CINCINNATI — This has always been the way to beat Goliath: Take a stone and aim right for the forehead. Go for the brain. Hit him where he thinks. Two years ago, Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and sent a Dennis Eckersley pitch into the seats. It was the first game, but it won the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not because it, by itself, was such a devastating blow. But because it stirred the brain cells. It made the Athletics, heavy favorites, feel vulnerable. They lost three of the next four; they went home scratching their heads. Gibson had hit them where they think.
The Cincinnati Reds took aim at that same spot Tuesday night smack in the middle of the Oakland forehead. They began with Eric Davis, who is lucky to walk without creaking these days. Bum shoulder. Bum knee. Bruised ego. His manager wanted to take him out of the cleanup spot. Instead, in his first-ever World Series at-bat, he smacks a Dave Stewart fastball halfway to Kentucky and
it’s 1988 all over again. The crowd goes nuts. Davis trots around the bases. Oakland, which has not been behind in a postseason game since Jose Canseco’s last speeding ticket, suddenly starts to think.
Next thing they know, the walls are crumbling. Stewart, their Superman, is in the showers after four innings. Canseco, Mr. Mighty Arm, is overthrowing from the outfield. Todd Burns, a middle reliever, goes for the most-hits-allowed-in-the- least-amount-of-time record. And Mark McGwire, who, I believe, used to be a major league slugger, I just can’t remember when, he pops up with the bases loaded and two out.
The Reds are laughing in the dugout.
“I don’t understand this whole underdog thing,” Cincinnati’s Todd Benzinger had said before this 7-0 Cincy blowout in Game 1. “I guarantee you the Atlanta Braves could beat the Oakland A’s if they were playing well and the A’s were not. In fact, the Braves might even sweep them.”
Hmm. That’ll make you think. Blowouts will happen
And that is where this Fall Classic will be determined. In the thinking. Forget about Tuesday; blowouts will happen. In fact, sometimes, blowouts are easier to dismiss. You tell yourself you just weren’t into it.
So this Series, if you ask me, is still the Athletics’ to lose. Whether they will depends on how hard a cranium they’ve developed since Gibson left them bleeding on that night at Dodger Stadium. The Reds did all the right things Tuesday night. Pushed all the right buttons. They ripped the “S” right off Stewart’s chest, taking his off-center pitches for walks (four in four innings) then smacking hits in timely fashion (Davis’ two-run homer, Billy Hatcher’s RBI double down the third base line).
And lookie here. Stewart, the ace, did not answer the bell for the fifth inning.
“Stewart?” the Athletics seemed to say. “The Reds got to Stewart that fast?”
Yep. And next they went to work on the Oakland offense. Jose Rijo, who, you might remember, used to collect a paycheck from Oakland, pitched as if they still owed him money. He began by striking out Rickey Henderson and Canseco in the first inning. He then struck out Mike Gallego with two on to end the second. In the fifth, he got McGwire, who has been useless in this postseason, with the bases loaded.
By now the message was flashing. Rijo would not bleed tonight. Not a drop. The Athletics left more people stranded than the S.S. Minnow.
“Shut us out?” the Athletics seemed to say. “Rijo shut us out?” Don’t even think about counting A’s out
He did. Reds win. And of course, based on that, and all those singles and doubles the Reds peppered Tuesday night, folks here are now dancing on the banks of the Ohio River. And that’s crazy, too. Because you can’t dismiss Oakland that easily. They are still the more talented team. They still have the experience. They still should win this Series. “Hey, everybody’s human,” said Athletics catcher Terry Steinbach after the loss.
True. And so the Athletics are human enough to beat themselves in the one place they are vulnerable: their heads. It is the burden of expectations. As heavy favorites, if they see their pitching suddenly has soft spots, and they make more fielding mistakes such as Gallego’s overthrow of home in the third
— Gallego, as near as I can figure, was trying to hit Marge Schott in the stands — well, they may begin to press. Remember, Canseco is pretty much helpless up there now with his bad back and finger. And Walt Weiss, who’s being forgotten too easily, because besides being a top-flight shortstop, he’s also a great bottom-of-the-order hitter — Weiss is out for the Series.
So if you take all that, and if you take what Cincinnati did Tuesday night, and if you take the memory of Gibson on that cool October night not so long ago, well, you never know. The Athletics could psyche themselves out of this series.
But those are big ifs.
“Unfortunately,” Davis said after the game, “we don’t get to take these seven runs with us into tomorrow night’s game.”
Right. In other words, message to Cincinnati: bring a few more stones. This Goliath might not go down that easily.