SSTN Interviews Dale Tafoya
SSTN: Today we are here with author Dale Tafoya. Dale is the author of Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed and Billy Ball: Billy Martin and the Resurrection of the Oakland A’s. His work has appeared in the New York Daily News, New York Post, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, Chicago Tribune, Baseball Digest, Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and other noteworthy publications. Tafoya’s recent book, Billy Ball was a Finalist for the 2020 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year. Tafoya’s next book captures a baseball renaissance that took place in Huntsville, Alabama in 1985. University of Nebraska Press is the publisher. Tafoya resides in the San Francisco-Bay Area.
Dale, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
My pleasure, Paul. Happy to join you.
Your latest book focuses on Billy Martin. In his career, Billy was a bigger than life character. As a manger, he went to teams, brought them immediate success, and then was soon after fired. What do you attribute Billy Martin’s success to?
Billy’s formula was to shake a franchise and pour his soul into winning immediately. Owners did not bring Billy on board for a rebuild. He healed sick teams. Martin knew how to hypnotize players into winning. He brainwashed them, injected confidence in them. Billy’s confidence attracted them. He brought discipline. Awful teams suddenly started to win under Billy’s leadership. But some players could not perform in that emotionally charged climate very long. Billy hated losing and he was tough to be around when his clubs were failing. Clashing with his bosses and baseball owners did not help Billy stay employed either. He tended to clash with narcist players on his club who did not always back down to his iron-fisted ways, which resulted in clubhouse tension. By the second or third season, Billy’s run ended and he headed to the next franchise and city to shake. He was a cult figure. He could bring a baseball revival to a city.
Billy Martin managed the Oakland A’s from 1980 to 1982. After a fast start, bringing the A’s success in 1980 and 1981, the A’s feel to fifth place in 1982, his last season there. Why did the team suddenly collapse, losing 94 games, around him?
Great question. A few things were in play in 1982. After being media darlings for two seasons and some players finally landing fair-market contracts, I believe some of them became complacent and lost their hunger. It happens. There were also heavy rains in Phoenix, Arizona that spring training with no indoor facilities for pitchers to throw. Players could hardly practice and play that spring because of the bad weather. Another factor was that Billy, the face of the franchise who had a lot of power, wanted the entire A’s farm system to be indoctrinated into “Billy Ball” that spring. Over 100 players were in big league camp, and that robbed a lot of A’s everyday players of playing time before the season. Long lines for batting practice started at the dugout. Mike Norris left spring training having pitched only about fourteen exhibition innings. Let’s face it: A’s starting pitchers Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman threw a combined 152 complete games the previous two seasons. If not for the 1981 labor strike, they would have eaten more innings. It caught up to them in 1982. The pitching staff collapsed badly, highlighted by wildness and shoulder injuries. By 1983, Billy Martin returned to New York to manage the Yankees. The A’s never reached the postseason again until 1988 under Tony La Russa.
Because of his success with the A’s, it could be argued that Billy Martin helped save baseball in Oakland. For a period, “Billy Ball” was one of baseball’s most exciting styles of play. What exactly was “Billy Ball?”
“Billy Ball” was a style of play that Billy Martin branded. When Billy took over a club, he didn’t inherit the most talented rosters. Not only did Martin make players believe they could win; he used a lot of trickery in games to outsmart opposing managers to win. Managing against Billy was like playing chess. He always kept opposing managers on their toes. Because of a flawed roster, he needed to outsmart other clubs. For example, he successfully used the hidden ball trick during a game in Minnesota in 1981. He orchestrated double and triple steals that absolutely that drove pitchers nuts. Opponents had to guess what Billy would do next. He lived rent-free in the heads of opposing managers. “Billy Ball” was an aggressive, scrappy, proactive style of play that relentlessly put pressure on opposing clubs. It was built on Billy’s confidence and focus to win immediately.
Do you believe Billy Martin could manage in the game today?
I would love to see a manager like Billy Martin in the game today. He always connected with the working class in every city and his passion would be great for the game. If Billy did manage in today’s game, he would have to be more politically astute, and that would be challenging for him because he had so much passion and fight. I don’t think bumping or kicking dirt on umpires would be tolerated today. But many fans are entertained by that kind of stuff. A big part of the “Billy Ball” campaign was Billy barging out of the A’s dugout to faceoff with umpires and fight for his team. Fans connected with that. Working class fans adored him. He was a guy you wanted in your corner. He’d fight for you.
