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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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"But there are no tears now. I didn't have an operation. I'm probably lucky to still be playing. I never gave up on myself, and I don't think the others have given up either. I try never to think what we all might've done if we hadn't gotten hurt. I'm not looking over my shoulder and wondering what might have been."

BRIAN KINGMAN

It was common among the Aces to say that of them all Kingman had the best "stuff'—a fastball in the 90s and a crackling curveball not much slower. It was the stuff that dreams are made of, but none of Kingman's dreams came true. Unlike the others, he hasn't had a serious injury, but he has been bedeviled by some uncommonly bad luck and a questioning intelligence that routinely rejected authority figures, particularly Martin. "It was the intangibles in baseball that bothered Brian," says Keough. That and the sneaking suspicion, invariably well-founded, that somebody up there didn't like him.

In the glorious turnaround 1980 season, Kingman turned the wrong way, it seemed. After winning eight games and losing seven in '79 for a team that lost 108 games, he won eight again for a team that won 83; only this time he lost a league-leading 20. And yet he pitched well enough to have the win-loss totals reversed. As he readily points out, his ERA of 3.84 was about the same as the 3.79 of the Royals' Dennis Leonard, and Leonard won 20 games. The difference was that Leonard's team scored 5.29 runs per game when he started and Kingman's scored only 2.87. In the second half of the '81 season, Kingman was sent to the bullpen by his nemesis, Martin. He sulked so much there that Martin farmed him out to Tacoma at the start of the next season. Kingman refused to report and had a 5-1 record when the A's recalled him in June. Within a few weeks, he and Martin became embroiled in a noisy 2 a.m. argument inside and outside a Kansas City hotel. Kingman was traded to the Red Sox the following January and was released before the season began. He was signed as a free agent by the Giants and sent to their Triple A team in Phoenix, where, conveniently, he lives. In the hit-happy Pacific Coast League, he has a 5-5 record with a 6.37 ERA.

Kingman has a degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has played as many as 40 chess games by mail and is such an avid reader that he takes up to eight books—H.G. Wells's Outline of History among them—on road trips. He kept a journal during his playing days with Martin and the A's. A blowup of the SI cover is framed on one living-room wall and a color photograph of Martin and Fowler is on another. Martin's No. 1 uniform shirt with a rubber mask peering out from it hangs in his den. These aren't morbid obsessions, Kingman insists, while showing a visitor through his Spanish-style home; they're merely "conversation pieces."

"Billy affected us all," he says. "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 kept asking myself, 'Why is this jackass ruining my life?' My wife, even my dog, hated it on days when I pitched because I'd come home in such an angry mood. It seemed as if I was the only one who wasn't successful. I felt like I was hurting the team. 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.

"It was an unusual situation. Here's Billy with his picture on the cover of TIME. He's on the Johnny Carson show. People all over the place are yelling, 'Billy Ball! Billy Ball!' He's a bleeping national hero. And I'm not getting along with him. So who am I?

"From Day 1, 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. I remember one game after Mike Edwards made a base-running goof, he told me that he felt like crawling off the field on his hands and knees—into the other team's dugout. We could never just lose a game. There was always one of three reasons why we lost: 1) because of a scapegoat, which I often was, 2) because some coach missed a sign, 3) because of some bleeping umpire.

"He was so intense; I often thought he was in danger of losing it out there. In a way, Billy was like the dad, chewing us out all the time, and Art was like the mom, telling us he didn't really mean it. The closest Billy would get to us was on a plane. He'd have a few drinks and try to use psychology, but with me it didn't work. He'd come by and tell me, 'With your stuff, you're going to win 20.' After another drink, he'd have me up to 23. I used to say that if Billy and I took a plane to Europe, I'd be a 30-game winner before we landed.

"Billy called most of my pitches and that would add about 20 minutes to the game—all that looking in the dugout. Now, I ask you, is it my game or his? He had this rule that if I ever got to 2 and 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. But my real trouble was I couldn't get any runs. Some guys were getting 80 more runs a season than I was. Oh, what I could've done with those 80 runs.

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