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Ben Mankiewicz

Ben Mankiewicz

Posted: March 14, 2011 02:15 PM

Mitchell Page: What to Do When Your Boyhood Hero Dies


I'd met him only once, in passing. He didn't know my name or anything about me. He was a 59-year-old alcoholic who'd been battling those demons for years, probably decades.

But Mitchell Page was a huge part of my life, casting a shadow nearly as large as any friend or family member. He was a ballplayer, a left fielder and designated hitter for the Oakland A's from 1977-1983. And when I read he'd died this weekend, I felt a degree of sadness I suspect is reserved for just this situation - for boys who learn their favorite player, the object of their passion and love of a game, was gone.

I became a baseball fan because it connected me viscerally to my dad. But my father also loves James Joyce - and I can't read six words without getting a headache. So while my dad may have been the spark, Mitchell Page was my baseball sustenance. It was April 1977 and I was in my dad's home office in Washington, DC when he told me about a rookie slugger in Oakland who was tearing through American League pitching the first week of the season. He was strong, he was fast and he had a cool name. I was sold. With no team in Washington, my love affair with the A's and Page began that day. It has not abated.

I have friends whose favorite players are Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph and Tom Seaver. But Page had something they lacked. He wasn't that good. I took great pride loving a ballplayer who played for a bad team and other than his tremendous rookie season, had a very ordinary career.

But that season was special. I don't need the Internet to check his stats. I know them like my phone number. A .307 average, 21 homers, 75 RBIs and 42 stolen bases - 25 in a row - a record at that point. His .405 on base percentage and .521 slugging percentage make it one of the great rookie seasons of the pre-steroid era. That Page lost the 1977 Rookie of the Year award to Baltimore's Eddie Murray is a miscarriage of baseball justice.

Mitchell Page was out of the majors after the 1984 season, but even though he was done playing, I wasn't done with him. He was on the cover of the Sporting News in June 1977. I ordered it on eBay. It's framed in my office. I have every baseball card from every pit stop he made in his career, from minor league teams in Charleston, Tacoma and Hawaii to a beauty of him playing Winter League ball for Magallenes in Venezuela.

And I've had two dogs in my life, both named in his honor. Otis (Page's middle name) and the beautiful creature currently snoring at my feet, Rookie, who's had nothing but great seasons.

When Page became a hitting coach, with St. Louis and then Washington, I was like a proud father. When he got the Cardinals job, I called all my friends to tell them. I was 35 at the time.

I'm not overstating it when I say he was one of the most respected and well-liked hitting coaches in the game, but he lost both those jobs to alcoholism. Clearly, he kept trying to get sober, but we all know how hard that can be.

When Mickey Mantle died, some really thoughtful people wrote wonderful essays about the metaphorical death of their childhood. But Mitchell Page wasn't Mickey Mantle. He had a spectacular debut, but never delivered a worthy encore performance.

Still, I was hoping something profound would come to me as I was writing. But it didn't. It's just a story that makes me sad and nostalgic. However, as I read stories about Page, I love hearing how well respected he was as a hitting coach, particularly working with younger players.

That feels right to me. Because when I was 10, right or wrong, there was nobody I respected more. And tonight, 33 years later, I'm flipping through his baseball cards, petting my dog and counting the days until opening day. And for those wonderful things, I can thank Mitchell Page.

 

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