The Wiz could turn a phrase

Updated: June 14, 2004, 11:14 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Ralph Wiley had a few thousand great moments in his day, which turned out far too short for everyone's good, but the one he had in Oakland, his first big-time journalism stop, was the time he didn't copyright BillyBall, and lost a small, albeit large, fortune.

Wiley, who died Sunday at 52 of a heart attack, was a columnist at the Oakland Tribune in 1980, then as later a smart, provocative, thoughtful, funny and thoroughly worthwhile press box companion. He understood it then; he understood it later. And he really understood it that day in 1980 when, having watched the resurgent Athletics steal yet another game with a steal of home using Billy Martin's burglar's baseball, coined the phrase that launched a million others -- BillyBall.

It was perfect, and he explained why. Martin had been hired to revitalize a team that had piled up 54 wins and drew barely 300,000 customers the year before. Bud Selig worries about the A's future now? He knows better, because then, the A's were less relevant to the bigger picture than the Expos are now. They were, in 1979, as close to the St. Louis Browns as a team could be without actually being close to Baltimore.

And Billy did all that, in his own glorious, incendiary way, by playing the game he learned on the sandlots of Berkeley, in the Pacific Coast League, and with the Yankees under Casey Stengel. There was no trick too arcane, no stratagem too convoluted, no work of misdirection too clever by half, for Billy not to try. And most of them worked, because he had a roster of players ready and willing to try anything, and a league full of opponents who either had never seen them before or forgotten them years earlier.

They went from 54 to 83 wins. They stole home seven times. They went from 41 to 94 complete games. And they found 535,000 new fans.

Wiley saw a lot of those games because, well, it was the best place in the East Bay to be back then. The Warriors were bad, the Raiders were sounding off on a daily basis about leaving, and the Coliseum was the one place where you had an even-money chance of seeing something you'd never seen before.

And it was Wiley, who was known among his contemporaries not as Ralph, but "The Wiz," who wrote the column that midwifed "BillyBall" into the thick lexicon of the game. The A's of 1980 and 1981 were BillyBall, and BillyBall was the A's.

But here's the beauty of it. He got his due credit from his pals for making the right phrase in the most descriptive yet concise way, and the fans picked up on it as the perfect description of the new, watch-these-suckers A's.

If The Wiz had been the mercenary type, he'd have copyrighted "BillyBall" right away. Actually, that's not right. If he had the soul of a marketing man, he'd have copyrighted it. But he didn't. The thanks of the reading public, and the satisfaction of knowing he'd hit it square and true -- that was enough.

But the A's were owned by smart folks then, and they knew what they could do with BillyBall that Wiley couldn't, or would never have thought of. They copyrighted it. They splashed it on the front of their media guide, in gold script with a green trim, and they flung it on every piece of advertising and promotional bric-à-brac they could pay for. BillyBall was the bobblehead of 1981.

And The Wiz?

Never saw a dime.

The Wiz as he was back then at age 28 and with visions yet to share and worlds still to conquer, never thought he should have. When he was teased for not cashing in on that graceful, yet vicious way sportswriting contemporaries have (there are few jokes told in a press box that translate anywhere else as less than gratuitously cruel anywhere else), he laughed. We knew, and he knew, that it wasn't about cashing in, except the next morning when the story appeared on the porches of strangers.

Oh, sure, he did his share of cashing in later. Books, television, and the happy little dodge we like to call Internet work. But he was never phony, or dishonest, or one for cheap sentimentality. He didn't write or speak from his gut as much much as he wrote and spoke for yours. He would make you read, and hear, and understand, and whether you liked it or not at the end, you did read it, and you did understand it. Or you didn't, and the fault was not his, because he made his point as clearly and plainly as he did the day he brained "BillyBall."

We can't say Ralph Wiley died too early, because there are deities out there who decide when and why, and they get paid better than any of us do. And for those who doubt the existence of the higher powers, this may just be the plain stupid luck of a bad heart valve. We do know, though, that The Wiz did not get cheated. He got all his swings in, as child and man, and that one day in 1980, he was at his inspired best. Two words, compressed into one, speaking volumes that the volumes that followed couldn't hope to match.

He must have liked the feeling that day. He kept feeling it until the day he died.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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