My 'Perilous Travels with Charlie'
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The Oakland A's are far beyond hot, and way past cool.

Miguel Tejada
Miguel Tejada isn't A-Rod. But, then again, A-Rod isn't the AL MVP.
The A's have ripped off 19 straight wins, and are working on 20.

Even if they lose a game, it'll be 19 tilts out of 20, or 20 out of 21.

Even the '50s or Ruthian or DiMaggian Yankees never topped this.

It's appropriate, because the A's are better than the Yanks this year.

In fact, the A's may have been better than the Yankees last year.

The A's lead the AL West, over two other teams, the Angels and the Mariners, that are among the four best in the AL (along with the Yankees).

In fact, the Angels went 14-4 and lost four games in the standings.

Miguel Tejada, with his 30 jacks and 115 RBIs, is most clearly the AL MVP; Tejada, not A-Rod, is the MVP, and it's not even close.

Why, yes, A-Rod is handsome, yes. A-Rod is the most productive shortstop in the game, yes, A-Rod gets seriously paid, and yes, A-Rod is having a monster year. But Tejada is MVP. Hands down.

A-Rod has 47 homers and 118 RBI, a few more RBI than the Mig 4; the reason Miggie is the MVP is because he is the shortstop and defensive linchpin and No. 3 hitter and run-producer on a team that won 19 straight games; he had a three-run bomb to bring the A's from behind in the bottom of the ninth to beat the division-winning Twinks on Sunday; then had a base-hit game-winner in the bottom of the ninth the next day, Labor Day, to run the A's winning streak to a surreal 19. Hey, you don't win 19 straight anythings in this life. Not unless you can see and are playing against the blind. Nobody wins 20 straight in the big leagues.

As I say, surreal, because all babies in the jungle know that in the big leagues, such is the nature of big-leaguers that the very best teams and the absolute worst teams are all going to win a third of their games and lose a third of their games. It's the other third that makes the difference. This used to be the cardinal law, until the A's ripped off 19 in a row, through all kinds of weather, through all kinds of hot pitchers, hitters, bad luck or whatever. Nineteen straight.

The cosmic implications of this performance, and the facts and opinions they cause to well up inside me, have reminded me, as a winning team will often do to a man (or an astute woman, for that matter) of my long-held ties to the Oakland A's. It's always much better to say, "We won," than "They lost." Or don't you agree? Of course you do, unless you're some kind of masochist or a Cubs fan.

First though, before we tell a few stories out of school, let's figure how the A's came to this with the third-lowest payroll in baseball, what with owners bleating about competitive imbalance, and how everything favors the Yankees in the end. As if all that came about just last week. Hey, Charlie Finley won three straight World Series with the third-lowest payroll in baseball, or lower. The A's and the Kansas Cities of the world have always been the Yankees' feeder system since back before Roger Maris. The Yankees have won 26 World Series since 1921, so obviously they didn't win them all since the advent of the Major League Baseball Players Association, or on Bud Selig's watch.

So how have the A's done it? And can they be emulated by others?

How? Hmm. Pitching. Pitching. And ... oh yeah ... pitching.

Barry Zito
Barry Zito brings back memories of the A's aces of the 1970s.
Captain Zito, with that death's head hook, ungodly yellow hammer of his; Agent Mulder, the 6-6 lefty with the arm angle that makes the hitter feel falling-down drunk; Tim Hudson, Huddie -- people out in Oak-town were calling "Pedro" for a couple of years before the rest of us even knew he was alive; and this Cory Lidle is a big step up from Dr. Gil Heredia, who cost the A's the AL pennant in an ALDS series against the Yankees, when was it, two years ago?

If the Yankees go down 2-love in the playoffs against these A's, they ... the Yankees, that is ... won't be getting back up. Not this year. Lidle throws a wicked sink-ball and a real nasty slide-piece. He hung a 0.30 ERA on the American League during the A's streak.

Ye gods. That's three times stingier than Gibby in '68!

