The belletrists of sport seem to draw their most fevered inspiration from backfields and infields. Consider "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again," or "These are the saddest of possible words: 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.' " Backfields and infields are seen as entities, units, men acting in concert, as in a corps de ballet. Outfields are units, too, but they are rarely viewed as such. Outfielders stand so far apart from one another they appear to be solitary figures outlined against skies of whatever color. Most of them don't even seem to be very alert, standing there with arms akimbo, their gaze fixed on the grass beneath their stationary feet. The infield is a constant swirl of activity; the outfield is pastoral.
Outfielders tend to be singled out as individuals, not as members of a group. The praise heaped on them may be lavish, as it has been for such superlative representatives of the genus as DiMaggio and Mays, Clemente and Aaron. Their catches and throws are collectors' items, but nowhere is it suggested that they acted in any way except on their own. Only when outfielders collide is the public made keenly aware that there are several of them playing at once. Oh, the broadcasters will advise us that "the outfield is shading the hitter to the left," or that "there is a gap in right centerfield," but such violations of symmetry seem far too subtle for the average fan to much care about or fully comprehend. If the infield is playing "in," it strikes you right off as an aberration. If it's rearranging itself in a Williams Shift, it's doing appreciably more than shading someone. An infield is working together, all for one, one for all—Athos to Porthos to Aramis, with D'Artagnan on third. The outfielders seem to be no more than distant cousins.
This is partly true because baseball people look to outfielders more for offense than defense. Only the centerfielder, that weary traveler to distant parts, is considered a prime defender. Left and right, the corners, might just as well be occupied by statuary. Your basic outfield would consist of a speedy, probably line-drive-hitting centerfielder, a slow but strong-armed rightfielder and the Colossus of Rhodes in left. It has been virtually impossible to assemble the outfield equivalent of the old Philadelphia Athletics' now-quaintly-priced $100,000 Infield of Snuffy McInnis at first, Eddie Collins at second, Frank (Home Run) Baker at third and Jack Barry at short. The melancholy evidence of this is that until now the last outfield celebrated primarily for its defensive prowess was one contemporaneous with the $100,000 Infield, the renowned 1910-15 Red Sox threesome of Duffy Lewis in left, Tris Speaker in center and Harry Hooper in right, an aggregation that survives only in the wistful reminiscences of old men who were themselves too young to remember it.
The "until now" in the preceding sentence is pivotal, because in just two seasons the Oakland A's have put together an outfield that is touted by some baseball savants as being equal or superior to any in history. And though each of the three A's, Rickey Henderson in left, Dwayne Murphy in center and Tony Armas in right, is capable of extraordinary individual exploits, it is as a unit—rendezvousing at the gaps, stationing themselves so that not even Willie Keeler could find a place where they ain't—that they excel. "We use 'outfield' as a collective noun," says Oakland President Roy Eisenhardt, a strict grammarian.
It's appropriate, somehow, that Angels Manager Gene Mauch, a baseball man, should look to football for a comparison with the A's trio, because in baseball the Oakland outfield is incomparable. "They [the A's] play shallow and position themselves so well," says Mauch, "that they look like one of Don Shula's defensive units rotating for pass coverage." "The A's have the best outfield I've ever seen. Ever," says Rangers skipper Don Zimmer. "I'm talking about the complete group of three. I've seen Snider and Furillo. I've seen Clemente and Virdon. But there was always a third outfielder in those groups who couldn't do some of the things the other two could."
With the A's, there's virtually nothing one outfielder can do on defense that the others cannot do also. All three are fast—Henderson, blindingly so; all have powerful throwing arms, with Armas' being perhaps the strongest in baseball; all three can go back well on a ball hit over their heads, Murphy better than anyone playing; and all three charge balls hit in front of them with equal alacrity. Significantly, each came to the A's as a centerfielder, a player trained for and conditioned to all aspects of outfield play. It's not only rare to have three such greyhounds on the same course, it is, as the A's Joe Rudi, himself once the game's premier leftfielder, says, "just plain strange."
