The Remarkable Rookie Year of Mitchell Page

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.

Hot Start

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.”

tsn-coverPage’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.”

Hand Injury

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.

Steals Record

page_autoBy 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:

Player WAR Hits HR RBI Avg. SB
Murray 3.2 173 27 88 .283 0
Page 6.0 154 21 75 .307 42

 

Rick Langford: Iron Man

Billy Martin strode to the mound at Arlington Stadium to talk to his starter, Rick Langford.

“I think it’s time now,” he said.

It was September 17th, 1980 and the Oakland A’s were up two in the 9th inning with two outs. But Rusty Staub‘s 2-run homer in the inning was followed by a Bump Wills single and a Jim Sundberg walk. Langford was in a jam and Martin felt he didn’t have a choice.

“I went with him as long as I could,” Martin told the media after the game.

Reliever Bob Lacey got Buddy Bell to ground out and it was over; both the game and one of the most remarkable streaks in recent baseball memory. For the first time in four months, Rick Langford hadn’t finished a game he started.

An Odd Beginning

Langford was the Opening Day starter for Billy Martin and the A’s but it didn’t go well. Facing the Minnesota Twins, he surrendered five runs in just three and two-thirds innings and was one of five pitchers Martin used that day. He came out of the bullpen in back-to-back games later in the month but nearly three weeks would go by before he got another start. On April 28th, Langford got the ball and went the distance against the California Angels.

His next two starts were complete games against Detroit and Toronto, the latter of which featured a bench-clearing brawl after Langford hit the Blue Jays’ Al Woods in the back with a pitch. Two more starts followed in which he was pulled after seven and four and two-thirds innings respectively.

The Streak Begins

Rick Langford - Oakland A'sOn Friday, May 23rd, Langford faced Fergie Jenkins and the Texas Rangers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Rangers won the game 3-1, but Langford went the distance. His next start came against the Kansas City Royals and again, Rick Langford went the distance.

In six June starts, Langford posted an 0-6 record with six complete games. Things turned around in July, when he posted a 6-0 record with, again, six complete games, including a 14-inning affair against the Indians on July 20th. Up 5-0 in the top of the 9th inning, Langford surrendered five runs, including a Toby Harrrah Grand Slam to tie it before the .196-hitting Dave McCay singled home Mitchell Page to end the game in the 14th inning. Had the game gone to the 15th, Langford would likely have gone back out.

Still Going Strong

August came and went. Langford made five starts and finished all five of them, going 4-1. The streak hit 19 on August 27th when Langford beat the Yankees 3-1. New York scored their only run in the first inning on a Reggie Jackson single but didn’t mount much of a threat for the rest of the game.

”I just went power to them in the ninth,” Langford told the media. ”I didn’t want to walk anybody. Sometimes that can get a rally started and wind up hurting you more than a home run.”

September

Rick Langford - Oakland A'sThe streak reached 21 on September 6th against the Orioles, and established a modern day record, surpassing Robin Roberts, who threw 20 straight for the 1953 Phillies. Often described as a “sinker/slider pitcher,” Langford didn’t walk a lot of batters and he didn’t strike a lot of people out, which kept his pitch count down. Billy Martin also didn’t have a lot of faith in his bullpen, which was a major factor in Oakland’s pitchers throwing as many complete games as they did.

Just one day earlier, the A’s bullpen allowed six runs in the final two innings of a loss to the Orioles and Martin wasn’t about to let it happen again.

“I wouldn’t have taken Langford out of the game tonight if he had put seven guys on base in the ninth,” Martin said. “Not after last night, I wouldn’t.”

By this point, the A’s had played 245.2 innings in Langford’s starts. He was on the mound for 234 of them.

“I never think about complete games,” he told the media after his 21st straight. “I take it one pitch, one batter, one inning at a time. I know I’ll come out of the game sometime, but when I do I’ll walk off the mound with my head high.”

Six days later, he allowed 14 hits, but picked up the win, and another complete game when the A’s beat the Royals 9-5 in Oakland.

The Streak Ends

Langford’s next start came against the Texas Rangers, that team against whom the streak began. Martin stayed with his starter as long as he felt comfortable, but with the game on the line, he had to make a move.

“The only reason I went with him as long as I did was the streak,” Martin said. “I’ve seen him pitch better.”

In his streak-snapping start, Rick Langford went eight and two-thirds innings, allowed four runs on eleven hits, and got the win.

“I didn’t ask him to leave me in,” Langford said of his manager. “He makes the decisions on this club and he’s done a fantastic job.”

