“Hey that looks fun, I’m gonna try to play that game.”
1980 was a historic year for the Oakland A’s.
Gone were the dominant teams of the 1970s as the A’s went into a total overhaul.
Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin to guide a group of burgeoning young players with the hopes of improving on a disastrous 1979 season that saw them go 54-109.
One of those talented young players was reliever Bob Lacey and he joins us for a special two-part edition of Spitballin’.
Lacey was the team’s closer in 1980 as the A’s were still trying to fill the void left by Rollie Fingers, who had signed with the Padres in free agency three years prior. It seemed like a good opportunity for Lacey, and he did well in the role.
The only issue was that 1980 was the year that Billy Martin went back to the Dead Ball Era with his views on pitchers finishing what they started.
In 1980, A’s pitchers threw 94 complete games, rendering the closer role somewhat obsolete.
That is not to say Lacey was out of work. Lacey pitched 79.2 innings and had an ERA of 2.94 with six saves. If you need nerd stats to judge a player, he was first among A’s relievers in WAR and fourth overall on the pitching staff.
Martin’s methods may sound crazy by today’s standards, but he led the A’s to an incredible 29-game turnaround. Their 83 wins was second in the American League West and young stars like Rickey Henderson, Tony Armas, Dwayne Murphy and Mike Norris emerged in this exciting brand of baseball.
On the 1980 A’s, life may have been tough for a closer where pitchers finished over two-thirds of the games they started, but it was Lacey who ended up making history.
In a move that befitted Martin, the legendary manager had his closer Lacey start the second to last game of the season; an unconventional move to say the least. Lacey ended up throwing a shutout against Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and the Brewers, hurling the 94th and final complete game of the season.
He’s got some incredible stories and a fantastic way of telling them, so join us for Part 1 of Spitballin’ with Bob Lacey.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lacey. I know you have a lot of stories to share, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I probably would have played football, but I would always get whippings when I played with the older kids. I grew up in a town where they built a football field before they built a high school. My dad had every bone in his body busted and he could have played for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M. I was 6’5” and I could throw the football and run. My dad wouldn’t let me play football though, so I played baseball. I was really good at it and had a good arm. I played outfield, first base and pitcher.
Did you have any favorite teams or players?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and that was one of the few cities in Arizona with teams for Spring Training. The Indians and the Giants trained there. I liked the Indians, but I was really a Giants fan. Willie Mays was my favorite player. I always thought one of the reasons he was so popular, besides being such a great player, was that he seemed to be having fun all the time. To a seven year old kid, they see a guy smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves they think, “Hey that looks fun, I’m gonna try to play that game.”
“I threw the pitch and it sailed right into Don Baylor’s back. He looked down at the ball, picked it up and started running out to the mound. I thought, “OK, here we go.”
What was your experience like playing baseball as you got older? Was there a time you thought you could play professionally?
I played in high school and made the All-City team and All-State. Me and two guys I played with growing up ended up making the Major Leagues: Ronnie Hassey and Paul Moskau. We played against some of those California teams that were real good. I remember one of them had Steve Bartkowski, who went on to play quarterback for the Falcons. Gary Carter was on one of those teams too. After high school, I got an opportunity to play for Central Arizona College. I didn’t make it past a semester because I wasn’t doing well in school. They used to have a summer and winter draft and I got drafted by the A’s in the 10th round.
What was it like getting into the A’s organization at that time?
The A’s had a diversity of players at that time. We had guys from Panama, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Manny Trillo was from Venezuela. The A’s were doing what is done now as far as being diverse to who we drafted. Charlie Finley had a tendency of drafting outfielders, shortstops and pitchers. He thought that if the outfielders or shortstops couldn’t hit, they still had a good enough arm and they could convert them to pitching. Case in point: Matt Keough, he started at a third baseman. The A’s had a great scouting system, but a low budget.
The A’s were just starting that three-year World Series run when you got your start playing in A-Ball. What was your first taste of minor league baseball like?
I played my rookie year in Coos Bay-North Bend in Oregon. On that team, we had Chester Lemon, Claudell Washington, Champ Summers and myself. All four of us made it to the Majors. I got in trouble because I started a fight on the bus and some guy nearly got killed. I got accused of instigating a fight by riling somebody up to choke another player, so they sent me home. I had a miserable year; baseball was all I had. When you play baseball with some of the fellas, you play with guys whose dads had businesses or they had a college background or a big signing bonus.
