There's something fragile about pitchers. Other players can perform with blisters or sore knees or aching shoulders. A pitcher can't. A hangnail, say, can alter the delicate balance of rhythm and power he must achieve to be effective. All the parts must be in working order or the whole mechanism breaks down. A broken toe effectively ended Dizzy Dean's dazzling career. Favoring a broken thumb gave Smokey Joe Wood the sore shoulder that cut short what could have been an even more spectacular career: he had won 34 games at age 22 in 1912. The pitcher is at once the focal point of the game—nothing can happen, as they say in baseball, until he throws the ball—and the most vulnerable player on the field. Baseball history abounds with sad stories of pitchers—Dean, Wood. Karl Spooner, Wayne Simpson—whose brilliance shone too briefly before their careers were over. But it's rare, even in such a perilous profession, for an entire starting rotation to be struck down almost simultaneously. This was the sorry fate of the marvelous Oakland A's staff of 1981, although the story isn't quite over.
They were all in their 20s, handsome, vigorous, animated, talkative, playful men in their prime. The five of them appeared together on the cover of the April 27, 1981 issue of this magazine, gazing boldly into the camera, smiling confidently, THE AMAZING A'S AND THEIR FIVE ACES was the cover billing. And "amazing," beyond question, was the appropriate word to describe those A's and their blistering start that year. They won their first 11 games—then a record—lost one and then won six more—17 of their first 18, a performance suggestive of the Detroit Tigers' smash opening this season. Eight of the A's first nine wins were complete-game victories by the Five Aces. Only Brian Kingman in that stretch failed to go the distance, but he came back from this relative humiliation to make it nine of 10 by shutting out Seattle, enabling Oakland to tie the record for most consecutive season-opening victories. Mike Norris's win the next day broke the record. The A's went on to win the first half of the strike-interrupted season and to defeat second-half winner Kansas City in the mini-playoffs. They were finally beaten by the Yankees in the League Championship Series. But with the Five Aces and a magnificent outfield of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas, all led into battle by the charismatic Billy Martin. Oakland's baseball future couldn't have seemed brighter. These were the A's that, with their aggressive base running, would add a new expression to the baseball lexicon—Billy Ball.
There were suggestions of good times ahead in 1980, when Martin, in his first year as the A's manager, took a team that lost 108 games the previous season and drove it to a second-place finish in the American League West. The Five Aces carried the club, completing 94 games, a 162-game-season record. It was a truly astonishing accomplishment in this, the age of the relief pitcher. The next-best complete-game performance that season, for example, was by Milwaukee, which had 48. Baseball people were stunned by this turnaround. Martin was once again viewed as a miracle worker, and his Sancho Panza, the drawling pitching coach, Art Fowler, was no longer considered just comic relief. The A's starters were apparently inexhaustible, throwbacks to Cy Young, Jack Chesbro and Iron Man Joe McGinnity. Four of them, in fact, completed 14-inning games that season. The A's had a woefully inadequate bullpen, and the young starters were obliged to tote an extra load. And they toted it with uncommon zeal. The complete-game pace slackened only slightly in '81—the A's staff had 60 in the 109 games played—but then all the statistics were out of whack that truncated season.
The fall was as sudden and shocking as the rise had been. The A's lost 94 games in '82, finishing in fifth place in the division, 25 games back. And one by one the Aces dropped out of the deck, victims of sore arms and tortured psyches. Martin, a genius no more, reverted to familiar self-destructive patterns, ripping apart his office in a pique and departing one day from the second game of a losing double-header for the comparative serenity of a hotel bar. He and Fowler, the latter reduced once more to house comedian, were gone after the season. Aces and all, it had been a house of cards.
What on earth had happened? Martin's critics, who, of course, are legion, were quick to advance the time-honored self-destruct theme. They also introduced a relatively new theory, grounded in the disintegration of the Aces—that Billy, who doesn't figure to stay in one place very long, mortgages the future by burning out his pitching staff, favoring quick results over long-term benefits. Billy Ball was, in reality, Billy Burnout. In his 1983 Baseball Abstract, Bill James, the baseball "sabermetrician," said, "A year ago...in writing about the Oakland A's, I put forward the thesis that Billy Martin's handling of his pitching staff was that of a man who did not quite believe in the existence of the future.... All of the pitchers who had done this for him [thrown many innings in] the past, I pointed out, had paid a price for it two or three years down the line." A concomitant theory had it that Martin and Fowler had ruined the young arms by insisting that the pitchers throw too many arm-wrenching breaking balls, among them the illegal spitter.
