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The A's in orbit

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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.


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