A's Flashback: For (Home) Openers, '81 Tops them All

As we look forward to next Friday's season- and home- opener, we turn the clock back 30 years to Opening Night '81:

There were no milestones achieved that April evening. There were no rare feats, no records broken. There was no miraculous comeback, no late-game heroics.

Even while part of a winning streak, this one paled modestly compared to The Streak of 2002.

In fact, if the A's 16-1 mauling of the Mariners had taken place during any other game on their schedule, it might have gone unnoticed.  To an outsider, that game was merely the A's most dominant within a month of dominant performances.

But if you were at the Oakland Coliseum that night...boy, if you were there, you'd know better.  It was a night, simply, where the magic on the field- and there was plenty- may have been overshadowed by those watching.  It may have also been the first time in the team's 14-year existence that the A's felt that they truly belonged to Oakland.  As Sports Illustrated reported afterwards:

The single word CELEBRATION appeared on the Oakland Coliseum message board before the A's home opener last Friday, and celebration is what it was as a record crowd of 50,255 watched the all-conquering heroes demolish the Mariners. It wasn't just a large aggregation. It was a happy, optimistic, grateful one. The A's had come home in more than a physical sense. They had found a home.

Perhaps it took the A's to hit rock bottom for their fans to appreciate how good they had it during the team's first nine years in Oakland (1968-76).  In the club's inaugural season, they finished 82-80. Not once during their 13 years in Kansas City had the A's won more than they lost, but it became a recurring theme in Oakland as they rolled off nine consecutive over-.500 seasons.  That stretch has been matched just once in team lore: by the 1925-33 Philadelphia Athletics.

A's fans could be forgiven for feeling a little spoiled (dare I say entitled?), especially after the team won three consecutive World Series' from 1972-74.  But mostly due to the antics of owner Charlie Finley, attendance surpassed the million mark just twice during the first 13 seasons in Oakland.

Sticking to their Philadelphian roots, the A's followed up their best seasons with some of their worst.  Free agency- and Finley's unwillingness to take part in the spending spree- destroyed the dynastic A's in 1977, and even the hard-core fans had trouble keeping up with who was coming and going.  Sports Illustrated lamented over the "good old days" gone by:

Oh, where are the A's of the good old days,
Those pitchers and hitters elite?
They won every crown that there was to win,
This team that no one could beat.

Oh, where are the A's of the good old days
And that bristling Oakland pride?
Reggie and Rollie and Rudi are gone,
And even the mule has died.

Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
Mr. Finley, they're blaming you.
And now we are hearing the awful news
That Vida is going, too.

Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
McKeon has our regrets.
The second division's a certainty
For all these rookies and vets.

Oh, where are the A's of the good old days?
That's the cry of the fan.
All that's left are the legal briefs,
For they took the money and ran.

Indeed, the A's had gone from a veritable list of Who's Who, to Who's He?  They sandwiched two last-place finishes around a sixth-place showing in 1978, losing an Oakland-record 108 games in 1979.  Attendance was at an all-time low, too- only 306,763 fans made their way through the turnstiles that year. To put that in perspective, the 1979 World Series attracted more fans in seven games than passed through the gates in Oakland the entire season.  Their darkest hour came on April 17 when 653 fans showed up for an A's-Mariner game. To put that in perspective, some of you here have more Facebook friends than were at the Coliseum that night.  By my own tally, that 653 figure seems a little ambitious. Perhaps they counted the seagulls, too.

Baseball appeared to be dead in Oakland, as Finley sought greener pastures in which to relocate the green-and-gold.  TIME Magazine, in a cover story featuring the A's in 1981:

The A's were all but moved to Denver in 1979 when a threatened lawsuit over Finley's lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum halted the sale. During that time, he ran the franchise down to the material left in his hardscrabble farm system and went through every manager out of captivity, some of them twice. Then, five months before he was to find a hometown buyer for his team, he brought in Billy Martin, a 51-year-old Bay Area boy, to manage his sinking ball club.

As he had done in stops to Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and New York, the Berkley-born Martin made winners out of the woebegone A's.  No longer would they be called the "Triple-A's".  With a budding superstar at the top of his batting order by the name of Henderson, and a young and talented pitching staff, Martin resurrected Finley's floundering franchise and breathed baseball back into Oakland.  The A's won 83 games in 1980- 29 more than they had the previous season.

