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Mr. Game 1 for the 1970s A's, Ken Holtzman Back in MLB Focus Thanks to  TV Replays

On a team with Cy Young Award winners Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue, it was lefty Ken Holtzman who started Game 1 in the 1972, 1973 and 1974 World Series. The A's won all three of those games and all three of those series, which have had a revival as a fill-in for an MLB season locked down thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

One of the few plusses of having no live Major League Baseball to watch is the ability of networks to dip back into history and pull out great moments in history.

That’s particularly true for the Oakland A’s, whose three consecutive World Series titles have been fertile fodder on which the networks can thrive.

Along the way, Ken Holtzman came back into focus. That Charlie Finley 1970s dynasty was built around homegrown pitching. Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue would win Cy Young awards for Oakland. Rollie Fingers’ Cy Young came after he’d moved on and was pitching for the Brewers (he also won the MVP in his Cy Young Year of 1981), but he was an All-Star his last four seasons in Oakland.

Holtzman wasn’t homegrown. He’d come up with the Chicago Cubs and landed in Oakland in 1972 following a trade that sent Rick Monday to the Cubs. Monday was a good player who had a fine career, but it’s worth wondering just how far the A’s would have been able to go without Holtzman.

He won 59 regular season games his first three years with Oakland and went 4-1 in the World Series those three years. It’s worth noting that the starts in Game 1 in the 1972, 1973 and 1974 World Series went not to Hunter or Blue but to Holtzman, whose has popped up here and there on television in the last month or so in replays.

Not that Holtzman has watched. There’s a lake about 20 feet from his house in the rural areas outside St. Louis, “so I can practice social separation quite easily.”

“I haven’t watched too much TV during this pandemic because I have vowed not to be a complete couch potato,” Holtzman said. “I have seen these tapes before, and even though almost 50 years have passed, sometimes I can still feel the excitement and thrill watching them.”

Holtzman says onlookers shouldn’t put too much in to the fact that he made all those Game 1 starts. It was, he said, all part of a plan because his managers, Dick Williams in 1972-73 and Alvin Dark in 1974 “stuck to a three-man rotation religiously for the postseason and my number (just happened to) come up.”

Well, maybe. It’s also true that Holtzman’s final year in Chicago saw him go 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA against the Reds, so it made all the sense in the world to have him start Game 1 of the 1972 series against Cincinnati.

“Dick knew that I had a good record against the Reds in my National League years, so he felt like it was the proper decision to start Game 1 in 1972,” Holtzman said. “Vida, Catfish and I were told we were going to start all the postseason games regardless of interval because they didn’t want to interfere with the rotation.”

In 1972, Holtzman started Games 1 and 4 of the World Series against the Reds and pitched relief in Game 7. All three were 3-2 Oakland wins, although Holtzman only got the credit for the win in Game 1.

For as long as he’d been throwing a baseball, Holtzman had dreamed of pitching in a Game 7. And while he got a ring in 1972, pitching in relief in Game 7 left a little something yet to be accomplished.

“Playing and winning World Series games was the reason I chose to be a professional baseball player in the first place. In the 5th grade, I saw Don Larsen pitch his perfect series game and that cemented it for me. Larsen was a member of the Cubs in 1967, and I told him he was my childhood inspiration to try and make it to a World Series.

“When I got to pitch Game 7 of the ‘73 Series, it was the attainment of the ultimate fantasy of any little boy dreaming of his big moment. There is no bigger game or more important situation for a pro player and I thank God to this day that I got that chance.”

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In 1973, the left-hander started Game 1 and beat Jon Matlack of the Mets 2-1. He met up with Matlack in Game 4 and lost 6-1 before the two met again in Game 7. Holtzman pitched the first 5.1 innings and earned a 5-2 win. And the second of his three rings.

Holtzman had thrown 297.1 inning in the regular season, and another 50 or so in spring training before the A’s got to the 1973 post-season. By the time he was done, he said he’d thrown 370 innings, “which would probably be considered child abuse today.”

By the time 1974 rolled around, it made sense that Holtzman would get the opener. Holtzman got the call in Game 1, which happened to be another 3-2 win, and again in Game 4. The second time around Holtzman got the win by allowing two runs in 7-2 innings, but he also homered off losing pitcher Andy Messersmith in the third inning for the game’s first run.

While some of his classic games have been on TV for all to see lately, Holtzman said that he tends to watch those games alone – which in an age of social distancing may becoming more of the norm.

“I enjoy those moments along with nobody else around, because those championships were so personally meaningful,” he said. “Winning in 1972 was the most satisfying (as a team) because that was the hardest to attain as far as getting over the hump.

“The last two were certainly satisfying, but we were probably expected to win after the first, so it became a different kind of mindset and achievement, a kind of professional legacy and reputation that exists to this day.”

When asked about that legacy, a bit of Holtzman’s competitive fire starts to glow.

“Our team not only was one of the most successful ever, but we accomplished it under the most unique set of circumstances, which have never been duplicated before or since,” he said. “For one, there was a common, public hatred of the owner (Charlie Finley), who did his best to disrespect and humiliate his own players.

“Ours was a constant struggle to not only compete against other great players and teams, but to also prove to the owner that we were worth a long more, both financially and athletically. Today’s players are very well paid and enjoy very respectful relationships with their owners and front offices. We had a constant battle with our owner, and sometimes it turned ugly.”

Holtzman pitched one more year for the A’s, who were bumped in the playoffs in 1975 by the Red Sox with Holtzman starting Games 1 and then Game 3 with just two days off. He lost both as Boston swept the A’s out of the playoffs.

He was due to return to the A’s in 1976, but Finley traded him to the Orioles along with Reggie Jackson just a week before the season was to start in a deal that brought Don Baylor and Mike Torrez. Holtzman would never make it back to the postseason.

He would settle for those three World Series rings. He never wears them, though.

“It’s not important … that I show them off,” he said of the rings. “It’s only important to me that I know that I have these rings and will be passed on to my daughters and grandchildren.”

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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