The Rise and Demise of the Five Aces

The Washington Nationals say Stephen Strasburg won’t be limited in his 2012 starts but will be limited in his total innings’ workload this season. They’ve clearly learned a lesson or three from Strasburg’s almost-lost 2011 following his rookie splash of 2010. They may have learned it in decent part from the wizened gentleman who is only their second pitching coach since they relocated from Montreal. A gentleman who knows only too much about the destruction, actual or potential, of talented young pitchers who might be overworked, overused, overextended, and finally overcooked.

Steve McCatty has been there. Done that. Bought the Billy Martin bar coasters.

A pitching coach who learned the hard way about arm preservation . . .

We take you back to a Sports Illustrated cover of 27 April 1981. There they are. Resplendent in their beer-league-style Oakland Athletics uniforms. Resembling a second- or third-generation Mustache Gang in their own right. Even behind their playful smiles, even the most loosey-goose of the lot,they look as though one and all are about to gouge their initials into your craniums beneath the visors of your batting helmets. Clockwise from the upper left, they were: Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, Brian Kingman, Mike Norris, and Matt Keough. Righthanders all. Posed in front of clubhouse lockers and behind a bold, red cover headline:

THE AMAZING A’S AND THEIR FIVE ACES.

And you thought last year’s off- and pre-season Four Aces hype around the Philadelphia Phillies’ incoming starting rotation was a bunch of ballyhooey?

Pitching was a many-splendored thing for the Five Aces—at first, anyway . . .

Two years later, Oakland’s Five Aces began resembling five patients in an orthopedic surgeon’s intensive care unit, and Bill James wrote this while composing his 1983 Baseball Abstract: “A year ago, in writing about the Oakland A’s, I put forward the thesis that (manager) 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 [thrown enormous amounts of innings/complete games] for him in the past, I pointed out, had paid a price for it two or three years down the line.”

Is that really what happened to Langford, McCatty, Kingman, Norris, and Keough?

By midway in 1984, only McCatty was on the A’s major league roster. It wouldn’t be long from there—the odd, brief, failed comeback attempt to the contrary—before all five were out of baseball. In the middle of the concurrent hype known as Billyball—the run-and-gun, junkyard-dog baserunning game the former Yankee brought to fruit with the 1980-82 Athletics—did Billy Martin, that least patient of managers, really burn out a starting staff who were reasonably young and likewise a little more than promising?

Let’s take it season-by-season:

Billy Martin—Did he wreck a pitching staff behind Billyball’s running and gunning?

1980: Martin’s first season managing the A’s, after being shoved out of New York. Langford led the American League in complete games and innings pitched to go with his 19-12 won-lost record, his 1.60 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his 1.17 walks/hits-to-innings-pitched ratio, and his nifty 3.26 ERA. McCatty was a .500 pitcher (14-14) with a 3.86 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, and a 1.15 K/BB. Kingman hung up a 1.41 K/BB, a 1.38 WHIP, and a 3.83 ERA, not exactly world-beating. (He also got only 2.87 runs of support to work with per game, on average, which may explain a lot about why he was a 20-game loser that season.) Norris was a 20-game winner in 1980, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting (three writers left him off their ballots, somehow, ensuring the win for Baltimore’s Steve Stone), with a 2.15 K/BB, a 1.05 WHIP, and a 2.53 ERA. Keough was almost as good, a 16-13 W-L taking only a little of the luster off a 2.92 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 20 complete games.

In other words, among the Amazing A’s and their Five Aces, only Norris and Keough really did look like aces by their statistics entering 1981. Langford, and McCatty looked like potential aces but serviceable numbers three through five pitchers. Kingman pitched in a lot of hard luck and a lot more of Martin’s foolishness, about which more anon.

Langford–Reeled off one streak of 22 straight complete games . . .

Thirty years after the season which would hang up their dilemna once and for all, though, the quintet is still remembered as a dominant or at least intimidating staff in a three-season period in which all wasn’t exactly how it seemed to promise.

