OAKLAND -- A young coach and an old second baseman, who have seen both sides of the World Series and were on different sides in this one, glanced around their respective clubhouses a few minutes apart and nodded exactly the same way.
Willie Randolph, the second baseman, took his time dressing. Most of the other Oakland A's were rushing to get out. Jose Canseco sent a messenger for his street clothes so he wouldn't have to return to the locker, infested as it was with gnats. Under the circumstances, Harold Baines expressed no pleasure in having hit a home run.
"He enjoyed it," Randolph whispered. "Oh, yeah. Of course. Are you kidding me? Sports is a hero-goat deal -- society is, really -- and the goats are expected to act completely miserable. But how can anyone be completely miserable at the World Series? You want to be on the top side, naturally, but the bottom side still is the World Series. You know, it's possible to make a pretty play in a losing game. You can get a big hit that turns out not to matter. But everything matters in the end. I hate to tell you, but I've enjoyed these games."
Maybe because Randolph is nearing the end, although showing more range in the field than he has for a while, his understanding has increased. Or perhaps, like Tony Perez, the Cincinnati first-base coach, he understood from the start.
"I'm not swinging the bat. I'm not hitting the ball," Perez said. "But I'm helping in my way, as I knew I would someday. When we were young players, Pete Rose always planned to be the manager. 'Well, I'll coach for you,' I said. 'We'll stay in uniform,' he kept saying. 'Sure,' I told him."
The first to go, the only one to stay, Perez turns out to be the fitting last survivor of the Big Red Machine, the only flintlock veteran left aboard the modern Red October. On the crest of back-to-back world championships, Cincinnati traded Perez in 1976 (at least 10 years too early) for no other reason than that he had reached the peak of Branch Rickey's age and salary curve and slipped off.
Bob Howsam, an old Rickey man who ran the club then, approached the Reds' first baseman in the middle of their World Series sweep of the Yankees. As a tenured player, Perez had some say in his destination.
"I'll go anywhere you want, as long as it's to a contender," he told Howsam, whose reply was brief and beautiful. "Tony," he said, "any team that had you would be a contender."
Cincinnati was ready with a young replacement, but he was only a physical replacement. Howsam misunderstood Perez's impact in the locker room, an error that killed a dynasty. The Cuban's hatred of Latin stereotypes was so virulent that he refused to let any teammates contribute to them. But all of the players, not just the Spanish-speaking ones, looked up to him.
Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench were jealous of each other, but devoted to Perez. Resentful that his Hall of Fame induction was upstaged by Rose's gambling and tax saga, Bench actually seems jubilant that Pete is in jail. Morgan, who followed Bench to Cooperstown, isn't glad; he's just detached. Only Perez aches for old teammates right or wrong.
"I know he's happy for us," Perez said. "Someone in here wondered if our success hasn't made it worse for Pete. I told them, no, they don't understand, it makes it better. I know he's sitting there happy. I can see him. He's a strong guy, and this is his team."
Morgan owns a beer distributorship and dabbles in TV. Bench plays a scratch game of golf and lives on his celebrity. Perez retains the uniform.
"I haven't come back to life this week, or anything like that," Perez snorted, "but I have come back to a feeling. In the coach's box or the dugout, you feel the same pressure, the same everything. You're part of the game. That's what I love."
Never wishing he still could play, Perez revels in the sight of others playing, and notices the reflections they give off. "Can't you see Pete here and there a little," he said, "just a little, in a slide or something? I see myself sometimes, like the work we've done in the cage. I see guys thinking of things we told them, maybe trying to do too much. They're realizing they could be better next year. I remember that feeling. They're finding out they can play."
Baseball is not something that can be settled or even seen in a week. Over a broken field, one glimpse of Gale Sayers may be enough. But Gene Tenace hitting two home runs at a time might leave Bench in the dust for a week. In a World Series, particularly, a lummox like Ron Swoboda can be a swan.
On the complete record, the chiseled numbers spread out over so many months, Oakland has had the best team in baseball for three years. Now, on the evidence of a few hours, the A's can expect to hear what an illusion they were. Poor Tony La Russa: He was a bum after all.
"Baseball luck is a funny deal," Randolph said. "It's a nice little groove the Reds found this week. They're a nice team." These are a couple of nice teams.