Martin's defenders, who include four of the Five Aces, point out that the A's had a five-man rotation so that each of the pitchers had the normal four days' rest. Even in the industrious '80 season, not one of them pitched 300 innings, the norm for a heavy workload. Why, not all that long ago, Robin Roberts pitched more than 300 innings six seasons in a row, and his career lasted 19 years. Steve Carlton pitched 295‚Öî innings when he was 37 and 283‚Öî when he was 38. Rick Langford, 28 in 1980, was the senior citizen of that young A's staff, and he pitched the most innings, 290. The work was, in fact, meticulously shared. Lang-ford and Norris had 33 starts, Matt Keough 32, Steve McCatty 31 and Kingman 30. Just the previous season, Phil Niekro started 44 games for Atlanta, and in 1972 Wilbur Wood started 49 for the White Sox. Granted, both Niekro and Wood were knuckleball pitchers, but even that aberrant pitch requires some exertion. "All I know," says Fowler now of the burnout theory, "is that those pitchers were all making about $30,000 when Billy got there. Now, I don't know what they're making, but it's plenty. Heck, I'd pitch every two days for that kind of money. I don't know what happened to them, but I do know that when your arm goes, it goes."
Fowler is out of baseball now, raising quail on his four acres in Spartanburg, S.C. Martin, too, is out of uniform, if still on the payroll of his periodic employer, George Steinbrenner of the Yankees. Of the Five Aces in that now poignant cover photo of three years ago, only McCatty has pitched in the majors this year. Two are injured, one is in the minors, and the other spent the first five months of the season trying to overcome shoulder trouble. In their heyday, they pitched according to the following rotation, and that is how we shall encounter them as they recall the good times and, instructively, the not so good.
By acclamation of all the Aces, including himself, Mike Norris was the most talented pitcher among them. He reached his pinnacle in '80 when he was 22-9. His 2.54 ERA and 24 complete games were both second in the league, as were his 284 innings and 180 strikeouts. He was an American League Gold Glove winner, and he finished second to Baltimore's Steve Stone in the Cy Young voting, principally because three of the 28 participating baseball writers unaccountably left him off their ballots. He pitched a complete 14-inning win over the Orioles. His achievements and promising future—he was only 25—earned him a $3.3 million five-year contract, then the most lucrative in franchise history.
But Norris slipped to 12-9 in '81 and, as his shoulder ailments worsened, he went downhill the following two seasons. His critics blamed his decline as much on his high living—wine, women and worse—as on his physical maladies. Last November, Norris had surgery to free a trapped nerve in his pitching shoulder. Doctors advised him not to pitch at all in '84. He has therefore abstained from pitching but has rarely appeared to watch his teammates, although he lives only minutes from the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. The operation was the second for Norris; in 1975, after pitching a three-hit shutout in his big league debut, he had calcium deposits removed from his pitching elbow and made only one brief appearance the remainder of that season.
Last May, Norris was arrested with a young woman in an Oakland motel and charged with cocaine and marijuana possession. Two days later, the charges were dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence. Despite all the trouble in his life, which began with his father's murder when he was seven years old and living in San Francisco's tough Fillmore District, Norris remains the most ebullient of the Aces, an unfailingly cheerful imp of a man who boasts, "You won't see me without a smile on my face." Says Keough, "He's the nicest guy you'll ever meet."
We meet him in the office of his lawyer, Steven Kay. He's wearing, for no apparent reason, a Yankee warmup jacket and, though it's a warm and sunny day, a rain hat. He has a most engaging way of expressing himself.
"I've had arm trouble all my life, but my mental dexterity supersedes the physical," he says. "I'm using wit and knowledge to endure all this. No one thing caused this injury, just an accumulation of years and innings. Before Billy, I had never before been able to pitch in abundance. I welcomed the chance ecstatically. We were between a rock and a hard place, anyway, with our bullpen. I can remember the look on Billy's face when he'd come out to the mound. He'd want to say something like, 'Hey, guy, I want you to come out,' but the look said, 'Please don't.' He made you feel as if you had feminine tendencies if you wanted to come out. He instilled confidence in you. He'd say, 'You're my ace, big guy,' and I'd feel 10 feet tall. We had a father-son relationship.
