Wacky, wacky Series has even wackier cast of Reds

MIKE LITTWIN

October 22, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- This was such a delightfully wacky World Series, so weird that it bordered on being camp. The conclusion -- a four-game sweep by the underdog Reds -- was strange and shocking enough. But a close look at this Cincinnati team makes it seem even more bizarre.

You start with the owner, who is, shall we say, eccentric. You know about Marge Schott and her giant dog Schottzie, whom she is having fitted for a World Series ring. But you may not know that her idea of fun is to rub Schottzie hair on manager Lou Piniella's chest for luck.

Piniella is, of course, the non-genius who pulled his starter, Jose Rijo, in the ninth inning of Game 4 after Rijo had retired his 20th consecutive batter. By pulling Rijo, he allowed the A's to pinch-hit Jose Canseco, the most dangerous man on the planet, either with a bat or driving his car. Canseco, whose travails in this Series directly paralleled his team's, grounded out. OK, Piniella is a genius.

Ah, did I mention Rijo? He was the MVP. His father-in-law is Juan Marichal, who confesses he didn't want Rijo to be his son-in-law. Marichal works for the A's, who traded Rijo to Cincinnati, not necessarily, however, to get Rijo away from Marichal's daughter. How do the two get along now? Well, Marichal is Rijo's biggest fan -- and critic. Families.

Speaking of family critics, we should move to Billy Hatcher, who, as a 30-year-old journeyman playing for his third team in 12 months, made World Series history with seven consecutive hits and spent most of Game 4 in the hospital having a wrist X-rayed. "I talk to my mom after every game," he says. "She always tells me what I'm doing wrong." Until he took a Dave Stewart fastball on the wrist Saturday night, he did nearly everything right, which is why he got a congratulatory telegram from his hometown of Williams, Ariz. "It was from everyone," he said. "All 3,000 people."

Hatcher was not, of course, the most unlikely hero. That was left to Billy Bates, who is listed at 5 feet 7 and probably is two inches shorter and who got his first hit as a Red in this World Series against Dennis Eckersley no less, in the only chance Eckersley got to pitch. His teammates say that Bates is the team mascot, suitable for hanging on your rearview mirror, but he is not without controversy. Remember the story about Bates racing the cheetah this season as one of your stranger team promotions of the year? Bates, who got a five-second head start, claims he beat the cheetah. Eyewitnesses say the cheetah smoked him. You pick the ending you like better.

The strangest of the Reds is Chris Sabo, and not just because of his wraparound goggles. "It's a cliche to say I've never met anyone like him," says teammate Paul O'Neill, "but I've never met anyone like him." Sabo marches to his own drummer [not Ginger Baker]. He speaks usually in monosyllables, even to, or especially to, his teammates. He is what you'd call single-minded and doesn't seem to care about anything other than hockey or baseball. Certainly, Sabo is not a major celebrator. After Game 2, when his teammates were mobbing Bates after he had scored the winning run, Sabo, who had been at first at the time, was seen rounding second and furiously heading to third. "If it's true," O'Neill told one reporter, "I'll bet he slid into third headfirst."

These are your world champions. Nobody is more surprised about the outcome than the mighty Oakland A's, who are as arrogant as they are good. They didn't just lose this World Series, of course; they were swept in four games, and all they could think to do afterward was to insist they were still the best team, as if saying it made it true. Nobody could say the A's didn't go down without a whimper.

Dave Stewart's comment typified those in the A's clubhouse. "I may take some heat for this," he said, "but I'm going to go on record now: We'll be back next year. The question is, Will Cincinnati?"

The Reds seemed to find all this anguished breast-beating amusing.

"I don't know who has the best team," Joe Oliver was saying, "but the way the World Series is set up, the team that wins four games first is the champion. It looks to me like we got there first."

The A's, of course, never got there at all. All winter long, they'll be asking themselves what happened. Hatcher, meantime, figured he already knew.

"Hey," said Hatcher, "they are the best team, but we won the World Series. If I was a betting man, I'd have bet on the A's to win. But this team has a lot of character, heart, whatever you want to call it. I didn't know if we'd win the Series, but I knew we'd battle.

"Maybe they'll be back next year and maybe we won't. Maybe we'll only win 80 games, but every loss, the other team will know they've been in a fight."

The A's must wish right now they could say as much.

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