TORONTO -- Tony La Russa has to love this. The Oakland Athletics, the erstwhile Brothers of Bash, are cast as underdogs in the American League Championship Series that begins tonight at SkyDome. Such a deal.
The A's are back in the playoffs, and they don't even have to carry around that muscle-bound image that weighed so heavily on them during their surprising World Series losses to the Los Angeles Dodgers (1988) and Cincinnati Reds (1990).
La Russa may have the Toronto Blue Jays just where he wants them.
"We've been the underdog all year," La Russa said. "It's different. I think our club has some fun with it. When we were the favorite, we didn't pay much attention to it. I don't think anybody really feels any different. I just think this is a fascinating series. It's a fascinating matchup."
It is fascinating because the Blue Jays appear to have all the horses this time . . . and most of the personality, from 21-game winner Jack Morris, who will start Game 1 tonight, to 41-year-old Dave Winfield, who has made a mockery of the aging process.
Right-hander Dave Stewart takes the mound tonight for the A's, just as A's, he has in the first game of every other postseason appearance the A's have made during the past five years. Except that this is not the same Dave Stewart and this is not the same A's team.
These are not the Jose Canseco/Mark McGwire/Rickey Henderson A's anymore. McGwire and Henderson are still around, but these are the Ruben Sierra/Mark McGwire/Mike Bordick A's, and it wouldn't pay to get attached to them. This is the last roundup. The A's closed the regular season with 14 potential free agents on their roster and a payroll situation that all but assures a high percentage of them will not be back next year. Stewart is among them. So is McGwire.
"Last hurrah?" La Russa said. "There is no doubt in my mind that we'll try to contend in 1993, but there are some guys who aren't going to be here."
Don't count them out. By rights, they shouldn't have been a contender in 1992. This should have been a season on the blink, but La Russa pieced together a championship team from the Bordicks and Blankenships on the fringe of the roster. He was still doing that late yesterday, still trying to figure out who best to put on the postseason roster.
"In past years, we've always had dependable guys to look to," Stewart said. "There was Rickey, Eck [Dennis Eckersley], myself. You could always look to these guys to win you the games. This year, we didn't have that because of all of the injuries. We've counted on a lot of people stepping up. We've had to make the call to the minor leagues a few times . . . and they've done a great job. And no matter how well the players have done, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for a great job of managing." Stewart certainly didn't figure to be in this position, not after suffering through a difficult season in 1991 and struggling with elbow tendinitis for much of 1992. But he restructured his goals when he was 8-8 in August and focused entirely on the opening game of the playoffs.
"I'm trying to put myself in position so if we make the playoffs, there won't be any question who should start the first game," he said at the time, and he won four of his last six decisions to finish 12-10 and set himself up for tonight's playoff opener. His reputation as a "money" pitcher is well-known. He is 5-0 in playoff competition, but he will meet his match in Morris, who is 7-1 in postseason play. Stewart's health remains an issue, but he struck out 11 and his fastball was clocked at 90 mph in his final regular-season start.
"My last time out, I pitched without any pain and I hope that will continue," he said. "It was the first time since early in the season that I pitched without any pain. I think when I'm healthy, I'm capable of doing the things I've done in the past."
That should be the Oakland battle cry. Stewart is two seasons removed from his fourth consecutive 20-win season. Canseco is gone. Dave Henderson is out with a hamstring injury. Bob Welch was injured for most of the season. Rickey Henderson has been in and out of the lineup, and in and out of favor in his hometown.
Perhaps this will be the site of Rickey's redemption. This is where he dazzled everyone and dominated the playoffs in 1989. He batted .400, hit two home runs and stole eight
bases. He has played well in every playoff and World Series in which he has appeared, so it would be foolhardy to dismiss him as a potentially dominating figure this time.
"I'm taking that approach to it," Henderson said. "I don't know what I can do, but I'm going out there to try and have a great series. I remember what I did in '89. In '89, I didn't worry about pressure. I was enjoying myself and messing with the fans and the other players. I was just having a good time. That's what I'm going to try to do again."