them a little better."

It's too bad Morgan wound up looking so bad by comparison. He's a delightful man with an endless supply of stories, a proud, wise citizen of the game. But there is more to managing in 1990 than exercising your instincts. Mighty Casey struck out a long time ago.

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