1981: The strike-interrupted and shortened season. The A’s ended up in the postseason but got shoved out of the American League Championship Series. (By the Yankees, of all people.) This is what happened to the Five Aces, taken clockwise again by light of the SI cover portrait:

Langford—Shaved his ERA to 2.99, led the American League in complete games (18) for the second year in a row (in 1980, he threw 28 complete games), hiked his K/BB to 1.45, and this in spite of his WHIP swelling a tick to 1.27. He finished 1980-81 with 46 complete games and, at one point, reeled off a stupefying 22 straight complete games.

McCatty—Led the American League in wins (14) and shutouts (4), cut his ERA dramatically enough, to 2.33, ballooned his K/BB to 1.49, shrank his WHIP to 1.08, and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting.

Kingman—Pitched in only eighteen games and hung up a 3-6 W-L record with his ERA swelling a tick to 3.93, and though his K/BB improved to 1.63 his WHIP swelled to 1.53. He clashed hard enough with Martin to earn a banishment to the minors before the season ended.

Norris—Saw his ERA swell back up to 3.75 on a 12-9 won-lost record, his WHIP climbed to 1.21, his K/BB shrank to 1.24, and he led the league with 14 wild pitches.

Keough—Shrank his WHIP a tick to 1.21 and finished 10-6 after starting the season 5-1, but his ERA jumped to 3.40 and his K/BB wasn’t much different (1.33) than 1980. He’d become notable for a gutsy performance in the final ALCS game against the Yankees, pitching eight and a third and leaving the game with the A’s down a mere 1-0.

And the Oakland pitching staff still led the league with 60 games out of the 109 played on the split-season, after leading the league with 94 complete games in 1980.

McCatty—Second for the Cy in ’81 . . .

In other words, if the 1980 Aces had only two (Norris and Keough) whom you could call aces in fact or in potential by their numbers, the 1981 edition had only two—who weren’t the same two (this time: Langford and McCatty)—who could have been called aces in fact or aces-potential, according to their statistics. So what happened to the quintet in 1982? This time, let’s take them in reverse order:

Keough—Led the American League in losses (18), home runs surrendered (38), saw his WHIP balloon to 1.60 and his K/BB shrink to a staggering 0.74 (he struck out only 75 and walked 101). He also surrendered the most earned runs in the league and finished with a whopping 5.74 ERA.

Norris—His ERA ballooned to 4.76; he had a convenience store W-L record (7-11); his K/BB shrank almost as dramatically as Keough’s (to 0.99; he struck out 83 and walked 84).

Kingman—Recalled from the minors, his ERA shot up to 4.48; he went 4-12; his K/BB fell between Keough’s and Norris’s (0.81); his WHIP went back to 1.55.

McCatty—He managed a winning record (6-3) but his K/BB fell to 0.94 and his WHIP inflated to 1.51, not to mention his ERA jumping up to 3.99.

Langford—His K/BB was even better, at 1.61 . . . but his WHIP climbed to 1.32, he went 11-16, and his ERA blasted up to 4.21.

With the A’s falling to fifth place in the American League West, and the surrealistic toll beginning to show in earnest on that once-vaunted pitching staff, the new A’s ownership (Walter Haas had bought the team from Charlie Finley) dumped Martin at the end of 1982.

Kingman–Lost 20 in ’80 with only 2.87 runs a game to work with . . .

There were plenty enough around the American League who believed Martin, in somewhat typical style, had also made sure enough of his pitchers learning a few subterfuges, enough to turn an apparent group of raw kids and also-rans into a group who seemed to strike trepidation enough into the league’s hitters. Or so it was thought. Wherever Martin traveled, seemingly, so traveled his favourite pitching coach, Art Fowler. Fowler, once a late-blossoming and useful relief pitcher for several major league clubs, was reputed to be teaching the wet one to enough pitchers on any staff with which he worked, for his entire life as a pitching coach, and was often suspected just as powerfully of being Martin’s number one drinking buddy.

