By Art Spander
OAKLAND — Well, all was quiet on the western front. Also in the East Bay clubhouse. No punches. No concussions. No conversation either. All reminders of the Swingin’ A’s of the 1970s are only coincidental.
Those guys could play baseball. They won three consecutive World Series, ’72-73-74. Those guys also could fight. Each other. There’s nothing wrong with teammates smacking each other around, as long as when the umpire yells “Play ball,” the priorities are reassessed.
As the Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers said two years ago when the ’74 champions had a reunion at the Coliseum, “We had some characters and, we were beating the bleep out of each other. But still we won.”
The ’16 A’s have not for the most part, although Oakland looked more than competent Tuesday night at the Coliseum, defeating the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, 9-1.
Solid pitching, timely hitting. Which is the way it used to be.
Minus an attempted haymaker or two. Ah, such memories of the glory and gory days.
Game One of the ’74 Series was at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Writers from around the country stood around the cage during batting practice, most skeptical of the Athletics’ reputation.
“I don’t believe all those stories of the fighting,” a journalist told the late Ron Bergman, in those days the only correspondent who covered every A’s game. At almost that very moment, Fingers and fellow pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom began to brawl in the visitors’ clubhouse.
Ray Fosse was a catcher on the ’73 and ’74 A’s. Now at 69, he works with Glenn Kuiper as the Oakland television commentator. Fosse became famous for being run over by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game — and for breaking up a fight between Billy North and Reggie Jackson in that ’74 A’s title season.
“I just tried to pull Billy away,” said Fosse, who having incurred a crushed disk in his neck that still hurts, is reluctant to say much more about that battle.
Ballplayers are with each other virtually every day from February until October, on buses and planes, in cramped clubhouses. Nerves fray, tempers explode.
Jeff Kent once took a swing at Barry Bonds in the Giants’ dugout at AT&T. That Danny Valencia of the A’s conked teammate Billy Butler wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy except that Butler was diagnosed with a concussion, a serious condition.
In fact, while one offers condolences to Butler — who must have taken a beating from Valencia — the incident has for a brief moment made the A’s relevant once again. Consigned to the back pages of the Bay Area’s dailies, they suddenly became front-page news.
They would prefer to do it by being successful, but until then any sort of attention will do.
“It’s not the first time guys have gotten in a fight in the clubhouse,” said Oakland general manager David Forst correctly.
“Unfortunately, when we’re having the kind of season we’re having, it’s a big story. If we were winning, it would be colorful, but we’re not.”
Precisely, and even though the A’s fined both Valencia and Butler, Forst and manager Bob Melvin perhaps were not displeased in their athletes showing some fire, if they didn’t appreciate Butler getting concussed.
Oakland team chemistry has been lacking — “not great” is the way Forst described it — which is hardly unexpected the way the A’s repeatedly ship people from Oakland to Triple A Nashville, and vice versa.
The insecurity has to have an effect on young players. How can there be chemistry when there’s no stability?
Through it all, Melvin, the A’s manager, has remained resolute and pleasant. While it’s true any manager is only as good as his players, the entire business, from lack of talent to losing a player because he was socked by a teammate, must be a downer.
The rare triumph, such as Tuesday night’s — after loses in eight of the previous nine games — allows Melvin a brief chance to escape the craziness of the past few days, not to mention the season.
“Certainly we had this incident, but when you have losing seasons and you’re not playing well, it’s not going to go as well as when you’re winning,” Melvin conceded when asked about the fight.
“And we’ve had two tough seasons. So in that respect, you don’t expect everything to be warm and fuzzy all the time.”
As men such as Rollie Fingers and Billy North from those 1970s teams readily would confirm.