The wisdom of placing three centerfielders in the same outfield is, of course, debatable. Centerfield is the ego position, and all three A's are fiercely proud. Centerfielders are accustomed to calling their inferiors to the right and left off fly balls. Indeed, at first there was vigorous competition among the three, not only for the position itself but, once they were permanently deployed, for almost every ball hit in the air as well. This is where character came into play. "These three are thoroughbreds," says Charlie Metro, an Oakland coach who also breeds horses. "They have pride and self-discipline, and they spur each other on."
It also helps that they are good friends and, in the case of Armas and Murphy, co-conspirators on what must be baseball's most pyromaniacally prankish team. The hotfoot, last year's rage, continues to be such a popular diversion in the A's clubhouse that a visitor is ill-advised to ignore his shoes for even a moment. Catcher Mike Heath went so far as to affix lighted paper to the end of a broomstick and extend it through a crack in the wall behind the A's dugout in the Seattle Kingdome so that he might incinerate Murphy's footwear while Murphy chatted with a reporter. A couple of weeks ago, following two consecutive ninth-inning losses and an agonizing 16-inning victory over Minnesota, Manager Billy Martin lit a string of firecrackers outside his office door to "wake these guys up," thereby setting the green clubhouse carpet ablaze. The newest gambit in these fiery frolics involves charging cigarettes with tiny explosives. Murphy, Armas and Murphy's roommate, Pitcher Steve McCatty, are the prime suspects whenever one of these incendiary episodes occurs. Woe betide the A who lights up without first inspecting his cigarette. Not long ago Third Baseman Mickey Klutts was careless in this regard, and as he took a dugout puff in the middle innings of a game with Seattle, the uninspected cigarette exploded in his face. After the game, Murphy and Armas were rejoicing over this latest coup in the bar at Seattle's Park Hilton Hotel, when Armas' own cigarette detonated. Betrayed, Armas looked helplessly at his companion, who stared innocently ahead.
Such japery is ordinarily confined to off-hours. At the ball park, the A's outfielders, even the youthful, skittery Henderson, are zealous in the pursuit of excellence. Unlike many outfielders, they take ground balls during batting practice. Murphy sits in on pitchers' meetings so that he may keep abreast of how the A's intend to pitch to opposing batters. As captain of the outfield, he then uses this information to align his confreres during the game. When Lee Walls was Oakland's outfield coach, the A's threesome had him hit line drives from home plate to them as they stood just beyond the infield grass, to practice going back on balls. The A's don't contemplate the meaning of existence or the telephone numbers of groupies while pulling sentry duty in the outfield; they carry on a running conversation among themselves on hitters, pitching and positioning. The garrulous Henderson, for that matter, is also likely to chat it up with fans in the stands until the impatient Murphy regains his attention. Warming up between innings of a game at home, the A's outfielders don't lob lazy floaters back and forth. Henderson pitches hard to a bullpen catcher from a distance of perhaps 90 feet, and Murphy and Armas do the same with each other. "They're stretching their arms," says Metro. "They're throwing seriously, like a pitcher in the bullpen. They're getting in many more throws between innings than the average outfielder. They're keeping warm for that one big throw."
The big throws usually come more often than that. Zimmer unhappily recalls a game when he was managing Boston during which Armas threw out runners attempting to go from first to third in consecutive innings. Then, two innings later, Murphy cut down a runner at home who was coming in from second on a single. "If you have a man on second," says Zimmer, "you almost need a double to score him." Preston Gomez, the Angels' third-base coach, complains, "I'm hard pressed to send a man in from second base after a hit. They play so shallow, and yet they can all go back to the wall." Henderson's exceptional quickness in getting to the foul line in left and the strength and accuracy of his throwing arm are such that on three occasions in a five-game stretch last month, a runner who had hit a line drive down the left-field line, normally a stand-up double, was held at first base. Runners tested the arms of these A's outfielders in 1980, the first year they were together. The results for base runners were catastrophic. Armas had 17 assists, Henderson 15 and Murphy 13. Caution on the paths is now the byword.
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.
