It remained for the mayor of Arlington, Texas himself to put the Big Event in historical perspective. "From now on," said the Hon. Tom Vandergriff, "time here shall be marked from June 27, 1973."
It is a date that shall live in infancy, for on this night in Arlington Stadium, David Clyde, a stripling of 18, began his major league baseball career by pitching the Texas Rangers to a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins. The lad went five innings, threw 112 pitches, struck out eight, walked seven and allowed only one hit, a two-run homer. It was a startling performance for a youngster only 19 days out of Westchester High School in Houston, but it was much more than that—an awakening of interest, perhaps, in a community that has steadfastly ignored its baseball team.
Clyde, at least, is not easily ignored. He is a left-handed fastball pitcher whose achievements at Westchester High—an 18-0 record in his senior year with an earned run average of 0.18 and 328 strikeouts in 148‚Öì innings—were trumpeted throughout the state. The first player selected in the June 5 major league draft, he had been judged by virtually every scout who saw him as the finest schoolboy pitcher in the nation. He was signed by the Rangers to a contract that called for a bonus of approximately $125,000 and a free college education. And, as his numberless interviews over the past few weeks established, he is a teen-ager of extraordinary tact and maturity, one who is humble, courteous and agreeably respectful of his elders. He has curly brown hair, wide blue eyes and a bashful smile. He is 6'1" and he weighs a muscular 190. He is obviously a creation of the late lamented Ralph Henry Barbour.
A paragon of this sort does not just slip into the Rangers' starting rotation; he enters the lists like a knight-errant. So lavish had the publicity been that by June 27 the aroused fans of the Dallas-Fort Worth megalopolis were prepared to accept nothing less than the new Sandy Koufax—who just happens to be Clyde's idol. Before Clyde, these same citizens had embraced the Rangers about as warmly as they might the Miami Dolphins. The team drew but 662,974 spectators in 1972, a dreary average of 8,840 per game, and until June 27 this year's total attendance had been running nearly 40,000 below last season's. It has been suggested that the Rangers deserved their inattention: they were dead last in the American League West in 1972; they are dead last today.
Consider then what occurred on David Clyde Night, as the occasion has come to be known. All 35,698 seats in Arlington Stadium had been sold by 9:30 that morning and another 10,000 prospective ticket-buyers were turned away. The 10,000-car parking lot was filled to overflowing and traffic on the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike was stalled so drastically that the start of the game had to be postponed 15 minutes. Since moving west from Washington, which they left because they felt unloved, the Rangers had drawn only four crowds above 20,000, the largest being 24,222. It took Clyde to lure the perennial absentees out of their television rooms. It was a child who led them.
"The people came on just a promise, a hope," said Mayor Vandergriff, gathering oratorical momentum. "But David Clyde made it clear that people here will respond to a product that is exciting. He wasn't just a fairy tale coming out of Houston. He was a dream come true."
There was, in fact, an Oz-like quality to David Clyde Night. All three of the neighboring amusement parks—Six Flags over Texas, Seven Seas, Lion Country Safari—were represented in pre-game ceremonies that challenged the imagination. There were two bands, although one seemed to dissolve into the other. There was a trio of grass-skirted Polynesian dancers. There were two lion cubs, a papier-m√¢ché giraffe on wheels and a young man named Mike Bondurant who was dressed as an "Orchin," a mythical creature, apparently half bird and half fish, which, according to the creative department at Seven Seas, is the legendary playmate of whales. Bondurant, all feathers and scales, is actually the master of ceremonies for the dolphin show in the park. He cut a bizarre and incongruous figure in center field, although it must be said for him that, despite the burden of his costume, which included a beak that opened and closed, he stood loyally erect at the playing of the national anthem.
While the early comers, sweltering in 90° heat, were thus diverted, Clyde sat quietly in the clubhouse steeling himself for the ordeal ahead. Team Owner Robert E. Short, aglow in a patterned white sport coat and royal blue double-knit slacks, had come in from a tour of the premises. One half expected him to draw Clyde aside and, quoting from Warner Baxter, whisper in his ear, "You're going out there a youngster. You've just got to come back a star."
Clyde dressed slowly, fastidiously, like a young matador pulling on a suit of lights. Indeed, when he stepped into the arena the crowd responded as if he were a torero prepared to meet the deadly beast. And true to the part, Clyde waved ceremonially to the crowd and smiled winningly at his girl friend, petite Cheryl Crawford of Houston. His father, J. E. Clyde, urged him on with a victory gesture. Literally the entire Clyde family was there in the stands, said David's mother. So were his old high school coach, Bob French; his high school principal, David Figari; his Little League coach, Pete Ramirez, and dozens of former teammates and opponents. It was no time, as Clyde well knew, to choke.
But he nearly did. His first pitch of the game—of his professional career—was to the Twins' Jerry Terrell. A ball, ruled Plate Umpire Ron Luciano, a decision noisily denounced by the multitude. Terrell and the second hitter, defending American League batting champion Rod Carew, walked, Carew on four pitches. Neither offered to swing at a Clyde pitch, it being the strategy of Twins Manager Frank Quilici to test the rookie's control early, then force him to throw fastballs over the plate to the team's premier fastball hitter, the powerful Bobby Darwin.
