Monday, March 14, 2011
The sudden death of Mitchell PagePosted by Bruce Markusen
For much of his life, Mitchell Page battled addiction. He drank too much. He was a heavy smoker. Back in 2007, he took a leave of absence from his job as hitting instructor for the Nationals, taking time off for what were described as “personal reasons.”
According to Cardinals coach Dave McKay, Page had straightened out his life. He saw Page last fall, and Page looked great. He had just purchased a home and was spending a lot of his time with church-related activities. All seemed well.
On Saturday, Mitchell Page died in his sleep. He was just 59 years old. No cause of death has been established.
So what happened? We may not know for awhile, but I suppose it’s possible that Page’s body just gave out. He lived a hard life, battling the bottle for years. Whatever the reason, all that matters now is that Page is gone at a young age, short of his 60th birthday. His death is all too reminiscent of the story of former Dodgers standout Willie Davis, who died suddenly last year after apparently overcoming his own demons.
At one time, Page looked like a star in the making. He made his debut in 1977 for a strange band of Oakland A’s. No longer the dynastic A’s of “Mustache Gang” lore, the franchise had been ravaged by free agency.
They still had a bevy of big-name players, but most of them were past their prime: Dick Allen, Willie Crawford, Manny Sanguillen, Earl Williams, Doc Medich, Joe Coleman, Stan Bahnsen, Dave Giusti. It was a like a “who’s who” of baseball, but about five years after the fact. The ’77 A’s also had some classic 1970s characters, including Rodney "Cool Breeze" Scott, Rich "Orbit" McKinney and the inimitable Dock Ellis.
Page stood out as one of the few bright spots on a team that lost 98 games. As a 25-year-old rookie, he took over the starting left field job and hit 21 home runs, stole 42 bases, and drew 78 walks. His OPS of .926 should have won him the American League Rookie of the Year, but that honor went to Eddie Murray, the first-year DH for the Orioles. Murray would have the far better career—a Hall of Fame ledger at that—but Page was the better player in 1977.
Page also became a popular player with Oakland fans. He always seemed to have a smile on his face, whether in the outfield or on the basepaths. A’s broadcaster Monte Moore dubbed him “The Swingin’ Rage,” a wonderful nickname that caught on in the Bay Area.
The A’s hoped they could rebuild their team around Page, but he never equaled his rookie year success. He had a productive year in 1978 but he lost some of his patience at the plate and began to fall out of shape, which affected his speed and defensive ability. By 1981, he was back in the minor leagues. By the end of the 1984 season, after a brief stint with the Pirates, he was out of baseball—at the age of 32.
Still, Page had something to offer. He eventually returned to the game in the 1990s, initially as a minor league hitting coach. He then became a coach with the Royals before finding his true calling as a hitting instructor with the Cardinals, a job in which he thrived.
Page knew how to work with videotape in breaking down his hitters’ swings, diagnosing flaws that needed correcting. He also had the kind of outgoing personality that helped him get through to players of a later generation, young Cardinals who didn’t remember him as a player. He was passionate and smart, always a good combination.
Some Cardinals fans called Page the best hitting instructor in the team’s history, but he lost the job because of his drinking problems. Some players noticed alcohol on his breath at the ballpark, and he also fell out of touch with some of his hitters. Immediately after the 2004 World Series, Tony LaRussa informed him that he was out as hitting coach. Page accepted the firing and entered himself into a 28-day stint in rehab.
He later became the Nationals’ hitting coach and did good work there, too, but his tenure was cut short by additional personal problems. In 2010, he returned to the Cardinals as a minor league hitting instructor, but the job lasted only through spring training.
When I saw that Page was 59 at the time of his death, I was somewhat surprised. He always looked older to me, with deep lines through his face indicating that he was in his sixties. But the timeline checks out. If he was in his mid-twenties in 1977, he would have been in his late fifties by now.
Sadly, that span of years wasn’t long enough.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.