“Of course, it’s possible to love a human being–if you don’t know them too well.” ― Charles Bukowski
by Mitch Ferrer
It was the spring of 1980 and my beloved A’s had brought in Billy Martin to manage this hapless team. Why he took the job I don’t really know, I guess he just had nothing better to do. A dearth of other offers was probably a big factor. I guess Billy lived to manage. But honestly, to go from the New York Yankees with Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, et al to a team with guys with the names… Klutts, Gross, and Cox, well lets just say; Could there be a farther fall from grace? But hey, Martin was a hometown boy, having graduated from Berkeley High, so I guess he figured we had to love him. And we did.
It was that spring that a reporter asked Martin if he thought the A’s could win the division. I don’t remember who that reporter was, but he must have been one sarcastic smart-ass. To Billy’s credit, he replied “I don’t know if we can win the division, but I know we will finish above the Angels.” Now, for those of you who don’t remember, this was the “Gene Autry, I wanna win a championship before I die and you can’t take with you, Angels”. Free Agency jumped off in a big way in 1976 and Autry took full advantage, signing Joe Rudy, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor (1979 MVP) that year. This team had won the Western Division the previous year, 34 games ahead of the last-place A’s.
Well, it was April 20th 1980, and my childhood buddy, Jim and I took a trip to the Coliseum to check out what this “Billy Ball” thing was all about. And what a day of Baseball we had in store… a twi-night doubleheader against the Angels! Up to this point, Billy had been good on his word. The A’s were 7 – 3 while the Angles were 4 – 5. But come on? Its April! Ya had to figure this was like Jim Bouton’s line about how good he did playing against other kids until the big kids got out of school. Yep, the big kids had come to the Coliseum, and all we could do was hope for the best. But it was all good, Jim and I were going to see a real good team, the reigning American League West Division Champion, the California Angels.
And then it happened…Game one has Matt Keough v. Chris Knapp. Other than a leadoff walk by Al Cowens, the Angles go down quietly in the first. Then the A’s come up. Rickey Henderson grounds out to lead off (yea, we were disappointed) but Dwayne Murphy then hits a Double to right field past Dan Ford followed by another double to right by Dave Revering. Then Wayne Gross come up. Now, at this point, Dan Ford is having a bad day. As if the two doubles hit his way are not bad enough, he dropped an easy pop up in foul territory. Jim and I were right there behind the first base dugout and either one of us could have made that play. It wasn’t like he had to dive or anything. He just settled under it and it popped out of his glove. We in the stands could not let that go… the common refrain was “YOU SUCK”, clever, I know. Well, so Gross hits a pop up to Dan Ford… he just settled under it and the ball popped out of his glove and fell to the turf. Revering scores from second, Gross ends up at second. This was the last we would see of Dan Ford for the day. I guess Jim Fregosi got pissed off because he yanked Ford off the field. Well, by the third inning the A’s have scored 6 runs. Knapp lasts 2 2/3 innings and Keough pitches a complete game.
Now comes game two… Steve McCatty v. the Frank Tanana. Sure, Tanana had an off-year in 1979, but from 1975 to 1978 he averaged 17 wins, had struck out 872 batters and had an ERA of 2.78. Yea, we were looking at a split here. But low and behold, Tanana doesn’t make it out of the third inning. The A’s start beating Tanana like a red-headed stepchild. The third goes… error, bunt single, triple (Henderson!), single, double, double… and that’s when it dawns on us. The A’s had made the Angels look like shit. And the whole crowd, in a moment of group consciousness, expresses this realization by chanting…ANGELS SUCK…ANGELS SUCK… ANGELS SUCK…
The A’s didn’t win the division that year, that would come the next year, but Billy Martin was good to his word and the A’s finished above the Angels. Billy Ball electrified the Coliseum. The A’s were the A’s again with their brash aggressive style of play. It was fun while it lasted, but alas, it all crashed in 1982 and Billy was outta Oakland. But it seemed Billy Martin was a tortured soul who crashed and burned on a regular basis. Billy Martin drank regularly, and regularly drank to excess. He was a fighter, with players, umpires, management and bar patrons. He was a liar; he said he didn’t hit the marshmallow salesman, then said he did, said he did not call Steinbrenner a liar, then later admitted he did. Billy Martin was a cheater; he had his pitchers throw a spitter, he cheated on his wife. What I do know is that he was responsible for the most memorable moment I ever experienced at the ballpark and I’ll always love him for it.