Cooperstown Confidential: the original Billy Ball

Arguments can certainly be made for the Orioles, White Sox, Pirates and Nationals, but my vote for the most surprising team of 2012 would go to the Oakland A’s. No one among the major media, or even the Bay Area media, would have predicted contending status for this team. After all, the A’s had parted with their two top starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and its No. 1 reliever, Andrew Bailey, in exchange for parcels of young, unproven talent. They had also lost their best hitter, Josh Willingham, to free agency.

Even general manager Billy Beane would tell you that the A’s are ahead of schedule. His plan was to stock up on young talent, build a kiddie corps pitching staff, and have the team contend by 2014 and 2015. Yet, here the A’s are, playing fantastic baseball in August and September, sitting on the cusp of an unlikely Wild Card berth or perhaps even a division title.

Who knows if the A’s will complete their revised mission, but if they do, they will become the most unlikely group of Athletics to advance to the postseason since the strike-interrupted season of 1981. That’s when a talented but flawed team surpassed every level of expectation on the way to winning the American League West.

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Back in the early 1980s, the buzzword was not “Moneyball,” and the dynamic figure within the organization was not a high profile GM like Beane. Instead, the buzzword was “Billy Ball,” a tribute to the high-flying, aggressive, take-your-chances style of play mandated by manager Billy Martin. It was a time of green lights on the base paths, double steals, and complete games—lots and lots of complete games.

Billy Ball reached its fever pitch of fame and winning results in 1981, but it actually started during the 1980 season. With Martin in his first season at the helm, skeptics questioned whether he could co-exist with the equally irascible and unpredictable owner, Charlie Finley. Charlie O. promised Billy that he would not interfere, and rather amazingly, the usually manic owner fulfilled the guarantee.

Free to run the team as he saw fit, Martin gave his runners an evergreen light to steal bases. In particular, young left fielder Rickey Henderson latched on to Martin’s full-bore style, stealing 100 bases in his first full season to break Ty Cobb’s longstanding American League record. As a team, the A’s led the American League with 175 stole bases, or an average of more than one per game. For the season, they pulled off seven steals of home, 14 double steals, and rather remarkably, the rarely seen triple steal.

Building their offense around speed, the hit-and-run, the bunt, and a general element of surprise, the A’s finished with a record of 83-79. That not only placed them second in the AL West, but also represented a drastic improvement over the team’s dismal performances of the late 1970s, including a 108-loss season in 1979. The team that was once described by beat writer Kit Stier as a “bunch of disorganized misfits” had transformed into a group of legitimate contenders.

The fans responded appropriately to the dynamic and productive style of baseball that Martin brought to the Bay Area. In 1980, the A’s drew over 842,000 to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a figure that would be unimpressive today but was actually a marked improvement over the pathetic attendance figures of 1978 and ‘79. With the value of his team on the upswing, Finley felt the time was right to sell the franchise to the Levi-Strauss Corporation.

New ownership did not affect the momentum of the franchise. If anything, it seemed to advance the team’s energy to a new level. With the new owners footing the bill, the A’s invited so many players to spring training that they had to use both their major league and minor league clubhouses to fit all of them in.

As with any Martin-led team, the 1981 A’s featured their fair share of comings, goings, and controversies. Let’s consider some of the events that transpired that season.

*Martin brought Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews to spring training as celebrity hitting instructors. Killebrew, who had once played for Martin in Minnesota, remained with the A’s during the regular season as a color announcer on television broadcasts.

*Martin’s fulltime coaching staff included two of his well-known drinking buddies, Clete Boyer and pitching coach Art Fowler. The three undoubtedly closed more than a few gin joints in the Bay Area that summer.

*Rival teams repeatedly alleged that Oakland pitchers, particularly their starters, threw spitballs. Martin and Fowler denied that any such shenanigans would take place with their team.

*Martin brought back some of his old friends after extended absences from the game. He called up veteran outfielder Jim Nettles, the brother of Graig Nettles (whom Martin had managed in New York) despite the fact that Jim hadn’t played regularly in the big leagues since 1974. Martin also activated catcher Bob Didier, a minor league coach in the Oakland system, to help Didier qualify for a major league pension. Didier, who hadn’t appeared in the majors since 1974, played briefly for Martin and the Tigers in 1973.