You also wrote about the “Bash Brothers,” Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire and their legacy on the game. Please tell us about that.
Growing up near the Oakland Coliseum, where the A’s played, I loved watching Canseco and McGwire become the most celebrated home run tandem in baseball in the late 1980s. I’d arrive at the Coliseum hours early just to watch batting practice. They fueled the A’s late-1980s dominance. 1988 was special to me. It marked the first time the A’s made the playoffs since 1981 and Canseco and McGwire were at the forefront of it all. Through another lens, they were a new brand of player entering the game. They popularized the bodybuilding culture in baseball. They were two musclebound sluggers who clubbed monstrous home runs and changed the game. Other players around the game took notice and followed suit. Bash Brothers (Potomac Books, 2008) captures their story that culminates when Congress subpoenaed them to testify in March 2005. There’s great information in the book about the early years of bodybuilding in baseball.
For your book, you interviewed more than 150 teammates and others who were connected to McGwire and Canseco. What was the overall general feeling about these two legends? Their power, performance, and stature changed the game – probably forever.
To many of them, it was a sad ending. McGwire and Canseco were never close friends, but they were teammates connected with the “Bash Brothers” slogan. McGwire was the more popular teammate based on my interviews. The bar was raised so high for Canseco when he first arrived in 1985. Many thought he was the next Mickey Mantle. Some former A’s teammates thought Canseco could have posted way better career numbers than he did. But he was distracted and stopped working.
Do the great players linked to steroids (McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, etc…) belong in the Hall-of-Fame?
I’m sure there are players in the Hall of Fame that have used steroids. Why not? The five players you listed happened to be the ones who were caught. Some users will never be caught. Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter of my lifetime. He was a great player before the muscles. It is hard to believe he is not in the Hall of Fame.
Billy Martin is a legendary manager, yet he won only one World Series. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco led a great series of A’s teams in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, but won only one World Series. The stars shone brightly and briefly for both. Are there any other similarities between these figures of the game?
An interesting note: Billy Martin was instrumental in the A’s drafting Canseco (1982) and McGwire (1984). While Billy was serving as the A’s GM in 1981, he hired Camilo Pascual as a scout. Pascual scouted in Florida in 1982 and noticed Canseco, a tall, skinny power-hitting third baseman from Coral Park High. Billy also hired Dick Wiencek as director of scouting. Wiencek scouted McGwire at USC in 1984 and made him the tenth overall pick in 1984.
Fans of the A’s usually dislike when I bring this up, but among the greatest A’s of all time, many, if not most, eventually end up playing for the Yankees. It’s somewhat uncanny. Since the 1970s, that list includes Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Jason Giambi, and even lesser stars like Ken Holtzman and Sonny Gray (they all didn’t come to New York and have success). Why is this?
Even Canseco joined the Yankees briefly in 2000. You’d have to wonder if the pressure of playing in New York, along with the enormous expectations and scrutiny that accompany the transition, is a difficult for players. Joining the Yankees is like a promotion in a lot of ways and you’re expected to play there like you did in Oakland, where the pressure to win is not as intense.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
I’m a 1980’s baseball junkie and 1986 had such a great class of rookies––Wally Joyner, Jose Canseco, Pete Incaviglia, Will Clark, Mark Eichhorn, Danny Tartabull, John Cangelosi, Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, the list goes on. Capturing that season with those touted rookies would be an intriguing to read.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Barry Bonds, no doubt. In his prime, he mastered hitting a baseball over the fence. He could have easily hit over 100 home runs in 2001 if pitchers would have thrown a ball over the plate. Review the games on video. He rarely saw anything over the plate that season and still managed to hit 73 homers. Bonds figured hitting out.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Oakland A’s
Who was your favorite player?
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I like a good Cajun chicken sandwich
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
There are so many amazing, unpublished baseball stories in the bowels of history. You just have to find them.
Thank yo, so much, for joining us here at Start Spreading the News Dale. It was great to talk baseball with you. I wish you continued success, always.
Please keep in touch!