OAKLAND, Calif. -- It has been 23 seasons but members of the White Sox coaching staff have vivid memories on both sides of a once-brewing rivalry with the Oakland A’s.
Perhaps the high point of it all for a young White Sox club that won 94 games in 1990 was a series sweep of the A’s at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum in June. The White Sox followed with a sweep of the then-California Angels to take over first place in the American League West.
In the first game of the June series, White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell hit Mark McGwire with a pitch, a move that drew the ire of former White Sox-then A’s manager Tony LaRussa.
“Tony walks all the way from their dugout all the way to first base (with McGwire),” White Sox bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen said said before describing a close call of his own against McGwire late in the same game. “Here comes Tony again all the way across and I get out of it and we go on and swept them and swept Anaheim and came (home) in first place. It kind of made for a great year as far as a little bit of a rivalry. Then it just kind of carried on because we stayed competitive as a team.”
At the time, White Sox special assistant Art “Cave” Kusnyer was Oakland’s bullpen coach. He was on LaRussa’s staff for two of their three consecutive AL pennant-winning clubs and remembers how the A’s just knew they had a better team than everyone else.
Other current coaches who were involved include White Sox manager Robin Ventura, a rookie, and assistant hitting coach Harold Baines, who joined the A’s in an Aug. 29 trade from the Texas Rangers.
Though Thigpen --- who saved a franchise-record 57 games that season --- believes La Russa badly wanted to beat his former employer as much as possible, Kusnyer thought the rivalry was more of a media creation than anything.
“To us it was another team we had to go out and see if we could conquer them,” Kusnyer said. “We knew they had a hell of a team. They had that pitching staff with Thiggy in the bullpen. They were right there with us for most of the year, so that would be the rivalry, trying to fend them off. … There was only one check that was really important to (A’s players). It was the one that came two weeks before Christmas that said World Series share, because that’s the one that tells you how good you are.”
Ventura recalls just how good those A’s teams were too. Hall of Famers included Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley. Bob Welch won the AL Cy Young that season and Dave Stewart won 22 games and finished third in the vote. The lineup also included Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Baines and Willie McGee, who qualified and won the National League batting title before he was traded to the A’s, also on Aug. 29.
“They had pretty much everything,” Ventura said. “There wasn’t one part of their game they didn’t have. It was a difficult place to play and Cave out in their bullpen --who could stop them?”
Oakland was nearly unstoppable.
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They won 103 games and beat the White Sox for the AL West title by nine games and advanced to the World Series, where they were swept in four games by the Cincinnati Reds. Although the White Sox didn’t reach the postseason -- only two teams in each league did -- Thigpen has fond memories of a team that improved by 25 wins from the season before.
“There was a lot of different things going on,” Thigpen said. “Number one, Tony being fired from the White Sox and coming over here. I’m sure deep down, no animosity kind of thing, but he probably wanted to kick our butts. And then of course they had the team they had for such a long time, all the superstars. … I do know it kind of shifted to more of an actual rivalry because in ’90 when we turned it around as an organization. (The sweep) happened early that year. That’s why it was such a great year.”