If there's a mistake out there, it's mine. I can see the pitcher and move the other two around depending on the pitch. I watch all the time and talk to the other outfielders constantly. Our pitchers don't always throw the same. And in the late innings, when they're getting tired, they change even more. And if Rickey isn't paying attention, Tony and I are on him. We don't try to show each other up on fly balls, even though we kid about it all the time. They accuse me of wanting to catch everything. Tony always lets me know when he thinks I'm in his territory.
I never really learned how to hit until Rene Lachemann [now the Seattle manager] got me in A and Double-A ball. My idol was Willie McCovey, and I had his big looping swing. Rene got me to cut it down. I also had to get used to batting second behind Rickey. I know Billy wants a lefthander batting after Rickey for all kinds of reasons—blocking the catcher's view of first, pulling the ball to the right side. But I had trouble at first. I was taking too many pitches so he could steal. It seems I was always oh and two. Last year I handled it well. I'm used to it. Of course, I got off to a bad start this year. I must've tried about 16 different stances. I was feeling lost up there, and I know I was blowing chances to move the runner along, to bat in runs. But it's coming.
I've got a good life. My wife and I live in San Ramon [beyond the Oakland-Berkeley hills] and I've got my bass guitar and my '55 Thunderbird car to play with. It all seems unreal. Think about it: It wasn't that long ago, in the Charlie Finley days, when nobody wanted to play for the A's. Now everybody does. Including me.
TONY—THE PRODIGAL SON
He was hurt so often, no one knew how good he was, how much power there was in his compact 6'1", 192-pound body. Armas hit 35 homers and drove in 109 runs in his first full season, 1980. He tied for the home-run lead in the American League last year with 22 while driving in 76 runs and hitting .261. And to prove he'd broken his wall-bouncing habit, he was the only A's player last year who didn't miss a game. He has a brooding, mustachioed face, but he laughs easily and is one of the more popular players on a particularly jolly team. He and Murphy are fast friends.
I am from Pirítu in the state of Anzoàtegui in Venezuela. There were 14 in my family. I started playing baseball when I was in the first grade. Also volleyball, which I was good at, too. I never played Little League or anything like that. We played baseball just for fun, except that my dad never liked to see me waste my time that way. He thought there were better things for me to do. But I was sneaky. I would wait until he went to work—he was with an electrical company—and then I would go to the playground. It was a funny thing. We always seemed to have tie games then. I knew my father would get off work at five and walk through the park, so when it got close to that time, I would pick up my glove and start to run away. The other kids would say, "Hey, you can't go now. We need you." And I'd stay, and pretty soon I'd see my father and I'd know I was going to get hit pretty hard by him. But I always stayed, anyway.
I played that way for six, seven years. Then I got into junior baseball when I was about 16. That changed things a little. At 17 I represented my country in a tournament against Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Colombia. Cuba beat us in the playoffs. We should have won the whole thing. Then some guy came to my house from the Pittsburgh organization and asked me if I wanted to play professional baseball in the States. I told him I didn't know if I could because my father didn't want me to be a ballplayer. He wanted me to get a good job somewhere, instead. I talked to my dad. He was disappointed. He said he didn't want me to get hurt playing sports. I told him not to worry about that. But I didn't want to sign either. It was my English. I couldn't say anything in English. I couldn't order a glass of water in English. Then my daddy said, "O.K., sign." So I signed.
That was 1971. I was 17. I took a plane from Caracas to Miami, knowing I'd have to change planes to get to Sarasota. I was scared. I didn't know how to change planes in English. At the Miami airport I heard some guys talking Spanish. I ran over to them. "Where do you get the plane for Sarasota?" I asked them. "We're going to Sarasota," they said. They were ballplayers, too, so I followed them. It was easy once I got there, because in spring training we all ate and slept at the same hotel. I didn't have to go to any restaurants.
I always thought they would send me home, but they never did. And by 1977, when Pittsburgh traded me to Oakland, I was more comfortable. I spoke a little English, and I was happy because I knew I would get a chance to play regularly. Then I just started getting hurt—my first year, my second year, my third year. I thought of my father and my saying I wouldn't get hurt. I got hurt because I was just trying to play too hard. I kept running into the fences. I was trying to prove myself so bad.
