1990: The Oakland A's and the dynasty that wasn't

May 23rd, 2020

Throughout our hopefully short time without real live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered, what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].

So far: 1983 | 1984 | 1987 | 1991 | 1995 | 1998 | 2003 | 2006 | 2010

Year: 1990
LCS: Reds over Pirates in 6; A’s over Red Sox in 4
World Series: Reds over A’s in 4
MVPs: AL: Rickey Henderson, A’s; NL: Barry Bonds, Pirates
Cy Youngs: AL: Bob Welch, A’s; NL: Doug Drabek, Pirates
Rookies of the Year: AL: Sandy Alomar Jr., Indians; NL: David Justice, Braves

All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020):
1B: Cecil Fielder, Tigers
2B: Ryne Sandberg, Cubs
SS: Alan Trammell, Tigers
3B: Matt Williams, Giants
OF: Rickey Henderson, A’s
OF: Barry Bonds, Pirates
OF: Jose Canseco, A’s
C: Carlton Fisk, White Sox
DH: Dave Parker, Brewers
SP: Roger Clemens, Red Sox
SP: Ed Whitson, Padres
SP: Frank Viola, Mets
SP: Dave Stewart, A’s
RP: Bobby Thigpen, White Sox
RP: Dennis Eckersley, A’s

The 1988-90 Oakland A’s should be known as one of the great dynasties of our lifetime. It was just that pesky World Series that kept getting them. And 1990 should have been their year to repeat. Up until October, it was.

After going 81-81 in 1987, Tony La Russa’s first year as manager, Oakland was dominant in 1988, winning 104 games behind a 40-40 season from Jose Canseco, MVP-caliber seasons from Dave Henderson and Mark McGwire, and a solid rotation backed by a brilliant bullpen. The A's blew past the Red Sox in four games in the American League Championship Series, but in the World Series, they ran into Kirk Gibson doing something that Jack Buck couldn’t believe he just saw and lost to the Dodgers in five.

They added Rickey Henderson midway through the 1989 season, which is a pretty fantastic way to improve your baseball team, and they did end up winning the World Series that year, though it was a Series that people only remember today because of an earthquake.

But 1990? 1990 was the real year. The A's had everything going that year. First off, they had Rickey for the entire season, which ended with him winning his only MVP Award. They had McGwire and Canseco healthy and dominant all year -- the true Bash Brothers year. They had veterans Willie Randolph, Carney Lansford and Harold Baines. They had a terrific top two in their rotation with Bob Welch (27 wins!) and Dave Stewart, and they still had that incredible bullpen, led by an otherworldly season from Dennis Eckersley, who gave up just five earned runs all season. They even made another midseason trade, bringing in former MVP Willie McGee, who happened to be leading the National League in hitting at the time of the deal. The A’s had everything, and they blitzed the Red Sox again in the ALCS, sweeping them by a combined score of 20-4.

It was all set up for them in the World Series, too, a chance to win their second consecutive Series and become the first team to do so since the 1977-78 Yankees. They were playing the Reds, a good team, one that won 91 games and edged the Pirates in the NLCS, but also one that had gone 50-50 over its last 100 games and was known mostly for the Nasty Boys relievers of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble; the Pete Rose scandal (he was sentenced to prison that year); Marge Schott’s dog; and Chris Sabo’s goggles. The Reds were the perfect team for the A’s to vanquish: Overachievers, a team that had overcome adversity, but one that probably should have just been happy to be there. The A’s needed only four games to secure their place in history.

They would certainly get those four games, but only those four games. In Game 1, Cincinnati starter Jose Rijo threw seven shutout innings, with Dibble and Myers nailing down the eighth and ninth in a 7-0 win. In Game 2, Eckersley, with the score tied in the bottom of the 10th, gave up three straight singles to Billy Bates, Sabo and Joe Oliver to give the Reds a walk-off win. In the third inning of Game 3, the Reds scored seven runs off Mike Moore and Scott Sanderson (the A’s rotation did fall off a little after Welch and Stewart), Rijo outdueled Stewart in Game 4, and just like that, it was over. The A’s barely had time to blink.

“This has been a bad, bad misconception of this ballclub,” Stewart said after the sweep. “We are a great ballclub. It’s like a bum in the gutter saying, ‘I used to be a millionaire.’ Nobody’s going to believe that.”