That's like ... death. That's Crazy Cory. In-sane.

What the A's are doing is, by all previous standards of regular-season major-league baseball, impossible. More impressive than the Detroit Tigers winning 35 out of 40 to start 1984. Maybe more impressive than the Mariners winning 116 regular-season games last year. And, most impossible of all, more impressive than (gasp) American gridiron football! The A's turned our heads toward baseball after college football and NFL training camp started. Usually, once I hear the words, "Blue Ninety-Eight!" I'm gone.

Let me explain my A's history with a story. Indulge me, for once, won't you? There may be a playoff for you. There may not. There are no guarantees in life; or, at least, there weren't any until the Oakland A's, the Yankee Cure (and hey, I like the Yankees), ran off 19 straight wins in the big leagues in August of 2002.

How did they come to this? Slowly, and with great feeling.

***** ***** *****

Got sent on my first big-league road trip with the A's, back in 1977, out in Oakland. Was just a tyro, a babe in the woods, caddying for the beat guys at the local sheet. Caddied for Tommy LaMarre with the Raiders, whose good best friend was Steve Brye, a big-league outfielder, although not with the A's. Brye had big-leaguer written all over him, but he also had small, delicate ankles, which I noted and filed instinctively, right away, noting and filing being two jobs a sports beat guy does, if he's at all handy at the dodge, er, job.

Charles O. Finley
Charlie Finley, shown in 1987, was a scary character in the 1970s.
The A's beat guy, tiring of Charlie Finley calling him a "twerp" for asking questions, looked at the schedule of an upcoming road trip, saw CHI-MIL-CLE, and decided, "Maybe not," and took off. I got elected. I was happy about it, even though the A's at the time, as luck would have it, were known as "The Triple-A's." I think they lost 108 out of 162 games that year, and were so bad a Hollywood screenwriter name Hiam Pekelis came up and was given to me by Bob Valli to escort around to the concrete Coliseum ballpark, and to fill in about the A's. Curious, I asked Hiam more questions about his craft than I ever answered about mine. I didn't know that much about mine at the time. Hiam said, "Ralph, if you write a good screenplay that gets made into a movie -- I'll kill you." He said it good-naturedly and laughed, but I got the feeling he was kind of serious at the same time. Around 10 years later, the movie "Major League," got made, and it contained aspects that reminded me of the Triple-A's and Pekelis. I often wonder if Hiam had something to do with that script. Even if he hadn't, he had the right idea.

Anyway, road trip. The A's got swept in a doubleheader against the White Sox at Comiskey, with me barely believing I was going to work at the South Side ballpark without a mop in my hands.

As I recall, Mr. Finley couldn't believe it either.

He was one scary-looking dude, at least to me, with his thinning shock of white hair and his black eyebrows humping and stretching like caterpillars across his forehead. He tried to insult me, but I was too naïve to understand it, so he left me alone after that, and within four years, he was gone from baseball for good. I'd loved watching the battlin', fightin' A's earlier that decade, when I was in school and they were winning three straight World Series with the likes of Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace, Sal Bando and of course, Reggala, reminding me of a National League team.

No such luck with the Triple-A's, but some good characters were about, and if I was Ring Lardner or somebody, I probably could have done something lasting with them; but since I wasn't, their humor and lessons were lost in the passing of time. Even today, when I see Mitchell Page going gray as hitting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, I remember back when, going to the dogtrack in Phoenix with him during spring training, winning a bet here and there; how he was always good for a quote; how he had a big game at the plate, where he had, like, 12 total bases at Fenway Park; how he'd sit and watch the tape of it, whenever he got depressed, which, playing with the Triple-A's, was pretty often ...

