OAKLAND -- On the first pitch of the second inning on Friday night, big Mike Moore of the Oakland A's sent a message to smallish Chris Sabo of the Cincinnati Reds. Moore brushed him back, gave him a shave, stuck one in his ear, whichever phrase you like. On purpose? Who knows?
But the A's do send messages to their foes. They play intimidation baseball. And Sabo had finished Game 2 with three straight hits, including the one that set up Joe Oliver's winner.
Sabo didn't change expression, didn't glare. Gradually, he worked the count full, then drove one of Moore's pitches so far over the left field fence that Rickey Henderson couldn't even draw attention to himself by pretending to climb the fence.
Sabo jogged around the bases quickly, head down, shook hands at home plate, gave a perfunctory hand slap to the on-deck hitter and disappeared into the dugout with the Reds ahead, 1-0.
The next time Sabo and Moore met, the Reds led, 3-2, in the third inning and had a man on base. Sabo, who wears a crew cut and goggles so that he won't get dirt in his eyes when he dives head-first, made himself inconspicuous in the batter's box. A little man who lifts a lot of weights and has made himself a minor power hitter.
This time, Sabo's home run did not go quite so far into the bleachers. But his home run trot -- or rather, his brisk businesslike sprint -- was identical. No emotion. No words of welcome for Moore as he rounded third. No elbow bashing at home plate. The Reds led 5-2. By the end of the inning it was 8-2.
The first batter of the next inning, Henderson, hit a home run into the same left field bleachers. He stood and watched his work. He bellied out so deep as he began his trot that it looked as if he might stop in the Reds' dugout for a drink of water. As he neared second base, he went into his twinkle-toes dance. At home plate, he celebrated himself some more.
His team still trailed by five runs. His team was about to lose the third game of the World Series -- it's third straight defeat. His A's were headed toward joining the '54 Cleveland Indians as the biggest bunch of upset losers -- losers in a sweep -- in history.
But Rickey had to do his trot.
It's a question of style, isn't it? That's always been the problem with the Oakland A's. That's the reason they're not loved outside of this city as much as they deserve to be. And that's the reason why so many people took such delight in watching the Reds humiliate them again, 8-3, in the third game of a World Series that may end in four utterly amazing games.
When Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco bash their big forearms after a home run, that's essentially a question of taste, of style, isn't it? When Dennis Eckersley embarrasses a batter by fanning his imaginary pistol at him after he strikes him out, that's a matter of style. Perhaps too much style. When Canseco flexes his muscles to fans who taunt him or when Dave Henderson does his tippy-toe snatch catch in center field or when Dave Stewart goes into his Death Stare, it can seem just a little too much, especially from a team so talented, so rich, so physically big, and one which under Manager Tony La Russa comes so close to playing bully ball at times.
As individuals, the Oakland A's respect themselves and, usually respect one another -- although seismic clubhouse rumblings involving a half-dozen players have been reported in the last 48 hours. However, it's a legitimate question to ask whether the A's, as a team, give proper respect to others.
In Game 3, the Reds paid back in spades the disrespect that they have felt at the hands of the A's. The way to embarrass the A's, expose their mortality, make them look like big, silly, tangle-footed Goliaths, is to run on their catchers and all of their weak-armed or fundamentally careless outfielders.
And run they did. Billy Hatcher, after his eighth hit of the Series, went first to third as first baseman McGwire booted a grounder. Paul O'Neill went first to third, drawing a wild overthrow of the cutoff man from center fielder Dave Henderson that allowed Eric Davis to take second base in a cloud of dirt. Oliver legged out a double into the left field corner on Rickey Henderson, then challenged Dave Henderson on a single to center and scored. Barry Larkin hit a routine rope double off the 375-foot sign in left, but, just to show up the Hendersons, he stretched it into a pointless, but pointed two-out triple.
All of this happened in one inning.
Granted, it was a seven-run inning. And it probably ended this World Series. Of the 17 teams that have trailed the World Series three games to none, 14 rolled over in Game 4; the other three won one game. Do these A's have more stomach for battle than the '54 Indians, who gave up the ghost after Willie Mays's catch on Vic Wertz and Dusty Rhodes's seven RBI in the first three games? Do the A's, divided as they are over Canseco's general behavior, have more gumption than the '66 Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, a team like the A's, with two super pitchers who combined for 49 wins? After being shut out by Wally Bunker and 20-year-old Jim Palmer, those Dodgers called it quits in Game 4.
Before this evening was done, third baseman Sabo showed every aspect of what his Reds are about. He picked a Dave Henderson smash and made it look like an easy play. When Mike Gallego dropped a perfect bunt, Sabo swung out into foul territory, just like the textbook diagrams, so he could pick up the ball with his momentum headed toward first. Sabo has time to make the play with all deliberate speed and the appearance of perfect stylelessness.
Finally, leading off the seventh, in what might be his last chance to hit a third home run in one Series game -- joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and no one else -- Sabo worked the count full once more.
The next pitch was over the plate but low, barely. A pitch that could, perhaps, be golfed for a home run. Or fouled, to get another pitch.
Sabo took it for ball four. He was the leadoff man. It was his job to get on base. When the next batter hit a routine double-play ball to second base, Sabo sped toward second, then slid to avoid the relay throw. With his team five runs ahead, with the "Nasty Boys" ready and on call to round up any stray A's prisoners, Sabo barreled toward second baseman Willie Randolph, bowed his shoulders, dropped his head and tried to let the throw hit him in the batting helmet to break up the double play.
For Sabo to be both the hero and the symbol of this game had a perfect, but troubling symmetry. You see, Sabo has, since adolescence, modeled himself and his game on one old-time player whom he's worshipped for 20 years and who was his first major league manager. To this day, Sabo will speak only good of the man he idolizes, the man who had faith in him and put him into the Reds' lineup when nobody in the organization thought he'd be more that a mediocrity.
No one has to ask for whom Chris Sabo played the game of his life this night. He already has said it a thousand times.