"Art's job was to keep you relaxed and loose and laughing. Langford was kind of straitlaced. McCatty and I were the extroverts. I think Art enjoyed us. Billy would send Art out to the mound to tell us what to do. It was always the same thing—keep the ball down. We'd nod; then Art would go back to the dugout, and Billy would ask him, 'Did you tell them what I told you?' Billy and Art hated those bases on balls. Kingman's problem was that he'd get behind two balls and Billy would have him throw nothing but fastballs. The hitters knew what was coming. But Billy was the most intelligent baseball man I ever played for, a totally first-class guy all the way.
"My reputation as a playboy is deserved. Women happen to be one of my better abilities. I'm a single man with pride, after all. But I'd like to settle down and get married one of these days. I'm pretty tired of this nomadic gypsy lifestyle. Not everybody can do what I do and still come out and perform at the ball park, though. That's a challenge for me. Billy didn't care what you did, as long as you performed. One time I got to the park for a day game at 1:05, game time, and I was supposed to pitch. Billy already had Bo McLaughlin warming up in the bullpen, but I told him I wanted to pitch, and he let me. I beat Texas 2-1, shutting them out for eight innings. Billy told me afterward that if I'd lost that game my rear end was his. Irresponsibility is my way of avoiding stress. In the ghetto, you do things on your own, so this skipping to somebody else's beat is still new to me. But I'm totally innocent of drugs. I was just visiting a lady when I was arrested. It was the wrong woman, that's sure. Now I'll have to live this down. I know that when I come back, people will blame it on drugs if I'm not performing. I hate to get booed. It's like an eternity walking from the mound to the dugout when you're being booed. Still, it's ludicrous to say I'm not taking care of myself.
"Pitching is itself an unnatural act, and the screwball is an unnatural pitch. I fell in love with that pitch. I could throw it hard. I could fool the lefthanders and jam the righthanders. If I threw 120 pitches in a game, 75 of them were screwballs. That's hard on the arm, and as my arm got weaker, I lost velocity. The thing with the screwball is, you throw it dead down the middle and let it do its own thing. Without velocity, mine wouldn't sink. It just stayed on the same plane and became hittable. Imagine throwing that to Jim Rice. When I come back, the screwball will only be an out pitch. I'll go back to my fastball more.
"Gee, it seems like 10 years ago, but I was at the peak of being one of the best in this game. Now I've got to prove myself again. But challenges are always good for me. I may be a dreamer, but all of my dreams have come true—even the nightmares."
Balding and mild in appearance, Lang-ford is an intensely proud and fiercely competitive man who, according to McCatty, is "a raging bull on the mound." His almost puritanical urge to work hard has also made him, again according to McCatty, "his own worst enemy." Langford led the American League in complete games in both '80 and '81, going all the way in 46 of 57 starts. In '80, he completed all but five of his 33 starts and had a string of 22 straight complete games. Not since 1904, when Boston's Bill Dinneen completed 37 straight and the Cardinals' John Taylor completed 39, had there been such a demonstration of durability. In 1980, Langford went from May 19 to Sept. 17 without being relieved. He completed a 14-inning victory over Cleveland on July 20, and he pitched with only two days' rest on Oct. 5 in a vain effort to win his 20th game.
His arm began to bother him in '82, but he still pitched 237‚Öì innings. In '83 he spent virtually the entire season on the disabled list, pitching only 20 innings for the A's and six in a rehabilitation stint with Modesto of the Class A California League. In August '83 he underwent surgery to repair a muscle tear in his right elbow. He pitched 15 innings for Tacoma in the Triple A Pacific Coast League this season before his shoulder began to trouble him. He rejoined the A's in July, but wasn't activated until last Saturday, when they expanded their roster to 40. He's alone in the clubhouse this day, seated in his cubicle, wearing running shorts.
"I feel like a cardboard box, the kind that has no function but that you keep around somewhere in the corner of the closet in the hope that someday you'll find some use for it," he says. "They've told me to be patient, but I'm not a very patient individual. Patience is definitely not one of my attributes. The elbow is no problem now. That wasn't a career-ending injury. The problem was that there was so much concentration on the elbow that the shoulder got neglected. It wasn't prepared for the abuse pitching requires. This sort of breakdown is considered normal. I'm not injured. I'm here to strengthen the shoulder under supervision. The club is looking forward to having me whole for '85 and '86 or for however long I can pitch. But I'd like to try it this year. I'd like to show the club that I'm ready, that they can count on me for next year. The past was pretty good. The present, I'll admit, is a little shaky, but I'm gearing myself for the future.
