A's cloak of imagined invincibility has been worn by many in past

John Steadman

October 22, 1990|By John Steadman

First there was David using a slingshot to bring Goliath toto his knees. Then Horatius at the Bridge (but not the Oakland Bay Bridge) and, finally, the accomplishments of the Cincinnati Reds. They all won against improbable odds. Almost the occult but not quite.

The Oakland A's, considered the all-consummate team, got flattened in four straight World Series games by the underrated representatives from Cincinnati who were 30-1 underdogs. Not only did they beat them, but they also achieved a glorious sweep.

How does it evolve, this surprising result that is defined in sports as an "upset"? In football, there was tiny Centre College beating mighty Harvard, 6-0, in 1921; Notre Dame, then virtually unknown, stunning Army, 35-10, in 1913 and Columbia shocking Stanford, 7-0, in the 1934 Rose Bowl. And down through history there are so many others -- too numerous to mention.

Boxing's heavyweight division had such shockers as Gene Tunney dethroning Jack Dempsey; Jim Braddock, who was working on the New Jersey docks to feed his family, winning over Max Baer in 1935; Cassius Clay (later to be Muhammad Ali) forcing Sonny Liston to quit in 1964; and James "Buster" Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990.

Pro football saw the Baltimore Colts, 16 1/2 -point favorites, lose to the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl. And the favored Washington Redskins falling under an avalanche of points, 73-0, by the Chicago Bears in 1940 after beating the same team, 7-3, only three weeks before.

Major-league baseball saw the "Miracle Braves" of Boston in 1914 came from last in midsummer to win the pennant by 10 games and then sweep the champion Philadelphia A's of 1911-1912-1913 in the World Series. The Cleveland Indians won 111 of 154 regular-season games in 1954 but couldn't win one in the Series against the New York Giants.

And let us not forget the Baltimore Orioles wiping out the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight, three by shutouts, in 1966. The Orioles weren't given much of a chance by the oddsmakers. But manager Hank Bauer put it in perspective when he said, "I don't care what the bookies forecast. What you have to remember is they don't play the games."

Then the 1969 New York Mets, given scant chance, eliminated the Orioles in five games, just as the Los Angeles Dodgers whipped the Oakland A's in 1988. What happened in 1990, the Reds jolting the A's in four consecutive games, continues the "upset" syndrome.

How it happens is more a mental than a physical failure. Pitcher Dave Stewart, two-time loser to the Reds, offered an opinion that few athletes would dispute. "What makes it so painful," he said, "is to be beaten by a team with less talent." Therein is the true torment.

But what every man and woman, boy and girl, quickly learns in the arena of sports is the best man or the most able individual doesn't win all the time. It started with the giant, Goliath. He had all the strength but lacked the will and spirit of little David.

There's no way to foretell such totally unexpected results. What happens in sports was once explained better than it has ever been, before or since, by Paul Gallico, one of America's most profound writers, of the 1920s and 1930s. Gallico called it the "Fifth Factor."

His hypothesis dealt with situations such as the Reds vanquishing the A's in the World Series. Gallico insisted that what the public is saying and what sportswriters are writing can indeed influence how games are played. Teams or athletes can be lulled into believing they are almost invincible, or at least unbeatable by the impending challenger.

Continued success in competition often begets such thinking. And it occurs in business and industry the same as it transpires in sports, usually when the owners of the company or the board of directors assume a feeling of false security.

The difference is that in sports the collapse is out in the open, in the middle of the arena, for all to see. It's a human weakness that can't be controlled. The powerful believe they merely have to show up and make an effort. That's why upsets occur. What causes them can be minimized but never eliminated.

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