*Finally, Martin feuded with right-hander Mike Norris over pitch selection. Martin felt that Norris had become obsessed with throwing his screwball, instead of relying on his live fastball. Thankfully, Martin and Norris avoided coming to blows.

Energized by Martin and fueled by new ownership, the A’s stormed out of spring training to win their first 11 games of the 1981 regular season, including eight on the road. After a lone loss to the Mariners, the A’s strung together six more wins, moving their record to 17-1. At the end of April, their record stood at a lordly 18-3.

Three weeks later, the A’s held a lead of six games in the AL West. Part of their success could be attributed to their deep five-man rotation, which featured right-handed starters exclusively. What the rotation lacked in diversity, it made up for with quality and durability. Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman pitched deep into games, usually keeping the A’s close, if not taking outright leads into the eighth and ninth innings. Of the five, only Kingman was ineffective, to the point that he would be dropped from the rotation and banished to the bullpen late in the summer.

Enjoying their six-game advantage in mid-May, the A’s then flatlined on an East Coast road trip, winning only one game while losing nine. But their strong start gave them enough of a cushion to withstand the fall; even after the dreadful jaunt through New York, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Boston, the A’s still led by two and a half games.

In the midst of the team’s awful eastern adventure, the front office attempted to address the imbalance of the starting rotation. In this case, the front office was Martin himself. He was both the manager and the general manager, and in charge of all trades. Martin parted with young first baseman Dave Revering, who had fallen into disfavor with the manager, and sent him to the Yankees for left-hander Tom Underwood and aging first sacker Jim Spencer.

While Spencer was a shell of his former self, Underwood would become a valuable contributor. At first, he became part of a newfangled six-man rotation (Martin loved to tinker with his pitching staffs) before he moved back to the undermanned bullpen. With his sneaky fastball and good curve, Underwood would bolster one of the team’s largest weaknesses, providing quality innings toward the latter stages of close games.

In most of Martin’s other managerial stops, he owned a top-grade fireman, from Ron Perranoski in Minnesota to John Hiller in Detroit to Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage in New York. He had no such luxury in Oakland. Instead he had a young Jeff Jones, a pair of journeymen in Bob Owchinko and Bo McLaughlin (now better known as the pitching coach of the Rockies), and a rookie in Dave Beard. So, just as he had once done with the Rangers, Martin asked his starters to carry an enormous load. More on that later.

On June 10, the A’s remained in first place by a game and a half. Ordinarily, a date in early June holds little significance to a team in a pennant race. But in this case, the Players’ Association had decided to strike, interrupting the season. As part of the eventual strike resolution, the season would be split into two halves, the pre-strike segment and a post-strike segment. The four teams leading their divisions at the time of the strike would all receive automatic bids to the postseason. With a record of 37-23, the A’s had claimed the first-half Western Division title and could now relax during the so-called second half of the summer.

The A’s played acceptably during the second half, finishing just a game behind the first-place Royals. More impressively, the A’s finished with the best record in the American League at 64-45. The A’s would beat the Royals in the first ever Division Series before falling in three straight to Martin’s former team, the Yankees.

Still, it was a remarkable achievement for the A’s to win a half-season title and then defeat a more seasoned Royals team in the postseason. They advanced to the Championship Series without having much of a bullpen. They also had one of the worst infields that a postseason club has ever featured. Quick now, can you name Oakland’s starting infield in 1981?

Spencer logged the most time at first base, batting .205 with two home runs in 54 games. At second base, an obscure rookie, the wonderfully named Shooty Babitt, walked a grand total of 14 times and hit no home runs in what turned out to be his only major league season. Shortstop was manned by Rob Picciolo, who walked all of five times and posted an on-base percentage of .290. And at third base, journeyman Wayne Gross hit 10 home runs, but also batted .206 and sported little range in the field.

So how exactly did the 1981 A’s confound the skeptics and overcome such major deficiencies? They stole their share of bases, but were far less reliant on the speed game than their 1980 predecessors. For the season, they stole 98 bases in 109 games, ranking them only fourth in the American League. Henderson did the majority of the damage, as he led the league with 56 steals.

Part of the drop-off in stolen bases stemmed from the lack of urgency of the second half, but some occurred because of the makeup of the offense. In reality, the ‘81 A’s featured less of Billy Ball, and more of “Power Ball.” The A’s hit 104 home runs, leading the American League team in the strike-shortened season.