"I didn't feel overworked under Billy. I wasn't being abused. I was doing what I enjoyed doing—pitching as long and as hard as I could. I did what I wanted to do, and I felt great pitching all those innings and complete games. We pushed each other. We had an intrateam competition, and that was good. Not one of us thought he was pitching too much. If you're going to excel in this game, you have to push yourself hard. You never heard any of our five complain about overwork. We had a real thing going there. For that matter, if they'd let me pitch tonight, I'd want to go nine.
"I can't believe that pitching too much caused my injury. I could've gotten it if I'd pitched 100 innings. I didn't pitch 300 innings in '80, and I probably averaged only 100 pitches a game. Against Toronto I finished a game with only 77 pitches. I threw the ball over the plate. I'm a sinker, slider, control pitcher. It was all so easy for me. I was pitching well. There was no reason to slow down. Unfortunately, we don't have lights on our bodies to tell us when to stop. I could've been a lot smarter. The elbow started bothering me late in '82 when I began to have that tendinitis feeling. But I continued to pitch. I thought that it would just go away and everything would be fine. Then, late that season, when I finally realized it wasn't going to go away, I told Billy, and he took me out of there right away. We were out of it by then anyway. Now I know I should've paid more attention to the warning signals. But I'd never had an injury before so bad that I couldn't throw a baseball. This was the first time I couldn't answer the bell. I just couldn't accept that. But when I realized I couldn't turn a doorknob to get out of the house, I knew I was in trouble.
"The only times I've felt bad in all of this were when the doctors told me there was no guarantee the operation would heal my arm, and again when I heard some radio announcer say that all five of us were finished. I've never believed that. We've all been forced to take some time off, but we've all got the potential to come back. Steve is getting better all the time, and I saw Brian earlier this year in Phoenix, and he looked good. I've seen Mike a few times, but I haven't talked to Matt since last year. I haven't seen Billy since he was fired here. I've called Art a couple of times, but he never returned my calls. Baseball is a constantly changing environment. You've got to get used to that. But I can see all of us pitching again, if not together, somewhere. I'd love to see us all back in the game. I've never had a confidence problem; I'm going to enjoy baseball again as much as I did before. Nobody can tell me I can't pitch."
Keough, whose father, Marty, was a major league outfielder, was The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year in 1980, Martin's first year as manager of the A's. "I think Matt was like a project for Billy," says Kingman. "He could say, 'Look what I did for this pitcher.' " In '79 Keough lost his first 14 decisions and finished the year with a 2-17 record. In '80 he won his first three starts, the first by a shutout. He completed 13 of his first 16 starts and 16 of his first 20. His 20 complete games placed him third behind Langford and Norris, and he completed the season with a 16-13 record and a 2.92 ERA. He won his first five starts in '81 and seemed headed for another banner season when, in May, he slipped on the mound in Baltimore and experienced a twinge of pain in his shoulder, pain that was to dog him for the next three years. He still finished the shortened season with a 10-6 record, and he went 8‚Öì courageous innings against the Yankees in the final playoff loss, leaving the game with the A's behind 1-0. The final score was 4-0.
In 1982, pitching with pain, he tied for the American League lead in losses with 18, and his ERA climbed to 5.72. On June 15, 1983 he was traded to the Yankees for two minor-leaguers. He pitched only 99‚Öî innings that year and had a 5-7 record and a 5.33 ERA. He was experimenting with a knuckleball at the Yankees' Double A farm in Nashville this spring when the pain in his shoulder became so acute that he was placed on the disabled list. He has an inflammation of the rotator cuff but no tear, so rest and weight training, not surgery, have been prescribed. Keough went almost three months without throwing a ball. He has been working out, jogging and swimming in the Los Angeles area, where he lives. We meet him just after one of these workouts, in the lobby of a Santa Ana hotel. On a staff of talkers, Keough may well be the most voluble.
"This girl I'm going out with," he says, "saw a blowup of that SI cover with the five of us. 'Where are these guys now?' she asked me. Wow! Well, I think when success is there you have to grab the moment. And it was there for us. I pitched in pain for the last half of the '81 season, but there was no way I was going to give that up. You could've told me I had a 70-30 chance of tearing my arm up, and I still wouldn't have wanted to miss a turn. Those were my greatest moments in baseball—the record, the playoffs. My mistake was, I thought my arm problems would go away. I thought that I was invincible.
