OAKLAND -- The most shocking World Series sweep since 1954 came to a gloriously dramatic and suitably incongruous conclusion Saturday night. The Cincinnati Reds beat the hugely favored world champion Oakland A's, 2-1, on an error by pitcher Dave Stewart that was as freakish and destiny-spiced as this entire Classic.
Perhaps this should be known as the Total Recall Series since it so eerily paralleled the A's comparably infamous five-game collapse at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago. When has a team so good conspired to inflict such suffering on itself while inspiring its irritated foes to such heights?
"You get what you earn. We got what we earned here," said A's Manager Tony La Russa, whose team has won the most games in baseball each of the last three seasons, yet has only one world title of which to boast.
Just five days ago, the A's came to this stage trying to prove they were as good as any team since the 1927 Yankees. Jose Canseco, the highest paid man in the game, even called his team the greatest ever and repeatedly predicted a Series sweep over the Reds to match the A's sweep of the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs.
Now, the A's place seems clearly, but painfully defined. Their progression mirrors the 1969-70-71 Orioles -- called the Best Damn Team in Baseball -- who were upset twice in three years with one world title in between. Those O's begat the Miracle Mets and lost a seven-game Series to Pittsburgh.
The A's embarrassment, however, far surpasses the Orioles' and may be greater than any team in modern times. Why? Because the contrast between their dominance before the Series, and their meek, almost numb submission during it, is so stark and difficult to explain.
A week ago, who would have believed Jose Rijo would outpitch Stewart twice; Dennis Eckersley would be beaten in extra innings; the A's would twice take one-run leads into the eighth inning, then blow them without La Russa ever bringing in The Eck; Canseco would end the Series one for 12, to go with his one for 19 performance in 1988; and Canseco would be benched in this game.
What odds could you have gotten on the Reds outscoring the A's 22-8, outhitting them .317 to .207 and crushing their bones in two blowouts. Even granting the greatness of the "Nasty Boy" bullpen, who thought the ERA of the Reds' five-man crew would be 0.00 for 13 innings? Who'd have thought Chris Sabo would have as many RBI as Mark McGwire, Dave Henderson, Carney Lansford, Willie McGee, Rickey Henderson and Canseco combined? Hell, Sabo and unknown Billy Hatcher had 31 total bases; the whole A's, who got just two hits in Game 4, had only 41 all Series.
Nothing in this wonderfully shocking Series made conventional baseball sense, so, naturally, Stewart's decisive misplay was grotesquely unique and, almost, unbelievable.
The A's led 1-0 in the eighth inning when the Reds put men on first and second with nobody out. Paul O'Neill laid down an adequate but routine sacrifice bunt toward Stewart. O'Neill, who would have been out by five yards anyway, pulled a muscle as he ran to first and almost came to a stop.
But Stewart's unnecessarily hurried throw to Willie Randolph, the second baseman who was covering first base, pulled Randolph off the bag -- by perhaps one inch. As Randolph staggered into foul territory after catching the ball with a lunge, O'Neill hobbled the last 20 feet to first base. Stewart could have rolled the ball to first in time.
The A's can argue all winter that Randolph's toe brushed the bag. But they will still see the image of Stewart, one of the game's most loved and respected men, cracking in a crisis.
When Glenn Braggs grounded into a force play -- which would have been a double play if Randolph had made a relay worthy of his Bronx Zoo days -- one run scored to tie the game. When Hal Morris hit a high, long sacrifice fly to right, the Reds had a lead to hand to Rijo and Randy Myers, who got the last two outs.
If Stewart had made his easy bunt play, Morris's game-winning fly would simply have ended the inning. This was a Reds victory by unearned run. But not, in any sense, an unearned victory.
The Reds, who won 91 games this season compared with the A's 103, put so much pressure on Oakland's injured and suddenly suspect defense that the eighth-inning fold should not have been a surprise. Before this Series, pundits saw statistics. Only three times in history ('06, '54 and '74) had the Series been won by teams with at least a dozen fewer regular season wins than their foes. Only twice have defending champions been swept, the Dodgers by the Orioles in '66, the Athletics by the Braves in '14. Once the games began, everyone saw how the Reds' speed and base stealing, their hit-and-runs and bunts, their pursuit of the extra base and their mighty bullpen both unnerved and unmanned the A's.
The Reds' whole winning rally was A's ugly. After Barry Larkin's leadoff single, Herm Winningham failed in two sacrifice attempts, then took it on himself to lay down a bunt on an 0-2 pitch. Catcher Jamie Quirk, normally a third-stringer but playing on a hunch by La Russa, made a molasses-paced play as Winningham beat out the bunt.
"We got beat on a couple of bunts we didn't play, a ground ball and a fly ball," said La Russa, shaking his head. The Reds didn't score two runs as much as the A's gave them six outs.
This final, fourth game also completed the parallels to the '88 Series with such exactness that it was almost frightening. Then, the Dodgers lost one player after another to injury -- four front-line men in all. Yet they played more tenaciously the more their manpower was depleted.
This evening, Billy Hatcher, batting .750 for the Series, was hit on the wrist by an 0-2 Stewart fastball that some will think was a deliberate brushback. No sooner had he left the game than superstar Eric Davis injured his kidney while diving for a Willie McGee double to left. Davis would have been lost for the Series, though the A's did not know it until after the game. "I was running out of outfielders," said Reds Manager Lou Piniella. "I thought I was going to have to activate myself."
So, what happened? Braggs replaced Davis and ended up driving in the tying run. Winningham replaced Hatcher and ended up scoring the winning run.
Naturally, the A's final out came on a meek popup -- which landed right in the celebrating Nasty Boys bullpen.
In defeat, La Russa said, "I feel like we lost." He did not say the Reds did not deserve to win. Only that he never believed that his A's fate had left their own hands. That, like much else in these last few days, reflected the A's inability to believe in their proud hearts that any team could compete with them for high stakes. That is also how they talked and played in 1988.
In victory, Sabo took the podium and spoke for the Reds, a team that led the National League West wire-to-wire, then did the same in the Series. The Reds have never felt they got their due from the public or the A's.
"In the '90s, we will be the best team in baseball," predicted Sabo.
Don't they ever learn?