The Pirates bus sat waiting for a trip to Lakeland when someone told Mitchell Page to report to the team office.
“I knew I was being traded,” he said of the 1977 Spring Training deal. “I just prayed it wasn’t to a contender. I wanted to go somewhere that would offer me an opportunity to play.”
The Oakland A’s of 1977 were a perfect destination. They definitely weren’t contenders which meant Page would get a chance to play every day. The Pirates needed a third baseman and received Phil Garner as the centerpiece of the deal, but they paid a steep price. Along with Page, the Bucs shipped Tony Armas, Rick Langford, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti and Doc Medich to Oakland.
“Garner Prize Catch in 9-Player Buc Deal” read the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day. But the A’s were happy with their haul, too and Page began paying off immediately.
Mitchell Page wasted no time showing the Pirates he was ready for the major leagues, going 2-3 in his debut against the Twins. A’s owner Charlie Finley was so impressed he gave his rookie outfielder a $10,000 raise after Page hit a cool .474 in his first five games.
The next day, as Langford prepared to make his first big league start, Page pulled him aside.
“Rick,” he said. “I’m gonna hit one out for you today. You can count on it.” He did more than that. Page went 3-5 with two homers and six RBI to help Langford get his first win.
“I think I’ve developed to the point where the other team can’t pitch me any one way for long,” Page told the media after the game. “Maybe a Nolan Ryan can throw just one kind of pitch at me but there aren’t many of those pitchers around.”
Page’s hot start landed him on the front of The Sporting News and earned him the respect of the American League.
“They told me I could get him out with an off speed pitch,” said Catfish Hunter after Mitchell homered off him at Yankee Stadium. “Then he showed me that was a lie.”
Page had to cool off eventually, but a recurring hand injury hastened his fall. For years, Page battled a callus on his palm that made gripping a bat extremely painful. A’s trainers would trim the callus only to have it grow back again. Surgery was the only solution to the problem but it would also mean missing significant time. That wasn’t an option for 25 year-old in his first big league season.
“I just made up my mind, (bleep) the pain,” he told reporters in May. “An operation… would put me out four or five weeks. So I play with pain and take a day off when it gets too much for me.”
After hitting .366 in April, Page hit just .256 in May and his average dipped again in June. The injury affected him at the plate to be sure, but there was another area where it didn’t seem to matter.
By the end of June Page was a perfect 15-15 in stolen base attempts. Don Baylor‘s American League record of 25 was in reach and Page intended to get it. To do so, he enlisted the help of Matt Alexander, who had taken over for Herb Washington as Oakland’s designated pinch-runner. In two seasons with the A’s, Alexander stole 37 bases and had just two hits.
“Matt helped me out a lot,” said Page. “When I haven’t seen a pitcher before, I go straight to him.”
That strategy paid off when the two studied Angels pitcher Wayne Simpson in late July. Page was one steal away from tying the record and looked to his base stealing guru for advice.
“We decided to go on his back leg,” Page said of Simpson. “He takes a little dip. He takes the pressure off it when he goes to the plate.”
That nuance was all Page needed to tie Baylor, despite the fact that the Angels pitched out on the play. In his haste to get off the throw, California catcher Terry Humphrey dropped the ball and Page was safe at 2nd.
“It seems to me a couple of times I’ve thrown strikes down there to 2nd base against him,” lamented Humphrey. “But he’s always safe.”
Two weeks later the record was all his when he stole 2nd against Mike Flanagan in Baltimore. The streak ended on August 15th when Rick Waits caught him leaning and he was out trying to advance to 2nd.
Check the Video
At about the time Page’s stolen base streak came to an end, his batting average began to climb.
During the season Page befriended a man named Robert Ricardo who owned a restaurant. Ricardo often recorded sporting events to play in the background at his business. Video analysis was in its infancy in 1977, especially in Oakland as Finley wasn’t fond of spending extra money. But by comparing his stance to Rod Carew‘s, Page discovered a way to alter his stance to take some pressure off his injured hand.
The change paid off. Over a twelve game span, Page hit .487 with 7 homers. The hot streak raised his average by nearly 20 points and brought him back in the hunt for top rookie honors.
Rookie of the Year
As the season wound down, and the A’s fell out of the race the only suspense was whether Page could win Rookie of the Year honors. It was something he took seriously, perhaps too seriously at times.
After a reporter told him he didn’t have the home run numbers to win the award, Page hit three in two days. “That was for you,” he told the writer. “I didn’t like you saying that.”
He finished his rookie season with a .307 average, 21 homers, 75 RBI and 42 stolen bases. Those numbers were enough to earn him the respect of his peers, who named him The Sporting News Rookie of the Year. In the player vote, Page received 106 votes to Eddie Murray‘s 43.
“I didn’t think I’d win by that big a margin,” he said. “But that vote’s got to tell you something. They saw I had a complete game… and that I could beat them with a stolen base, a hit or the longball.”
Unfortunately for Page, Murray earned ROY honors from the baseball writers, despite playing only 42 games in the field. Be it east-coast bias or the fact the Baltimore won 36 more games than Oakland, the results were disappointing.
Take a look and the numbers and decide for yourself: