Matt Keough, RIP: Aces and aches

2020-05-03 BillyMartinMattKeough

Matt Keough (right) with Billy Martin, who burned his Five Aces out with overwork and turned the A’s from sudden contenders to sudden basket case in a comparative blink.

It’s not every major league pitcher who goes from one-fifth of a heralded, overworked, and ruined young starting rotation to scout, coach, advisor, and occasional reality television figure. Nor is it every pitcher who passes away at 64 just weeks after his grandson dies during birth.

Of the five righthanders who once made up a youthful Oakland Athletics starting rotation Sports Illustrated brandished on a spring 1981 cover as the Five Aces, Matt Keough’s wasn’t one of the simpler baseball lives. He recovered well enough to rejoin the A’s in their front office as a special assistant; had his son, Shane, made it to the majors instead of playing an aborted minor league career, he’d have been the father of baseball’s twelfth third-generation player.

“Daddy,” Kara Keough Bosworth posted on Instagram upon Keough’s death Saturday, “please take care of my son. Teach him the circle changeup and how to find forever friends. You’re on grandpa duty in heaven now. Xoxo, Hammerhead.”

“My favorite place was always on your shoulders,” Shane Keough posted on Instagram upon his father’s death. “It makes me smile knowing [grandson] McCoy will be there with you; right there on your shoulders. It wasn’t always perfect but I wouldn’t change it for the world. You taught me more than you’ll ever know and I hope that I make you proud. Kick back and enjoy the eternal sunshine.”

Matt Keough was the son of former longtime major league outfielder Marty Keough and the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year winner for 1980. With Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, and Brian Kingman, Keough helped yank the A’s from nothing special (and the league’s second-worst earned run average) in 1979 to the best ERA in the league in 1980 and a 29-win improvement to an 83-79 record.

And within an extremely short time to follow, the Five Aces came to represent something else: witless mishandling of pitching talent.

While the country sat in thrall to Billy Martin and his “Billyball” attack on the American League from the A’s bridge, they were unaware that if the Aces were the mound cobras then Martin was their own mongoose.

In 1980-81 the Aces pitched 152 complete games. In 1982, the A’s were 28-50 by the All-Star break, and almost every one of the Aces—who lived mostly on breaking balls that weren’t always kind to shoulders and elbows in the first place—had physical trouble, as Rob Neyer reminded one and all in 2006’s The Big Book of Baseball Blunders.

Keough himself suffered a shoulder issue after slipping on a wet Baltimore mound in 1981. In 1982 he was a mess, leading the American League in losses and posting a 5.72 ERA, not to mention leading the league in home runs surrendered and in earned runs allowed.

Langford went down with a sore elbow late in the year but he may have been pitching through the issue before that, considering the 4.32 ERA he posted after showing a 2.99 in strike-shortened 1981. (“He’s his own worst enemy,” McCatty once said of the stubborn Langford.)

Norris developed shoulder tendinitis, hit the disabled list, and finished with a 4.76 ERA—and he may have pitched through shoulder trouble the year before. That he also had issues with cocaine addiction may or may not have been secondary. (Norris recovered in due course and became an inner-city baseball advocate teaching youth the game and its pitfalls.)

McCatty left spring training with a sore shoulder and pitched only 129 innings after he returned for the season. Kingman avoided arm and shoulder issues but he was often left to continue in games where he was being murdered.

“Oakland’s starters, all of them,” Neyer wrote, “looked like they were pitching hurt, and as things turned out they probably were. In 1983, Keough pitched only 100 innings; Norris, eighty-nine; Langford, twenty; Kingman pitched five innings. McCatty wasn’t healthy in 1983, but he led the way with 163 innings and a decent ERA. After 1983, none of them ever won more than five games in a season again.”

For the one game you needed to win yesterday, there may have been few better than Martin; for the longer term, sustained success, alas, there may have been few worse. The only thing Martin compromised more profoundly than teams he led to almost instant success was himself.

His biographers often underestimate his carelessness about the pitchers he handled. One, David Falkner, in The Last Yankee: The Turbulent Life of Billy Martin, claimed the charge that Martin overworked his pitchers “probably carried more weight than substance,” going on to claim the Five Aces’ “low pitch count per game [often in the 90-100 range] was better than average and a better barometer of their actual work load.”

Falkner was dead wrong. Neyer discovered that the quintet threw 90-100 pitch games fourteen times in those two seasons but threw 120-140 pitch games 94 times in the span. They also threw 152 complete games among them and averaged 130 pitches per complete game. Keough, McCatty, and Norris each averaged 131 pitches per complete game; Langford averaged 129; Kingman, 126.

“They did not routinely throw in the ’90-100 range’ as Falkner claims,” Neyer wrote. “They routinely threw in the 120-140 range. There are certainly pitchers who can survive, or even thrive, under the yoke of such workloads. Most cannot.”

Among the Aces, Keough may have been the most charitable in retrospect, when Sports Illustrated caught up to the quintet in 1984—by which time Keough had been traded and was missing the season with rotator cuff inflammation and McCatty was the only one of the group still in the Show somehow.

“Ballplayers are never the best judges of what’s wrong with them. We were all such good athletes that we thought we could always go nine,” he said.

Billy never failed to ask us how we felt. He would always say there was no room for heroes. He just wanted you to tell the truth. But we had such egos. We felt if it’s just a soreness maybe we’re better at 75 percent than the others would be at 100. We have to share the blame for what happened to us. I know I’m sick and tired of hearing about Billy Burnout. Billy and [pitching coach Art Fowler] took an obscure ball club and taught it how to win. How could I object to that? We never pitched any more than pitchers did on other competitive teams, anyway. I completed 20 games in ’80, but I only pitched 250 innings. There are too many intangibles involved to place the blame on any one person.

Martin himself blamed the 1981 strike for the Aces’ downfall. He said in one of his books that without him and Fowler there “to see that my pitchers did their work, warmed up properly, did their running, wore a jacket when they were sweating, threw with the proper motion . . . I’m convinced the sore arms that came later were the result of improper training during the strike, not overwork.”

The thought that he could have engineered the A’s 1980-81 turnaround (including one postseason series win in 1981) without killing his starting pitchers’ futures was never programmed into Martin’s hard drive. (Especially when he failed to trust the viable enough bullpen behind them.) Like Leo Durocher before him, Martin wasn’t shy about dismissing the ailing or the injured as quitters.

The likely combination of the A’s 1982 collapse and assorted non-game issues—including the day he trashed his office when the team refused him a loan for a tax issue—got Martin [and Fowler] fired after that season.

“If Martin’s theory was correct,” Neyer rejoined in a Big Book aside, “wouldn’t there have been a rash of injuries to pitchers all around the majors” as a result of the strike? “I don’t recall that there was.” As Neyer observed earlier in the aside, Martin had one thing in common with semi-legendary Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen: he “never made a mistake he couldn’t blame on somebody else.”

Keough made an All-Star team before the Martin era in Oakland; he pitched in four other organisations and for a spell in Japan before working as a well-liked and respected roving pitching coach, scout, and special assistant for the A’s, the Angels, and the Rays, before returning to the A’s.

His try at a pitching comeback with the 1992 Angels ended when he took a hard line drive foul off his head—while sitting in the dugout waiting for his turn to pitch in an exhibition game. His attorney swore Keough wasn’t quite the same man again after that.

Keough’s marriage to former Playboy playmate Jeane Tomasino ended, though the couple’s divorce wasn’t finalised until last year. (The couple had another son, Colton.) He fought and finally overcame a battle with the bottle that included time behind bars for the second of two drunk driving incidents.

It said something for Keough, too, that his still-estranged wife—with whom he and his children appeared occasionally on The Real Housewives of Orange County—testified for him over his second DUI in 2009 and pleaded with the judge to give him probation.

Keough was respected as a pitcher and beyond for his mind. “Matt probably had the most well-thought out game plan of any of us,” Norris was quoted as saying Sunday. “He was a student of the game and had great knowledge.”

He was credited with helping the A’s to draft such 2000s talent as Huston Street, Joe Blanton, and Nick Swisher. “[O]ur talks–even a week ago–unforgettable,” J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winning writer Peter Gammons tweeted.

“He had an amazing mind for the game and incredible work ethic,” Kansas City Royals senior scouting director Gene Watson told San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser. “When you watched a game with him, it was impossible not to learn something new from him every time.”

But he knew what really counted in the long run. “I have three best days—when each of my children was born,” Keough once said. May the Lord give him nothing but best days eternally, on grandpa duty with little McCoy Casey Bosworth, the baby grandson who preceded him early in April, and now greeted Grandpa with two tiny but profound open arms.

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