Mike Norris, the Oakland A's normally effusive young pitcher, seemed peculiarly sullen for someone who had just beaten the power-packed California Angels 5-2 on four hits for his second successive complete-game victory of the new season. He grudgingly accepted congratulations from Manager Billy Martin and then brushed wordlessly past his teammates in headlong flight for the clubhouse. There, sitting glumly on a stool before his locker, he was approached by A's Pitching Coach Art Fowler, a portly, ruddy-faced man of 58 whose rural South Carolina homilies often serve to elevate sinking spirits. "Eight walks," Fowler said to Norris with an admonitory shake of the head. "Why, I never gave up eight walks in my whole career." Norris, who aspires to be baseball's best pitcher—if he isn't already just that—got the message in the exaggeration. He had won the game, but he had violated Martin's and Fowler's Don't Walk policy. The win seemed somehow tarnished by Norris' carelessness.
"I just blew up after the game," he said after regaining his composure. "I walked eight. That's not the mark of a great major league pitcher. I can't see walking eight people again the rest of my life. I was really embarrassed. Billy is such a perfectionist, it rubs off on you."
Something has certainly rubbed off on these A's. They opened by beating the Twins four straight in Bloomington, Minn. and then traveled to Southern California to win four from the Angels before returning undefeated to Oakland. There they blasted Seattle 16-1 last Friday. 8-0 on Saturday and 6-1 in the first game of a doubleheader on Sunday before losing 3-2 in the second. Their 11 consecutive wins were a modern record for the most at the start of a season, surpassing the 10 straight run up by the 1955 Dodgers, the 1962 Pirates and the 1966 Indians. A promising beginning, you might say, although only the Dodgers of the earlier streakers went on to win the pennant. The Pirates finished fourth and the Indians fifth.
By week's end, the A's had a team earned-run average of 1.42, and their five starters, all of them righthanders, had 10 complete games out of 12 played. Norris may have been embarrassed by his walks, but Brian Kingman was positively humiliated by becoming the only starter who failed to go the distance in Oakland's first 10 games. He lasted into the sixth inning of the fifth game before he was relieved by Bo McLaughlin, who presumably had to brush the sleep from his eyes en route to the mound. Kingman overcame his disgrace by shutting out the Mariners on six hits for the record-tying 10th straight win on Saturday. It was the third shutout in the streak. Matt Keough having beaten the Twins, 3-0, on six hits in the third game and Steve McCatty having defeated them 1-0 on only three hits the next day. No team had scored more than three runs off A's pitching in the first 12 games.
Last season, the A's staff set a 162-game season record by pitching 94 complete games. The same inexhaustible starters—in order of appearance, Norris, Rick Langford, Keough, McCatty and Kingman—are back, possibly to finish 100, although Martin and Fowler say they harbor no such ambitions. Martin, in fact, goes so far as to defend his bullpen, insisting that merely by trading perennial malcontent Bob Lacey he has improved it. But how will anyone ever find out?
Martin has uncommon faith in his fearless five. Last Wednesday, for example, Langford carried a two-run lead into the ninth inning against the Angels, but quickly got into trouble. With runners on first and second and two out, he was confronted by Shortstop Rick Burleson, who already had four hits. Martin came to the mound. The showers for Langford? Nonsense. "Burleson had been guessing with me the whole game," Langford said. "Billy and I just decided to change the pattern. We went with the sinker." Burleson grounded into a force to end the game, a complete game, naturally.
As the result of such stellar performances, the A's starting rotation is already being equated with the 1971 Orioles' 20-win foursome of Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Jim Palmer. Langford, who won 19 last year while completing 28 (22 in a row) of his 33 starts, believes that by using five starters the A's can do those Orioles one 20-game-winner better. That would compute to 100 wins—enough, it's assumed, to win the division championship, an achievement Martin and his uppity youngsters consider inevitable.
Pitching just might accomplish it. All five starters are very good and improving, though it scarcely seems possible that Norris, the ace of the staff and the scourge of the league (3-0, 1.50), could get very much better. His fellow A's pitchers are frankly in awe of him. "Michael Norris is without a doubt the finest pitcher in baseball," says Keough. "The spin on his screwball is so tight, its motion so fast, that he's for all intents a lefthander throwing righthanded. The Bretts, the Carews are up there trying to hit his first and second pitch to save themselves the embarrassment of striking out. We all just sit around waiting for his no-hitter, wondering what 'God,' as we call him, will do tonight."
"I grew up in Los Angeles," says Kingman, "and I saw Nolan Ryan. And when I was a little kid I saw Sandy Koufax. They would just blow people away, but I wonder if anybody has made hitters look as bad as Michael has. He has guys missing the ball by two feet. He's our magic man."
Norris was 22-9 in 1980. His 2.53 ERA was second to Yankee Rudy May's 2.47, his 24 complete games second to Langford's 28, his 284⅓ innings pitched second to Langford's 290, and his 180 strikeouts second to Indian Len Barker's 187. He was the American League Gold Glove winner at his position. But he was unaccountably left off the All-Star team and he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to Baltimore's Steve Stone because three of the 28 participating baseball writers left him off their ballots entirely. As incredible as their oversight may have been, Norris was only mildly miffed. "I even ate at Stone's restaurant [Steven] in Scottsdale [Arizona] during spring training," he says with a smile. "I'm just glad he wasn't in there."