When I started with the Pirates I played leftfield, then rightfield. Finally, when they traded me, I was a centerfielder. I thought that was my position. But one time when I got hurt, they called Murph up to play centerfield and, oh, did he do a good job! When I came back, they said, "Why don't you play rightfield?" I said, "No problem." They knew I had this strong arm, so they thought that was a good position for me. It was funny because I knew that Rickey was a centerfielder and they moved him to left. I think when you get three centerfielders in the same outfield, you got guys who want to go and get 'em. We're all used to covering a lot of ground, and we want every ball. In many ways, that's the best thing that can happen. At first it was a problem, though. But we talked to each other. Now we got it down. Against a lefthanded batter, Murph plays shallow and I've got the gap. That means I've got to play deeper and Rickey plays shallow. It's the same against a righty, except reversed.
We've got lots of communication now. I don't run into fences anymore because Murph is there to tell me where I am. I tell you, we're good. Rickey's a great outfielder, and Murph's a great outfielder. Me? Oh, I don't know about me. I let the people say what kind of ballplayer I am. You never know in this baseball. When people ask me if I'm going to hit 30, 40 home runs, I just say, "I'll let you know when the season is over." All I do is wait for the pitch and use my hands, my body. It's bad luck to predict.
My father's 59 now. He's retired. I think he's pretty happy about me. His friends keep asking him, "Well, how do you feel about your son, now?" He realizes he made a mistake, so I just wish they would leave him alone. My father and my mom follow my career. There's a guy in New York who broadcasts the Yankee games back to Venezuela on radio, so they know what's going on. But they've never seen me play in the U.S. because they don't like flying. They did see me play one game in winter ball, though.
I have a wife and three kids in Venezuela. We live in the same small town I grew up in. I just go home and be the same guy I used to be. I talk to everybody, just like always. I have the same old friends. I don't want to be a big man doing a song and dance. You know what I mean?
RICKEY—LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD
He is, according to Mauch, "the most disruptive base runner in baseball," and he may also be the game's most exciting player because he's on base more than 40% of the time. He led the American League in hits (135), runs (89) and stolen bases (56) last year, hitting .319 as the lead-off man. In 1980, at age 21, he became the first American Leaguer to steal 100 bases (an even 100), breaking Ty Cobb's 65-year-old record of 96. He walked 117 times that year. Through last Sunday he had 25 steals and 33 walks, phenomenal figures. Although he was hitting only .230, his on-base percentage was .442. At 5'10", 180 pounds, he's built for speed, with muscular, overdeveloped buttocks and thighs. He's boyish and bubbly, and he talks constantly. He seems, at times, a child among men.
I was born in Chicago, but I left there when I was two. That was when my father left my mom. My mom and I moved to Pine Bluff, Ark. and stayed there until I was seven. Then we moved to Oakland for good. I have four brothers and two sisters, and my grandmother lived with us, too. My mother worked as a nurse to support us, some of the time in the old-folks ward. We had a big three-, four-bedroom house in North Oakland, right on the Berkeley line. I know Billy [Martin] went to Berkeley High, and I guess I could've gone there, but they didn't seem to like kids from Oakland, so I went to Oakland Tech. I did play at the same playground—Bushrod Park—that Billy played at when he was a kid. I first started playing baseball when I was about eight. I knew I wanted to be an athlete, but my mother would get on me for playing too much. I'd play anyway and take my whupping.
At Oakland Tech I wanted to be a football player, and I made all-city, gained over a thousand [1,100] yards. But my momma chose baseball for me. She thought I was too small for football and that as a running back I wouldn't last very long. I signed with the A's right out of high school. It was like a dream. When I grew up, Reggie Jackson was the hero here, and I wanted to be like him. Playing at home—it was a dream come true.
