O.CO COLISEUM — The 2014 Oakland A’s are a team made up of players with specific traits. Some have high on-base percentages, others are very fast. Some fall in between, or do a number of things well.
The A’s success is based heavily on the platoon; right-handed batters going against left-handed pitchers and so forth.
It’s a strategy that the common baseball fan might consider new-age, but former A’s pinch-runner Herb Washington – a rookie on the 1974 World Series-winning squad — is living proof the approach has legs.
Washington is the only player in Major League history to have his baseball card list his position as “pinch runner.” And what’s even more surprising, he stole 31 bases over two seasons without ever making a plate appearance.
As a key piece on the 1974, Washington turned walks and singles into runs just on sheer speed.
Washington and a lineup of fellow A’s legends touched down at the Coliseum Friday to celebrate 40 years since their tumultuous title run. An on-field ceremony is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Washington epitomized how well the platoon system can work, given strengths in other areas. He said:
“The thing that I enjoyed most when I think of the A’s, at the time that I was here, is the quality of the players and their understanding of their roles. You had guys that would sit on the bench 10 days at a time and not play. That may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but they sat for a while. But given the opportunity, they performed at a very high level. Today we call them role players.”
Whether it be Craig Gentry and Coco Crisp sharing time in the outfield, or Nick Punto, Eric Sogard and Alberto Callaspo splitting infield duties, the A’s have role players everywhere.
And it’s worked well so far this season, with Oakland sporting the best record in the American League, 32-22 entering Friday.
Washington said he always appreciated the guys who stepped up time and time again:
“I think about names that you may not even remember, Angel Mangual. Angel stepped up, bang, bang bang. You know, he was a single and doubles hitter. For four or five games, he did that. Jesus Alou. Guys like that. That’s not to take away from the Blue Moon Odom’s, the Vida’s … Guys did what needed to be done, to win.”
That should sound pretty familiar to A’s fans, or really, anyone who’s ever seen the movie Moneyball.
Washington said his team was able to wipe away any differences when it came time to play ball. It was a different time then, players received meager salaries in comparison to the multi-million dollar contracts players get nowadays.
The equipment was different, and the substances were lean meat and spinach, not creatine powders and other injectable enhancers. There was no Nike, no compression gear.
What made players special back then, according to Washington, was heart:
“Sometimes the best talents, don’t always win. Because they don’t play together. Once they start to play together, you can take a team with less quality, but they’ll all play together, and they perform at a higher level. And it helps each other raise their game.”
Washington mentioned LeBron James, who he says makes everyone around him a better player. But how do you spot someone who can be a difference-maker individually, as well as through others? Washington said it shows through the players’ actions:
“I think it’s about desire, preparation, and talent. You gotta have talent. You gotta have discipline. How hard are you willing to work to get to where you want to be? And sometimes it may be individually, but sometimes the team benefits. From season to season, what do I have to work on to get better?”
Washington is someone who fits the mold of a role player, to a tee. When then-general manager Chuck Finley called Washington, he introduced himself as the boss of the ‘World Champion Oakland A’s.’
So when Washington introduced himself, it was as ‘the fastest human being alive.’
Washington held the world record for the 50 and 60-yard dash for several years, which he’d set in college at Michigan State University.
The 20q4 A’s may be without a designated runner, but they have a team that plays together, works hard, and have the extreme desire to win. All of which, Washington says, are championship qualities.