OAKLAND, Calif. -- In the eighth inning of Game 3, they started playing "The Thrill Is Gone" over the PA system in a not so subtle concession to reality. The A's were about to lose again, for the third time in three games. The crowd had gone quiet, not quite believing what it was seeing -- or not seeing. What it wasn't seeing was the Oakland A's in any recognizable form.
As the A's faced last night what history -- and the Cincinnati Reds -- suggested might well be their last game, they didn't want to believe what they were seeing, either.
"They're roughing us up," manager Tony La Russa was saying, "and they probably think that's how we play."
For La Russa, the losing was bad enough. But the idea that anyone believes the A's of this World Series are the real, stand-up A's of would-be legend drives La Russa just a little crazy.
"They feel great about the way they're playing, and they feel great about the lack of a quality opponent," La Russa said of the Reds. "I'm surprised we haven't heard any cracks about how we'd finish fifth in the National League West."
The losing rankles. God, does it rankle, especially after racing through the American League with 306 wins in three years.
"If somebody told me we'd be down three games to none, I'd have said they were crazy," said Dave Stewart, who, as the A's starter last night, was the last line of defense.
The A's, after all, had figured they were on the threshold of something great in this World Series, a proving ground for history-making. Now, history is all against them. No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a World Series. In fact, no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win more than one game. That's right. No team, after losing the first three, has even made it to a sixth game.
The Reds, who have played so well, brought belief into last night's game; all the A's had was hope, and darn little of that.
Dave Henderson was asked before the game whether his team had any chance.
"If we play like we have the last three games, we're done," he said.
Others were more upbeat. Rickey Henderson said, "If they beat us three in a row, why can't we beat them three in a row?"
Part of the answer is based in history; part of it is based in this Reds team. The Reds are playing wonderfully opportunistic, aggressive baseball, doing just about everything right. They're playing now the way they were playing when the season began, when they were winning 33 of their first 45 games and looking a lot like candidates for greatness themselves. They were so good you could almost forget that the team owner's best friend really is a dog.
The Reds cooled off considerably, of course, but they came together again when it mattered. When it most mattered, Billy Hatcher and Chris Sabo and Joe Oliver and the Nasty Boys have stepped forward to make mockery of conventional wisdom, which gave them virtually no chance. It was as Jim Valvano said back in '83 when his N.C. State team upset Houston: "We had to have a chance. We were the only other team there."
As the A's began play last night, they wanted their turn, however slim, at convention. They figured if they were to make any kind of comeback they needed something from the suddenly Bashful Brothers. Through the first three games, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were a combined 4-for-22. In 1988, when the A's lost in five games to the Dodgers, the two were a combined 2-for-36.
La Russa found an interesting solution to the Canseco problem. He made it disappear. When someone asked La Russa what it would take to get Canseco started, he said, "It's going to be tough because he's not starting."
The official explanation was that Canseco's injuries forced him to the bench. It could have been that. It could have been shoddy defense, poor hitting and a difference of opinion with the manager. What was obvious was that the A's needed to do something, even if it was already too late. Replacing Canseco with Willie McGee seemed like a place to start.
Facing elimination, La Russa wouldn't even consider the possibility of a grand comeback. He fell back on the managerial safety net of taking the Series one game at a time, even if one game was all he had left.
"If we get past Tuesday night," he would say, "I'll talk about it."
Stewart couldn't believe that it would end as quickly as last night. As he went to the mound, he walked there with the typical Stewart confidence born of years of success.
"The world is built on miracles," Stewart had said. "I know no one has ever come back from three games down, but if there's any team that can do it, this is the one."