SPORTS

An autumn thriller

Cincinnati pops Oakland’s balloon

CARL MOLLINS,JAMES DEACON October 29 1990
SPORTS

An autumn thriller

Cincinnati pops Oakland’s balloon

CARL MOLLINS,JAMES DEACON October 29 1990

An autumn thriller

SPORTS

Cincinnati pops Oakland’s balloon

Off the baseball field, Dave Stewart is a friendly black giant with a disarmingly high-pitched voice. While pitching for the Oakland Athletics, however, he glowers from under the curled yellow peak of his cap with a stare that would turn a medusa to stone. The menace of his “death stare” is reinforced for enemy batters by his formidable record (20 or more victories for four seasons) and by a supporting cast that many followers of the game rate as one of the best collections of baseball talents ever assembled on one team.

Despite that, when the Athletics opened the defence of their championship last week in the 1990 World Series,

Stewart and company were not fully prepared for the Cincinnati Reds and, almost right away, Eric Davis.

Davis is the willowy Reds outfielder and cleanup hitter, whose batting helmet hides a haircut that bares high sierras of scalp above both ears.

His headgear also contains a brain of electric reflexes that, in the first inning of the first Series game on Oct. 16, made his bat hit the first furious pitch that he received from Stewart. Davis drove that pitch above and beyond the farthest reaches of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. It pushed home fellow outfielder Billy Hatcher, the stocky centre fielder who had walked to first base ahead of Davis and who went on to establish a World Series record by hitting seven times in nine at-bats, collecting walks the other times. The 2-0 lead that the Davis homer gained established an advantage rarely relinquished for the rest of the week.

Even at the time, and not only in retrospect, Davis’s homer seemed to contain the impact of the stone that David’s sling inflicted on Goliath. The National League’s scrappy Reds, all but written off in advance by sports pundits and oddsmakers against the power of the champs from the American League, proved to be underdogs with sharp teeth. After three straight victories in the best-of-seven series—by 7-0, then 5-4 in 10 innings, and by 8-3 in the first

game at Oakland—the Reds had chewed up the Athletics and all the fulsome adjectives attached to them, especially “invulnerable.” Then, despite injuries that benched Davis and Hatcher at the outset of the fourth game, the Reds came from behind to beat the A’s in Oakland by 2-1 and complete an astounding four-game sweep. Five days earlier, the book-

makers had set the odds against that happening at 40 to 1. For Oakland, it was humiliation even more severe than its World Series defeat in 1988 by the injury-ridden Los Angeles Dodgers down the California coast. A year ago, the A’s had dismissed the National League’s Giants from across San Francisco Bay in a fourstraight series interrupted by the San Francisco earthquake on Oct. 16.

“It’s just a great feeling,” understated Lou Piniella, the former New York Yankee who took over as manager of the Cincinnati club after Pete Rose left in disgrace in a gambling scandal last year and was jailed for tax evasion. From Tony La Russa, the brainy and always

composed Oakland manager, came the comment that “I don’t think people realize how bad losing feels.” That seemed to be a response to the knock that Oakland, despite the prowess of its individual players, consists of athletic technocrats who lack the collective spirit that propels statistically lesser teams to success.

Indeed, Oakland’s superstars, many of them multimillionaires by reason of a single season’s pay alone, strutted into the Series exuding confidence. For that reason or not, the stars rarely shone against Cincinnati after the A’s had disposed of the Boston Red Sox in the American League championships in four straight, crushing games. Among the disappointments: right fielder José Canseco, the highest-paid player in the game with a contract that pays an annual average of almost $5 million. He hit a lone homer, flubbed fly balls in the field, was benched in the final game and grounded out as a ninth-inning pinch hitter when Oakland desperately needed a tying run.

On the winning side, many heroes were made. After his auguring opening homer, Davis, who went into the tournament with a sore shoulder, a trick knee and a resultant slump with the bat, withdrew with his fourth-game injury, to the ribs—and one shining moment of glory. Hatcher, who was hit on his left hand by a Stewart pitch to force his simultaneous withdrawal, left with his hitting streak in the record books—and possibly a record for blowing the biggest bubble with his gum as he fielded a towering fly ball in the seventh inning of the third game.

It was Hatcher’s lead-off triple in the eighth inning of the second game that paved the way to his tying run and a 10th-inning victory. Bespectacled third baseman Chris Sabo saw well enough to hit two strategic homers in the third game.

For Dave Stewart, glower notwithstanding, the Series was a horror. After being driven out of the opening game by Cincinnati’s pesky hitters, he lost the final game in the eighth inning when the Reds scraped two runs from a low-level assault that included two bunts, a ground-out and a sacrifice fly. But his Cincinnati counterpart, José Rijo— traded from Oakland in 1987—performed Stewart-scale heroics after a so-so season record of 15 wins and eight losses. Rijo, who seems positively cheerful as he goes about his work, beat Stewart in the opener and closer— and walked away with the award as the Most Valuable Player of the 1990 World Series.

CARL MOLLINS and JAMES DEACON with correspondents’reports