One night last week, in Philadelphia, after Chicago's Rick Monday had flogged the Phillies with three hits and two RBIs, someone asked the lean-bodied, long-faced centerfielder to explain his early-season success. New timber, perhaps? An adjusted stroke? An elixir ingested in the on-deck circle? "No," Monday replied, "I'm just hitting the hell out of the ball, basically."
The following night Monday got down to basics again, with a home run, a single, a sacrifice fly and five more RBIs. Each was a reminder of the half-forgotten predictions that attended his gaudy signing a decade ago.
In 1965 Monday was an Arizona State sophomore and the first player chosen in baseball's first free-agent draft. His signature on a Kansas City Athletics contract brought him a $100,000 bonus, a vast amount of money in those days, and expectations of greatness. Rick Monday couldn't miss.
"It was sensationalism, people looking for a tag," Monday said last week. "They should have let me be me, instead of who they wanted me to be."
Monday lasted five years with the Athletics, never fulfilling his early promise. After batting .245 in 1971, he was traded to the Cubs for another inconsistent performer, Pitcher Ken Holtzman.
While Holtzman became a big winner for the world champion A's, Monday got little notice on the perennially losing Cubs. But 1973, when he hit 26 homers, and '74 (20) were the best years of his career, prompting Montreal Manager Gene Mauch to observe, "Monday is the player the Cubs could least afford to lose. There's no telling how good he's going to be when he reaches his peak."
Last week, with his average crowding .400 and with six extra-base hits to his credit, Monday seemed to be doing just that. He gained new confidence in spring training, he says. Now, when he digs in at the plate with his right foot forward and starts his distinctive rocking motion, he knows he is going to get a hit. "Finally," he says, "I'm starting to do the things I always thought I could do."
Monday's emergence is especially pleasing to Cub Manager Jim Marshall, who this year moved him from first to fourth in the batting order. But Monday is giving Chicago more than timely hits and steady defensive play. His leadership qualities may be no less important.
"You lead by example," says Shortstop Don Kessinger, "and nobody plays harder than Rick." Or, as the young, talented Third Baseman Bill Madlock puts it, "Rick has the go-go all the time."
Monday says there is a very good reason why he runs as hard on a ground ball back to the pitcher as he does on a screamer up the alley. "Whether I'm 4 for 5 or 4 for 45, I give it all I've got, and I want the people to realize that." With Monday setting the example, all of the Cubs have been hitting. At the end of the week this allegedly woebegone team, losers of 96 games last season, had won seven straight, and boasted the best record in baseball.
Monday believes that one reason for Chicago's stunning start might be a meeting he called the last week of spring training. "I told the guys we had to have more pride in ourselves," he says, "that the other clubs were taking us for granted. We had to let people know that it would take good ball to beat us. That meeting didn't get us any base hits, but I know it helped our attitude."
This kind of take-charge approach is needed on a Cub team that lacks strong, aggressive leadership from management. "I'm not one for pep talks and team meetings," says Manager Marshall. "I like that to come from the players. I've had clubs that didn't get this leadership and it showed in the standings."
Monday, Chicago's player representative, is at age 29 a little older than most of his teammates, but his background is similar. He came to the Cubs at an early age, from an impatient organization, with more potential than proven ability. The difference is that Monday speaks his piece. If someone does not run out a pop fly, as Catcher Steve Swisher discovered recently, he is likely to hear about it from Rick.
The fact remains that Monday the potential superstar has not yet hit .300. The closest he came was last season, a .294 average that he says "was like going halfway up Pikes Peak." Now he believes he is ready to scale the summit. "I don't get my kicks by having a lot of attention," he says. "That isn't the epitome for me. I like the game, the challenge, and I think I can do a pretty good job."
Monday does not regret being traded away from the Athletics just before they won the first of three World Series. "The peace of mind of being able to play every day is more important," he says. "I platooned in Oakland and, like a lot of people, I had my problems with Finley. Here in Chicago I'm playing every day, and I haven't even met Mr. Wrigley."
Monday has yet to prove that he can play as well after the All-Star break as before it, but the only thing likely to stop him now is engine failure. A student pilot, he has 14 hours toward a license. It looks like Monday will be flying high for a long time to come.