As we wait ever-so-patiently for Season 43 of the Oakland Athletics to start, here's an oldie-but-goodie for you. We go back to 1980, easily one of my favorite years in A's history.
"Nothing worries me about this team. I refuse to be negative about any part of it. We can beat California. They've got the superstars, but we can beat them."
-Billy Martin as told to Ralph Wiley of the Oakland Tribune, March 23, 1980
"The A's are a kind of exhilaration not because of a man, but because of an attitude. Billy Ball. If it were a fever, the A's would be an epidemic. There's another name for it. Confidence."
-Ralph Wiley, in the same Tribune column, coining the phrase for the A's style of baseball that is still recognized in these parts today.
The Charlie Finley Era was at its end. But before he said goodbye to a sport that he helped dramatically alter (one day I shall tell his story), Finley hired a manager who specialized in dramatically altering the fortunes of every team who called upon him. This was not a Dick Williams situation of taking a blossoming ballclub to the next level; this was a rescue mission of the highest order. And as was the case in previous stops to Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and New York, Alfred Manuel Martin was intensely up to the task. Yes, Billy Martin was home, and baseball in Oakland would never be the same. He resurrected a rag-tag ball club that had lost 291 games the three years prior; from 108 defeats in 1979 to 83 wins in the matter of one jaw-dropping 1980 season.
Martin's A's thrived on the element of surprise; suicide squeezes, double-steals, even the ol' hidden ball trick were all part of Billy's arsenal to gain an edge on the diamond. At the center of the chaos was Rickey Henderson who- on the way to becoming the game's greatest leadoff hitter and base thief- swiped an American League record 100 bases. (I was in the bleachers the day Rickey pilfered his 96th base, which pulled him even for the league mark previously held by some guy named Cobb. One of the bleacher bums cleverly saluted Henderson by yelling, "Nice to see you tie Cobb!" Get it, tie Cobb? Ty Cobb? Never mind.)
Martin had everyone's wheels in motions, even slow, white guys like Wayne Gross and Jeff Newman, both of whom had steals of home during the season. Still, there was a method to Martin's madness, and he made sure to stress fundamentals at every opportunity. It was a message heard loud and clear:
"I taught in New York, but not too many listened. The players here have bigger ears."
While Rickey (.303, .420, 117 walks) and Number 2 hitter Dwayne Murphy (.274, .384, 102 walks) set the table, Tony Armas (35 homeruns, 109 RBI's) cleaned up; together they formed arguably the best outfield in baseball. The beneficiaries of such a stellar trio were the men who made their living sixty feet, six inches feet away from home plate. And boy did they earn their paychecks. Martin's starting staff included Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, and Steve McCatty; collectively the A's pitched 94 complete games. Yes, you read that correctly. Oddly enough, Oakland played in six 14-inning contests in 1980, and in four of them the starter went the distance, once each by the aforementioned quartet. For the record the A's won three of those games.
I was at one of those games in June when Norris battled the Orioles for 14 frames, which ended on a grand slam by Armas (who had gone hitless in six trips to the dish prior to his bomb to deep left). In my excitement I nearly choked the life out of my 3-year old cousin Scott. Irrational behavior somehow seemed right that season for a fan base that had seen the team fall on hard times, and was all too aware of Finley's desire to relocate the franchise.
Billy Martin's stay here was all too short, and whether he "saved" baseball in Oakland is up for debate. But from the perspective of a 13-year old, it was the time of my life, man. Were it not for a June Swoon (7-21), the A's might have made a serious run for the American League West title. As it was, they went 83-79, good for second place (14 games out of first), after finishing 13 games out of sixth place the year before. But perhaps more importantly, the A's mattered again:
They laughed when Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin. They laughed even louder when Martin said he could make the A's a winner. Funny, they're not laughing now. Martin has succeeded in turning the moribund A's around, and he deserves full credit for their rags-to-middle-class story. He has brought them respectability without a quality second baseman or shortstop and without a bullpen. In fact, his starters already have pitched 72 complete games, only five short of the 162-game-schedule record set by the 1968 Giants. Of his best reliever, Bob Lacey, Martin says, "I don't want to see him anymore."
Dan Carnevale, who does Cleveland's advance work, says, "Martin maneuvers his players and always is looking ahead. Give him nine guys and he'll fight you to the finish even if the talent is mediocre."
A mid-season three-game set with New York drew 121,364 spectators, about a third of what the A's attracted in all of 1979. And they weren't all Yankee fans either! The teams met again two months later, and this memory stands out:
As my sister Tonianne and I made our way across the BART ramp that evening, we were stopped by a ticket scalper. At first, we simply tried to skirt past him, but he was persistent and told us that the game was sold out. We didn't believe it; if that were the case, we would have seen fans, empty handed, coming toward us. The scalper pointed towards the ticket booths down below. There were no lines. That was enough to convince Tone and she forked over the cash for our tickets. But when we reached the ticket booth below, there were still seats available! So my sister purchased two more tickets- at regular price- and told me to go inside while she went to get her money back. I looked at her like she was crazy but she was serious. I offered to go with her, but she refused. So I went inside and stationed myself in the left-field bleachers so I could see her when she came in. I was thirteen at the time and I remember thinking "What do I do if she doesn't come back?" She might have been gone fifteen minutes but to me it felt like an hour. Finally I saw her and she was beaming. She told of how the scalper tried to give part of the money back, but she pointed to a couple of security guards nearby, and he relented. "You drive a hard bargain, lady", he told her. Thing is, the game eventually did sell out! With the "extra" money, Tonianne bought me a hot dog AND a Coke and we went about our business of watching Mike Norris and the A's crush the Yankees, 9-1. What a night.
The A's Achilles heel turned out to be the beasts from the American League East; Oakland went only 37-47 against the likes of the Yankees, Orioles, and Red Sox. But they posted a winning record against every team in their own division, including 10-3 against the Angels, who had won the division in '79, and were clearly a target of Martin's since Day One:
Billy Ball had barely started turning heads when the Angels showed up for a four-game set in April. The A's won on Friday night and Saturday, setting the stage for an improbable sweep on Sunday. A steady drizzle threatened to "rain" on our parade but the games would be played. So the only thing left to spoil matters was Dad, who on his way to church forbade me and Tonianne from going anywhere near the Coliseum. Well, my older sister had learned from her Claudell Experience in 1974, so she packed some leftover tostadas in a plastic bread bag, the fixings wrapped in aluminum foil, and headed out, with me right behind her. Having disobeyed Dad's direct orders, my 13-year old mind figured the rain would come down hard enough to cancel the action, or we would lose both games. I'm a karma kind of guy. But the A's kicked karma to the curb and the Angels' asses in the process. I swear the only fans in the bleachers that day were the Bums, my sister, and me. And when the top-of-the-ninth came, we took to celebrating the four-game sweep with chants of "First place A's! First place A's!" To which centerfielder and captain Dwayne Murphy responded with an enthusiastic "yeah" and a raised fist, as we went nuts.
I will never forget that. Nor will I ever forget that magical 1980 season.