OAKLAND, Calif. -- One by one they walked into the Cincinnati Reds' locker room, extended a hand and said the right words. First Rickey Henderson, then Willie Randolph, a little later Tony La Russa . . . the Oakland A's took a World Series sweep like men. Still, there was something about them -- stubbornness? arrogance? -- that refused to swallow reality.
The A's wouldn't say the Reds are baseball's best team. Wouldn't say they'd been outplayed. Wouldn't acknowledge what four straight losses truly represent: embarrassment.
"I'm going to go on record right now: We'll be back next year. The question is, will Cincinnati?" Dave Stewart said.
Carney Lansford was even more blunt. He said, "There's no doubt in my mind we're the best team in baseball."
Those comments drew heated responses from the Reds. Manager Lou Piniella referred to the A's post-mortems as "sour grapes, nothing more than sour grapes. We were the best team in this Series. We took them four straight, dominated in two of those games, and came back to beat them in the other two.
"We were the aggressors the whole Series. We took it to them. Let's be fair about it. For anyone to say they're the best team has to be thinking something . . . weird."
"They did a lot of hot-dogging, I guess because everyone predicted them to sweep," Reds reliever Rob Dibble said. "They RTC tried to show us up. I guess that's why we don't mind sweeping them. They didn't lose this Series. We won it."
The questions will be left for the ages to answer: What happened to this baseball machine? What happened to the 103 victories, the sweatless four-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox? Is it possible those 103 wins mean less than 91 National League wins?
Put it this way: Would the A's have even won the NL West? It's a fair question. When Reds' advance scout Jimmy Stewart met with Piniella on the eve of the Series, he had a stunning message to deliver.
"My first words when we got behind closed doors were, 'Lou, we can beat these guys,' " the scout said before Game 4. Piniella reportedly replied, "I think we can, too."
Stewart came to this conclusion after watching just the A's final six regular-season games. But his suspicion was cemented by Dodgers advance scout Mel Didier, who was given much of the credit for the dossier that helped Los Angeles stun Oakland in the '88 Series.
Stewart said, "Mel caught me under the stands when we were both getting a Coke, and he told me, 'You've got the kind of pitchers that can beat them.' "
Still, the Reds had to work in Game 4. They lost Eric Davis and Billy Hatcher in the first inning to injuries, and despite getting the leadoff man on base in four of five innings, Cincinnati was still behind 1-0 going into the eighth.
This, despite the fact that, as Todd Benzinger put it, "Stewart was dying out there. He was pitching on all heart. His fastball wasn't snapping off, his forkballs were hanging."
But in the eighth, there were a single, a two-strike sacrifice bunt for a hit and an iffy call at first base on Paul O'Neill's bunt -- followed by Glenn Braggs' run-scoring 6-4 forceout and Hal Morris' sacrifice fly.
Benzinger said a 1-0 defeat "would've been the most sickening loss of the year. I don't care if we still would've had a 3-1 [Series] advantage. We had so many chances and we couldn't produce. It would've had to raise some doubts."
Davis was through for the Series. Hatcher would've missed at least Game 5, maybe more. Bob Welch was next and . . . well, who knows what would have happened to the Reds? No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, but the A's believed they could have, even with their .207 Series average.
Even now, amid the rubble of a sweep, the A's still can't accept losing.
"I'm shocked. Of course I'm shocked," Dave Stewart said. "I'm just sorry the world didn't see the Oakland A's at their best. If somebody told me before this we'd lose in four games, I would've carted them off to a sanitarium."
"I just didn't know this could happen to a team that can get to a World Series," Henderson said.
That's what happens when you get outplayed. The end comes quickly, sharply, almost painlessly. Have the A's already forgotten 1988?