Some of the evidence? Before Fowler showed up in Oakland, Keough, Langford, McCatty and Norris had a combined 30-53 W-L record with 23 complete games. After Fowler’s arrival, those four went 71-48 with 83 complete games. This can be seen as the sign of a coach who spots and knows how to get the best out of his charges. Customarily, it is. But there were loud enough whisperings around the league that Fowler was getting something else out of them: what Thomas Boswell once called “salvation by salivation.”

“Gaylord Perry was the one who turned on Billy Martin,” Paul Richards—former catcher, manager, general manager, and then a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers—told Boswell in the middle of the Five Aces’ actual or alleged run. “Now, everywhere that Martin goes, he takes along Art Fowler, who was a pretty good spitballer himself. There’s no doubt that the Oakland staff all had grease on ’em someplace last season.”

Well, now. Throwing the spitter is thought to abet elbow and other arm strain. “The strain on a spitballer’s arm is exceptional,” Richards also told Boswell, “and you’re endangering your career. You throw the spitter like a fastball but with a stiff wrist, squeezing the ball out of your fingers like a watermelon seed. Instead of a free-and-easy release, the shock goes back into your shoulder.”

Norris—Lost the Cy to Steve Stone in ’80 . . .

If Fowler indeed taught any or all the Five Aces the spitter, and that were blended to their workloads in the Martin-Fowler years, not to mention the breaking balls all five already threw (McCatty’s was thought to be the best of their curve balls), then it merely becomes a backstory behind their apparent rise and striking fall within three years of their 1980-81 performances:

Langford—Pitched in pain, perhaps stubbornly (“He’s his own worst enemy,” McCatty would say of him), throughout 1982. He spent just about all of 1983 on the disabled list and underwent elbow surgery that August. By age 30 he’d be finished as a starter; he’d hang around until 34, somehow, as a somewhat marginal relief pitcher.

McCatty—Started to suffer shoulder trouble in 1982, pitched with it as far as 1984, by which time he was the only one of the Five Aces to still be in the majors when SI caught up to him and them that season.

Kingman—His 1980 ERA of 3.84 ERA balanced to that of 20-game winner Dennis Leonard . He avoided arm trouble, perhaps the only one of the Five to do so. But his competitiveness and his distaste for martinet-like authority figures collided with Martin’s stubbornness, Martin leaving him in games when he was being murdered on the mound. He ended up banished to the minors, traded, and out of baseball at age 29.

Norris—His decline was punctuated by shoulder surgery following 1983, after he’d spent 1981 and 1982 pitching through pain. There were those who believed, however, that he was affected at least as much by too much taste for the high life and, in time, an addiction to cocaine. (He was one of the players to testify at the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985.) He may also have been affected by throwing a screwball that interfered with his mechanics and may have contributed to his shoulder trouble. He was gone by age 28, never mind a brief and failed comeback try at 35.

Keough—The son of one-time major league utility player Marty, and nephew of one-time Oakland outfielder Joe, Keough was actually named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year for 1980. His fate may have been sealed when he dinged his shoulder as he slipped off a mound during a 1981 game against the Orioles. In early 1983, Keough was traded to the Yankees for a pair of minor league players and finished the year 5-7 with a 5.33 ERA. He sat out 1984 recuperating from a rotator cuff inflammation, then played in the National League two more seasons, mostly as a relief pitcher of little enough note.

What did the Five Aces have to say about their actual or alleged Martinizing when Sports Illustrated caught up to them in 1984?

Langford—“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 all those complete games. We (pitchers) pushed each other . . . Not one of us thought he was pitching too much . . . Unfortunately, we don’t have lights on our bodies to tell us when to stop. I could’ve been a lot smarter . . . Now I know I should have 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 realised I couldn’t turn a doorknob to get out of the house, I knew I was in trouble.”

McCatty—“Billy didn’t ruin our arms. Our own competitiveness did it. We wouldn’t take ourselves out. I know what I should have 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 still don’t know why I got the soreness, but I was really the first to go down. Then it was like dominoes . . . The reason we stayed in so long was that we were throwing well and Billy didn’t have much confidence in the bullpen . . . Billy called most of our pitches. We’d always have to look in the dugout for the sign. It became an involuntary action . . . 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’.”

