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.”

Joe Morgan Comes Home

joe-morgan-photoAfter eight seasons in Cincinnati, second-baseman Joe Morgan was looking to prove he could still contribute as he entered his age 36 season. He won back-to-back MVP awards and two World Series with the Reds in 1975 & ‘76 but his offensive numbers fell sharply after that. He hit just .236 in 1978 and .250 in ’79 while his home run total slipped from a high of 27 in 1976 to just nine in 1979. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball, he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

End of an Era

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Morgan entered the Free-Agent draft and was selected by the Dodgers, his preferred destination. His signing with Cincinnati’s long-time rival was predicated on incumbent second baseman Davey Lopes agreeing to move to center field.  But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club so he announced he wouldn’t be signing with anyone and went back into the secondary phase of the draft.

This time he was selected by the Yankees and the Astros. As was the case with Nolan Ryan, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees lost out to Houston.

Morgan_Joe_113

On January 31st, Joe Morgan agreed to a deal to return to the city where he began his career in 1963.

“The Astros already have a winning attitude,” Morgan said at his introductory news conference. “With a starting rotation of Joe Niekro, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Ken Forsch and Joe Sambito in the bullpen, I’d rather be playing behind them than trying to hit against them.”

The additions of Ryan and Morgan and a talented young outfield of Jose Cruz, Jeoffrey Leonard, and Terry Puhl had Astros manager Bill Virdon feeling good about the upcoming season.

“We made great strides during the 1979 season and the pennant race provided some experience for us,” Virdon told reporters in Cocoa, FL that spring. “That should make us a better club in 1980. If we can get good offensive production and pitching we’ll be legitimate contenders.”

The Mysterious Case of Dallas Green

All young baseball fans dream of hitting a walkoff home run to win the World Series like Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter. It’s a great way to ensure your spot in history. If you played in the major leagues from 1960 through 1967 there was another thing you could do to give yourself a shot at future fame. It wasn’t a guarantee like a dramatic post-season home run, but there was also a lot less pressure. All you needed to do was hit a home run off Dallas Green.

Green is best known for managing the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1980 World Series championship, the first one in franchise history. What many people don’t know is that Green was also a major league pitcher. In a career that spanned eight seasons and 562 innings, Green won 20 games and gave up 46 home runs to just 33 different players. Quite a select fraternity and membership has its privileges. How so?

Dallas Green & Larry Bowa
Dallas Green & Larry Bowa

If you were a National League hitter in the 60’s and homered off Green, you had nearly a 50/50 shot of either being a Hall of Famer or managing a major league team. Of the 33 players who took Green deep, 16 of them either made the Hall of Fame or managed in the big-leagues.

Green signed as a free-agent in 1955 out of the University of Delaware and made his big-league debut on June 18th, 1960 against the San Francisco Giants. In his second outing, five days later, he faced the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium and gave up longballs to Don Zimmer and Ernie Banks.

An Impressive List

Before he retired after the 1967 season, Green had given up home runs to the following Hall of Famers: Banks, Ron Santo, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Willie McCovey, Duke Snider and Henry Aaron. Future skippers included Zimmer, Bob Skinner, Billy Martin, Joe Adcock, Joey Amalfitano, Felipe Alou, Bill Virdon and Pete Rose.

The final two are perhaps the most interesting. Virdon hit his 81st career home run off of Green and later managed against Green in the 1980 NLCS. Rose hit the only Grand Slam of his career off of Green and then played for Green on the 1980 Phillies.

The Rose and Virdon stories are just two ties to the 1980 season. Willie McCovey played his last game in July of 1980, Snider was elected to the Hall of Fame in January of 1980, Virdon, Zimmer, Martin and Amalfitano were all managers in 1980 and on September 21st, 1962, Green gave up a home run to a Houston rookie outfielder named Rusty Staub, who was still active in 1980.

But Green’s remarkable home run history doesn’t end there. In the first game of a doubleheader on June 23rd, 1963, Jimmy Piersall hit the 100th home run of his career. To celebrate, he famously ran the bases while facing backward. That home run came off none other than Dallas Green.

The 80’s are my 50’s

I grew up reading Angell, Halberstam, Kahn and others wax nostalgic about baseball in the 1950’s. The pictures they painted of sun-drenched afternoons at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds made the era come to life. I’m sure it was a magical time with great baseball. They can have it.

This isn’t an indictment of them as baseball men and it’s most certainly not an indictment of them as writers. The point is that was their time. The 80’s were my time. My affection for the 80’s comes not from the ballparks or the innocence of the time, but from being young and watching my heroes play baseball.

I’ve read countless accounts of people walking up the ramp and seeing the green grass at Yankee Stadium or some other baseball cathedral for the first time. You really get a sense of the awe they felt. I don’t have a similar memory of seeing the turf at Riverfront Stadium for the first time. Not the same, although the outfield at Riverfront was undoubtedly the greenest Astroturf I had ever seen in my life.

Riverfront Stadium
Behold the beauty

But I do have a brief but amazing memory of having blue seats for a Reds/Phillies game. I spent the pregame standing near the Phillies bullpen watching watch Steve Carlton warm up before the game. I don’t remember what year it was or who won. All I remember is that I was 10 feet away from Steve Effing Carlton! The guy who had won Cy Young Awards and had pitched my favorite team to a World Series Championship. And I was RIGHT NEXT TO HIM.

