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BRAINS, BATS AND BIG BUCKS : The Oakland A's Engineer a New-Age Dynasty

August 26, 1990|Mark A. Stein | Mark A. Stein is a Times staff writer in the San Francisco bureau.

"I had everything happen to me that first season: Guys stealing home on me, running the bases at will. I was crude, very crude," Steinbach recalls. "But I took the situations and learned from them. Working with Dave was like an apprenticeship."

Three years later, Steinbach was named Most Valuable Player of the 1988 All-Star Game.

"You don't create talent," La Russa says. "All you do is support it. The success is the players'. But a good coach can keep the guys going in the right direction, offer suggestions about a change here and there. Maybe it's a small change, but when you're at this level even small changes can be significant."

SANDY ALDERSON LIKES to call the A's style of coaching a "progressive" approach. Among the coaches he hired is instructor Harvey Dorfman, a sports psychologist who began a "performance enhancement" program for minor league players using such concepts as "visualization," "breathing techniques" and "concentration exercises."

"We use a lot of sports psychology," Karl Kuehl says. "The ballplayers know how to visualize, how to relax, how to get themselves keyed up. Winning takes a lot of mental discipline. Sometimes they traumatize a loss or a walk or an error," he adds. "We tell them to get beyond it.

If it all sounds very new-age in a Northern California kind of way, well, it seems to have started a trend among other teams. The A's have long had, for example, a statistician to document every line drive, grounder, error and balk for La Russa and his staff. This year, the Dodgers hired one of their own.

"The A's are run more like a company than a baseball team," Gammons says--but a company that knows how to motivate individuals, is happy to pay them well and avoids confrontations.

"They've just done a better job paying attention to detail--preparing for games with their statistics, putting the right people on the field, marketing the team," says Mike Port, executive vice president and general manager of the struggling California Angels. "We're working with all the same basic tenets. They're just doing them better."

"Yes, we have access to data base, and we use whatever information that's there," Alderson says. "But, I don't think we have a technocratic organization. We still have a lot of traditional approaches to the game--hard work, batting practice, all the basics. You can't get beyond playing the game."

La Russa himself is quick to point out the simple talent of the players and front-office management as well as his best-in-the-business stable of coaches. Oh, yes, and his hat.

Don't think that this skipper is all logic and strategizing; little barnacles of superstition stick around the edge. When his team plays well, he wears the same cap each day, regardless of how torn or dirty, rain-splotched or misshapen it may be. If they play poorly, as they did early this season, he simply changes hats. In 1988, when the A's were playing particularly well, La Russa wore the same cap all season. "It's a neat hat," he says. "It's in my house. I had 109 wins in that one hat."

WINNING BASEBALL games consistently in the '90s is a dicey and hideously expensive business. Gone are the glory days when owners could sign whichever players they fancied, pay them whatever they wanted to and hang on to them for forever. No longer can ballclubs count on thousands of loyal fans, with few other entertainment or recreational options, to fill the park for every home game.

While the saga of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's banishment was filling the sports pages, A's owner Walter A. Haas Jr., the Levi's jeans baron, has quietly spent big bucks to liven up his franchise, including revitalizing the 22-year old concrete-and-steel Oakland Coliseum. In an attempt to draw families, Haas built a picnic plaza, complete with barbecues, behind the stadium, and installed a play area for kids. Anything to get the fans to come.

Haas also hands out the paychecks. The Athletics' cool $20-million player payroll is almost double what the Haas family shelled out to buy the whole franchise a decade ago. Merely to hold onto Canseco, the team agreed this summer to pay him $23 million over five years.

Modern managers have to act fast in an age of free agents and astronomical salaries. Alderson is a master of this side of baseball business. La Russa calls Alderson's famed acquisition spree after the 1987 season "one of the damnedest performances by a front office" he has ever seen.

"We literally listed, at the end of our season in '87, our eight or nine needs," La Russa recalls. "A month later, the front office filled all eight needs with either the No. 1 or No. 2 choices for those positions. How the hell can anyone do that?"

Such acumen is surprising from Alderson, a fellow who concedes that, when he was hired, his baseball savvy was limited to his biases as a fan and his recollections as an infielder at Dartmouth in the 1960s.

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