Charlie Finley hired a bus to take the Triple-A's from Chicago to Milwaukee, them not being worth the expense of a plane ride. To Charlie, no ballplayer was worth that expense, especially since he sold or traded off his three-time world championship club, just in time for me to miss their exploits. So we rode a bus, a city transit clunker that backfired and belched smoke into the bus halfway up I-94. I was the only baseball writer aboard, and had a clear field, We pulled over to the side of the road; the Chief, a starting pitcher named John Henry Johnson, got ill, either from the bus fumes or the loss he took in the first game of the doubleheader. Trader Jack McKeon was managing. Said I couldn't write about it. Of course, this convinced me to do so. Piece ran on sports Page 1, with kicker:

"Perilous Travels With Charlie"

Mitchell Page
Mitchell Page is a graying coach with Cards, but he once was a lone star on some sorry A's teams.
Later, the bus company called the paper to complain about me; Charlie Finley called my boss Bob Valli in the sports department to complain about me, Trader Jack sat down with Mitch, Chief and a couple of other players to complain about me. That was when I learned when they complain about you, you've done good.

Reggala complimented me, when the Yanks came to town. "Hey," said the slugger. "Mitch says you're OK. Funny guy. You ever need anything, you call me." Then Time stood still as Reg hit Three In One Night against the Dodgers in the World Series.

I was pretty much hooked after that. What you don't want to deal with is a perennially .500 club. The A's weren't that. They were either good, very good, great, or absolutely rock-bottom terrible.

Good stories, either way.

***** ***** *****

Fast forward to 1980. I've often told the story of when I first met Billy Martin and Rickey Henderson. Rick must have been around 20, a rookie; we were in the dugout at the yard in Tempe, Ariz., that being where the Mariners had spring training at the time, and me and Rick were sitting there, him spitting at green-blue iridescent horseflies, me wondering what I would write about next.

Billy Martin
Billy Martin's pugnacious attitude attracted fans and squeezed out wins for the A's.
"Think I'll hit one 450 feet next time up," were Rickey's first words to me, and actually, the longest sentence he ever spoke to me, even though he was kind of talking to himself rather than me. I need not tell you what happened next. There was a pitcher from the Dominica warming up for the Mariners, he seemed to be throwing 95, whacking a mitt pretty good, dry air carrying the sound. Rick looked at his stuff fish-eyed before he said what he said. When I had the temerity to challenge Rick on grounds of hard stuff, he said, "Yeah, he throw hard; only it ain't got no tail."

"What kinda? ... what kinda? ... sure, Rook." I said this to myself.

First pitch out of this Dominica pitcher's hand, Rick hits one that goes 450 feet if it went one. I never called Rick "Rook" again. Not even in my mind. Neither did Billy, I imagine. It seemed to me that Charlie, on his way out the door, had hired Billy Martin just to try and jack up the gate. The A's weren't drawing flies, and never did draw all that well back then, even in '72, '73 and '74, when they won the World Series. Charlie's marketing gimmicks -- uniforms that almost glowed in the dark, orange baseballs, nicknames like "Catfish" and "Blue Moon," handlebar mustaches, mules, brass bands, Stanley Burrell, aka "Hammer" (so-called not because he could dance or wore parachute pants, but simply because Finley thought the kid looked like Hank Aaron, and Charlie always did want to own himself one of those) -- were not so effective in drawing people to the yard, although to me they did add cachet.

Billy had another agenda. He'd had his heart broken by Steinbrenner; all he wanted to do was manage the Yankees, and never grow up; Billy never met a bar or a fistfight he didn't like. He didn't want to make the A's good so much as he wanted revenge on the Yankees. Billy took one look at Rick and probably thought he might not get revenge with one guy, but he could sure as hell scare the crap out of somebody -- hopefully, George Steinbrenner. So he was putting on the squeeze play, giving Rickey the total green light, playing games on the basepaths, and when it came time to write again, I wrote this column called "Billy Ball." The A's new marketing department, all two of them, ran with that one like Edwin Moses.

They didn't run with Glenn Burke, an outfielder built like a little tank, and this was before the era of the muscular, cut, swole-up ballplayer. Burke was the originator of the "high-five," and also a closet homosexual. Billy knew, though, and it wasn't long before Glenn Burke was an ex-A. Another good story, for another time.

