The 1987 Oakland A’s: Laying The Foundation

Baseball in Oakland had been in a dry spell since the AL West title run in the strike-shortened season of 1981. The A’s promptly dipped under .500 the following year and stayed there. Midway through the 1986 season, the organization tapped Tony LaRussa, who had managed the 1983 Chicago White Sox into the ALCS, to be the skipper. Under LaRussa, the A’s went 45-34. The final record was still under .500, but there was hope. The 1987 Oakland A’s built off that hope. They contended deep into the season, ended their streak of losing seasons and laid the foundation for an American League dynasty.

Jose Canseco was a big part of the optimism. The left fielder won Rookie of the Year honors in 1986, and followed that up with 31 homers and 113 RBIs in this 1987 season. The A’s called up another big power bat from their minor league system. Mark McGwire took the first base job and promptly led the majors with 49 homers and a .618 slugging percentage. McGwire made it two straight Rookie of the Years for the organization.

Together, the  muscular builds and power hitting of Canseco and McGwire led to the nickname “The Bash Brothers”, and they would become the focal point of this new era. That’s in ways both good and bad—from the perspective of history, we know they helped Oakland do a lot of winning in the coming seasons. We also know there was more than a little artificial enhancement behind these power numbers.

There is no such mixed legacy for third baseman Carney Lansford. A solid, underrated ballplayer, Lansford quietly produced for several years and 1987 was no different. He posted a stat line of a .366 on-base percentage/.455 slugging percentage. Terry Steinbach, the 25-year-old catcher, had a stat line of .349/.463. Mike Davis played right field and popped 22 home runs. Tony Phillips, the versatile second baseman, had a .337 OBP. All told, it was enough for the A’s to rank sixth in the American League in runs scored.

Oakland made several trades in the offseason. One was more about sentiment. They brought the great Reggie Jackson back home. The future Hall of Famer was a vital part of the great A’s teams that won three straight World Series titles in the early 1970s, before going on to more success with the New York Yankees and California Angels. Reggie’s production now was minimal, but the move allowed him to end his career where it had begun.

Other deals were more consequential to the immediate future and they were aimed at the bullpen. Dennis Eckersley’s career as a starting pitcher was struggling with the Chicago Cubs. The A’s picked up Eck for a couple minor leaguers and put him in the pen. This season, he shared closing duties and saved 16 games with a 3.03 ERA. By the following year, he had the closer’s gig to himself and put together a Hall of Fame resume. I’d say the trade worked out pretty well.

The A’s also made trades to get Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson for the bullpen. These aren’t names that jump off the page, but they would prove vital as a lefty-righty tag team for Oakland in the years ahead.

A developing bullpen supported a pitching staff that was anchored by Dave Stewart. The workhorse made an astonishing 37 starts, won 20 games, posted a 2.61 ERA and began a four-year run of finishing in the top three of the American League Cy Young voting.

The rest of the rotation lacked depth. Curt Young and Steve Ontiveros were respectable in the 2-3 spots, but they were no one any team would fear. There was a real problem at the back end of the rotation. But Stewart, along with the improved bullpen and the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Oakland’s ballpark, helped the A’s finish fifth in the American League for staff ERA.

When Oakland lost 10 of their first 13 games, all to AL West opponents, it put a quick damper on the optimism. But in May, the A’s started to turn it around. It started with a weekend visit from the Detroit Tigers, a team that would end the season with the best record in baseball.

A pitcher’s duel on Friday night went into extra innings. Eckersley pitched over four innings of scoreless relief and a 1-1 tie held until the bottom of the 13th. Mike Davis slashed a leadoff double and scored the winning run on a base hit from Steinbach.

With a day game on Saturday, the turnaround had to be quick, and this one turned into another 13-inning affair. This time it was Nelson tossing nearly five innings of scoreless relief. A 2-2 tie held to the 13th. This time it was McGwire and Steinbach starting with a rally with base hits. An infield hit loaded the bases and when the Tigers flubbed a squeeze bunt, McGwire scored the winning run.

Sunday’s finale saw more great pitching on both sides, but Oakland only needed the standard nine innings. Eric Plunk threw a shutout, Canseco homered and a 2-0 win completed the sweep for the A’s.

Oakland took that momentum and turned it into a series wins over good AL East teams in Toronto, New York and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998). By Memorial Day, the A’s were nudging back close to .500 with a record of 20-22. With the AL West not being particularly strong, Oakland was still a manageable five games off the pace.

Here’s a good spot to step back and remind younger readers that from 1969 to 1993, each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West. There were no wild-cards, with the first-place finisher going directly to the League Championship Series. So the AL West, in addition to current members in the A’s, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Angels, also had centrally located teams in the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals. In this era, the playoffs were a steep hill to climb.

Kansas City was the team out to the early divisional lead and the A’s beat the Royals in both of the June series these teams played. It was part of a strong early summer and by the All-Star break, Oakland’s record was 46-41. They were tied for second place with Kansas City and just two games back of first-place Minnesota. Pennant race baseball was back.

The A’s went to Fenway Park out of the break, grabbed three of four from the Red Sox, and sliced the AL West margin to a single game. But then Oakland stumbled. A schedule stretch that included the Tigers and Brewers saw seven losses in ten games. With the Twins also not playing well, it was a missed opportunity. But the margin stayed at two games when Minnesota came to Oakland for a three-game weekend set starting on July 31.

Canseco homered to give the A’s an early lead in Friday night’s opener, but the bullpen had problems in the middle innings and Oakland lost 5-3. On Saturday afternoon a high-profile pitcher’s duel between Stewart and eventual Cy Young winner Frank Viola went down. The A’s were trailing 2-1 in the eighth before a walk and hit batsman gave them life. A single from light-hitting shortstop Alfredo Griffin tied the game and Lansford won it with a walk off blast in the ninth.

Sunday’s finale was even more dramatic. Eckersley and co-closer Jay Howell combined to cough up a 5-3 lead and a 5-5 game went into the 11th inning. Griffin reached on an error and stole second. A base hit from backup outfielder Luis Polonia appeared poised to win the game, but Griffin was thrown out at the plate. Polonia alertly took second on the throw home and was able to score on a base hit from Canseco.

Oakland had won the series. And after they grabbed two of three from Seattle, the A’s moved into a tie for first place. But in the rematch with Minnesota back in the old Metrodome, Oakland pitching failed them. The A’s gave up 34 runs in four games and lost all four. The momentum was quelled, but they still reached Labor Day with a record of 69-67 and were still within three games of the lead.

Kansas City was also lurking and there were a couple big series between the Royals and A’s. The events of the early part of September saw both teams effectively take each other out of contention. Oakland dropped three of four at home to Kansas City and drifted to the margins of the race. On the return trip to the Midwest, the A’s won three straight. That all but finished the Royals, but the A’s were still 3 ½ games back and there were only two weeks left.

With the final couple weeks including only bad teams from Cleveland and Chicago, a surge was possible. But the A’s played poorly and were eliminated with a week to play. They ended up in third place with a final record of 81-81.

The finish was disappointing. So was not getting a winning record. But the A’s were off the skid of losing seasons and had found their core of talent to build on. In 1988, they ripped off 104 wins and returned to the World Series. And in 1989, they won it all.