"Ballplayers are never the best judges of what's wrong with them. We were all such good athletes that we thought we could always go nine. Billy never failed to ask us how we felt. He would always say there was no room for heroes. He just wanted you to tell the truth. But we had such egos. We felt if it's just a soreness maybe we're better at 75 percent than the others would be at 100. We have to share any blame for what happened to us. I know I'm sick and tired of hearing about Billy Burnout. Billy and Art took an obscure ball club and taught it how to win. How could I object to that? We never pitched any more than pitchers did on other competitive teams, anyway. I completed 20 games in '80, but I only pitched 250 innings. There are too many intangibles involved to place the blame on any one person.
"I know I hurt my shoulder in Baltimore before the strike. The mound was wet, and I slipped. My arm was way behind me. I walked around for a while out there, but I was still hurting. I stayed in that game. And then I lost my next two decisions. Billy and Art are convinced the strike hurt us, and I agree. I was naive enough to think that by resting my arm during the strike, the pain would stop. It didn't. I found I could pitch with 10 days off, but not very well with less than that. I missed turns the rest of '81. In '82 we had a rainy spring and too many people in camp. None of us got enough work. I never went more than four innings all spring. The strike and the short spring were devastating.
"Michael and McCatty both spent time on the disabled list in '82, and Rick and I were pitching every four days, but all four of us were hurting. The philosophy then was to keep the young pitchers in Tacoma and not bring them up. I don't think the PCL pennant race was worth what happened to the rest of us. Kids like Chris Codiroli and Steve Baker could've taken some of the pressure off of us. Roy Eisenhardt [the A's president] is a magnificently talented, well-rounded man, but he was too idealistic. He had a young ball club, an owner's dream. What he didn't understand was that a team can go down real fast with injuries. Now he knows that you've got to have a bullpen. Baltimore is the model. Their starters will go seven, and then the pen comes in.
"Otherwise, I'm in terrific shape now. If I never pitch again, I've got that. It's funny. I can lift a 250-pound weight, but a five-ounce baseball can hurt me. I've got a satellite TV dish now, so I can watch all the games anywhere, but it's so frustrating watching other people play that I just have to clear out of the house and go out on the beach and run. I'm only 29 years old. I'd like to think that I can pitch again."
McCatty was in his second full major league season in 1980. He won 14 and lost 14, completed 11 of 31 starts and pitched 222 innings. He completed eight of his last 11 starts and won four of his last five games. On Aug. 10, he lost a 14-inning complete game to Seattle 2-1. In '81 McCatty emerged as one of the league's premier pitchers. He led the league with a 2.32 ERA and tied for the lead in wins (14) and shutouts (four). He was second to Langford with 16 complete games and was fourth in innings pitched with 186. He finished second to Rollie Fingers in the Cy Young Award voting.
A mirthful man, the leading prankster on what was a team of practical jokers, McCatty listed Fowler as his boyhood idol in the A's 1982 press guide. He once set Martin's shoelaces on fire in the dugout at the moment the manager was giving the sign for one of his celebrated Billy Ball suicide squeezes. But the laughter rang hollow for the prankster in '82, when his shoulder began to throb with every pitch. He threw only 128‚Öî innings that year and 167 the next. His ERA for both years was 3.99 and he won a total of 12 games. His injury, a knot in the rotator cuff, did not, however, require surgery, and, grittily, he has worked his way back into the A's starting rotation. This year, pitching more confidently as the season progresses, he has a 7-12 win-loss record and a 4.59 ERA in 29 games. He has completed four of his starts. McCatty is the only one of the Five Aces to have stayed in the majors. We find him in a coffee shop near the Coliseum. He's scheduled to pitch the next day.
"Camelot sure fell apart, didn't it?" he says ruefully. "Before, it was the Five Aces. Now, people are saying the hand's played out. Before I got hurt I could throw my fastball consistently in the 90s. Now I'm known as 'Steve McCatty and his traveling junk shop.' At first it bothered me. Everybody wants to throw like Nolan Ryan, but you've got to be honest with yourself. I have to be so much finer now. But I've learned how to pitch. I've learned to move the ball around, change speeds. A lot of guys have never been able to throw hard, and they're still in the league. We all lose our fastballs eventually. I just wish mine hadn't gone so quickly. But my velocity is getting better all the time, and who's to say I won't be throwing 90 again someday. Ha!
