Dwayne Murphy, captain of the Oakland A's, felt certain he could hold his own against a bunch of pitchers in "flip," a kind of full-contact hot-potato contest in which players use their gloves to slap a baseball at one another until one player errs and it drops to the ground. After all, Murphy, the American League's Gold Glove centerfielder for the past three years, ought to be able to excel in a defensive drill against guys who need practice fielding bunts. But these A's pitchers—six of the 10 on the Oakland staff before the Sept. 1 call-ups were rookies—aren't intimidated by veterans, on or off the mound. Their pregame flips have snapped back as many heads on the A's as have their inside fastballs on American League foes. "Those guys are tough," Murphy said last week after taking his lumps from the rookie flippers. "I'm glad they pitch for us."
So are the rest of the A's. On Thursday night Chris Codiroli, a 25-year-old righthander one year removed from Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League, threw a three-hitter to beat the Yankees and an old San Jose American Legion rival, Dave Righetti, 2-0. Codiroli thus ran his record to 12-9 to join Baltimore's Mike Boddicker as the winningest rookie in the American League. Since July 15, when the A's were 38-50 and all but dead, Codiroli and three other newcomers—lefties Tim Conroy, 23, and Gorman Heimueller, 27, and righthander Keith Atherton, 24—have blithely led Oakland on a 28-23 romp. In the AL West, only the White Sox have been hotter.
The Four Freshmen came to the rescue after the A's lost four of their starters—Mike Norris, Rick Langford and rookie Bill Krueger to injuries, and Matt Keough in a trade to the Yankees. At one point the rookie-dominated A's staff turned in a club-record 37 consecutive scoreless innings, with three straight shutouts in that stretch. The last time the A's had such a hat trick, the pitchers' names were Blue, Hunter and Holtzman.
After two sterling seasons under Manager Billy Martin, including a division title in 1981, the A's finished fifth in '82 with a tarnished team ERA of 4.54, second worst in the league. So while the pitching was worrisome before this season began, no one, not even Martin's low-key replacement, Steve Boros, expected the farm system to supply a remedy when the regular staff collapsed.
But the rookies have done much more than fill uniforms. "In August, they just amazed me," says Pitching Coach Ron Schueler. "I didn't think we were as good as we are pitching right now."
If Heimueller (3-4, 3.93), Conroy (6-7, 3.53) and Atherton (2-1, 2.14) have all been impressive, then Codiroli has been nearly phenomenal. Through Sunday he had won five of his last six starts, and at one point he'd pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings. Few pitchers have ever come as far.
After being the No. 1 draft choice of the Detroit Tigers in 1978, Codiroli was released in 1981 after suffering through three so-so years in the minors and three muscle tears in his pitching arm. While rehabilitating, Codiroli became friendly with erstwhile Tiger Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, whose determination to return to the majors Codiroli admired. "I think a little bit of that rubbed off on me," Codiroli says.
He worked hard to strengthen his injured arm and was signed by the A's a few weeks after the Tigers let him go. Last year Codiroli was 6-1 with Double A West Haven (Conn.) and 10-3 with Triple A Tacoma before being called up in September. At 6'1", 158 pounds, he is a whippet of a power pitcher who is now mastering a curveball and changeup. "The biggest thing I have learned this year is that I can pitch up here," he says. "I never really knew that before."
That confidence was tested in his 115-pitch gem against the Yankees. Holding a 2-0 lead with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth inning, Codiroli faced Dave Winfield. Codiroli never blinked. "I'd gotten him out with off-speed stuff early," Codiroli said afterward. "But I figured if he was going to beat me, it would be against my best, so I challenged him with fastballs." Winfield grounded to short to end the threat.
Like the A's other rookie pitchers, Codiroli's salary is right around the major league minimum of $35,000. But from the look of his dowdy wardrobe, one might guess he earns half that much. Last year Martin offered to buy Codiroli some new clothes after he showed up wearing what has been described as a short-sleeve leisure suit. Codiroli is hardly the party type, taking seriously his responsibility to his wife, Marjorie, and their two young children. "I like to go home and not do anything," he says. Subdued living is also the style of Conroy, Atherton and Heimueller.
"They know this is a great opportunity," says Steve McCatty, the lone active holdover from Martin's starting staff, who's coming back from arm trouble. "The whole team is happy for them."
Schueler has stressed aggressiveness to his young charges—make sure the first pitch is a strike and don't be afraid to throw inside. But that hard line is softened by a patience that begins with Boros, who was hired to succeed Martin largely because of his low-pressure, professorial manner. "I want everybody to feel loose within a framework of learning," Boros says. "If someone doesn't succeed, we give them a pat on the back and talk about it."
That approach has been particularly successful with Conroy, the fastballer whom Charlie Finley brought to the big club directly out of high school in 1978. In his only two big league appearances that year, Conroy walked nine and allowed four earned runs in five innings. Five years in the minors followed. "It took me a long time to get my confidence back," he says, "but I've matured and I really like the coaching staff." Both Atherton, a fireballing reliever, and Heimueller, a screwballer, were summoned from Tacoma in July. "I'm having too much fun to feel any pressure," says Heimueller. Righthander Mike Warren (1-3) also left Tacoma to rejoin the A's in mid-August.
"The toughest part is learning to succeed, and our young pitchers have done that," says Boros. "A pennant race would be fun. I just hope we get a chance to find out." Maybe next year, Steve.
Some of Professor Boros' favorite freshmen (left to right): Atherton, Codiroli, Warren, Conroy, Krueger, Heimueller.