OAKLAND -- How and why? That's what everybody in baseball wants to understand after one of the most exciting and surprising of World Series.

In technical terms, how could the Cincinnati Reds not only beat but demoralize and sweep a defending world champion Oakland A's team that clearly had more talent, more experience, even more motivation?

And why are the A's so prone to such embarrassment? No team has ever been so shockingly upset twice in the Series -- let alone twice within three seasons. What's wrong with these A's?

Let's look back at several crucial junctures: Eric the Red's Home Run.

First inning of the first game on the first pitch he saw, the Reds' supposedly injured and half-speed star, Eric Davis, hit a 400-foot two-run homer off four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart. The pitch was a mistake -- a fastball down the middle -- soon to be an A's trademark. Good stuff, poor location. The Reds' response was a clutch capitalization on that mistake. A pattern was set.

Memories of Kirk Gibson's home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of '88 were evoked. New data can trigger old emotions. The A's were put in touch with a past they thought they'd killed. Leadoff Leaders.

Barry Larkin walked, Billy Hatcher doubled him home, then scored to give the Reds a 4-0 lead in Game 1. Larkin and Hatcher, the Reds' first two hitters, drove the A's crazy the whole Series. Of the Reds' 22 runs, 18 came in innings led off by Larkin. In every case, Larkin or Hatcher or both got on base and scored. The Reds were lucky to have the batting order roll over so fortuitously so many times. But an underdog needs luck as well as heroism. Big Mac Flops -- Again.

In the first five innings of the Series, Mark McGwire was right back in his Classic Coma. Two on, ground out. Bases loaded, pop up. In three Series, McGwire has two RBI. By Game 4, A's Manager Tony La Russa paid McGwire a kind of ultimate insult -- batting him seventh behind Jamie Quirk. Why not just hire a plane with a trailer sign: My First Baseman Is Killing My Team.

Jose Rijo reported back to the Reds' bench that he'd hung two sliders to McGwire and survived both. With Jose Canseco visibly injured and the A's stripped of their designated hitter in road games, the Reds began to suspect that the heart of the A's batting order might be mush. Super Sabo Savors Spotlight.

His first at-bat with runners on, Chris Sabo singled home two runs. While the A's went three for 27 with men in scoring position, Sabo produced in every game. In Game 2, he had three hits, including the single that set up Joe Oliver's winner. In Game 3, he answered a knockdown pitch with back-to-back homers. In Game 4, his three rocket hits off Stewart showed that the A's ace was vincible. A's Get F's for Defense.

The Oakland defense always has been overrated. The A's just don't make many errors. With shortstop Walt Weiss injured, center fielder Dave Henderson recovering from knee surgery and Canseco's throwing hand hurt, the A's were pathetic afield. In Game 2, four Reds runs were total gifts. Catcher Ron Hassey muffed a perfect throw home that should have nailed Slo-Joe (Oliver) by yards. Canseco misplayed two flies into a double and triple that netted three runs. His new theme song: "I Can't Touch This."

Both La Russa and Stewart ripped Canseco after Game 2, igniting long dormant A's clubhouse problems. Tony and Dave said Jose was asleep with the season on the line. Jose said he'd appreciate not being a scapegoat. Tony had a half-hour closed-door meeting with Jose. Jose went to dinner with Reggie Jackson. Everybody rolled his eyes. Even Jackson said, "I didn't cause problems at this time of year. I was a pain in the butt earlier in the season."

Where is Dave Parker when you need a clubhouse enforcer? The A's always knew, sooner or later, they'd need Big Dave to quell a cellblock riot, just as the '77 Reds desperately missed Tony Perez after they traded him. In '88 Canseco popped off about beating the Dodgers in five games. The Dodgers won in five. In '89 Parker promised to clean, stuff and mount Jose if he spoke above a whisper. The A's swept. Now, Dave's gone, Jose predicted a sweep. General Manager Sandy Alderson makes a lot of good moves, but saving money on Parker may have cost him a world title. Tony, Stop Thinking.

If the A's had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they'd have been better. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game 2 with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game 4 with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn't and twice the A's lost. This time, the goat's horns start at the top.

The A's manager also failed to snap his team to attention fast enough. They viewed their Game 1 defeat as a sort of gentle wakeup call, when they should have known that any Series deficit is a crisis. They viewed their Game 2 loss as a fairly serious matter meriting their attention, when in fact they should have circled the wagons, invoked every cliche' and called Game 3 a battle for their lives. After their Game 3 loss, who cared what the A's thought. They were DOA and didn't even know it. The Runnin' Reds' Big Inning.

Cincinnati's seven-run third inning in Game 3 showed everything the Reds could do and everything the A's could not stop. In one humiliating, ego-deflating inning, the Reds took, or were given, 10 extra bases. A steal. A wild pitch. A two-base boot. A missed cutoff man. A single stretched into a double. A double stretched into a triple. And a couple of other guys going first to third. Mike Moore looked like a Ferris wheel operator.

"I said before in September if we didn't win the whole thing, we choked," said Eckersley. "So we choked. Now that it's over, I'm relieved because it was killing us. It was killing me. I felt responsible and I feel embarrassed. Nobody wants to feel like that. . . .

Of the Reds, Eckersley said: "It's a bomb in the first inning of Game 1 and it was domination in every game. They crushed us twice and they beat us at our own game twice. . . . "

Some other A's were gracious too. The most insightful Oakland player was Dave Henderson, who saw the signs, but couldn't slap his teammates' faces as hard as Parker would have. After Game 2, he said, "We're well on our way to making sure that we are a team that will not be remembered."

Unfortunately, even in defeat, the dominant tone of the A's was that of the disbelieving, excuse-seeking blowhard. Rickey Henderson said that, in 100 games with the Reds, the A's would win "70 or 75." Snap to, Rickey. The A's couldn't beat anybody but the Yankees that badly. Stewart was least generous of all, harping on how the Reds wouldn't even have been in the Series if they'd played in the A's division. Then, Stewart "guaranteed" that the A's would be back in the Series next year.

Oh, stuff a sock in it.

For their gumption, the Reds will go down as one of several miracle teams in recent years. This has been the age of upsets. We've seen: the aging '81 Dodgers who won in six games. The injured '85 Royals who trailed 3-1 in both the playoffs and World Series. The '87 Twins who became champs despite an 85-win pedigree. The overmatched '88 Dodgers whose victory may still, in retrospect, be the most remarkable because of their seven-game playoff war with the Mets and their many injuries.

As for the A's, they have etched a place in history for themselves too. In a week, they've gone from being a contender for Greatest Team of the Last 25 Years to being a favorite in a new category:

Biggest World Series Flops -- ever.