Veteran Cliff Johnson, discarded by the Yankees and Indians for small returns, provided power from the DH spot, hitting 17 home runs and putting up an OPS of .805. Much of the other production came from Oakland’s outfield, arguably the best in the game. Tony Armas tied for the lead league with 22 long balls, while Dwayne Murphy added a career-high 15. Even Henderson provided power, supplying 18 doubles and seven triples.

Defensively, the Oakland outfield also delivered, catching everything within range, and then some. Displaying a Gold Glove touch, Henderson led the league with 327 putouts while Murphy ran second with 326. Even the slow-footed Armas contributed in right field with his steady hand and strong throwing arm.

The superb level of fielding in the outfield, along with an excellent defensive catcher in Mike Heath, supported the team’s starting pitching. Without a proven bullpen, Martin expected his starters to give him complete games. Langford led the league with 18, while McCatty finished second with 16. Norris added 12 and Keough chipped in with 10. As a team, the A’s completed 60 games, by far the highest total in the league. Somewhat strangely, Martin added to the burden late in the season when he switched to a four-man rotation, forcing his starters to work on short rest.

In many ways, the usage of the Oakland pitching staff represented a true throwback. While most other teams used the bullpen liberally by the early 1980s, Martin used his staff as if it were something out of the 1950s or ’60s.

Of all the starters, the hard-throwing McCatty (now the pitching coach in Washington) emerged as the biggest revelation. He led the league with a 2.32 ERA and tied for the league lead in shutouts with four. The latter accomplishment was particularly eye-opening, given that McCatty had thrown only one shutout in his pro career prior to 1981.

Ultimately, McCatty and the other starters paid a price. They all experienced shortened careers, short-circuited by injuries that could very well have been caused by the heavy workload of 1980 and ‘81. For that Martin, received plenty of blame. But in the short term, the strategy maximized Oakland’s ability to win games during a season in which the A’s set a franchise record by drawing over a million fans.

So was it Billy Ball, or was it just an old fashioned combination of pitching and power that enabled the A’s? The answer: probably a little bit of both. The statistics show us the home runs and the complete games, but those who saw those A’s will insist that there was something extra, something kinetic, perhaps even surreal in the way the A’s surprised their opponents that summer. The words of an advertisement the A’s placed in Bay Area newspapers that fall summarized the feeling at the Oakland Coliseum:

“Magic is the only word for it: the voices, the music, the summer nights, the season.”

Thirty-one years later, the A’s of Billy Beane (and Bob Melvin) are trying to replicate that same magic with a far different cast of characters.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Great article, Bruce. I remember those A’s team well. Billy Martin was one of my favorite managers.
    Norris was probably the best of those starters, “stuff-wise”, but he was also the first to go down to injury. Because of the screwball, I assume.
    And since you did it two other times, it should be mentioned that Jeff Jones is the Tigers’ pitching coach.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Good pickup on Jeff Jones, Jim. Come to think of it, three pitching coaches from the same team, that’s pretty remarkable.

  3. Jim G. said...

    A few more interesting tidbits from that ‘81 team:
    Jones tied for the team lead in saves that year with 3 (three!). He was tied with Dave Beard, who earned those 3 in only 8 appearances.
    Jones also lead the team in games pitched with 33. Low even for a strike year and definitely by today’s standards.
    Martin brought in a relief pitcher 116 times in 106 games. Another astounding ratio by today’s standards, and still remarkable for that time.
    Finally, two other notable final MLB appearances on that team – the fiesty Ed Figueroa and the legendary Dave Heaverlo.

    I’m sure the 1980 team had some similar phenomenons the way Billy rode those starters.

  4. BlftBucco said...

    I remember reading somewhere during the 1980’s that one of the starters (Keough?) admitted that the A’s were throwing spitballs.

    Apparently they would rub the inside of their pantlegs with bar soap prior to the game.  As they sweated, they had a slimy residue available to them by touching their pant leg.

  5. gdc said...

    LHP Bob Lacey pretty much was the mainstay of the 1980 bullpen, racking up 6 of the team’s 13 saves.  Didn’t remember he had been traded in the offseason, A’s got minor leaguer Tony Phillips in the deal.

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Lacey was an interesting character. One winter, he put on some extra weight. So as he was driving to spring training in Arizona, he came up with the idea of rolling up all the windows in his car, turning the heat on full blast, and trying to sweat the extra weight off during the long car ride.

    By the time he arrived at spring training, he was just about ready for a hospital bed.

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