He would make four more starts and finish all four, including a 10-inning CG on two-days rest on the season’s final day because Martin wanted to give him a shot at winning 20. He came up short, but still established a season the likes of which will probably never be matched.

In 1980, Rick Langford threw more complete games than 8 MLB teams Click To Tweet

In 1980, Rick Langford went 19-12 in 33 starts. He threw 28 complete games, including 22 in a row. The 28 CGs were more than the combined total of eight different teams. Not too bad for a guy who lead the league in losses just three years earlier.

 

Rough Weekend in Minnesota

Every team has them. That series where nothing goes right. The pitching isn’t getting it done but you make up for that by not hitting or making a bunch of errors. Or both.

Such was the case for Billy Martin and the Oakland A’s as they visited Bloomington, MN for a three-game series against the Twins in April of 1980. Oakland had won six games in a row entering the series and held a half-game lead in the A.L. West but things got away from them in Minnesota.

In game one of the series, a fan in the stands hurled marshmallows at Martin, which resulted in Martin hurling homophobic slurs in his post-game press conference. The Twins won 10-3 behind Jerry Koosman. Then things got worse for Oakland.

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Kingman went 8-20 in 1980

Minnesota took game two of the series 5-1, which set up the finale on Sunday afternoon. Brian Kingman was the Oakland starter and took the mound hoping to end the brief skid and get the A’s back on track. Unfortunately for Kingman, he didn’t get out of the first inning. Kingman faced six batters and five of the reached, and he was lifted for relief pitcher Dave Hamilton.

Hamilton faced eight batters and seven of them reached before he was lifted. When there are two outs in the first inning and you’re on your third pitcher of the game, it’s going to be a bad day. The Twins put 10 on the board in the first inning.

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Staked to a 10-0 lead, Zahn couldn’t hold it

That should have been plenty for Minnesota starter Geoff Zahn, but that wasn’t the case. But on the bright side, Zahn gave up fourteen hits and eight runs in four and one-third innings and didn’t get a loss. In fact, he was in line for a win despite allowing eight straight batters to reach in the same inning. Doug Corbett relieved Zahn and got the final two outs of the 5th to escape the jam.

Minnesota ended up winning the game 20-11 but even that doesn’t tell the story of a truly bizarre game. Consider the following:

  • Oakland outhit Minnesota 22-20
  • Minnesota scored 20 runs and had 3 extra-base hits
  • Oakland hit the only homer of the game and it came in the 9th inning
  • Fifteen players played the entire game and only two didn’t record a hit. Naturally they were both Twins.

For Billy and the A’s, it was a weekend to forget. They were swept three games to none and outscored 35-15. Two of their three starting pitchers failed to make it out of the first inning, Martin had marshmallows thrown at him and they left town a game and a half behind the White Sox.

Billy Martin vs. the Marshmallow Man Part II

The story of how Billy Martin lost his job with the Yankees after a fight with a marshmallow salesman in October of 1979 is well known. But there’s an under-the-radar marshmallow story that’s just as good and perhaps even more volatile.

In April of 1980, Martin brought his new team, the Oakland A’s, to Bloomington, MN for the first time since the celebrated incident and things did not go well. Oakland starter Matt Keough lasted just two-thirds of an inning before Martin had to pull him. On his way back to the bench, Martin was forced to dodge marshmallows thrown at him by a fan sitting behind the Oakland dugout. Billy said something to the fan and then ducked into the dugout.

In the 9th inning, the fan once again seized the opportunity to throw marshmallows at the Oakland manager. This time Martin was set to go after him and had a foot on the railing to go up into the stands before umpires and others intervened.

Martin pulled no punches in his post-game media session, including a few choice words that would undoubtedly cause a suspension or worse were they to cross the lips of a current manager.

“He did it once and then went and hid like a baby,” Martin told the Associated Press. “But my coach caught him the second time and the police got him. I hope they fine him.”

“The Minnesota fans are good fans. This was just one guy acting like a jerk. There’s no room for that in baseball. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate throwing stuff on the field. He could have put somebody’s eye out.”

Incidents of marshmallow induced eye injuries are rare in baseball, but Martin was on a roll and he couldn’t be stopped. Then he really went on the offensive.

“It was a young kid with a French queer’s hat on. When I went up there, I didn’t know whether to kiss him or punch him. I thought he would have caressed me. He was a big, fat fag.”

“It had to be a fag because he was throwing marshmallows.”

Um, OK.

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.