30 YEARS LATER, BILLYBALL STILL RELEVANT IN OAKLAND
As I recently watched Rajai Davis do his thing in a
Cactus League game–double, stolen base and run scored in the first inning of
last Sunday’s game against Kansas City–I couldn’t help but think of an earlier Oakland
A’s era. It was called Billyball,
starring the always colorful Billy Martin as team manager. This year marks the 30th
anniversary of that unique chapter of our franchise’s history. I see a few similarities between those A’s
clubs of 1980-82 and our current edition.
Back in 1980, Martin inherited a young team that had endured a 108-loss
season the previous year. His plan to
reverse the A’s fortunes was based on stellar starting pitching, solid defense,
daring base running and competent situational hitting. Is this starting to sound familiar?
Before long, this young and unproven club was
unnerving the opposition with double steals and steals of home plate–they stole
home seven times in 1980–suicide
squeeze bunts, hit-and-run plays, and even a successful hidden ball trick on
Opening Day! A dear friend of mine, the
late, great Ralph Wiley of the Oakland
Tribune (and later Sports Illustrated
and ESPN fame), witnessed this
new, exciting brand of baseball unfold under Martin’s direction. He decided there was only one way to describe
what was happening in Oakland. He would call it, Billyball. The name stuck
and soon it appeared in club advertisements and national media coverage. Remarkably, Martin piloted the 1980 A’s to an
83-79 record and second-place finish in the AL West, which represented a
29-game improvement from the previous season.
Led by second-year outfielder Rickey Henderson, who broke Ty Cobb’s
American League record with 100 stolen bases, that ’80 club won with speed (175
stolen bases) and pitching (league-best 3.46 ERA). Martin, who believed pitchers should finish
what they start, would have laughed at today’s pitch-count obsession. His first A’s pitching staff posted a mind-boggling
94 complete games, still the Oakland
team record. In fact, A’s pitchers
reeled off nine consecutive complete
games from Aug. 9-17 that season.
Right-handers Rick Langford (28, still a club mark)
and Mike Norris (24) combined for 52 complete games in 1980. Norris, the Cy Young Award runner-up, carved
up AL hitters
for a 22-9 record and 2.53 ERA, while Langford wasn’t far behind at 19-12 with
a 3.26 ERA. Matt Keough (16-13, 2.92),
Steve McCatty (14-14, 3.86) and Brian Kingman (8-20, 3.83) rounded out a
five-man rotation that combined for 1,257 innings–an average of 251 innings per pitcher.
As an encore, Martin led Oakland to a 64-45 record to claim the AL
West title by five games in a strike-shortened 1981 season. The A’s enjoyed an April for the ages that
year, going 18-3. Despite a dearth of
front-line position players, the A’s fleet-footed trio of Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas
comprised one of the better outfield units in the league, virtually eliminating
balls from falling in the gaps. 2010 A’s
fans, does this sound familiar?
While Martin’s tenure in Oakland was brief and went
up in flames after a 68-94 downturn in 1982, Billyball will always have a warm place in the heart of A’s
fans. Oakland was really struggling, having
suffered through three straight dismal seasons, losing 98, 93 and 108
games. Attendance had hit an all-time
low in 1979, averaging only 3,984 fans
per game. Buoyed by Billyball, Martin revived an ailing franchise. His teams reeled off the three highest home
attendance seasons since the A’s moved to Oakland
in 1968–in other words, more fans than the team drew in any of their three
World Series championship seasons of 1972-74.
Billyball, truly a remarkable
chapter in Oakland
A’s history. Whether another improbable
chapter can be written in 2010 with the likes of Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp and
Ryan Sweeney and a plethora of gifted young pitchers, remains to be seen. It will all start on Opening Night against
the Mariners April 5.