When I was drafted, they gave me the signing bonus they used to give to players from the Dominican, Venezuela or Cuba, which was $1,000. The Major League minimum in 1977 was $19,000. I didn’t have anything, so I went home and trained all year to prepare for the next season. I barely made it through Spring Training my second year without getting released. To my good fortune, they had a co-op team called the Key West Conchs in the Florida State League and I pitched for them. I went 6-1 down there and was leading the league in ERA. Some teams started getting interested in me and the A’s had to pull me out of there. The manager I played for was Woody Smith. His big claim to fame was that he hit two home runs off Satchel Paige in one game.
Wow that’s amazing! Is there a story there? I am sure there is.
There were winter league teams from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Florida, Venezuela and, before Castro, Cuba. Satchel Paige was playing for a team in Miami. Woody hit two home runs off Satchel Paige in one game and after the game he said, “Anyone who hits two home runs off me in one game deserves to be my teammate.” Even though he was white, Woody got to play with Satchel Paige and he told me all these stories about him.
One of those stories, which I verified with Buck O’Neill, was about Satchel warming up to pitch in a barnstorming game. The pitchers would warm up on the first or third base line. Some of the ballparks would have a pitching rubber and home plate, but most wouldn’t. What Satchel Paige would do was have his catcher get a toothpick and take those little comics that would come in a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum. The catcher would put the toothpick through the comic into the ground and then Satchel would have the catcher move it here, move it there, and he would throw his pitches right over the wrapper. I saw Buck O’Neill in downtown Phoenix and asked him about it. He said, “Oh yeah, he did that. Sometimes he used toilet paper or just a piece of paper on the ground too.” I thought that was so cool.
That’s an awesome story. Always love hearing stories about Satchel.
Yes and there was one more thing I learned about Satchel Paige from Woody Smith. You know as well as I do that some pitchers hit players on purpose. I won’t name any names, but I had a teammate who would pick the biggest guy on the team and plunk him to put fear in him. I didn’t believe in that and neither did Satchel Paige. Satchel threw really hard. He said, “If I had to hit someone and possibly end his life, then I don’t deserve to be a pitcher. If I can’t get a guy out by moving the ball around the plate, then I don’t deserve to be a pitcher.” I took that to heart. In my career, I only hit seven guys. They were always because my ball broke too much or they were crowding the plate and my ball moved inside.
Did any of those beanings result in any incidents?
I drilled Don Baylor in Spring Training in 1980. Somebody hit a grounder to third, threw it to first and I got it back with a big cut in it. That was before they tossed the balls out. I had that ball and I thought, “Oh man, I’m throwing this thing!” I threw the pitch and it sailed right into Don Baylor’s back. He looked down at the ball, picked it up and started running out to the mound. I thought, “OK, here we go.” We used to call Don, “Cool Breeze” because he was fast back then. If I started to run, he would have caught me. I was gearing up and he got to me, stopped and handed me the ball and goes, “Here you go Lace!” Then he jogged over to first. I had a reputation that I wouldn’t throw at anyone and he knew that. But that’s what I got from Woody Smith about Satchel Paige.
It’s a good lesson to learn and a great way to pitch. Throwing at someone, especially up and in, is a pretty dangerous game to be playing.
You are right. You know, my very first pitch I threw in the Florida State League, I hit a guy named Izzy Oquendo right in the cheekbone. He was the National Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion in Puerto Rico, and was also a good first baseman. I was all geared up to throw my first pitch of the season. Sometimes as a pitcher you take your eyes off the target and they wander to the batter. That’s what happened and I hit him right in the face. It knocked him out cold; it seemed like a half hour. I thought I killed him. The next time I pitched against him, it was in AA and when I dropped down to go sidearm and crossfire him, he just jumped out of the way. I don’t think he played very much after that.
In 1978 you inherited 104 runners as a reliever, which was the most in Big League history. You had an ERA of 3.01 and did a great job of stranding runners on base. Could you talk about that?