Under new ownership, the team wasn't the only thing undergoing a makeover.  Major renovations were being made at the Coliseum, too, including the installation of Diamond Vision and a state-of-the-art sound system.  The seats were painted the same color, not the mishmash of green, yellow, red, and orange that was sprinkled about the stadium in seasons past.

Billy Martin's brash brand of ballplayers opened the 1981 season on the road- four games in Minnesota, and four games in Anaheim.  To the many that were waiting for Oakland's glass slipper to fall off, they were in for a rude awakening.  The A's won all eight games on the road trip, allowing three runs or less in every one of them.  They were really only in danger of losing once, when they scored four runs in the top of the eighth in Anaheim to overcome a 3-0 deficit.

The home opener was to be played on April 17, exactly two seasons after the A's and Mariners performed in front of 653 people. There was to be slightly more in attendance this night, as the game sold out in just a few hours.

From the time the first A's player was introduced to when Jeff Newman cleanly fielded Brad Gulden's grounder to first and touched base for the final out, the crowd was on its feet, clapping, shouting, and not wanting the night to end.  The Oakland Tribune had this to say the next morning:

It was a night the largest crowd in Oakland baseball history will never forget.  The 50,255 in the stands for the home opener went berserk as the A's battered Seattle for 18 hits, five of which were home runs. 

The A's made it clear from the start they want this incredible beginning to last forever.  The 16-1 victory Friday night ran Oakland's record to 9-0 for the season.

After Oakland starter Steve McCatty set the Mariners down with nary a scare in the top half, the A's sent Seattle sprawling to the canvas with a five-run first. Poor McCatty.  Dude tosses a four-hit complete game, and earns second-fiddle.

Rickey- in just his second full season in the bigs- started things off with a single, stole second, and waltzed home on Captain Dwayne Murphy's rocket to the center-field bleachers. Designated hitter Cliff Johnson followed with launch to the left-field seats, and just like that it was 3-0.  The A's added another pair that inning on a two-run single by shortstop Rob Picciolo.

Seattle rookie Dave Henderson (yes, that Dave Henderson) homered in the top of the second, but the Mariners would not mount anything resembling a scoring threat the remainder of the game.

Meanwhile, the A's were just warming up.  A suicide squeeze by Mike Heath scored Johnson in the second, then Oakland's Henderson made it 8-1 in the third with a two-run homer.  Tony Armas went deep with a man on in the fourth, giving all three members of Baseball's Best Outfield a home run each.  The score was 10-1...and it was only the fourth inning!

By the time the 7th inning stretch came around, I felt like I was in Fantasyland.  The sound system was blaring John Denver's Thank God I'm a Country Boy and I turned around to see my brother John waving his A's cowboy hat, while fans of every color danced in the aisles.  The entire night was like living in a cartoon and just when I thought it couldn't get any loonier, the A's exploded for six runs in the seventh, with Armas putting a stamp on the inning by jacking his second homer of the night and sixth in nine games.

The three-run blast was purely Reggiesque, but what followed was not.  Responding to throaty chants of "Tony! Tony! Tony!" Armas emerged from the dugout for not one, but two curtain calls, something Jackson could not lay claim to.

I turned to my cousin Wayne and we just started laughing.  Clapping and cheering no longer made sense.  Hell, the whole night didn't make any sense.  So we just laughed as if tons of money had been dropped from the skies.  But it wasn't just me and Wayne; everyone had that weird, incredulous look on their faces.  I ran into my classmate Jeff Pehrson after the game and he was talking way too fast and his words were running into each other; that's what that night in April did to all of us.

***

The A's went on to win 11 in  a row to start the season, a record broken by the Atlanta Braves just one year later.  That year's strike wiped out two months of the season and made a mockery of the playoffs.  The A's won the American League West before getting swept by the Yankees in the ALCS.  As I walked out of the Coliseum that day, I had this wonderful feeling of déjà vu.  Exactly ten seasons prior, Oakland had lost three straight to a more seasoned team in the post-season, before going on to win the next three World Series'.  But it wasn't to be this time, for what Billy Martin built, Billy Martin brought down.  The A's lost 94 games in 1982, and Martin lost his job shortly thereafter.

But for one magical night in April 1981, Martin's A's performed- and were treated- like gods.  That night they may have saved baseball in Oakland.

Thirty years later, we can use an encore.

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