A low-budget, last-place team overseen by a greedy, unpopular owner who has alienated his fan base and is exploring a parallel path out of Oakland? Longtime fans have seen this act once before the A’s.
It only takes a cursory acquaintance with those humble 1979 A’s to realize it’s not the kind of story worth repeating.
Here, however, is owner John Fisher’s A’s, a living embodiment of the clumsy old 108-loss team. Despite a pair of wins over the Yankees this weekend, the A’s have the second-worst record in baseball (48-81 and 100-plus losing pace) and the worst attendance in the game. With a crowd of 29,498 for the Yankees on Sunday, the A’s surpassed the 650,000 mark for the season, ending fears that they would supplant the 2001 Montreal Expos for the lowest total (642,745) in nearly 40 years.
Fisher, who is keeping his options open in Las Vegas as he tries to get clearance for a new stadium at Howard Terminal, is saving a lot of money in the meantime. His Opening Day payroll of $47.6 million was $4 million more than Baltimore’s MLB minimum payroll. But after trading and releasing a host of veterans, these current A’s will collectively earn just $17.3 million. For comparison’s sake, the Mets’ Max Scherzer will take home 2 ½ times more in salary this season ($43.3 million) than the entire 26-man A’s roster combined.
As bad as things seem for the A’s these days, they’re still just a minor league version of Charlie Finley’s parsimonious old Oakland team in 1979, whose missteps and antics would have been made much better in the movie “Major League Baseball.” League” than in the movie. did in the American League back then.
“My recollection is that we lost nine of our first 10 games and things went downhill from there,” joked Hal Ramey, the iconic Bay Area radio host who was the A’s announcer in 1979.
Those old A’s had characters made for Hollywood that included a disgruntled outfielder who tried to hit the Oakland manager over the head with a bat during a game, a relief pitcher who performed an exorcism on his own jersey while setting it on fire after a poor start, and a seldom-used backrest, best known for jumping into hotel pools from upper-floor balconies.
“It was a really complicated situation for all of us. They all wanted out. They knew they were going to treat you like a (expletive) dog,” said former A’s reliever Dave Heaverlo, who was the highest-paid player at $100,000 on a team whose league-lowest payroll was $1.1 million. , or $600,000 less. than the next lowest team spent.
When Finley wasn’t trying to move the A’s, he was busy micromanaging his accounts. Longtime A’s clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich, who retired this season after 54 years, said no receipt was too small for Finley to complain about.
“We had to account for everything and watch our spending because Charlie didn’t want to spend money on anything,” recalled Vucinich, who is still laughing about the time Finley called him demanding to know why he had submitted a particularly small laundry receipt. “So he ended up making a $6 long distance call to complain about a $4 laundry bill.”
It was a season that really needed to be seen to be believed; Unfortunately, hardly anyone bothered to show up at the Oakland Coliseum back then.
The A’s attendance of 306,000 in ’79 remains the lowest of any team in nearly 70 years. His 326 season ticket holders are also believed to be a modern record for futility. It was never worse than that cold, rainy April night when the A’s set another unsavory modern MLB record of 653 fans. It is believed that only 250 people were actually there.
“I always said that everyone stayed home to listen to the game,” Ramey joked during a recent phone conversation.
Heaverlo tried to joke about the lack of fans back then and felt the wrath of his curmudgeonly owner. Shortly after the 653-fan night, Heaverlo told a reporter that he had the perfect plan to increase the A’s attendance. Since, like these days, the country was dealing with a gas crisis in 1979, Heaverlo figured Finley and the town could solve both the gas shortage and the A’s’ woeful attendance by opening a season-long gas station. night in center field.
Heaverlo soon received his own long distance call from Finley ranting.
“Finley got so mad at me. He said, ‘How can you make a joke out of that?’” Heavenrlo said during a recent phone interview. “I told him, ‘You’re the one kidding me, Charlie.’ ”
About the only thing those A’s had in abundance was eccentricity.
The 1979 team had an outfielder named Joe Wallis, an accomplished cliff jumper who had a penchant for harrowing jumps into hotel pools from dizzying heights. He had reportedly given up hotel clowning in Oakland, but “Wild Joe” was still prone to one or two wacky episodes.
One night, Wallis was racing his Porsche Turbo Carrera on an East Bay freeway and ended up trying to elude some highway patrol officers. He put some distance between himself and the patrolmen before speeding into his neighborhood. Wallis figured he’d be home free once he parked his car in his garage. Only officers didn’t have much trouble finding him: Wallis had driven his Porsche through the garage door that didn’t open fast enough.
Then there was Bob Lacey, one of the best left-handed relief pitchers in the league of his era, who had some unusual ways of dealing with tough times. Lacey wore the same No. 34 Hall of Fame Rollie Fingers that he previously wore with Oakland. Lacey recalled that Fingers struggled at Minnesota’s old Metropolitan Stadium, so after experiencing his own tough times there in uniform No. 34, he figured the jersey was to blame.
“I said, ‘I’m going to exorcise this shirt.’ So I took it and burned it, then buried it in the bullpen,” Lacey said by phone last week. “That was a stupid thing to do.”
Maybe so, but it was ultimately less damaging than the way Lacey handled A’s long losing streaks.
“We lost a few ballgames in a row, so I thought it would start a fight. I used to do that,” Lacey said, almost apologetically.
He said the easiest way to start having problems as a pitcher was to do it with ground balls to first base, where he could “accidentally” collide with the runner while going to cover first base. Lacey, who is 6-foot-5, took his sinister scheme to extremes when Kansas City’s Darrell Porter hit a ball to first base.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to take a low George Atkinson forearm shot to his face,’” Lacey recalled. “I did it subtly. I knew he would come for me and he did. He grabbed me, we rolled, and here comes the rest of the KC crew.
“He was really a punk,” added Lacey, who mellowed and got his master’s degree in education after leaving baseball and recently retired as an instructor in Arizona. “But we didn’t really have a lot of team leaders and maybe we didn’t know how to have a lot of class. We were all trying to survive in baseball.”
His manager, Jim Marshall, found himself contemplating his own survival one afternoon after a heated in-game conversation with one of his players on the bench. Disgruntled outfielder Miguel Dilone grabbed a bat and attempted to attack Marshall before others broke it just in time.
Dilone’s unhappiness reportedly had a lot to do with his playing time, which was going to drop substantially as the A’s had just called up one of their highest-rated rookies.
Dilone’s attack turned out to be his last act with the A’s, who soon traded him.
That rookie outfielder, who grew up in Oakland, made his debut the next day. Years later, Rickey Henderson would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame and be recognized as the greatest base stealer and leadoff hitter of all time.
Turns out something good came out of that miserable 1979 season in Oakland. This miserable season is unlikely to reveal the next Rickey Henderson.
On this date: In 1979, Rickey Henderson made his MLB debut and recorded the first of his record 1,406 stolen bases. pic.twitter.com/iENzXTqmxS
— ESPN (@espn) June 24, 2018