Crazy '86: Turning around the A's

The 1986 season has its share of great moments that were hailed at the time, games and events and achievements that were critical for that year’s great postseason slate that involved all-time greats like Dwight Gooden or Gary Carter or Jim Rice, but also those that involved stars of the ’80s like Mike Scott or Don Mattingly. You knew these things were important as they happened.

But today marks the 25th anniversary of one of those ballgames whose significance only became apparent later, because of what it meant for one tough-luck team, a pitcher in danger of becoming a permanent disappointment, and a manager trying to start again. On July 7, 1986, Tony La Russa notched his first win as the manager of the Oakland A’s in his first day on the job. La Russa gave the start to fallen prospect Dave Stewart -- who won his first game as an Athletic. And Stewart won it on national television, beating the Red Sox and Roger Clemens, the first of nine times that Oakland's ace-in-making would shoot down the Rocket in their head-to-head matchups. It was the perfect beginning to a team’s renaissance.

Before this point, A’s fans were trying to get over the heartbreak of Billyball in Oakland after Billy Martin’s 1980-81 quick-flash contender imploded in a welter of pitching injuries. These same fans had had to sit by and watch as stars like Tony Armas and Rickey Henderson got dealt away. Things were finally getting better, though. After the desperate penury of Charlie Finley’s last stand as the team’s owner, a real front office had finally taken shape under the guidance of the new owners, the Haas family, and Sandy Alderson was busily becoming one of the game’s best general managers. By 1986 they were warming up to rookie slugger Jose Canseco, and looking forward to kids named McGwire and Steinbach and Rijo. All of that was happening before this one ballgame, and you could see the outlines of it taking shape, but this one game was a turning point where key pieces -- a team, its skipper, and its ace -- all started snapping into place.

The miracle was that everything came free. La Russa had been fired by the White Sox just two weeks before, in what was merely the latest development during Hawk Harrelson’s brief reign of error as the team’s general manager, a decision Jerry Reinsdorf regrets to this day -- firing La Russa, that is, although we could almost certainly say the same of Hawk’s time in the boardroom. In 1986, it wasn’t like La Russa was going to head to the studio for the rest of the season. He was a great manager looking for a gig, so when the A’s canned Jackie Moore, there was a quick deal to be struck.

Stewart was also on the unemployment line. The former Dodgers prospect had gone from being traded for Rick Honeycutt in 1983 to getting dumped on the Phillies in a minor deal in 1985, to the ignominy of being cut outright on May 9, 1986. He’d earned his fall from grace, getting hammered with the Rangers in ’84 and ’85, giving up 5.2 runs per nine and posting a 7-20 record. The Phillies used him as a mop-up man in lost-cause blowouts, games he only made worse; they cut him a month into the season. The A’s signed him free and clear on May 23, but had little better idea what to do with him. He started a game for Moore, pitched well (five innings, a run allowed), but was tossed back into the pen.

When La Russa and his ubiquitous pitching coach Dave Duncan arrived for work with the A’s, they didn’t have a good choice to take the start against Clemens. But as Glen Dickey relates in his book, Champions:

La Russa asked Stewart if he could take the pressure of pitching in a game that would reach a big national audience, Stewart responded… “Give me that ball.” When La Russa added that, oh, by the way, you’ll be pitching against Roger Clemens, Stewart only said, “That will make it even more fun.”

As it turned out, Stewart had never been allowed to throw the forkball that would become his key to success. Duncan and La Russa set Stew loose, and yesterday’s journeyman became an overnight ace. In this one game from 25 years ago, the A’s gave Stewart six runs to work with, with Canseco and Dave Kingman belting sixth inning homers; Stewart allowed four, coming out in the seventh with a lead and a victory against the eventual Cy Young winner of that season on national television.

Stewart was already 29 years old, so his new career as an ace wouldn’t be built to last, but he more than made up for the time lost with bad teams and uncertain usage patterns, going on to win 115 more games for the A’s through the 1992 season, and posted four straight 20-win seasons from 1987 through 1990, leading the league in starts in all four, and innings pitched and complete games twice during that run. He became the money pitcher of a generation, giving the A’s an 8-3 record and 13 quality starts in 14 postseason games, winning the World Series MVP Award in 1989.

And between the regular season and the postseason, he always seemed to have Clemens’ number, going 9-1 in their matchups. When he came back to Oakland for what would be his last season, he tacked on three more wins as an Athletic and ran his career tally to 168, but a 6.89 ERA sent the message that the his run was done, and that the second chance he earned with one win 25 years ago had run its course.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.