March 14, 2011
The BP Broadside
Mitchell Page's Unfinished Sentence
Mitchell Page died on Saturday. He leaves this world at the youthful age of 59, a departure that seems almost as mysterious as his arrival. For 33 years, Page has been a figure of fascination to me, an unlikely link to my childhood. It was all because of this baseball card:
Page’s 1978 card came out when I was about seven years old, part of the first set I collected. As happens when you try to pursue a full set by buying wax packs, you end up with scores of doubles, and Page’s was a card that surfaced with some regularity (unlike, say, Reggie Jackson’s). I found it endlessly fascinating.
There are two important elements of this card that clash, and I’m not talking about a color-scheme that only the Joker could love. It begins with the “Topps All-Star Rookie” symbol in the bottom right-hand corner. Rookie suggests youth, a notion that conflicts with Page’s visage, which seems to have a lot of mileage on it for a guy who was supposed to be 25 at the time. Even as a child, I would look at that picture and think, “He’s a rookie? He looks like he’s 50!” But even without that cheesy little trophy on the card, I think I would have found Page’s face fascinating. He had a lot going on—heavy eyebrows behind giant 1970s sunglasses, the moustache, the faint hint of a goatee. The Topps photographer seemed to have caught him in midsentence, and it’s not clear if he’s angry at something or is about to rally the A’s, having just noticed a flock of giant, man-eating space-condors closing in over his shoulder. It could have been anything, which is what made it so interesting; few cards are as fraught with possibility.
It was only a bit later, when I really began to consider those boring stats on the back of the card (printed in a color somewhere between orange and brown), that the mystery of Page became even more pronounced. The guy was crazy good at the plate that year, hitting .307/.405/.521 with 21 home runs, 78 walks, and 42 stolen bases against just five times caught stealing. That was worth about 6.0 WARP, which says something when you consider that his contribution to the winning effort (such as it was for the A’s at that time) was dragged down by shaky outfield play—he made 14 errors in left field, just one of them on a throw. Only nine players (including Vladimir Guerrero twice) have tied or surpassed that figure in the years since.
The American League hit just .266/.330/.405 in 1977, and the Oakland Coliseum was the same depressing place to hit in the 1970s that it is now. It was a monster year, a .326 TAv season. Page placed a close second to Eddie Murray in the Rookie of the Year voting, losing 12-9 (four first-place votes went to Bump Willis and two to Dave Rozema), and other than Murray’s having six more home runs and playing better defense, there wasn’t much reason to advocate for the younger man. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “Hey, it was Eddie Murray, Hall of Famer. Of course he won it,” but no one knew that Murray had over 3,000 hits and 477 home runs to go in his career. Page was the better hitter at that moment. Not only was he better, he was kind of magical. In early September, an Oakland writer told him he wouldn’t win the Rookie of the year award because he hadn’t hit enough home runs. In his next two games he went 4-for-6 with three home runs, telling the sportswriter, “That was for you.”
Of course, at 25, Page was closer to his prime than Murray was. Drafted out of college by the Pirates in the third round of the 1973 draft, Page was already 21 at signing and had a slow road out of the minors. He got hurt after signing and spent most of his first professional season on the disabled list. He worked his way up the ladder one level at a time, always hitting excellently. He batted .291/.376/.530 with 23 home runs (he tied for the league lead) and 23 steals in the Texas League, then .294/.371/.489 with 22 home runs and 23 steals at Charleston of the International League. After fielding .934 at Double-A, the Pirates moved him to first base, where he made 20 errors in 1976.
Whether because of his defensive difficulties or due to its stacked roster, the big-league club never gave him a call. That’s the second mystery of Page: why he was traded without a Pirates trial. In 1976, the Pirates were so crowded that Willie Stargell found himself in a rough platoon at first base, the outfield claimed by Richie Zisk (.294 TAv), Al Oliver (.304), and Dave Parker (.298). That winter, apparently not too concerned by the arrival of free agency, which would cause them to break up that fine outfield, the Pirates included Page in a huge deal for Phil Garner. The 28-year-old Scrap Iron had just hit .261/.307/.400 for the A’s (.269 TAv). In return for the versatile infielder, the ancient Tommy Helms, and middling pitching prospect Chris Batton, the A’s not only received the veteran pitchers Dave Giusti and Doc Medich (the latter only 28), but Page, future staff ace Rick Langford, future All-Star outfielder Tony Armas, and durable reliever Doug Bair. Zisk was traded that same winter, leaving the Pirates with a hole they filled with Omar Moreno, a fine baserunner but not half the hitter Page was, at least not at that moment.
The third mystery of Mitchell Page is what the heck happened to his hitting after 1977. Perhaps his being an old rookie is enough to account for his never being nearly as good again. He hit a very solid .285/.355/.459 in 1978, but he lost some of the walks, all of the incredible stolen base percentage (going 23 for 42), and a good deal of the power. He had played through a hand injury in ’77, perhaps the reason that he alternated poor stretches (.250/.307/.388 from May through June) and torrid ones (.366/.435/.683 in April, .388/.490/.663 in July). Those big glasses are also a clue. His eyesight would trouble him for the rest of his career, causing him difficulty in picking up the ball in the outfield, and perhaps at the plate as well. Ironically, he also was the player who brought videotape into the Oakland clubhouse and taught that retrograde organization to review its hitting performances with modern technology.
In 1979, he got into a salary beef with Charlie Finley, was suspended for part of spring training as a result, and then had to find playing time in a crowded outfield that featured three players who were younger and boasted better gloves, among them Armas and Dwayne Murphy. He didn’t hit, batting .247/.323/.335 in 133 games and stealing just 17 bags in 33 tries. In the midst of that miserable season, though, he achieved one career highlight that he would later retain in his career biography: in the top of the first inning at Kansas City on June 27 of that year, he came up against Steve Busby with two on and two out. He hit a single to left field, scoring the runner. The runner was the third young outfielder, rookie Rickey Henderson. It was the first of a record 2,295 times he would cross the plate.
Page bounced back to some degree in 1980, hitting .244/.311/.443, but his run with the A’s was almost over. He opened the 1981 season hitting .146 /.206/.292 in 98 plate appearances and was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma not long before the work stoppage. He killed the ball there, hitting .328/.408/.596, but the A’s didn’t call him back until September, and then it was only to sit. He was farmed out again in 1982, hit well again, but saw little big-league action aside from a mid-season call-up. He was on the roster for all of the 1983 season, but he rarely played—I can’t find a record of a DL stay—and seems to have been a pinch-hitter/spectator. Released after the season, he went back to the Pirates, but he got just 15 major-league PAs with them, spending almost all of a two-year stay with the organization at Triple-A Hawaii. Perhaps the tropical setting was some consolation for the fact that, despite slugging over .500 on the islands, his career was over.
Page was gone as mysteriously as he came. He stayed in the game, coaching in the majors for the Royals, Cardinals, and Nationals, serving the latter two organizations as hitting coach. So mystery solved, right? Funny card, old rookie, bad hand, bad eyes? Well, maybe. Reading through the comments from those that knew him on mlb.com, there seems to be the suggestion that there is still something about Page we don’t know. “He didn't have an easy life,” Tony LaRussa is quoted as saying. Dave McKay, a teammate with the A’s and fellow coach with the Cardinals, said, “It's just really sad. His life was straightened out, he was heading in the right direction, it seemed like.”
So, was his life being headed in the wrong direction part of his abrupt fade? We will probably never know, at least not on the record. All I know for sure is that I will always cherish that card and the image of a man about to say… something, though having written this remembrance I am less certain than ever that he ever got to say it.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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