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2009 A’s Won’t Follow in Footsteps of ’79 Team

Apology in advance: Jason Giambi will not be mentioned in this post beyond this sentence. 

Hey, where did everyone go?  

I had it all mapped out.  I was going to start off the year with a bang: bold- albeit humorous- predictions for 2009.  I even had a corny killer opening line: "I'm here to talk about...the future."  What I did not foresee was spending most of New Year's Day with my family.  (Not that I'm complaining).

So instead of a strange sneak-peek into 2009 that saw, among other things, Jack Cust respond to a curtain call by emerging from the dugout shirtless and shouting, "I am...Spartacust!", you get stuck with one colorless- but concrete- claim.  That's right; while my accomplished colleagues hypothesize and surmise, postulate and speculate, construe and conclude, I'm taking the short route with this stunner:

The 2009 A's will win more games than the 1979 A's.

Not exactly going out on a limb, you say?  Well, you got me there.  After all, the '79 club went 54-108.  Reminds me of an old baseball saying: "Every team will win fifty-four games, every team will lose fifty-four games.  It's what you do with the other fifty-four games that counts."  Based on that, the A's lost every single contest that "counted" in 1979.  Their 19-44 record after 63 games is the worst such start since the club moved here; that "worst such start" applies for every point of the season afterwards (see chart; source: A's Media Guide, 2008).

Best-Worst Starts 

Admittedly, the two teams mentioned in this post's title have very little in common (white-haired owners springs to mind), but there is precedence, and a reminder to the newer breed of A's fans that things could be worse.  Considerably worse.  Yes, these last two years have been difficult to stomach for those accustomed to September meaning something other than the start of that "other" season.  From 1999-2006, Oakland ran off eight consecutive winning seasons; the second-best string in franchise history. 

The Athletics of 1925-33 and 1968-76 hold the record with nine straight campaigns of over-.500 ball. The first run, while the club was located in Philadelphia, was immediately followed by hard times: thirteen losing seasons in a row, including seven with 98 or more defeats. 

Imagine the surprised delight of Oakland natives when Charlie Finely moved the team from Kansas City in 1968, and the A's- after yet another thirteen years in the red- responded with nine straight winning seasons that included five playoff appearances and three World Series titles.

The team's fall from grace wasn't nearly as lengthy as the first time around, but it was every bit as hard (which goes to show that the A's, whether good or bad, hardly do anything half-assed.  But that's a story for another day).  In the three seasons that followed- 1977-79- Oakland lost 299 games.  Only twice have the A's lost at least 98 contests since moving to the Bay Area, and they both took place at the tail end of the 70's.  1977 was embarrassing enough, as Oakland couldn't even muster more wins than the first-year Seattle Mariners (though in all fairness, Seattle played one more game than the A's).

But it was 1979 that the A's hit rock bottom.  Their 108 losses are the most in Oakland history; only the Athletics of 1915 and 1916 out-sucked them.  And no team coming off a 93-loss (or worse) season managed to decline as many as fifteen games the following year.  (OK, one other club did- the 1904 Washington Senators, who went from 94 to 113 losses- but they played in seventeen more games than in '03).

To say the Triple-A's (as they were called) performed before sparse crowds would be like saying they had trouble scoring runs (oh, wait).  A grand total of 306,763 fans pushed their way through the Coliseum turnstiles in 1979; less than those who attended that year's World Series in seventy-four less games.  A mid-September game drew 750 fans, and that was only the second-smallest crowd of the season. On April 17, the A's and Seattle did battle before 653 persons who apparently had nothing better to do that Tuesday evening (exactly two years later, with Billy Ball at its zenith, the same two teams attracted 50,255 paying customers).  I was at both games.   

How obscure were those A's?  Wikipedia has this under notable transactions: June 15, 1979, Mark Souza signed as a free agent.  Don't bother looking him up; Souza pitched all of seven innings (in 1980) before calling it a career.

Oh, there was one significant move; on June 24, a local boy named Rickey made his big-league debut.

And of course, there were talks of a different kind of move with the A's targeted for New Orleans. (Or was it Denver?  It was hard to keep up.)  Unfortunately for Finley, the Raiders had gotten a jump on Operation Abandonment, and Coliseum officials- not wanting to lose both teams- refused to let the A's out of their lease.

The off-field distractions were almost enough to hide the fact that manager Jim Marshall had a really bad team on his hands.  From a veritable who's who just five seasons prior (Reggie, Catfish, and Rollie headed the 1974 World Champions) to a group of "who's he?" in 1979. 

You would think Matt Keough wouldn't want anyone to know who he was, but that wasn't the case, even after beginning the season 0-14 (he finished 2-16).  Pitching woes were actually the least of the A's worries.  Oh, it was still plenty awful; their 4.75 ERA was second-to-last in the majors.  But they were tied for last in fielding in the American League, and dead last in batting in either league.  They hit .239 as a team and scored just 573 runs (if this part sounds familiar it should).  Their collective on-base percentage of .302 is an all-time Oakland low.

Matt Keough's plight caught Sports Illustrated's attention in '79.

As is the case in a long season, there were some bright spots in 1979.  Mike Norris and Rick Langford both tossed complete game one-hitters- and they came opposite Hall-of-Fame pitchers (Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan).  Wayne Gross recorded the A's first steal of home in three years, and was part of the first three triple plays in Oakland history, including  two in a five-day span in June.  It was that kind of month, the kind that saw two inside-the-park homeruns, one by Larry Murray, the other by catcher Jim Essian- with the bases loaded.  Those plays were highlights in two of Oakland's five victories in June (they lost 24 that month, including a pair of eight-game losing streaks, and a seven-game skid).

Give  the A's credit; they were consistent losers.  Not one winning month (though they went 14-15 in August).  A sub-.500 mark against every team except Milwaukee (6-6) and Seattle (8-5).  50 losses at home, 58 on the road; both Oakland records.  They were dreadful at the start (1-9), in the middle (see, June), and at the end (2-12).  They lost to former A's (Glenn Abbott) and future A's (Dennis Eckersley).  They lost to somebodies (Nolan Ryan, 314 career victories) and nobodies (Larry McCall, two lifetime wins).  They lost to pitchers from A (Don Aase) to Z (Geoff Zahn).  Believe it or not, they even lost to a guy named Ripley.

Hey, but they stayed healthy; only 33 players were used in 1979.

Too bad only a handful of them could play.