The Courtship of Nolan Ryan

The Houston Astros had one of the best pitching staffs in the National League in 1979, finishing second in the league with a 3.20 team E.R.A. Joe Niekro won 21 games, Ken Forsch threw the major league’s only no-hitter and 6 foot 8 fireballer James Rodney Richard led league in strikeouts. But new owner John McMullen wasn’t satisfied. In November he shook up the baseball world, and angered his fellow owners, by signing Nolan Ryan for the unheard of price of $1 million per season.

Ryan had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in his eight seasons as a member of the California Angels. He won 138 games and recorded nearly 2,500 strikeouts, leading the American League every year but one (1975). But a rift developed between Ryan and Angels General Manager Buzzie Bavasi in 1979 and that rift grew to a chasm as the season progressed.

Nolan Ryan with Angels
Ryan won 138 games as an Angel

Ryan’s contract was up at the end of the year and after a 1978 season in which he went 10-13, Bavasi was in no hurry to sign him to a big money, long-term contract. Things got more contentious as the summer wore on. Ryan and his agent Dick Moss gave Bavasi permission to seek a trade to Texas or Houston but a proposed swap involving Al Oliver was turned down by the Rangers and Houston’s offer of Bob Watson and Joe Sambito was rejected by Bavasi.

Ryan finished 1979 at 16-14 with a league-leading 223 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA while helping the Angels win their first ever division title. His 16 wins tied for the team lead, but Bavasi wasn’t impressed, telling the media he could simply replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers.  “Buzzie did not understand,” said Don Baylor in his 1989 biography, Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life

“They could replace the win total, but they could not replace the pitcher, the wear and tear he saved the bullpen, the fear he put in the opposition. He was the only pitcher in the majors capable of pitching a no-hitter any time he took the mound.”

So Ryan entered the free-agent draft and had multiple suitors. George Steinbrenner and the Yankees offered $1 million per season but after beginning his career with the Mets, Ryan had little interest in returning to New York. He told Moss that if the Astros would match the Yankees’ offer he would sign.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome

His three-year, $3 million deal was the richest in team sports history and gave Houston both defending strikeout champions in Ryan and Richard. They became even more devastating as bookends to the knuckleballing Niekro.

“Can you imagine this?” joked Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell. “Hitting Niekro is like chasing a butterfly with the hiccups. Now they can sandwich him in there with Ryan and Richard. The commissioner should tie up the deal for the next five years. By then, I’ll be out of baseball.”

Down Goes Lasorda!

 

On February 17th, 1980 two separate interviews at a local television station turned into an impromptu Los Angeles Dodgers fight night.

Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, was at KNBC recording an interview when he bumped into Jim Lefebvre.

LasordaPoster
Lefebvre fights Lasorda

 

Bad blood existed between the two after Lasorda had fired Lefebvre as hitting and first base coach after the 1979 season. Lefebvre won Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1965 and parlayed his time in L.A. into some acting gigs, including playing one of The Riddler’s henchmen on the Batman TV series.

 

The henchman experience proved handy when the two squared off in Burbank. Both men claimed the other started the fight but there was little doubt who finished it. L.A. sportscaster Steve Sommers reported “Lasorda left with blood on his face and Lefebvre left with a smile on his.”

 

 

John Wathan and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad May

A great month can make a season.

In July of 1980, George Brett hit an amazing .494, en route to leading the major leagues with a .390 batting average. Likewise, some players perform exceptionally well against certain teams. Over his career, Babe Ruth slugged .744 against the Detroit Tigers. Ted Williams hit .374 against Orioles and Ty Cobb hit .381 vs. Philadelphia A’s.

But the opposite is also true. Try as they might, certain players struggle against certain teams. Such was the case for Kansas City Royals catcher John Wathan against the Oakland A’s in 1980 and the month of May was especially brutal.

Royals catcher John Wathan
Royals catcher John Wathan

Oakland manager Billy Martin made a living out of exploiting weakness. After taking over the A’s before the 1980 season he decided to use the stolen base as a weapon and when he spotted a weakness he took full advantage of it.

The carnage began on May 19th, a 6-5 Royals win in Kansas City. Dwayne Murphy, Rickey Henderson and Mitchell Page each stole bases against Wathan, though Page was also gunned down trying to steal 3rd. The next night, the same Oakland trio combined for five stolen bases in five attempts. Billy was onto something. On the 21st, Henderson got two more in two attempts. In the four game set, Oakland stole 10 bases in 12 attempts.

Rickey Henderson
The thing John Wathan’s nightmares are made of

The two teams got together again a week later in Oakland. In game one of the series, the A’s gave Wathan a break. Despite thirteen baserunners, Oakland had zero stolen base attempts. In game two, it was Rickey and Page again, who combined to steal three more. Wathan did get credit for a caught stealing when Wayne Gross was nabbed trying to steal home in the 2nd inning.

In the series finale the following afternoon, the A’s really did some damage.  In the bottom of the first inning, singles by Murphy and Page put runners on the corners with one out. With Gross at the plate, Page took off for second while Murphy broke for home seconds later. Wathan’s throw went into center field, allowing Murphy to score and sending Page to 3rd. Then with Gross still at the plate, a Rich Gale pitch got past Wathan, which allowed Page to score.

Later in the inning with Gross on 3rd and Jeff Newman on first, Martin reached into his bag of tricks. Newman took a big lead off first and then “fell down” drawing a throw from Wathan. This gave Gross the opportunity to steal home, while Newman got up and ran to second for the 4th stolen base of the inning.

“It worked to perfection,” Martin said. “Gross’ timing coming home was sensational.”

Newman was especially proud of his performance, telling the media, “I get the best supporting actor award.”

Wathan exacted some revenge by gunning down Henderson trying to steal second in the next inning, but Billy and the A’s weren’t through with him yet. They would steal three more bases in the game, running their total to an amazing 20.

In fairness to Wathan, there were double steals and steals of home mixed into the total. He even stole two bases himself while hitting .345 with a home run against the A’s, but the stat line is ugly.

In one month, the Oakland A’s stole 20 bases in 24 attempts against Wathan, who also committed two throwing errors and a passed ball, which made for one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad May.

 

 

 

 

Tinker Tailor Pitcher Spy

George Bamberger took over as the Brewers manager prior to the 1978 season after serving as a pitching coach under Earl Weaver in Baltimore from 1968 through 1977. A baseball lifer, “Bambi” won 213 games in the minor leagues between 1946 and 1963, which included an impressive 1958 streak of 68 and 2/3 consecutive innings without issuing a walk while a member of the Vancouver Mounties.

Perhaps his most memorable outing as a Mountie came in a 1962 game against the Tacoma Giants when his uniform was fitted with a small radio receiver. While he was on the mound, Vancouver manager Jack McKeon gave Bamberger instructions, including pitch location and when to throw to first base for pickoffs. The experiment proved unsuccessful, in part because the signal from a local radio station bled through and at times instead of hearing McKeon, Bamberger heard Connie Francis tunes. On another occasion, McKeon gave Bamberger instructions to throw to first for a pickoff. But since he hadn’t been looking at the runner, the first baseman wasn’t ready and the throw hit him in the chest.

George Bamber
Cartoon from Montreal Gazette

Seemingly an act of baseball espionage, the radio incident was undertaken with the knowledge and blessing of the Pacific Coast League as part of a plan to speed up games by eliminating trips to the mound.  The PCL may have known about the radio, but the Giants didn’t. Manager Red Davis didn’t find out about until he read about it in the newspaper.

“I never suspected a thing, and neither did my boys,” said Davis. “A lot of runs will always win a baseball game, but this gimmick will be nice to try.”