Kingman—“Billy affected us all. 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 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 . . . From Day One, 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 . . . Billy called most of my pitches and that would add about 20 minutes to the game—all that looking in the dugout . . . He had this rule that if I ever got to 2-0 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.”

Norris—“Before Billy, I had never before been able to pitch in abundance. I welcomed the chance ecstatically . . . 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 . . . Pitching itself is an unnatural act, and the screwball is an unnatural pitch. I fell in love with that pitch. I could throw it hard . . . 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 . . . Without velocity, (my screwball) wouldn’t sink. It just stayed on the same plane and became hittable.”

Keough—20 complete games, 2.92 ERA in 1980; gutsy start in the 1981 ALCS; led the league in 1982 losses . . .

Keough—“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 the 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.”

What to say to sum it up? Perhaps the thing most proper to say is that a drink of five stubborn pitchers, with an even more stubborn manager as the straw to stir that drink, equals a potion that feels great going down but leaves you with stomach trouble when the flavour is gone.

Billy Martin—who may have been the best manager of his time for the game you had to win yesterday, and may have been one of the worst managers of his time (or any time) for the team that needs to be built to win longer term, which may be the most salient reason why he hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame, as his partisans insist he should be—stirred such a potion with the Oakland starting rotation of 1980-82.

Those Athletics teams went from winners to World Series would-bes to fifth-place flameouts in a space of three seasons of Billyball. It cost Martin and Fowler their jobs. And, it turned five talented if not always consistent among them pitchers into has-beens before they reached the age past which it was once said nobody should be trusted.

Rick Langford has been the Toronto Blue Jays’s bullpen coach since 2010, a return engagement since he’d been the Jays’ pitching coach in 2000 before moving to spend a long term in that job for the Syracuse SkyChiefs.

Brian Kingman has made something of an afterlife by way of his having been, for long enough, baseball’s last known 20-game loser. When Detroit’s Mike Maroth turned the dubious trick in 2003 (his second major league season), and Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie threatened to do it twice in a three-season span (he never quite got there either time), there Kingman would be, having been sought out for his observations, having developed an engaging sense of humour about it. Otherwise, Kingman spends his time working for a Phoenix, Arizona distribution company and coaching baseball at a private high school.

Mike Norris, who once had to be told by Bob Gibson that he’d embarrassed himself by throwing only two inside pitches all game long, overcame his cocaine addiction and today works with Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, helping teach inner-city youth the game and its pitfalls.

Matt Keough may have the saddest baseball afterlife of the Five. His lawyer has said he’s never been the same man after taking a hard foul off his head, while making an aborted comeback attempt (after a spell playing in Japan, as his father had done once) with the 1992 California Angels. Once a special assistant in the A’s front office after his playing days ended, Keough has since battled alcoholism, spent time in prison for drunk driving, and been divorced from his wife, one-time Playboy Playmate Jeane Tomasino, with whom he appeared on television’s The Real Housewives of Orange County. One of his three children, Shane, played in the Oakland farm system before bouncing around the minors and being released in 2010; had he made the majors, he would have been the Show’s twelfth third-generation player.

Can Strasburg be kept from the fate of pitching coach McCatty and his old rotation mates?

Steve McCatty, meanwhile, is looking forward to trying to keep his pitchers healthy, especially Strasburg and Zimmerman now that they’ve recovered their health. Not to mention getting veteran Edwin Jackson (signed two weeks earlier) to fix a hitch that had him tipping his pitches; or, trying to help John Lannan sort his situation out, after the Jackson signing left Lannan the potential odd man out; or, helping manager Davey Johnson decide whom, between Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detweiler, will make the Nats’ rotation or go to the pen.

It’s probably a lot simpler for McCatty than trying to figure out how he and his fellow Five Aces went from aces to anguish, in what must now seem like a midsummer’s nightmare.

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