Steve Carlton
Lefty!

I didn’t watch games through knotholes, but my buddies and I did learn how to jump over the railing from the green seats at Riverfront into the blue seats and dash down the aisle before the usher could catch us. Once in the blue section, the world was ours and we could really see up close the same guys we watched on TV, back when Monday Night Baseball and the Saturday Game of the Week were a big deal.

Willie, Mickey & the Duke were amazing players. Hall of Famers all of them. I never saw any of them play live. But I did see Mike Schmidt play.

I saw Tom Seaver

And Johnny Bench

And Nolan Ryan

 

I saw Rod Carew

And Reggie Jackson

And Andre Dawson

Chicki-Crunch
Chicki-Crunch

 

I also saw Wayne Krenchicki

With the Reds AND the Expos

Were Feller, Yogi and Musial better than Seaver, Bench and Reggie? Maybe. Maybe not, but here’s the thing: I don’t care.

 

You can have Joe Black. I’ll take Bud Black

You take Campanella. I’ll take Carter.

You take Eddie Mathews and I’ll take Gary Matthews.

You can have Vin Scully. I’ll take… well, Vin Scully.

Garvey, Winfield, Schmitty, Luzinski… they were all my guys. They were larger than life. They were who I grew up watching, and the guys you grew up watching are mythical figures by definition.

The 80’s was the decade I came of age as a baseball fan. Willie, Mickey and The Duke were great, but I’ll take Willie Wilson, Mickey Hatcher and John “Duke” Wathan.

With no regrets.

Welcome to 1980!

 

“He really mows ‘em, doesn’t he?” asked Howard Cosell.

“He is spectacular.” replied Cosell’s ABC broadcast partner Don Drysdale. “He’s the one guy that if you met him on the street in civilian clothes he’d be the last person you’d think was a major league pitcher.”

And yet here Kent Tekulve was, bent at the waist, hands on his knees, peering in for Steve Nicoscia’s sign.

“The Birds had their big shot last inning. Bases filled, two out Eddie Murray up…” said Cosell in the way only he could.

Sporting black pants, a yellow jersey and a pillbox hat adorned with Stargell Stars, Tekulve had the Pirates on the cusp of a World Championship. They led Game Seven of the 1979 World Series 4-1 with two out in the bottom of the 9th inning in Baltimore. The field at Memorial Stadium was scarred with white lines from the NFL’s Colts. Two zeros were painted in foul territory on either side of the plate.

Tekulve had struck out Gary Roenicke, and Doug DeCinces to begin the inning. He needed just one more out to secure Pittsburgh’s 5th World Series championship. Pat Kelly was pinch hitting for Rick Dempsey and sent Tekulve’s first pitch to center field. Omar Moreno settled under it and one of the most eventful and seminal decades in major league history had come to a close.

The Pirates had won their second World Series title of the 1970s. It was a decade dominated by a select few teams. The Oakland A’s won three consecutive World Series titles (1972-74), followed by back-to-back titles in ’75 & ’76 from the Reds. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in 1977 & 1978. Baltimore won it in 1970 and lost to the Pirates in ’71 and again in ’79.

But the dynasties were crumbling. The A’s had been blown up shortly after winning their third straight championship and the Reds had begun to disassemble their Big Machine piece by piece. A new decade of parity was about to begin.

The 1970s saw the biggest single change in the history of the game: Free Agency. It also saw the tragic deaths of two superstars, the introduction of the Designated Hitter, the fall of the game’s most sacred record, and the installation of plastic grass in many stadiums.

Pete Rose
Pete Rose dives into 3rd

By contrast, the 1980s are a somewhat forgotten era of Major League Baseball. They didn’t even get a full inning in the Ken Burns series. But the ‘80s were when the changes instituted in the 1970s began to seriously alter the game. Players began moving freely from team to team and general managers built teams suited to play on plastic grass. It was the last time small market teams still had a shot at the post-season until the “Moneyball” philosophy entered the game nearly 30 years later.

The other thing the 80s had was parity. The Dodgers were the only franchise to win more than one World Series during the decade. Baseball has not seen such parity before or since. The 80s saw Fernandomania, Joe Charboneau, Harvey’s Wallbangers, the Wheeze Kids, the first significant work stoppage, two hits in two cities for two different teams, Baltimore’s 0-21, Don Denkinger, Orel Hershiser, Rose vs. Pallone, Rose vs. Cobb, Rose vs. Giamatti, Big League Chew, cocaine, earthquakes, drug trials… the list goes on and on.

Sufficient time has passed that we can now look upon the 1980s as a different era; in the same vein that some view Twisted Sister as “Classic Rock.” In baseball, technology and pop culture, the 1980s have a distinct personality. What follows is a look back at the first year of a transitional decade in baseball and in the United States. Off the field, exciting new technologies changed forever the way we lived our lives. Cars couldn’t yet fly, but we could make a phone call from them. On the field, speed and pitching were phased out and replaced by juiced up sluggers. Just one new stadium opened, as opposed to nine the following decade.

This is the story of 1980, the personalities involved, and in some cases, the stories behind the stories.