If it is true that an ordinary man's life is transformed by great events, then there is no accounting for Gene Tenace. As some few still recall, he is that ordinary chap who hit all those home runs for Oakland in last year's World Series and tasted briefly of the golden nectar of fame. Alas, it was but a sip; Tenace now finds himself to be a wistful soul-mate of the George S. Kaufman contemporary who, according to the playwright, was "forgotten but not gone."
It is a sad commentary on society's ephemeral attention span that a hero of Tenace's melodramatic potential should not be clasped to the national bosom. Consider the World Series scenario:
Tenace spends three-quarters of the season where he has spent much of his four-year major league career—on the bench. He does not become the A's regular catcher until late August and finishes the season with only five home runs and a batting average of .225. In the playoff series with Detroit he goes one for 17 and nearly blows the works by dropping a double-play ball while filling in at second base in the fourth game. But his one hit scores the winning run in the final game. Oakland is the American League champion.
Now for the World Series against Cincinnati. In his first at bat Tenace hits a home run, tying a Series record. In his second at bat he hits another, breaking the Series record. He hits two more homers before the Series is over, tying a record held by Babe Ruth. Duke Snider and Hank Bauer. His Series slugging percentage of .913 breaks the old record of .900 held by the Babe himself. The A's are world champions. Tenace is named the Series' Most Valuable Player. He is even the target of a death threat which was made unbeknownst to him before the sixth game. That makes him a celebrity for sure.
But not for long. In this age of instant stardom fame is more fleeting than ever. Tenace had expected to be overwhelmed with requests to endorse underwear or soft drinks, to plug deodorant on the tube and to favor the talk shows with his homey Midwestern presence. There would be Tenace bantering easily with Cavett, breaking up Carson and McMahon with hilarious baseball anecdotes, perhaps even discoursing on the conservative political outlook of Lucasville, Ohio with William F. Buckley Jr.
"Every time I turned on the television, I expected to see us on it," said Tenace's bouncy blonde wife Linda. But no. The Tenaces remained all alone by the telephone.
"No one ever called," said he. "Not even in Oakland. And it wasn't just me who was left out. None of the A's got asked to do much of anything. Here we are the world champs and no one pays attention. I don't know, maybe the people in Oakland don't deserve a champion. I know I expected more. Carson's only down there in Los Angeles. I would love to have been on his show."
Tenace did appear at about a dozen banquets, including the supposedly prestigious New York Baseball Writers' Association dinner, where he received the Babe Ruth Award as the star of the Series. But his principal off-season occupation was preaching ecology as "sports adviser" for the McCulloch Corporation.
Tenace was neither appreciably enriched nor ennobled by his triumphant Series, but he nevertheless retained the feeling that his future as an A's regular was secure.
"I won't live on what I did in the Series," he says hopefully, "but that one week did get me a regular job. I know now I'll be playing every day someplace."
But with an owner like Charles O. Finley, who regards a day in which one of his players has not been traded as time misspent, and with a manager like Dick Williams, who makes more substitutions than the Democratic Party, Tenace may have lulled himself into a feeling of false security.
Not that he is unfamiliar with insecurity. For much of his career he has been a player without a position, a rootless condition that would challenge the inner calm of a Buddhist monk. He was a shortstop at Valley Local High School in Lucasville and an outfielder in his first professional season, with Shelby of the Western Carolina League. As a minor-leaguer, in fact, he played all nine positions. He was not wholly converted to catching until his third season, in 1967, a decision, he argues, that "turned my life around."
Tenace was, and still is, extraordinarily conscientious about learning the catching business, but his bat has always been his primary asset in the eyes of the A's hierarchy. After hitting .319 for Birmingham of the Southern League in 1969, he was promoted to the big team. For the next three seasons he and Dave Duncan were forced to compete for the starting catcher's job, a situation that left both of them haggard with worry and frustration. Duncan, who rightfully regards himself as one of the game's finest defensive catchers, considered the annual challenge demeaning and was not in the least reluctant to express his discontent by holding out and requesting to be traded.
