The purpose of this World Series, until the Cincinnati Reds give us cause to think otherwise, is to allow time to debate the niche in contemporary baseball history occupied by the Oakland Athletics.
First, however, since fans tend to get carried away at this time of year, it is important to say what the A's are not. No matter what they do to the Reds, the A's will not be the best team ever.
Distasteful as it has always been, the old Yankees long ago retired the trophies in this area. Longest dynasty: 44 years (1921 to 1964). Most Series wins in a row: five (1949 to 1953) and four (1936 to 1939). Most Disgusting Epoch of Total Domination With Pretty Much The Same Guys, Especially Yogi Berra: 15 pennants in 18 years ('47 to '64). And, of course, Most Ridiculous Team Ever: the '27 Yanks who went 110-44 and outscored the AL by 376 runs. (The '90 A's were 103-59 and outscored the league by 168 runs.)
It is fun to watch people compare any team to the '27 Yankees, because it only means they haven't looked at the record book for a while. They look. They laugh. They get red in the face. They laugh some more. They apologize. To Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Urban Shocker, Wilcy Moore and a dozen other guys.
These days, so all our fun won't be wiped out, we agree to recycle history, starting in 1965. Then, we get to talk about four superb teams -- and about what each of them did best and worst. The 1966 to 1974 Baltimore Orioles, who won four pennants -- three in a row.The 1971 to 1975 Oakland A's, who won three World Series in a row.The 1970 to 1976 Cincinnati Reds, who won 95 or more games six times in seven years and finished with back-to-back world titles.The 1976 to 1981 Yanks, who won four pennants and back-to-back world titles.
Now, the envelopes, please.
Best postseason team: the '72-'74 A's.
They won only 93, 94 and 90 games in the regular season, then broke hearts in October. Why? Thanks to offdays, the three-man rotation of Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman became dominant. Also, the postseason is always tough for high-batting-average teams; cold weather, bad light and great pitching shut them down. So a premium is placed on clubs that steal bases, hit-and-run, draw walks and hit home runs. Those A's had low-average, high-walk sluggers, plus Billy North and Bert Campaneris to run wild.
The runner-up in this category is the Big Red Machine. The Cincinnati weakness was starting pitching, especially depth. In October, relievers become more important while tail-end starters disappear.
Best regular season team: The Orioles were the class here with 109, 108 and 101 wins. The current A's (104-99-103) are well behind. Nobody could match the Orioles' starters. Jim Palmer (with 16, 20 and 20 wins) was the bum in this group in '69-'71 compared with Dave McNally (21-20-24) and Mike Cuellar (20-23-24). When Pat Dobson won 20 in '71, the O's were legendary.
Worst postseason team: Also the Orioles. Their relief pitching, which Earl Weaver neglected, can't match any of the other mini-dynasties. The O's also were the slowest and least imaginative of these teams on offense.
Best lineup: The Reds by a mile. In the '76 Series, the first four hitters had these season averages: .323, .336, .320, .306. That doesn't include Johnny Bench, Tony Perez or No. 8 hitter Cesar Geronimo (.307). The '90 A's have one man who hit over .280. In this area, the current A's may actually be weakest of the five. Mike Gallego, Walt Weiss and Terry Steinbach are poor-hitting regulars in this company.
Most speed: The Reds stole 378 bases in '75-'76; they never stopped taking extra bases either. The current A's are next best at this -- and were even before Rickey Henderson arrived. Oakland is known for its power, but is also a superb October run-manufacturing team.
Best defense: The Orioles had five Gold Glovers, but the nod goes to the Reds because of their range. Bench, Joe Morgan, Davey Concepcion and Geronimo may have been the best up-the-middle defense ever. The two worst Reds fielders, Pete Rose and George Foster, won the fielding percentage titles at their positions in '76.
In this area, the current A's, though almost error-proof, are probably the worst of the five, especially up the middle. Steal and take the extra base on the A's.
Best bullpen: Take the current A's, both for Dennis Eckersley and for depth. The Reds had depth that Sparky "Captain Hook" Anderson loved. The Yankees had both Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle -- though never together in their prime. But the Eck's the best No. 1 man -- even over Rollie Fingers.
Best manager: Dick Williams was a tyrant. Earl Weaver got panicky during the Series. Billy Martin was a time bomb. Anderson lacked charisma. If Tony La Russa can keep his combustible clubhouse together, he may be the best.
Best team personality: The Reds had the best black-white-Latin relations, thanks to Morgan, Rose and Perez. But they snubbed the scrubs. The Orioles had Frank Robinson's Kangaroo Court, but they folded in two Series. The old zany A's all took separate cabs, but fed off their hatred of owner Charlie Finley. The current A's are driven by pride and/or vanity, depending on who is under discussion. The Yankees were the best. What a clubhouse! The Thurman Munson-Graig Nettles-Sparky-Goose-Catfish core hated George and Reggie and, in some cases, Billy too -- but they were bonded in battle. No wonder they caught the '78 Red Sox.
Best power: Stats say the Orioles, followed by the current A's. No pair quite matches Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, but Weaver went for power at every position, except shortstop. However, put the current A's in Memorial Stadium and the home run numbers might be staggering.
To sum up, the Orioles had starting pitchers, defense and three-run homers, but they lacked speed, relief pitching and, perhaps, on-field leadership.
The old A's had balance and rose to the occasion, but often coasted in the regular season in a weak division. And they lacked pitching depth.
The Reds were the most intimidating because of their lineup, which combined power, speed, abandon and pure hitting. Their combination of amazing defense and a quality bullpen made mediocre pitchers look very good. Still, the Reds' rotation was built on Don Gullett, Gary Nolan, Jack Billingham and such.
The Yankees were gritty, colorful and controversial. The combination of George-Billy-Reggie and "New York, New York" may forever keep this team a bit underrated. Thank goodness.
The current A's have power and speed, starting pitching and relief pitching, computers and colorful characters. But they also have holes in their lineup, less-than-great defensive range, lack of left-right pitching balance in their starters, vulnerability to speed and the ghost of 1988 left to live down.
The feeling here is that the Reds of '75-'76, despite their rotation, were the best overall team of the last 25 years. Our other mini-dynasties stand a level lower -- high as that level is.
If the current A's add a second world title to their re'sume', they should rise above the four-team group in which they now reside.
Whether beating the new Reds will put the A's eye-to-eye with the old Reds will be a subject for the future -- and a great deal of debate -- to decide.