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Mitchell Page

July 9, 2009

Mitchell Page 79

It’s weird, I just spent the last few months coming increasingly unglued as I labored to finish a book lashing (to use Frederick Exley’s term) “that long malaise, my life” to four packs worth of baseball cards, and the first thing I want to do the day after getting a thumbs-up from my editor on the book is . . . keep writing about baseball cards. It’s like when Corporal Klinger, after spending all that time and energy (and money—a new hairy-leg-baring dress, pumps, and bonnet every week) “bucking for a Section 8,” ended up re-enlisting when his tour of duty (but not Jamie Farr’s contract) was finally up. But the truth is, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of my shoebox full of baseball cards from my childhood in the mid- to late-1970s. For example: Mitchell Page. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Mitchell Page yet! Not having mentioned Mitchell Page after writing steadily about my baseball cards for nearly three years is like climbing up a trail for a long time and finally coming to a clearing and realizing you aren’t anywhere even close to the top of the mountain.

***

Eddie Murray won the Rookie of the Year award in 1977, but on closer inspection it seems that Mitchell Page was decidedly more deserving of the prize. The culprit in this injustice, as usually seems to be the case in these matters, was the over-reliance by the scribes of bygone years on what are now referred to, often somewhat sneeringly, as “counting stats,” in this case home runs and RBI. Murray topped Page in those categories (27 to 21 and 88 to 75), and he surely also benefited from being on a marquee team of the era that spent the entire year in a white-hot pennant race with the two biggest media-magnet teams in the league, the Red Sox and Yankees, while Mitchell Page toiled in front of empty seats as the ruins of the formerly dynastic A’s racked up 98 losses. Mitchell Page did at least get some consideration from the voters, coming in second to Murray, but one look at the more accurate indicators of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (listed below in that order) show that Page should have beaten Murray, and that it shouldn’t have even been close:

Page: .405/.521

Murray: .333/.470

And that doesn’t even take into account park factors. Murray played his home games in Memorial Stadium, which was not exactly a Valhalla for hitters but which was decidedly superior in that regard to Page’s home stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, where batting averages went to die. The statistic of OPS+, which adjusts for park factors, lends an even more striking contrast between the two rookies: while Murray posted a fine mark of 123, Page racked up a spectacular 154, third in the league behind MVP Rod Carew and Ken Singleton, Murray’s teammate. Which brings up another point that not even OPS+ can account for: while Murray was cozily cushioned in and bolstered by a scary lineup including sluggers such as Singleton and Lee May as well as a host of effective platoon hitters, Page was exposed all alone in a green-yellow desert of a lineup that was barren but for the offensive carrion of the likes of Rob Picciolo and Marty Perez.

And I haven’t even mentioned Mitchell Page’s speed.

***

I have three Mitchell Page cards. The first, from 1978, includes a trophy in the lower right hand corner identifying him as a member of the Topps All-Star Rookie team. On the back of that card his excellent rookie season is alluded to in a somewhat muted way with the blunt analytical tools of the 1970s-era baseball card statistics, and he is given a highlight moment in text below the statistics, the text describing a big late August day for him at Fenway. My last card of him, from 1980, continues to show the rookie season in stats as well as a steady decline in the two succeeding seasons. The fact that the text below the stats in that card loops back and recycles news of his big late August day in Fenway in 1977 suggests that by then Mitchell Page was running thin on highlights, which indeed he was; after 1980 he never got more than 92 at bats in a season, his swan song coming in a 1984 season in which he got into 16 games, all as a pinch-hitter (meanwhile, that season Eddie Murray reigned as a champion of the world, still a decade and a half from calling an end to his Hall of Fame career).

But of my three cards, the mystery of Mitchell Page most fully resides in the 1979 card shown here, which includes on the back his rookie season stats as well as the stats from the following season, which despite dipping below his debut numbers can still be viewed with some hope, as if they are a temporary dip in a promising career and not the beginning of an unstoppable slide. Below the stats, this electrifying information:

“Established American League record for most consecutive successful Stolen Base attempts with 26 in a row, April 10th through August 13, 1977.”

Had this text not been included, I would never have known or in a million years guessed that at one point Mitchell Page had unstoppable speed. Baseball cards back then didn’t have a column for stolen bases, and the stats that were included showed Page to be a power hitter, and with the exception of Bobby Bonds, who was already in decline by then anyway, there weren’t any power hitters who racked up steals. Moreover, the card photos of Mitchell Page, especially the one in this 1979 edition, where he seems to be dreading that he’ll eventually have to struggle to his feet and trudge to the batter’s box, suggested that the muscular veteran pictured had more in common with a logy grizzly than a spry gazelle.