Tenace, who is aggressive and talkative on the field, is much less volatile, much less verbal off it. He preferred to suffer in relative silence. Last spring, though, he was convinced he had finally won the battle.
"I knew I deserved the job. I was told to work hard on my defensive ability, and I did. I also hit .300 in spring training. Maybe the strike hurt me. Maybe they forgot, because Dune was picked to catch Ken Holtzman in the opener. They told me the only reason was that he had caught him more in spring training. Then some writers looked it up and it turns out I had caught Holtzman more than he had. But Dune got hot, hit a lot of home runs early. I was out of it. I was really down in the dumps. My roomie, Sal Bando, kept talking to me, though. He kept telling me that I'd get my chance, that I had to be ready when the time came. So I kept my mouth shut. I've always done that."
The big chance could not have come at a worse time. When Duncan failed to extricate himself from a midseason slump, Williams turned to Tenace. "Can you catch?" he asked the bench-warmer. "Yes," said Tenace, who at the time had a temperature of 104 and had lost 10 pounds from his normal playing weight of 190. But Williams, ever the tinkerer, put him at first base that day. He hit a triple, despite his illness, and was made the catcher the next day.
Tenace remained behind the plate until the seventh game of the World Series, when Williams moved him to first again, a move made necessary not so much by Tenace's inability to throw out Cincinnati base runners as by the inability of Mike Epstein, then the first baseman, to hit Reds' pitching.
Tenace had two hits in that final Series game. Still, he was removed by Williams for pinch runner Allan Lewis—the so-called "Panamanian Express"—after he doubled in the sixth inning. For Tenace, who considers himself at least the fifth fastest man on the team, it was a stunning blow. He was now deprived of a last chance at Ruth's record and he would not be in at the finish.
This sense of loss was assuaged, however, by the A's ultimate victory and by the subsequent honors heaped upon him. Then in December he was told by Williams that Epstein had been traded to the Texas Rangers and that he was now the A's first baseman.
Tenace prefers to catch. "I worked so hard to become a catcher and I have never had the chance to prove myself there." But to be given the chance to play regularly anywhere was more than adequate compensation for the position switch. "Besides," he says, "I consider myself an offensive player."
Ah, but his life was to be complicated yet again, if only briefly. Duncan, realizing then that the catching job was his alone, determined that the added responsibility should be worth another $20,000 or so in wages. His bargaining position seemed, to him, unassailable: if he was the A's only catcher, they needed him worse than he needed them. Finley, calling attention to Duncan's .218 batting average in 1972, rejected the salary request, proposing instead a modest $10,000 increase. Duncan became a holdout.
Wearily, Tenace slipped back into the chest protector and mask in spring training. He had geared himself psychologically to being a first baseman and now he was back seemingly where he had been so often. "Even after the great Series I had," he lamented, "they still don't know what they want to do with me."
The dilemma was resolved in the traditional Finley manner last weekend. Duncan was traded along with Outfielder George Hendrick to Cleveland for Catcher Ray Fosse and Infielder Jack Heidemann—the A's had gotten tit for tat. Fosse is an experienced catcher who can hit. Despite a shoulder injury that has troubled him off and on over the past few seasons, he should be able to play regularly. Tenace can fill in on days when he is tired and in the second game of doubleheaders. His first responsibility is first base.
Playing every day, however, will force Tenace, at age 26, to contend with yet another unfamiliar element—his new reputation as a slugger who, for one week at least, attained Ruthian grandeur.
"Every time he bats, he will hear the fans," said teammate and bona fide slugger Reggie Jackson. "He will feel the pressure of the home run."
"I'm not a home-run hitter," Tenace protests. "I'm a line-drive hitter. But I can't go around telling people that. I know they will be expecting homers. I can feel the people. I know they all saw the World Series."
Better for him, maybe, that they all forget it. But then again, maybe they already have.