The Oakland A’s made the transformation from dynasty to doormat in record time in the 1970’s as they went from five straight division titles (1971-1975) and three straight World Series championships (1972-1974) to a 7th place finish in the AL west with a 63-98 record (1977). It was Charlie Finley’s world and if you weren’t there, it probably doesn’t seem real that something like that can even happen.
From Reggie, Catfish, Blue Moon and all those fabulous mustaches to an anonymous bunch that would end the year in the basement just two seasons after losing to Boston in the 1975 ALCS. Boom, just like that.
That precipitous fall was brutal for a young fan whose entire life of watching baseball included the Green and Gold playing meaningful October baseball. Bill North, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando…not only was it unthinkable that they wouldn’t all be playing together for the Swingin’ A’s, but to see them scattered all over the major leagues while the A’s floundered was certainly a violation of one or more of baseballs bylaws.
In 1977 the A’s lost those 98 games with a mix of some veterans (C Manny Sanguillen, 1B Dick Allen, P Dave Guisti), some up-and-comers (OF Tony Armas, P Mike Norris, P Rick Langford) and holdovers ( Vida Blue, who lost 19 games and Bill North, who played in just 56 games).
But there was also Mitchell Page.
This franchise that once had serious athletes all up and down the lineup and on the mound now had one guy that looked like what used to roam around the Oakland Coliseum field. Page posted an impressive line of .307/.405/.521 in 592 plate appearances that season. He belted 21 HR, drove in 75 runs, stole 42 bases (only 5 CS), walked 78 times against 95 K’s and scored 85 runs. Page won the Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year award and finished second in ROY voting by the baseball writers behind future Hall-of-Famer Eddie Murray. It seemed the sky was the limit for Mitchell Page and the A’s might be onto something after all the jettisoning of superstar talent.
But ultimately, even though the A’s did resurrect themselves with the BillyBall team that would make the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Page’s output tapered off as he played for the A’s over the next six seasons before finishing with the Pirates in 1984.
1978 saw 17 more homers and 70 RBI off the bat of “The Swingin’ Rage”, the moniker given him by A’s broadcaster Monte Moore . But his slash line dropped from the ideal .3xx/.4xx/.5xx of his rookie year to .285/.355/.459.
1979 saw a bigger dropoff, with 9 HR and 42 RBI as he hit at a .247/.323/.335 clip. Suddenly Page’s OPS was down to .657 and his success on the basepaths was a gloomy 17 steals against 16 failures.
The power returned in 1980 as Page belted 17 homers in just 359 plate appearances while scoring 58 runs and stealing 14 bags vs. 7 CS. Billy Martin guided the club to an 83-79 record, good for second in the AL west and there was optimism in the East Bay again.
But when the A’s made the playoffs in 1981, it would be upstarts like Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and a pitching staff of tireless arms that would be the stars and fuel the optimism. Mitchell Page played in just 34 games that year and wasn’t on the playoff roster when the A’s swept the Royals in the ALDS and then fell to the Yankees in the ALCS in the strike-altered post-season format.
Page played in just 88 games over the next two seasons with the A’s and finished out his playing career in 1984 with a 16-game stint as a Pittsburgh Pirate.
Then, after eight seasons, it was over, with just 72 homers and 259 RBI to go along with a career .266 batting average.
But after his playing days were over, Page imparted his considerable knowledge of offense while serving as a hitting instructor to several clubs. After three years with the Tigers on the Triple-A level, Page made it back to the majors as Kansas City’s first base coach in 1995. From 2001 to 2004 he was the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting instructor and went on to serve in the same capacity with the Washington Nationals. Last spring Page worked with minor leaguers for the Cardinals.
Mitchell Page died in his sleep Saturday night and the cause was listed as unknown. There was always a lot of talk of unfulfilled potential with Page and his career numbers are striking in that, not only did he not punch his ticket to greatness, but he ended up with extremely pedestrian numbers that don’t even hint at what went on in that bittersweet season of 1977.
But for me Page never lost that flashy label/curse of the next big thing. When he flamed out while the outfield of Henderson/Murphy/Armas took over, he fell off my radar as well, but the mention of Mitchell Page always brought back happy thoughts of that stellar rookie year when he was showing all of us disillusioned Oakland A’s fans that the cupboard wasn’t completely bare and there might be more good times ahead.
Even with Reggie in New York, Rollie Fingers in San Diego and the rest of the team’s former stars taking advantage of free agency while Charlie Finley let them all go, I still had a lot riding on the one-time ultimate renegades of baseball, the Oakland A’s. It was tough duty rooting for them as the ‘70s came to a close in stark contrast to the way they opened.
But Mitchell Page was the exception to the Dick Allens and the Willie Crawfords and the Earl Williamses on that team. His career wasn’t on the downside. He was a rookie. And he had the goods. Maybe not this year but….maybe soon…
Little did we know that the team’s next round of glory was taking shape with unknown pitchers like Norris, Langford, Steve McCatty and Matt Keough, as well as OF Armas and even 28-year old C Jeff Newman.
But Mitchell Page’s legacy isn’t that he arrived in between two eras of winning baseball for the A’s or that he didn’t join the 400/400 club or meet any other lofty benchmark. His professionalism as a hitting coach and the kind things being said with utter sincerity by his colleagues in the days after his passing are much more telling.
You can do a lot worse than living a life in baseball that starts with Rookie of the Year consideration and ends as a painstaking teacher of young hitters including Albert Pujols.