As it turns out, that was as good as it would get for the A’s … ever. They only won 84 games the next season, missing the playoffs, and in 1992, they fell to Toronto in the ALCS in six games. La Russa left three years later, and those A’s turned into the Moneyball A’s, who were also great but could never get back to the World Series. The A’s have made the postseason 11 times since 1990, but they haven’t played a World Series game since Rijo and the Reds beat them in 1990. The A’s were supposed to be a dynasty, or at least win more than one title, but it didn’t happen.

Here are 10 other fun factoids from the 1990 baseball season.

1. The winners of each league’s batting titles held their own curiosities. George Brett hit .329 to lead the AL in hitting for the third (and final) time, at the age of 37. That made him the first (and still only) player in baseball history to win batting titles in three decades: 1976, 1980 and 1990. McGee led the NL with a .335 average on the exact day the Cardinals traded him to the A’s, freezing his average right there. He had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title in the NL, so at the end of the year, he won it, despite wearing an A’s jersey.

2. The White Sox introduced a promotion that would change baseball history: Turn Back the Clock Day. To celebrate the final season of Comiskey Park, the White Sox wore the uniforms they did in 1917, the last year they had won the World Series. The White Sox went all the way with it, having ushers wear period garb and charging 1917 prices for attendance and all concessions. The bit caught on: The Phillies did the same thing the next season, and now it seems like every team wears throwback uniforms at least once a year.

3. Oh, yes, it was the final year for the old Comiskey, then the oldest park in baseball and the home of thousands of baseball games, along with Joe Louis’ famous win over Jim Braddock. (And Disco Demolition Night.) Guaranteed Rate Field was being constructed across the street; it opened the next season. The last batter to hit at Comiskey Park? Harold Reynolds, who grounded out to secure a 2-1 White Sox win over the Mariners.

4. One last Chicago bit: The All-Star Game was played at Wrigley Field in 1990, the last time an All-Star Game has been played there. Wrigley was awarded the game in part because of its agreement to install lights two years earlier. It is possible the baseball gods were angry about that: The game featured multiple rain delays totaling nearly 90 minutes and was incredibly dull: The AL won, 2-0, and the NL only had two hits.

5. The best catcher in 1990? Hey, how about the fact that it was Carlton Fisk? At the age of 42 (he’d turn 43 in December), Fisk caught 137 games, hit 18 homers and put up a .378 OBP, the second-highest mark (in a full season) of his Hall of Fame career. He actually finished 15th in MVP voting! He’d return to make one more All-Star Game, his 11th, in 1991, and he’d keep playing until 1993, when he was 45.

6. Baseball almost didn’t happen at all in 1990. The Collective Bargaining Agreement ended on New Year’s Eve 1989, and owners and players didn’t get it resolved until March 19, wiping out most of Spring Training. The season was delayed until April 9, but adding three days to the end of the season got in the full 162 games.

7. The emotional highlight of 1990 might have come on Sept. 14, 1990, when Ken Griffey Jr., the phenom center fielder for the Mariners, and father Ken Griffey Sr. hit back-to-back homers off Angels pitcher Kirk McCaskill. That was, obviously, the first time in baseball history that had happened.

8. On July 17, the Twins did something no other baseball team has ever done: They turned two triple plays in the same game. Both were on balls hit to third baseman Gary Gaetti -- who somehow turned seven in his whole career -- in the fourth and eighth innings, all 5-4-3. But the best part about it? Not only did the Twins still lose the game, they lost it 1-0 … and the one run was unearned. (The error was made by Greg Gagne, not Gaetti.)

9. Another first in 1990: The debut of “Sunday Night Baseball” on ESPN. ESPN signed the deal with MLB that offseason, and the broadcast featured the announcing team of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan … the same announcing team it would have for the next 20 years.

10. The 1990 Braves were lousy, losing 97 games and finishing last in the NL West. But there was hope on the horizon. In the middle of the season, general manager Bobby Cox hired, well, himself to be the team’s new manager, and the team drafted a Florida shortstop named Chipper Jones with the first overall pick in the Draft. That would end up the last year they would miss the postseason until 2006.

Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].