The funny thing is, I always wanted to be an infielder. In Little League I was a lefthanded shortstop for a while. Then they moved me to first base, and I played there until they decided I was too short. So I went to the outfield. That was fine. Centerfield. That was O.K. I dreamed of playing centerfield in the majors. I developed my stance in Modesto [of the Class A California League]. At first, with Reggie as my idol, I stood straight up and swung for the fences. I wanted to stand there at home plate and watch those balls go out. But pretty soon, I realized I wasn't going to be a power hitter. I thought, hey, I've got all this speed. I don't need to be a home-run hitter. I mean, I've always been fast. I never really ran track in high school because the school district wouldn't let you practice both sports—baseball and track. But I did run in a couple of meets and without much practice did a 9.6 hundred.
Anyway, I found that if I squatted down real low at the plate, the way I do now, I could see the ball better. I also knew it threw the pitcher off. I found that I could put my weight on my back foot and still turn my hips on the swing. I'm down so low I don't have much of a strike zone. Sometimes, walking so much even gets me mad. Last year Ed Ott of the Angels got so frustrated because the umpire was calling balls that would've been strikes on anybody else that he stood up and shouted at me, "Stand up and hit like a man." I guess I do that to people.
I really learned how to steal bases at Modesto in 1977. They taught me how to transfer my weight there and what to watch for in the pitcher. I used to lean a lot and get caught off base. I stole 95 bases that year. I learned the headfirst slide in '79, when I was playing for Ogden in Triple A. Guy named Mike Rodriguez taught me how to do it. He wasn't really a base-runner type. He was more of a home-run hitter. But he knew about sliding. When I tried sliding headfirst before, I'd almost stop and dive at the base. I kept banging up my shoulder that way. He taught me to do it all in one motion. I think the headfirst is quicker than feet first. You're using your momentum, and I think there's less wear and tear on the body, particularly the legs. I think if I stay healthy and get on base enough, I can steal 130, 140 bases a year. And I don't even run on my own. We have signs.
I've actually worked on my defense more than my offense. When I first moved to the outfield they said I'd never make it because I didn't have a good arm. And I did have an awkward throwing motion, but that was because I'd played so much first base. You don't see first basemen throwing over the top much. Lee Walls [now a special assignments instructor with the A's] got me throwing overhand from the mound, using my body more. Hey, pretty soon it was easy. I could throw hard. My big advantage on defense is that I can get to the line quick. And because I'm lefthanded, my glove hand is on the line. I have real quick feet, so I can open up my body and get that throw back to the infield in a hurry.
I believe we're the best combination. We get a big thrill from stopping the runner from getting in scoring position. And we catch anything in the air so guys start saying, "Hey, I'm not going to hit the ball out there." The big problem at first was calling each other off. A centerfielder wants to catch everything. Like I say, I dreamed of playing centerfield in the majors, but Murph was here. I said, O.K. It bothered me for a while. I'd never played left, and I wasn't used to being called off balls. But we talked it out, and now I've got my territory marked off.
During the season, Murph and Tony and I see each other a lot. In the off-season, only once in a while. I live in Oakland, I'm interested in a long-term contract, not free agency. Hey, this is my hometown. Right now, I'm living with Mike Norris in a house on Skyline Boulevard with a great view. But he's a pitcher and I'm an everyday player, so he can go out a lot more than I can, and we don't see all that much of each other. I'm in the process of buying my own home. Jeez, I just left my momma's house last year. My brother said I'd never leave. And I did get a little homesick at first. My momma, she just laughs and says I haven't really left yet, anyway.
They are all young—Henderson is 23, Murphy 27 and Armas 28—so, unlike many fine outfield combinations of the past, they have an opportunity to play together for a decade or more, barring injury, trade or free agency. Lewis, Speaker and Hooper lasted six seasons together, and another fine outfield of the dead-ball era, Davy Jones, Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb of the Tigers, lasted for seven, although Jones was in and out of the lineup. The most famous outfield of all, offensively and defensively, would be the Yankee bunch of the mid-to-late '20s that had Bob Meusel in left, Earle Combs in center and Ruth in rightfield. Another renowned Yankee outfield, Charlie Keller, DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich, really played together for only three years, one before, one during and one after World War II. The Cardinals' outfield of Stan Musial, Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter had three years together, during and after the war, but there was only one in which Moore, the only truly outstanding fielder of the three, played a full season. The Dodger combination of Andy Pafko, Snider and Furillo lasted less than two years. The Oriole outfield of Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson played for three years in the late '60s and early '70s. And the Red Sox had two-thirds of an outstanding outfield for six years, from 1975 to 1980, with Lynn and Evans, but leftfield was shared by Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, among others.