I had a reputation for not allowing inherited runners to score. In 1977 in AAA, I had a streak of 16 innings without allowing an inherited runner to score. Then I got called up to the Big Leagues and had a streak of 33, so it was 49 innings without allowing an inherited runner to score. That kept me up in the Big Leagues. The way I got up to the Big Leagues was that Pablo Torrealba got stung by a bee. They had to put him on the DL and I got called up. My first three ballgames were scoreless appearances against Baltimore. Then the Yankees came to Oakland and it was the first time Reggie came back to Oakland as a Yankee. I struck him out twice and I acted like a jerk. I taunted him from the mound after I struck him out the first time. The second time he came up, I struck him out again. I got the victory and the next day, there was a photo of me and Michael Norris with Reggie. Mike was in between the two of us being a peacekeeper. When I was called up, they had given me a nice $19,000 raise. After that happened with Reggie, Charlie Finley called me and gave me a $16,000 raise up to $35,000.
Getting any money out of Charlie Finley was a major accomplishment! Those first two years in the Majors, you were used a lot out of the bullpen. That was kind of the A’s thing in the late 1970s and early 80s. Was that a conscious decision by management to have pitchers throw so much?
My first year in the Big Leagues I pitched 120 innings and the next year I threw 119. You know the reason the A’s pitchers threw so many innings back then? Mike Marshall. He pitched for the Dodgers and in 1974 he had 101appearances and 204 innings pitched as a reliever. He was a professor of Kinesiology at Michigan State and reinvented his own pitching motion so he could get better angles on his screwball. Because of that pitching motion, he could pitch all the time. Other teams saw what Mike Marshall did and said, “Hey, if that guy can pitch all the time, then you guys should be able to pitch all the time too.” In 1978, I led the league in appearances and in my first two years, I pitched 240 innings out of the bullpen. In this day and age, 240 innings might be five years’ worth of relief pitching. If I pitched today, if I was only required to get out a few guys per game, it would be a piece of cake.
That brings up a great point. How do you compare the great relievers of your era to the ones who came after?
You can make a good argument for Mariano Rivera being the greatest reliever of all time. I understand that. But Rollie Fingers had to come in with men on base, get them out of the jam and then finish the rest of game. There were times Mariano would have to come in with men on base and get them out of a jam, but for the most part they turned the game over to him with nobody on. That all started with Dan Quisenberry in 1980. They would get the game to the eighth inning and then bring in Quisenberry for the ninth.
Rollie sometimes came in in the sixth or seventh inning with men draped all over the bases, get them out of that and then pitch the rest of the way. To me, Rollie Fingers was one of the best relief pitchers of all time. I wore his number in Oakland. In fact, Charlie Finley was so cheap, you could see the ghost letters that said “Fingers” still on the back of my jersey the first year I played. I didn’t just have his number, I had his actual jersey!
Knowing Charlie Finley, I absolutely believe that. You were with the A’s when he sold the team. What was it like there those last years of his ownership?
Here’s something you’ll never hear about that. In 1979, he had the team sold to Marvin Davis in Denver. Marvin Davis was an oil man and at that time, he could have bought and operated every Major League Baseball team – including George Steinbrenner’s – and it wouldn’t have even dented how much money he had. The other 29 teams would not allow Marvin Davis into the league though. He would have outspent them all and got every good player he needed on that team in Denver. That was going to be Charlie Finley’s way of punishing the other owners for being such jerks to him, but they wouldn’t allow it. I saw the uniforms. The equipment manager showed me the uniforms in our A’s boxes ready to go.
Wow, I never realized how close they came to that sale. Here we are 40 years later and they’re still talking about moving. We have time for one more question before we pick back up next week. Let’s hear a good Rickey Henderson story!
In 1979, Willie Wilson stole 83 bases. Rickey Henderson went over to him and said, “You better enjoy that stolen base crown because next year that’s going to be mine.” In 1979, we had a terrible year. Baseball was a lot different back then. We didn’t have all the marketing and fun things to do for fans at the park. What brought fans out to the ballpark was when we were playing good baseball. We weren’t playing good baseball, so we had no fans. Rickey Henderson got called up in June and at one point in the season he was hitting .225. By the end of the season he pulled his average up to .279. On the very last day of the season, Rickey bet Matt Keough $3,000 that the next year he would hit .300 with 20 home runs while stealing 100 bases. I was right there when he made that bet and so was Michael Norris.
I said, “Rickey, I believe you can hit .300 and I believe you can hit 20 home runs, but 100 stolen bases? Nobody ever does anything like that!” The next year, in the second to last game of the season, I was the starting pitcher. During that game, Rickey Henderson stole base number 99 and number 100.
These are all incredible stories, but we’re going to have to stop here for now. Let’s pick back up next week with some more stories and your thoughts on the game today.