"Billy didn't ruin our arms. Our own competitiveness did it. We wouldn't take ourselves out. I know what I should've done when my arm started hurting. 'Tomorrow it'll be fine,' I'd say. So I paid the price. Nineteen eighty-two and-three were the most miserable years I've ever been a part of. I pitched when it felt like my arm was going to come right out of the socket. I'd have tears in my eyes, and in my mind I'd say to the guy at the plate, 'Hit this one, for God's sake, so I don't have to throw another.' I still don't know why I got the soreness, but I was really the first to go down. Then it was like dominoes. It was really strange, like 'Who's next?' Somehow the idea got put in our minds that if we didn't go nine we weren't doing the job. We were caught up in our macho image. We knew that Billy was going to stay with us from the national anthem to the bottom of the ninth. The reason we stayed in so long was that we were throwing well and Billy didn't have much confidence in the bullpen. But the bullpen wasn't getting much work, and it's hard to come in once every 14 days in a pressure situation and be asked to throw a slow curveball on the black.
"At first, they'd at least bring in the relievers for Brian and me. We could throw harder than the others, but we couldn't throw our breaking balls for strikes. It was like we had two staffs—the other three guys and Brian and me. Billy called most of our pitches. We'd always have to look in the dugout for the sign. It became an involuntary action. I find myself still doing it, and now I'm just staring at nothing. Pretty soon, Murph [team captain Murphy] will yell at me, 'Get your ass back in the game.' Anyway, Brian and I finally started to pitch better, so the bullpen got even less work. They weren't real thrilled about it out there. Bob Lacey used to complain all the time, until they gave him the 'see ya later.'
"I don't believe in that burnout theory at all. I used to play winter ball, and with that I'd go over 300 innings every year. It's frustrating to me when I hear that burnout talk. It was so much a part of Billy's image that even when we were pitching well they'd say something's going to happen. And if it didn't, they'd say, 'Well, they're just lucky.' Billy is so much in the public eye. We'd hear it all the time: He's going to self-destruct. The worst of it is, with the pitching staff the critics were right. We did go down. But they were right for all the wrong reasons. I know that with me I was just too dumb to say, 'Hey, I've got pain. Better rest me.' I'm 30 now, and with age is supposed to come wisdom. But when?
"If you stood up to Billy and told him what you wanted to do, he'd let you do it. I think he really liked me. I was just crazy enough to sit down when he was yelling at people and laugh at him. In time, that would quiet him down. The day after I lit his shoelaces, he cut up all my street clothes. It was fun. And Art was one of the funniest men I've ever known. We had real Looney Tunes on that team. And then I got that terrible pain....
"But there are no tears now. I didn't have an operation. I'm probably lucky to still be playing. I never gave up on myself, and I don't think the others have given up either. I try never to think what we all might've done if we hadn't gotten hurt. I'm not looking over my shoulder and wondering what might have been."
It was common among the Aces to say that of them all Kingman had the best "stuff'—a fastball in the 90s and a crackling curveball not much slower. It was the stuff that dreams are made of, but none of Kingman's dreams came true. Unlike the others, he hasn't had a serious injury, but he has been bedeviled by some uncommonly bad luck and a questioning intelligence that routinely rejected authority figures, particularly Martin. "It was the intangibles in baseball that bothered Brian," says Keough. That and the sneaking suspicion, invariably well-founded, that somebody up there didn't like him.
In the glorious turnaround 1980 season, Kingman turned the wrong way, it seemed. After winning eight games and losing seven in '79 for a team that lost 108 games, he won eight again for a team that won 83; only this time he lost a league-leading 20. And yet he pitched well enough to have the win-loss totals reversed. As he readily points out, his ERA of 3.84 was about the same as the 3.79 of the Royals' Dennis Leonard, and Leonard won 20 games. The difference was that Leonard's team scored 5.29 runs per game when he started and Kingman's scored only 2.87. In the second half of the '81 season, Kingman was sent to the bullpen by his nemesis, Martin. He sulked so much there that Martin farmed him out to Tacoma at the start of the next season. Kingman refused to report and had a 5-1 record when the A's recalled him in June. Within a few weeks, he and Martin became embroiled in a noisy 2 a.m. argument inside and outside a Kansas City hotel. Kingman was traded to the Red Sox the following January and was released before the season began. He was signed as a free agent by the Giants and sent to their Triple A team in Phoenix, where, conveniently, he lives. In the hit-happy Pacific Coast League, he has a 5-5 record with a 6.37 ERA.