The inclusion of Page’s stolen base record bestowed on the 1979 card a mesmerizing tension, revealing that oddly old-looking, tired-seeming, possibly declining Mitchell Page was or had once not that long ago briefly been blessed with the combination of physical skills that are generally reserved for a select few players from baseball history whose athletic abilities have bestowed on them an aura of breathless myth, such as Willie Mays, Pete Reiser, and Eric Davis. Would Mitchell Page take what seemed to be just a small step back up to regain his explosive rookie form and join these legendary players in the collective memory of baseball fans? Or for some strange reason would Mitchell Page fade away with barely a trace?

20 comments

  1. The second best guy whose end of his name was pronounced “-el Page,” Right, Eric?


  2. As a rookie, we A’s fans thought Mitchell Page would be the next A’s superstar. But he had a weird career arc. It wasn’t so much an arc as a slide, a straight line down from his rookie peak to the quiet, unnoticed end in 1984.

    My strongest memory of Mitchell Page was attending this game in 1982:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/OAK/OAK198208150.shtml

    Page was an afterthought by then, replaced in our hearts and in the lineup by the Henderson-Murphy-Armas triumvirate that emerged in the Billy Martin era. You almost forget Page was on the team during Martin’s reign. Page to me was the best player on the bad late-70s teams, and I can’t remember a single thing he did on those better BillyBall teams.

    Except that one game. The A’s led for most of the game. We were all getting ready to head home with a victory when the Angels tied it up in the top of the ninth. So we sat back down, and prepared to stay awhile. But first batter in the bottom of the ninth was Page, and *pow*! He hit a laser beam just over the right field fence by the foul pole, and we suddenly got up and headed home.

    It felt like getting a phone call from a forgotten old friend out of the blue. As we headed out of the stadium, I looked back over to where that ball shot over the fence and thought, “Wow. Mitchell Page! Where the hell have you been?”


  3. Hmm…I left a comment, and it didn’t appear. Lemme try again.


  4. Nope, it doesn’t like my comment. Entered it twice and wouldn’t appear either time. Don’t know why. I thought it was a damn good comment.


  5. Oh, I put a URL in it, it’s probably queued up for moderation. Josh, please approve my comment only once, and delete the repeat.


  6. I added it, Ken. I was hoping you’d chime in on Page. I still don’t understand why he declined so quickly. Was it injuries?


  7. I had Page’s card from about 1984 and thought he was just a nobody until I noticed his rookie year. It’s strange that he set the record for consecutive steals as a rookie, but he was barely over 50% on SB attempts the next two years. His replacement as A’s left-fielder was slightly better.


  8. Wasn’t Page a drinker? I seem to recall a story about that after he was let go as hitting coach for the Cardinals.


  9. My recollection is that Page had bad knees. Big guys weren’t meant to be stealing bases, I guess.


  10. I seem to recall those post-dynasty A’s were the stealingest team of our lifetime, even before the coming of Rickey. In fact, without looking, I think the ’76 team stole more bases than any squad not from the deadball era. With that in mind, you’d think that Page would have had a lot of caught stealings to go with his steals in ’77, but he stole 42 bags (only Freddie Patek stole more that year in the A.L.) and was only thrown out 5 times. Amazing.


  11. You’re thinking of Mike Easler, not Mitchell Page. At least that was the rumor.


  12. I think. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.


  13. Here is what replacement coach Lenny Harris had to say about Page when he replaced him as coach in 2007:

    “The Nats have given Hitting Coach Mitchell Page a leave of absence for the most Washingtonian of reasons, “personal reasons.” Presumably, he, like so many others, wants to spend more time with his family. In his place comes former Red and (you’ll undoubtedly hear this 42 times tonight) Pinch-Hit King, Lenny Harris.

    I know nuttin’, and there’s likely a good chance he’s dealing with something personal, but I suspect this is their way of saying adieu to Page for his poor performance. Given his past history with alcoholism, perhaps they wanted to do something nice and keep him in the family, even if it’s more of a distant cousin in Albuquerque sorta thing now.”

    Lenny sounds like a real dinkus.

    This was in the Wash. Post: “. . . To get back to that point, Page had to do some work on himself. In an interview two years ago, he spoke about the dark days at the end of the 2004 season, when he was drinking vodka before games, when he knew he needed help. After the season, he was let go by the Cardinals. He checked into a rehabilitation facility.

    “The best thing I did,” he said Thursday. “It gave me a better outlook. I went 17 months without a drink, without having one drink. I pick my spots now — a beer here, a glass of wine. But I don’t need it. It doesn’t control me. Seventeen months off without drinking, that really makes you look at reality, look in the right direction.”

    In the article Cardinal players and Nationals players spoke very fondly of Page as a coach and as a person.


  14. Thanks for that info, Catfish. Interesting excerpt from the Post. I think that first bit is from a Nationals blogger, not Lenny Harris:
    http://dcbb.blogspot.com/2007/05/mitchell-page-out.html


  15. I always though Mitchell Page had one of the coolest names in baseball.

    Good catch Josh, his ’77 season flys under the radar and is basically forgotten.