One faction rooting earnestly for the Oakland outfield to remain intact is the A's pitching staff. Says Norris of his outer defenders, "My game isn't to let the ball get in the air, but with them, when I make a mistake it isn't one." Adds righthander Matt Keough, "I love them and they love me because I give them so many chances. We've marked the four spots on the grass where balls have landed, just as they used to mark the seats where Harmon Killebrew's home runs landed in Minnesota. Our guys put fear into other teams. They take away aggressiveness on the bases. The effect is as much psychological as anything. Nothing hurts more than having a hit taken away from you, and nothing gives a pitcher more confidence." Says another Oakland starter, Rick Langford, "It makes my approach to the game easier. All I have to do is keep the ball in the park." Concludes McCatty, "Art Fowler [Oakland's pitching coach] told us we should all win 50 games apiece. All we have to do is let 'em hit it in the air."
The A's infielders, whoever they may be, also have a stake in keeping the outfielders together. "It has made my job so much simpler," says Second Baseman Davey Lopes, fresh from the infield-dominated Dodgers. "I go out 10 to 15 steps, and they're calling me off. I'm not used to that. They're calling me off balls that are almost always either the shortstop's or the second baseman's. I've seen some pretty good outfields, but never one that is better as a unit." In a game against Seattle late last month, Dave McKay, playing second base, forgot that Armas was slightly injured and not in the lineup when a short fly ball was lofted to rightfield. He glanced back casually and saw to his surprise that Jeff Burroughs, Armas' replacement, was lumbering in for it tardily. McKay quickly shifted gears and barely made a fingertip catch of a ball Armas most likely would have been camped under. Such is the effect these magnificent athletes exert on their team.
And there's no letup. In the third inning of a game in Oakland a few weeks ago, Minnesota's rookie flash, Kent Hrbek, a lefthanded hitter, sliced a run-scoring double between Henderson and Murphy. And immediately thereafter Murphy and Henderson were seen in intense consultation. Murphy, mired in his slump, had two hits in that game, and the A's finally won it in 16 innings, 4-3, but he was distressed. "Murph would rather go oh for four and strike out twice than see a ball hit the ground out there," Keough has said. And, in truth, that double was still bothering Murphy the next day.
"We had a problem," Murphy said. "I was in the rightfield alley, so Rickey was supposed to cover the gap. But I couldn't get his attention. He played Hrbek straightaway instead. Well, sometimes I guess wrong, but not this time. Hrbek hit the ball up the gap in left. Rickey and I talked about it afterward. I guess I talk so much out there they get tired of listening. But I don't want that to happen again."
And his handsome face clouded over. A ball had not only hit the ground, but it had also penetrated the impregnable gap and gone for two bases. Murphy, the sergeant's son, the rabbit chaser, kept shaking his head in disbelief. Now, just how could such a thing happen? Watching him, you got the crazy feeling it wouldn't happen again.
Stepping lively at the plate, Henderson has a .296 average for his two-plus seasons in the majors.
With nine RBIs last week, Murphy was swinging out of an early-season slump. Armas is the big gun, having shared the AL homer lead with 22 in '81.
At 6'1", 180 pounds, Murphy cuts a dashing figure around the bases.
At his present rate, Henderson will steal a record 169 bases this season.
Base runners are advised to be cautious. Armas is armed and dangerous.
Murphy ranges back to the fence, into the alleys, behind the infield.
Along with everything else, the terrific trio also catches buses to the park.
Boston's defensive geniuses of 1910-15: Lewis, Speaker and Hooper.