Henderson led the American League in total chances last year (341) and Murphy was second (337). Both won Gold Gloves. In 1980 Murphy committed only five errors on a league-leading 525 chances. Were it not for Boston's Dwight Evans, Armas would probably give the A's a third annual outfield Gold Glove. Evans, who has played 10 years to Armas' six, has a bigger national reputation. Undeservedly so, says Martin. "No question, they're the two premier right-fielders in the game," he says, "but Tony has more range than Evans, and no one gives more in a game than Tony does. All three of my guys should win Gold Gloves."
Reporters who cover the A's day by day collect the outfield's great catches as if they were Modiglianis. "I have so many favorites," says Glenn Schwarz of the San Francisco Examiner, "it's hard to separate them. Let's see, for each of them. Well, Henderson reached over the wall in left center at Oakland last year to take a grand slam away from Steve Kemp. Amazing catch. And Armas last year against the Angels in Oakland slipped and fell on the seat of his pants on a muddy warning track. He caught Fred Lynn's line drive to the fence as he was getting up. He was just rising when he reached out and caught the ball. He'd never lost sight of it. And Murphy. That would have to be in Anaheim last year when he robbed Bobby Grich and Tom Brunansky of home runs in successive games." The catch off young Brunansky was a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't spectacular. Murphy, one of the game's best leapers, jumped high and extended his glove over the centerfield fence so that it was out of view of most of the spectators. When he came down he leaned back against the fence and looked down at his feet in apparent dejection as Brunansky circled the bases. The broadcasters on radio and television had all announced that the ball had cleared the fence, and Brunansky, in his home-run trot, was approaching third when it was brought to his attention that Murphy was jogging toward the infield with the ball held aloft. "The guy's a magician," said someone in the press box. "He must've had a ball up his sleeve." But the magic continues. In the fifth inning of a game against Seattle last month, Murphy, running with his back to the infield, made a Maysian one-hand, over-the-shoulder catch of a long drive to right center by the Mariners' Manny Castillo. There were many in the Kingdome that night who considered that the greatest catch they'd ever seen. The fact is, they ain't seen nothin' yet.
At 6'1", 180 pounds he's built like the defensive back he once was—tall, lean and hard. He runs with a loping, gliding stride wore akin to DiMaggio's than Mays's. But he loses his cap as often as Mays did, revealing a slightly receding hairline. He gives and takes clubhouse gibes with a poker face. Sample: "Why're you always hitting on people, [Cliff] Johnson? " "Because I want to lay my African hambone upside your coconut, Murphy." Last year Murphy led the American League with 15 game-winning RBIs, even while batting second. Overall he hit .251, with 15 homers and 60 RBIs. He started this season in a woeful slump that had him hitting only .117 after the first 15 games. But it affected neither his fielding nor his sense of humor. At the end of last week he was up to .146.
I was an Air Force kid. My father was a staff sergeant. My earliest memories—I must've been about two—were of Japan. When I was four, we moved to the Edwards Air Force Base and then to Lancaster, Calif., both in the Mojave Desert. We kids spent our days trying to catch rabbits. What else is there to do in the desert? We'd run after them, we'd go after them on bikes, anything. I was the fourth of six children. I've got a younger brother, Rod, who's in the A's system with Modesto. My two sisters are older than I am. I was mainly a football player in high school, a defensive back and a flanker. I got a lot of scholarship offers in football, but none in baseball, even though I hit .443 my senior year. My goal was to play pro football, anyway, but I married Brenda, my girl since the seventh grade, before I got out of high school. I also got drafted in baseball, so that looked like the best thing for me.
I was a shortstop at first. I had no problem fielding the ball, but my throws were just launched, so they moved me to rightfield, where I couldn't hurt anybody. The next year I was in center, where I've been ever since. When I came up to the A's, Tony was in center, and I thought, oh, no, I'm going back to the corners. But I knew center was my best position. One thing about it is you've got to cover a lot of ground, and I could always go back on a ball. My experience as a defensive back helped me there. I believe in playing shallow. Anybody can play deep and come in on a ball. But that's not playing the outfield. Balls are going to drop in front of you. Shallow, you can catch the singles, and if you can go back, as I can, you can get the rest. Besides, I believe in the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not go from first to third.
I do a lot of things differently. I catch fly balls on the wrong side, the left side. The standard system is to catch the ball on the right side. That way, you are in a position to throw if you're righthanded, which I am. The trouble with that for me is that I don't see the ball go into the glove. I once dropped a ball that way because I just lost it as it got to the glove. So I catch the ball on the wrong side, where I can see it. And I'm quick enough to get the throw off. In charging ground balls, I also throw off the wrong foot. It took a lot of practice, but I found I could cut my throwing steps down from three or four to just one and a half by throwing off my left foot in a hurry. My arm isn't as strong as a lot of centerfielders', but I get rid of the ball twice as fast. And I charge the ball hard all the time. It's the difference between having to throw 100 feet and 250 if you get there fast enough. I think I get rid of the ball just as quick as any infielder.
I've also learned to go to balls in the gap on a straight line. Most centerfielders kind of circle balls hit into the gap, looping a little. I know how to get a good jump, so I just head straight for the spot where I can cut off the ball, and a double becomes a single. Mike Edwards explained this to me on a road trip a few years ago. He played second base for the A's then, but I could see the theory would work in the outfield just as well or even better. Edwards said he first heard about it from an old guy in Los Angeles who used to play in the Negro leagues. He and Mike would talk baseball for hours, he said, and the old guy had a lot of theories. Well, an athlete listens to a lot of things, and most of it goes in one ear and out the other. But when Mike told me this, something clicked.
Taking hits away from people is the part of the game I love the most. I know what my reaction is when it happens to me. It's demoralizing. Once, during batting practice, a player on another team—I won't mention his name—came up to me mad as hell. He told me I had no business playing so close to the infield, that the line drive he'd hit and that I'd caught was supposed to be an automatic single. I should back up more, he said, show some class. He was cussing and fuming, and I was loving every minute of it.
In our outfield, we don't believe anything is automatic. Take balls hit down the leftfield line. With most teams, that's an automatic double. Not with Rickey out there. He's got the ball so fast, you'd better not be headed for second in an automatic way. When I was in the minors I was used to going practically from foul line to foul line for balls. The other outfielders just let me do it. I never knew Rickey or Tony then. Now, it's a race to the ball. They want to catch it and I want to catch it. That's why you've got to have communication. I think I've helped Tony. He never made it through a season without an injury because he ran into so many walls. Now I can tell him how many steps he's got. I'll be there. And Tony will come to centerfield more than Rickey. Tony is so easy to play with. Rickey and I always had problems. It was hard for me to move him around at first. Rickey hates to give up the line, but I hate to give up the alley. If I'm playing shallow, he has to play deeper to protect the gap. There are a lot more balls hit in the gap than down the line, and if they get by you, they can go for triples. We can't both be playing shallow. It just doesn't work. We've got it straightened out now. We did it all in one year. Rickey can protect the gap and, with his speed, he can still get over to the line.