    You absolutely right, that 1977 rookie of the year vote was horrible. Page should have been a lock to win the award. It’s really not even close between he and Murray. Not only was Page the best A.L. rookie in 1977 he was also one of the 5 or 6 best players in the A.L. during 1977.

    Here’s some comparisons between Page and Murray:

    Page 77:

    War: 6
    Warp 3: 8.5
    Win Shares: 30

    Murray 77:

    War: 2.9
    Warp 3: 3.4
    Win Shares: 21

    Another thing that’s amazing about Page’s 1977 season is that he was 42/47 in stolen base attempts for an amazing 89%.


  16. When Page was a rookie, my best friend was an A’s fan and we used to argue who was the best rookie in baseball in ’77, Page or Steve Henderson. Interesting how both players started with such promise and gradually declined to where their rookie season was obviously the best season of their career for each player.


  17. In 1979 I was in Boston as an exchange student from Italy. We went to Fenway for a A’s vs Red Sox game on july 26th…that day, in an otherwise mediocre season, Mitchell Page had one of his best games of his career: he went 4 for 5 with 2 2B, 1 HR and 1SB…from that moment he became one of my favorite players. Today I collect game used bats and in my collection there are a couple of Page’s bats.
    I also have bought recently a book written by him about hitting…the curious thing is that he poses in many pictures, demonstrating hitting tecniques, with his wristwatch on !


  18. Thanks for sharing that, Stefano. As you may know, Page used to be the Washington Nationals hitting coach. I think he might still be a roving minor league hitting instructor.


  19. RIP, Mitchell Page.


  20. His baserunning (despite his speed) went to hell in a handbasket after his rookie year. After 42 SB with only 5 CS in his rookie year, he was barely above 50% in ’78 in about the same number of attempts. Was that a “green light” or bad coaching? Whatever the case, he had 62 SB and 50 CS in his career after the rookie year.

    He always had high K rates for his era. If you look at his rookie and sophomore years, in which his results are high quality, they are propped up by some unsustainable BABIP numbers that hide the high strikeouts. When the BABIP normalized and the K rates stayed high, his OBP tanked. His walk rate also dipped, although for that era, his walk rate in his second and third seasons weren’t bad at all.

    We can only guess about whether his rookie season was a fluke, or whether something happened. One factor might be that on these horrible A’s teams, he probably tried to do a little too much. He and Wayne Gross both had 20+ homers in ’77, but that was a fluke year for Gross. In ’78, the A’s had only four guys with double digit homers; one of them was Rico Carty who only played in 41 games and another was traded away in July (Gary Alexander). Maybe Page was pressing. He hit third or fourth pretty much all year.

    Something else happened too, though. In ’79, Page lost his job in LF to became a full time DH. He had only four defensive appearances in ’79! Some guys can’t gear up to hit when they have to sit for 40 minutes between plate appearances. That’s not evident in his DH numbers in ’77 and ’78, but he didn’t have to do it very often in those years.

    I always thought Rickey took his job in ’79, but that’s only partially true. For one, Page still got 539 PAs, so he didn’t lose his job entirely. As for the outfield slot, Rickey played in the minors in ’79 for quite awhile, so Page’s absence from LF is not entirely attributable to Rickey’s arrival. Glenn Burke got the nod in LF to start the season. He was atrocious. Page didn’t get LF back. Miguel Dilone got some time in LF. Equally atrocious. Page didn’t get LF back. The job went to someone named Derek Bryant, of whom I have never heard (and he only played this season in the majors). He was even more atrocious. For nearly 75 games, new manager Jim Marshall played three left fielders who just barely managed a .500 OPS, while Page DH’d. Was he that bad defensively? The metrics indicate he wasn’t very good in LF in ’79, but he was about average in ’78. And besides, his replacements weren’t much better.

    So then after the horrible Burke/Dilone/Bryant experience, Rickey came up and blocked him from LF, right? Well, not quite. Rickey did come up to play some LF, but mostly he played CF to start. Did Page get LF back? Nope. Marshall kept playing Bryant with his .463 OPS, which is roughly what Page’s SLG was by itself the year before. When Marshall finally gave up on Bryant, he stuck Mike Heath in LF. Yeah, the Mike Heath who played 10 times as many games at catcher in his career as he did LF. Okay, then Rickey took LF.

    Maybe Page had leg issues. That would account for the poorer baserunning, lower BABIPs and total dropoff in defensive appearances.

    As a Florida kid, I never saw him (or any of the late 70’s A’s) on TV. They weren’t Game of the Week material. My entire impression came from his baseball cards. From the standpoint of a kid, he seemed like kind of an old guy, though I realize now he was only 25 (kind of an old rookie, but I thought he was 40).

    Anyone know why he appears to be hitting right handed in his ’81 Fleer?



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