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Whatever Happened To The Class Of '81?
Ron Fimrite
September 10, 1984
Three years ago Oakland's five starters seemed to have brilliant futures, but only one of them has pitched in the major leagues this season
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September 10, 1984

Whatever Happened To The Class Of '81?

Three years ago Oakland's five starters seemed to have brilliant futures, but only one of them has pitched in the major leagues this season

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"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."

STEVE McCATTY

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 128⅔ 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....

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