Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27, 1982: Catch him if you can

MILWAUKEE - The Oakland A's were terrible in 1979. Like 108 losses terrible. Five years removed from a a third straight World Series title, free agency and owner Charlie Finley's penny-pinching had destroyed the dynasty and nearly the franchise.

Before the 1980 season, the A's brought in Billy Martin, recently fired by New York, to manage. Martin looked around at the roster and couldn't have liked what he saw. It was filled with past flops and future failures. There was little reason for optimism.

Except in left field. There, Martin saw a young, brash, talented player, a player unlike any that had ever graced a Major League field. He was fast, he could hit, and he had such a pronounced crouch at the plate that pitchers couldn't help but walk him. Martin knew he had something in Rickey Henderson, and something was better than nothing.

So Martin came up with a plan. He pulled Henderson aside in spring training and laid it out for him in simple terms. The first seven innings of every game, Martin said, belonged to Henderson. He could do whatever he wanted at the plate - and, more importantly, on the basepaths - without looking for signals from the manager. Martin just asked that Henderson concede to him for the last two innings.

Given unprescedented latitude, Henderson ran wild, stealing 100 bases and scoring 111 runs. Martin coaxed the rest of the lineup to 83 wins, an improvement of 29 games, as the A's finished second. They made the playoffs the following year, and while the strike kept Henderson from repeating his numbers, he was a better player across the board.

In 1982, Billyball was played to its extreme. Henderson had virtually no talented teammates left around him; the young pitching staff that had carried the A's through the 80 and 81 seasons had broken down. Oakland plummeted back to 5th place. But Rickey kept running. He led the league in walks, mostly because he was the only dangerous hitter in the lineup, and he kept making opponents pay for walking him. By August, he was already at 100 stolen bases.

On August 27 against the eventual AL champion Brewers, Henderson's season reached its pinnacle. His steal of second in the third inning gave him 119 steals for the season, breaking the modern-day single-season record held by Lou Brock. Most impressively, he had broken the record despite the fact his stolen bases were literally his team's only offensive threat, and he did it with more than a month left in the season.

Henderson stole three more bases that game and ended up with 130 for the season, setting the modern stolen base mark at an impossibly high number. He'd eventually set the career stolen base record, among several other Major League records, on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Billyball came to an end in 1982, as Martin was let go after the season. Henderson followed him out the door two years later, returning in time to join a new A's dynasty in the late 80s. While Henderson played at an extraordinarily high level for most of his career, the days of Billyball were behind him. But nobody forgot the days where everybody knew he would walk, then steal second, but nobody could do anything about it.

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