A's can look to '69-71 Orioles for history lesson


October 23, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

So what happens now to the Oakland A's? Do they dismiss what has happened and come back as potent as ever, the American League still their kingdom? Or do they begin a slow fade, their ability to dominate undermined by the disappointment of playing the foil in two of the biggest surprises in World Series history?

There is no way of knowing, of course. The A's are still clearly the class of the American League, but their pride has taken two hard hits in the past three years. They have 13 All-Stars on their roster, but their Series losses to the Dodgers and Reds could dull the sharp edge that has cut through the league for 306 wins the past three seasons.

We will have to wait until next season to find out, but, as is often the case in baseball, there is a precedent to consider. It is one with which long-memoried fans in Baltimore are all too familiar, to their chagrin. What is happening to the A's right now happened to the Orioles two decades ago, during 1969-71.

The Orioles won 318 games during those three seasons and swept the league playoffs all three years. They were clearly the best team in baseball, with Palmer and McNally and Boog and Brooks and Frank. Yet they twice lost in the Series, to the Mets in 1969 and then to the Pirates in a seven-game Series in 1971. They beat the Reds in between.

The lesson those Orioles provide today is mixed, one from which the A's can simultaneously take solace and draw concern.

The good news: The Orioles slipped for a year after losing to the Pirates, but came back to win division titles in 1973 and 1974. Clearly, the Series losses did not devastate them. "There was no hangover whatsoever," Dave McNally said yesterday from his home in Billings, Mont.

The bad news: Never again did those Orioles dominate to the degree they did in 1969-71. Those years were their peak. They missed their chance to be recognized as one of the game's great teams, and then they grew old and were broken up, and a new generation moved in.

Frank Robinson was traded to the Dodgers after the 1971 season. Davey Johnson and Pat Dobson were traded a year later. Don Buford went to Japan. Boog Powell went to the bench part time. McNally never had another 20-win season.

"Even before we lost to the Pirates in 1971, we knew we had to make some changes," said Frank Cashen, who became Orioles general manager in 1971, and now runs the Mets. "We had a great run, but we were getting too old together too quickly."

There are similarities. The A's aren't exactly a pool of youth these days, either. Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, the heart of the starting rotation, will be 34 next Opening Day. Dennis Eckersley, the peerless stopper, will be 36. The Hendersons, Rickey and Dave, will be 32. Carney Lansford will be 34.

Among the essential A's, only Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire aren't in the second half of their careers. Thus, although you never know how long players are going to continue performing well, it certainly can be argued that the A's have hit their peak, that they won't get better, that they've also missed their chance to be recognized as one of the great teams.

Yet the circumstances are not identical. In 1972, the Orioles gave up their hold on the league to Oakland, which, ironically enough, proceeded to win three straight Series and earn that lasting reputation the Orioles had sought. There is no such budding dynasty in the American League right now. The A's still appear to be lengths ahead of the field.

But, as the 1972 Orioles demonstrate, such appearances do not always matter. The Orioles had four 20-game winners in 1971, but only one (Palmer) in 1972. Even though they had virtually the same lineup, they hit 58 fewer homers and scored 223 fewer runs.

"But what happened to us in 1972 had nothing to do with losing the two Series," Mark Belanger, the shortstop, said yesterday. "We had a lot of injuries that year. Oakland had a great team. Every year is different. Things change."

Things change. Indeed. There is talk now that the A's are tired of Canseco's act, that he might be traded. Welch is a free agent; it will require a lot of money to bring him back. The A's could well have a different look next year. With so many players over 30, they will need to make moves in the coming years. Just as the Orioles did 20 years ago.

"You never remain stagnant," Cashen said. "Any time you're satisfied with what you have, you're asking for trouble. That's why we made moves after 1971. I knew we'd take a step back in 1972, and we did. But we stepped right back up in 1973 and 1974. We were in the postseason."

Yes, but they didn't win -- those teams were not equal to the ones of 1969-71. Of course, it is possible the A's will follow a different course, maintain their crisp edge, streak right through the division and playoffs and back into the Series again next year. But maybe not. When a team reaches for greatness, the window of opportunity is never open for long.

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