But Quilici underestimated the quality and accuracy of the Clyde fastball. He throws what the Ranger pitching coach, Chuck Estrada, defines as "easy heat," which is to say it comes suddenly to the hitter after a deceptively relaxed wind-up. At his age, Clyde does not throw with the power of such renowned fireballers as Nolan Ryan or Sam McDowell, but his pitch is constantly on the move. So is his curveball, although on this night it was moving out of the strike zone.
More at issue after the first two walks was Clyde's fortitude. Would he come apart after such an unpromising beginning? No, he would not. He struck out Darwin. He struck out George Mitterwald. He struck out Joe Lis. The fans were jubilant. They were seeing the new Koufax! (The old Koufax made his first big-league start at 19, walking eight and not surviving five innings against Pittsburgh.)
Clyde nearly came a cropper in the second inning, however, when he walked four batters and tossed a home-run ball to Mike Adams, a .105 hitter. He would have been much more harshly abused had not Ranger Catcher Ken Suarez thrown out two of the walkees attempting to steal second. But from then on, he was in control. He retired the side seriatim in both the third and fourth innings. It had been announced on the public address system that the fifth inning would be Clyde's final one, and when he emerged from it unscathed he was favored with a rousing minutes-long standing ovation.
The most demonstrative of all were Bob Short, who had gambled and, for once, won, and Whitey Herzog, who had dark suspicions before the game that the gamble would fail. These two, owner and manager, had held divergent theories about the wisdom of starting a boy pitcher in a major league game without some ego-boosting experience in the bushes.
Herzog, a plainspoken man who spent five years in the minors before he was retained on a big-league roster, had argued, however feebly, the negative. He has, he said, seen too many young pitchers ruined by being asked to do too much too soon. He yet retains such concerns about Clyde.
"I've got nothing to do with it," he said in his office before the game, "but if I was the director of player personnel here, as I was with the Mets, I tell you I'd be raising hell about this. A young pitcher in his first year should be out where he can dominate. Look at Pete Broberg and Steve Dunning on our staff. Both of them tried to become big-league pitchers before they were ready. A kid takes a shellacking or two and his confidence suffers. But I'll say this, Clyde does have confidence. He doesn't think he shouldn't be here."
Short, who may be baseball's least effective wheeler-dealer, sees in Clyde hope for the future, both immediate and distant. Short could use some luck. When he was operating his franchise in Washington, he gambled that the litigious Curt Flood could return triumphantly to the game he was suing. Short lost. He gambled again that Denny McLain could regain his 31-win form. Well, you can't win 'em all. He gambled that Ted Williams could be as successful at managing as he was at playing. Maybe next time. And finally, after a protracted brouhaha, he moved his team out of Washington to Arlington in the hope that Texans would find it deep in their hearts to support him. Because of an attractive stadium rental agreement—he pays only a dollar a year up to a million attendance—he should not lose money in Arlington but, before Clyde, his athletes had repelled the fans.
On the afternoon of David Clyde Night, Short had occasion to reflect on his life as the proprietor of a loser. His face, scarlet from hours at poolside under the pitiless Texas sun, clouded over as the old failures paraded past him in retrospect.
"After the assortment of genuinely rotten things that have happened to me," he said, ignoring his own not inconsiderable role in the various calamities, "something's gotta work. Maybe Clyde is it."
Still, when it was announced that the young pitcher would be thrust into the breach without benefit of minor league tutoring, Short was criticized in some knowledgeable circles as an exploiter. He fairly bristled at the mention of so merciless a judgment.
"Sure, Bob Short can be accused of exploiting," he said with less than Olympian detachment, "but all I'm doing is giving this kid a chance he's earned. I guarantee you that if he had been signed by any one of the other clubs, he'd be a starter today. Look, I've got a big investment here. I'm not going to risk losing it by ruining Clyde's career for the sake of one big box-office appearance."
The next day Clyde himself was too busy bathing in the warmth of public affection to take much heed of these arguments. But, surprisingly enough, he said he would not object if the Rangers found it necessary to farm him out. "If I'm not helping this team," he said, sincere as always, "and I'm losing confidence, then I wouldn't want to take up space here. I'm not kidding when I say I would've signed for popcorn to play professional baseball. I love this life. I've already had so many thrills. I was tingling all over when I went out there last night. All those people! I loved it. Now, I guess you could say I'm both relieved and disappointed, disappointed because of all those walks. It was agreed I would leave the game after a hundred pitches. I thought I was gonna throw that many in the first inning and still not get anybody out. I was lucky on a lot of pitches."
He paused, anticipating the inevitable.
"No, I'm no franchise saver. This franchise doesn't need saving. All it needs is a few wins."
On the night after Clyde pitched, the Rangers drew 3,992. That day, tickets for Clyde's next start, on Monday, went on sale. Some 25,000 were sold in three days.
Maybe the mayor is right.