The A's in orbit

In Oakland they call it Billy Ball, a wild kind of horsehide madness that includes letting your starting pitchers go the distance; ignoring the percentages; finding new ways to be aggressive; and letting one man run everything.

The perpetrator of all this, of course, is Manager Billy Martin, whose Oakland A's didn't open the season as much as they launched it -- with 11 consecutive wins, a major league record. Now 14-1, they are orbiting the American League with a pitching staff whose starters have gone the distance an inredible 13 times in 15 games. They also feature a style that makes the most of squeeze plays, double steals, opponents' mistakes, and hitting behind the runner.

People all across the country who don't normally concern themselves with baseball, at least this early in the season, are now talking about the A's with the same gusto that two weeks ago they were using to discuss money-market certificates.

If you are wondering how Oakland could get this good so quickly, the point is that it didn't happen overnight. Last season the A's were a good ball club whose pitchers set a modern record for complete games with 94, which finished second in the American League West, and had one outfielder who stole 100 bases (Rickey Henderson) and another who hit 35 home runs (Tony Armas).

Except for the outfield of Henderson, Armas, and Dwayne Murphy, all of whom run well, field brilliantly, and hit consistently, Martin platoons at every position. This not only creates playing time for a lot of people, but also produces the added hustle that comes when two men are competing for the same position.

While players on other big-league teams were still huddled around their fireplaces on Feb. 15, Billy already had his pitchers and catchers working out in Scottsdale, Ariz., under himself and coach Art Fowler.

In fact Fowler, who has a way of making complex things seem simple, has been Martin's pitching coach everywhere Billy has managed.

This time Martin and Fowler, plus seven other instructors, worked with 29 pitchers and 10 catchers until the rest of the squad arrived to open camp officially on March 1. By that time Oakland had the best-conditioned arms in baseball, besides providing its young pitchers with two weeks of almost constant one-on-one instruction.

The five-man pitching rotation (all right-handers) that Oakland relies on consists of Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve ,McCatty, and Brian Kingman, all of whom except Kingman won at least 14 games in 1980.

Norris, who won 22 last year and was runner-up to Baltimore's Steve Stone in the balloting for the American League's Cy Young Award, also completed 24 of his 33 starts. If this sounds as though Billy might have overworked his staff, consider the fact that none of his starters last season pitched as many as 300 innings.

So far this season the A's bullpen has been practically obsolete, or, as one writer suggested, would make an excellent haven for anyone hiding from the FBI.

Although opposing teams say that Martin's eight-man infield (the result of platooning) leaves a lot to be desired, Billy continues to defy the percentages by constantly mixing his shortstop-second-base combinations.

Going with different first and third basemen from game to game is not considered harmful, but when a manager interrupts the rhythm and timing of the middle of his infield to rotate four of five players, what he usually gets is errors. So far, however, Martin has not been embarrassed.

When Charlie Finley completed the sale of the Oakland Finley completed the sale of the Oakland franchise during the winter to for members of the family that founded Levi Strauss & Co., it was probably the best thing that could have happened to Billy.

Although Martin is listed in the A's media guide as director of player personnel as well as field manager, what that really means is that he has also been given the keys to the general manager's closet.

Martin can now trade players almost without interference as well as move them around on the field. Even though the new owners get the courtesy of a phone call on deals, they aren't apt to argue with Billy, especially with their limited baseball experience.

In four previous managerial spots, at Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and New York , Martin's tenure generally ended abruptly. Not because he didn't win, but because of too many fights with the front office. Now he has no one to argue with but the umpires.

While no one expects Oakland to continue to win 14 of every 15 games it plays , Martin's managing and Fowler's pitching tactics are suddenly being studied with the same intensity once accorded the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As Fowler says: "Our secret is a lot of kids with strong pitching arms who have the confidence to throw the ball over the plate and see what happens!"

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