Flashback: A's Rookie Sensations in 1987

With the A's looking at a potential influx of rookie performers on the roster in 2005 (Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Dan Johnson, Huston Street, Jairo Garcia and others are strong candidates to make the team), it is a good time to look back at 1987, when the Oakland A's had a similar bumper crop of rookies making major contributions to the team.

1987 was a major transition year for the Oakland A's. The franchise hadn't made the playoffs since 1981, the team had traded away its one marquee player (Rickey Henderson in 1985) and the organization had gone through numerous managerial changes. At the start of the 1987 season, not many would have guessed that the A's were only a year away from a five-year run that would see them win four AL West titles, three American League pennants, and one World Series title. Many of the building blocks for those great teams were gathered during the 1986 and, especially, the 1987 seasons.

In 1986, the fortunes of the team began to change slightly, as a young five-tool player by the name of Jose Canseco made his initial splash in the major leagues, capturing the Rookie of the Year award. 1986 was also the first full season under new manager Tony LaRussa, who had come to the A's with a pedigree of winning, having lead the Chicago White Sox to the playoffs in 1983. Dave Stewart, an Oakland native, was picked up off of waivers and became an instant folk hero when he beat Roger Clemens in Fenway Park in his A's debut. Still, the 1986 Oakland A's finished the season a dismal fourth and there was little reason to think that the team's fortunes were going to change any time soon.

The worm seemed to turn in the A's favor starting in spring training in 1987. The excitement surrounding the team started to grow when two heralded corner infield prospects undertook a serious battle for playing time under the Arizona sun. Rob Nelson was the more well-known of the two prospects, and he was initially given every opportunity to win a starting job at first base. However, there was a red-headed kid from USC who kept turning everyone's head by hitting long homeruns. After a brief time platooning with Nelson in April, Mark McGwire quickly captured the starting job and put together one of the most remarkable rookie seasons of all-time.

The youngster breathed life into the franchise as he began his assault on the rookie record for homeruns. The only A's position player to be chosen for the All-Star Game that season (a game that was hosted at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum), McGwire teamed with second-year player Jose Canseco to give the A's a suddenly formidable middle of the lineup. At the end of the season, McGwire had crushed a record 49 homeruns, driven in 118 runs and hit a respectable .289. Not surprisingly, McGwire was named Rookie of the Year, the second A's player in as many years to win the award.

Another large part of the A's late 1980s-early 1990s dynasty also had his rookie season in 1987. Catcher Terry Steinbach became an instant fan favorite as a hard-nosed, good-hitting catcher. Steinbach had made a splash during his September call-up in 1986 when he hit a pinch-hit homerun off of Greg Swindell in his first major league at-bat. "Steiny" followed that feat up with a strong rookie campaign. He played 122 games that season, 107 of them coming behind the plate. The catcher batted .284 with 16 homeruns and 59 RBIs. In a year without McGwire's feats, Steinbach would have been given strong consideration for Rookie of the Year himself.

A third rookie regular that season was a young sparkplug from the Dominican Republic named Luis Polonia. "Little Louie", as he was affectionately known by A's fans, brought speed and excitement to the top of the order, something the A's had been lacking since they traded Rickey Henderson. Polonia hit .287 that season in 125 games. He added 10 triples and 29 stolen bases. Polonia would give the A's another solid campaign in 1988, helping them reach their first World Series in over ten years. However, Polonia's greatest contribution to the franchise would come in 1989, when he was sent to the New York Yankees with relievers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk in return for Rickey Henderson.

The 1987 team also featured some rookie bench players who would develop into key contributors for the A's over the next few seasons. Middle infielder Mike Gallego had had a few earlier cups of coffee with the A's, but he was finally with the team for the majority of the season in 1987. Gallego, who was always one of the shortest players in the league, never hit much. However, he was invaluable with the glove, making acrobatic play after acrobatic play at second and short during his time in Oakland.

Outfielder Stan Javier also had his rookie season in Oakland in 1987. A valuable bench player throughout most of his 15-year career, Javier played all three outfield positions for the A's. He provided good speed off the bench and a reliable glove. Javier's biggest moments with the A's came when he filled in for the injured Jose Canseco during the first half of the 1989 season.

The 1987 season was a precursor of the great things to come for the Oakland A's. In addition to the strong rookie contributions, the A's got their first 20-win season from Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersely was converted to closer, and the team finished with an even 81-81 record. For the first time in a number of years, the A's were in the race for the American League West title as late as September 1. They even had a share of first place as late as August 28 before eventually succumbing to the Minnesota Twins, who would later go on to win the World Series. Buoyed by the success of the 1987 season, General Manager Sandy Alderson made a few key trades to add seasoned veterans to the young A's line-up. That combination proved to be a great success, as the A's would win over 100 games and make it all the way to the World Series. McGwire's Rookie of the Year award was the second of three straight Oakland players would win from 1986-1988, as the A's farm system continued its long tradition of excellence.

Over the past 15 years, that tradition of excellence within the A's farm system has continued. The 2000-2003 playoff teams were built with a foundation of young, homegrown players (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, the Big Three, Ramon Hernandez, to name a few) who were mixed together with key veteran performers. With young players like Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson and Joe Blanton likely to join potential 2004 Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby and starting pitcher phenom Rich Harden on the A's 25-man roster this season, Oakland is in position to follow a similar model in building their next stretch of pennant-contending clubs.

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