Kingman has a degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has played as many as 40 chess games by mail and is such an avid reader that he takes up to eight books—H.G. Wells's Outline of History among them—on road trips. He kept a journal during his playing days with Martin and the A's. A blowup of the SI cover is framed on one living-room wall and a color photograph of Martin and Fowler is on another. Martin's No. 1 uniform shirt with a rubber mask peering out from it hangs in his den. These aren't morbid obsessions, Kingman insists, while showing a visitor through his Spanish-style home; they're merely "conversation pieces."
"Billy affected us all," he says. "He helped some of us. Norris had that tremendous ability, so Billy let him do his crazy things. Rick would succeed anywhere under any conditions. Billy really liked Matt. I've often thought he ruined my career, but I know he didn't try to. Even if he hated someone, if they could win for him, he'd stick with them. The thing is, Billy likes to yell when he loses and I was losing the most and I don't like to be yelled at. Losing 20 for Billy makes a season twice as long. I kept asking myself, 'Why is this jackass ruining my life?' My wife, even my dog, hated it on days when I pitched because I'd come home in such an angry mood. It seemed as if I was the only one who wasn't successful. I felt like I was hurting the team. I think Billy thought I hated his guts, and he was probably right. Actually, I've gone the whole route from hating him to indifference to regarding it as a great experience.
"It was an unusual situation. Here's Billy with his picture on the cover of TIME. He's on the Johnny Carson show. People all over the place are yelling, 'Billy Ball! Billy Ball!' He's a bleeping national hero. And I'm not getting along with him. So who am I?
"From Day 1, we were motivated by fear. Billy wasn't just a manager. He was a tyrant. Nobody was sure of his job. Anybody could be replaced. It seemed as if your career depended on every play. I remember one game after Mike Edwards made a base-running goof, he told me that he felt like crawling off the field on his hands and knees—into the other team's dugout. We could never just lose a game. There was always one of three reasons why we lost: 1) because of a scapegoat, which I often was, 2) because some coach missed a sign, 3) because of some bleeping umpire.
"He was so intense; I often thought he was in danger of losing it out there. In a way, Billy was like the dad, chewing us out all the time, and Art was like the mom, telling us he didn't really mean it. The closest Billy would get to us was on a plane. He'd have a few drinks and try to use psychology, but with me it didn't work. He'd come by and tell me, 'With your stuff, you're going to win 20.' After another drink, he'd have me up to 23. I used to say that if Billy and I took a plane to Europe, I'd be a 30-game winner before we landed.
"Billy called most of my pitches and that would add about 20 minutes to the game—all that looking in the dugout. Now, I ask you, is it my game or his? He had this rule that if I ever got to 2 and 0 on a hitter, I couldn't throw the curve-ball. I'd obey that rule, throw a fastball and somebody would hit it out. The next day in the paper, Billy is calling me an idiot. But my real trouble was I couldn't get any runs. Some guys were getting 80 more runs a season than I was. Oh, what I could've done with those 80 runs.
"Billy was obsessed with complete games. I think maybe he wanted that record. I've heard the burnout theory, and maybe there's something to it. The last four pitches of a game are the hardest on the arm. Here you've thrown 120 to 130 pitches and you're fatigued. But the game is on the line and you need to come up with that something extra.
"The injury might not show up right away. It takes two or three years to metabolize, but it's there. I think that was particularly true of Langford.
"Spitters? We were definitely throwing them. I know I tried a few. Gorman Thomas hit one of them 10 rows back. Matt could throw some awesome ones. Cat might have, but his didn't do that much. Norris didn't need one. Art could teach you how to throw one, but he never ordered one. He might make a suggestion, though.
"I'm not really bitter about what happened. Disillusioned, yes, but the bitterness ended a long time ago. In baseball, your stats define you, and I'm a 20-game loser. But 20 losses is almost like a trademark. What's nine and 19? Nothing. I'm at the point now where I'm wondering what I'll do next. I'm wondering what the meaning of it all was. Separation from baseball is like leaving home, graduating from college. The worst is, you're 29 or 30 and you're out of the game looking for something else. Now what do you put on your job application—I play catch?"
'CAMELOT SURE FELL APART, DIDN'T IT?'