OAKLAND, AUG. 9 -- The term "Bash Brothers" rarely is heard around the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse these days, for the A's of 1990 are just as enamored with their scrappy, irritating "Rickey Runs" as with turning baseballs into distant souvenirs. They are even prouder of their Bob Welch and Scott Sanderson stories.
At first glance, little has changed here in three years. The refrain is familiar: The A's swagger, and the A's win. "We're the best team in baseball, and we know it," Jose Canseco said.
Oakland last was more than three games out of first place in the American League West in 1987. The A's have been in first place for all but 10 days of this season, with their 70-42 record after today's win over the Baltimore Orioles the major leagues' best.
They are on track for their second 100-victory year in three seasons -- ahead of the 1988 pace that produced a club-record 104 wins -- and they have begun to proclaim in their usual manner that they are readying for a mid-August push that will leave the pesky Chicago White Sox out of contention even before the stretch run arrives.
"We're going to crank it up a few notches here and see if anyone can stay with us," Canseco said, mindful that the A's have played .675 baseball in August and September the past two seasons. "This is our time of the year."
Yet even if the appearance is similar, the personality of this team is not the same as the club that first nestled into its place of dominance in 1988. Those A's were young and brash, a talented group of newcomers to the art of winning stylishly who craved attention for every flex. A forearm bash accompanied every home run, and there was no need to exhibit much grit. Their task was to overwhelm, and their goal was adulation.
But a funny thing happened to that team on its way to immortality. It lost the World Series in a five-game embarrassment to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the beloved underdogs of Orel Hershiser and hobbling hero Kirk Gibson. Things haven't been the same for the A's since.
"That changed this team forever," Manager Tony La Russa said. "That's probably the best thing that ever happened to us."
The defeat steeled the A's, and the renewed vigor that accompanied the onset of their spring training in 1989 still hasn't receded.
The occasional boastfulness of Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart now is more for show, La Russa contends.
"There was a time when they believed all the stuff they said. Now it's for you guys," La Russa said. "Between the foul lines, this is as mature and professional a ballclub as you'll ever find."
Canseco still is often outlandish, as when he taunted his across-the-Bay nemesis, Will Clark, with his five-year, $23.5-million contract. Henderson still is a potential malcontent, as when he followed Canseco's deal by insisting he is underpaid at over $3 million per year. Stewart still can seem bitter or begrudging.
But from the first to final pitch of a ballgame, there is no frivolity or friction. The forearm bashing and accompanying nickname are infrequent ornaments now. Canseco's once-common on-field lapses are rarely seen. Henderson's one-time staple of flamboyance in the outfield, the snatch catch, makes only an occasional appearance.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Oakland's talent remains the game's best. Strong cases likely will be made at year's end for Canseco, Henderson and Dennis Eckersley as the AL's most valuable player.
Canseco has 34 home runs and 82 RBI. Henderson has a league-leading .330 average and is among the AL's top 10 in nine other offensive categories. Eckersley had 37 saves in 38 chances and had surrendered only 26 hits, 3 walks and 4 earned runs in 50 1/3 innings. Oakland's pitching staff led the league entering today's game with a 3.15 ERA, to 3.49 for the next-best White Sox. The A's have 131 homers, second best in the AL to Toronto.
"A lot of teams have talent," La Russa said. "I don't even think we have the best talent in the division this year. I thought before the season Kansas City and California had more than us. . . . Talent goes up and down. We don't. We've been a consistently good team for three years. That tells you we have more than talent. We have commitment, and we do things right."
The A's move runners along, make the right decisions and execute the fundamentals. They learned to scrap last season, when they became world champions despite a rougher-than-expected ride that included extended stretches without Canseco, Eckersley and Mark McGwire, who were injured.
Henderson's acquisition in a June 1989 trade with the New York Yankees added fire and a new dimension -- the ability to score routinely with a walk, stolen base, groundout and fly ball. The A's still intimidate, but with ceaseless precision and newly discovered perseverance rather than with words or antics.
"You come here, and you know you have to play almost a perfect game to beat these guys," Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard said. "If you make many mistakes -- mentally, physically, pitching- or hitting-wise -- you won't win against this team. It's a lot of pressure to have that on your mind."
Oakland's stability is organization-wide. The Haas family was responsible for keeping baseball in the city after purchasing the team from Charlie Finley in 1980. The franchise they bought had a faltering minor league system, six front-office employees and 187 losses over the previous two seasons.
Now the A's have become perhaps baseball's most civic-minded club and possess one of the game's most respected executives in General Manager Sandy Alderson.
Alderson has been criticized for his spending sprees -- culminating with a three-year, $1.2-million deal last month with top draft choice Todd Van Poppel -- but he countered: "Look who's criticizing me. Not people who are winning 95 to 100 games a year and drawing 2.5 million fans."
The A's are "a step or two ahead of everyone else," Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson said recently. "They have a great foundation, and that can't help but show on the field."
Said La Russa: "It's a stable operation, top to bottom. You might question the wisdom of keeping me around so long, but otherwise it's hard to find fault with the way this front office has conducted itself in recent years."
La Russa, with an analytical style true to his status as a lawyer, is regarded as among the game's premier managers. Then there is the resident genius, pitching coach Dave Duncan. When Oakland pitchers talk of Duncan, it is with awe. Stewart credits Duncan with helping to turn him from a journeyman into baseball's top winner over the past three years. Welch credits Duncan with making him an All-Star Game starter and the game's victory leader this year at 18-4.
"He boosts you up mentally more than anything else," Welch said. "With me, he took me from thinking about a game in terms of trying to reach the sixth or seventh inning to thinking about a game one batter, and one batter only, at a time. The guy on deck doesn't even come into my mind any more, and it's made all the difference in the world as far as concentration and intensity."
Storm Davis left during the offseason; Sanderson arrived and has become a solid performer who has allowed only 13 earned runs in his 11 victories.
"Part of it is playing for a better team, but I think I'm a better pitcher too," Sanderson said. "This is an environment conducive to success."
It promises to remain that way for at least the next few years.
"We've had a good run here," Alderson said. "I don't think we're ready for it to end. Not for a while yet."