The fall of '81, the A's somehow made the playoffs. How, I still don't know. They were basically still the Triple-A's in the infield; the outfield was quite good; Rick in left, Dwayne Murphy in center shagging, Antonio Armas in right, providing occasional pop. But no infield to speak of, or even to remember. I couldn't call out two of them if you paid me. Five good starting arms. No relievers. I'm talking none. The five starters, before their arms fell off from pitching those extra-inning games Billy wouldn't take them out of, once all got on the cover of the Illy together, but you couldn't compare Langford, Keough, Norris, McCatty and Kingman then to today's tight group of Hudson, Zito, Mulder, Lidle and Lilly. But, the former group, ragged as they were, did help the A's get into the playoffs, where they met Reggala and the Yankees, back in '81.

You know Renee Zellweger's line from "Jerry Maguire," "You had me at hello"? Well, the Yanks had the A's at batting practice. After we all stood and sat around there at Yankee Stadium and watched Reggala make the right field stands and upper tank look like Vietnam, or a Vegas laser light show, Mitch turned to me, and said, "Damn," in the most eloquent way I've heard it said.

The Yankees swept the A's. Have ever since, really.

***** ***** *****

Fast forward through all of us moving around, until 1989, the year of the quake, when the A's won the Bay World Series, against the Giants. Rickey was the best player in the universe then, and the two hitters who could challenge him on this both were A's, too.

But the A's had lost to the Dodgers B team in the 1988 Series, then would do so to the Reds in the 1990 Series, making Tony La Russa the Gene Mauch of his generation; the one Series they did win had the edge taken off it by the Loma Prieta quake. Though the A's had finally (finally is relative, of course -- what's finally to the A's, Yankees, Cardinals or Reds is something else to the Cubs, Red Sox or White Sox) won another World Series, they didn't fulfill their potential.

***** ***** *****

Now the 2002 A's have run over 19 in a row.

The A's are on a collision course with the Yankees in the playoffs.

Derek Jeter
These unbeatable Athletics won't allow any Derek Jeter heroics stop them this year.
The same Yanks who won in the '70s with ex-A's such as Catfish Hunter, now deceased, and with Reggala, who should be more visible today. Don't know why he isn't. Too outspoken, I guess.

The same Yankees who once made Mitch Page say, "Damn."

The same Yanks who beat the A's in the last two A.L. playoffs.

The same Yanks who got their best American League playoff competition from the A's both years. I thought the A's were a little better last year, if not for the fact Art Howe didn't pinch-run for little Jeremy Giambi, who then got put on the all-time highlight reel for failing to slide on Derek Jeter; and if not for the fact Howe didn't hold Zito for Game 5, instead of matching him up against Mike Mussina.

There are no more Dr. Gil Heredias for the Yankees to pick on this season. History doesn't matter here. What matters is now. Right now, Mariano Rivera has shown he's vulnerable; ditto El Duque; Moose is not the consistent knuckle-curving knee-buckling starter of all life -- no, that role has been taken by Zito. Roger Clemens is not getting any younger; the A's have two of the best left-handed starters in the American League. If they get a good scouting report, and make Alfonso Soriano chase out of the zone, then this is another A's year.

After that, won't be long before Steinbrenner hires Billy Beane to run his club. Or puts out a hit on him. George is funny that way.

The Oakland A's winning 19 straight big-league ballgames makes a man like me reflect on such things, even after Labor Day, a near-strike, and the siren call of "Blue-Ninety-Eight!"

Well, pilgrims, that's part of my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



Ralph Wiley Archive

Wiley: 'Undisputed' not far away from 'Raging Bull'

Wiley: Lay off the hot dogs

Wiley: Hold the phonies

Wiley: How much fun is it being Ricky Williams?

Wiley: Where have all the Cowboys gone?

Wiley: Spurrier of the moment

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index