In the visiting manager's office at Fenway Park early last Saturday evening, Frank Lucchesi of the Rangers gently pushed aside a paper plate containing the oddments of a fried chicken dinner and, nodding conspiratorially at those privy to the magnitude of his gesture, lit a cigar. To the uninformed this may have seemed the act of a man who wished to relax with a smoke after a ball game. But that is to underestimate the Rangers' manager, whose every little movement has a meaning all its own. Lucchesi was not lighting up to relax; he was lighting up to show that he was relaxed, a significant difference. With a stogie protruding from his Mediterranean countenance, he was communicating that, for the moment at least, he had it made.
On this day, he did indeed have it made. His team had just swept a double-header from the Red Sox, 6-5 and 12-4, for its fifth and sixth wins without a loss this season to the American League champions. The victories were the Rangers' sixth and seventh in succession, another team record. By scoring 18 runs and getting 27 hits in the two games, Texas had tied team records for most runs and hits in a doubleheader, and by rushing across nine runs in the second inning of the second game, it had tied a club record for most runs scored in an inning. Juan Beniquez, the centerfielder Lucchesi had obtained this winter in a controversial trade with the Red Sox for the popular pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, had embarrassed his old teammates and encouraged his new ones by hitting safely five times in nine at bats and by making a dazzling, game-saving catch. Toby Harrah, the shortstop other Ranger managers had threatened to move to less demanding positions, had made spectacular stops and throws all afternoon and had hit a two-run homer. Bill Singer, the supposedly sore-armed pitcher who started the opener of the doubleheader, had thrown hard, if without luck. And Texas relievers, considered old and shopworn, had been vibrantly effective. Vindicated and triumphant, Lucchesi lit up his cigar as if he were Churchill on V-E day.
The Rangers' performance on Saturday and throughout this young season—they led the American League West by three games at week's end—demonstrated one of Lucchesi's pet theories, the so-called Pitchfork Principle. "You cannot serve water with a pitchfork," he insists. Translated into conventional sports lingo, that means, "You cannot win without the horses." It is Lucchesi's contention that the Rangers, whose roster had been regarded as less than intimidating by preseason forecasters, are not quenching their thirst with hayloft implements. Texas, he claims, has the thoroughbreds to ensure that its recent surge will not turn out to be merely an early-season fluke.
Indeed, the Rangers have a lineup of proved young batters, including 25-year-old rightfielder and former MVP Jeff Burroughs, First Baseman Mike Hargrove, 26, the 27-year-old Harrah and Designated Hitter Tom Grieve, who is 28. They have a pitching staff of seasoned—some would say overseasoned—veterans: starters Gaylord Perry, 37, and Nelson Briles and Singer, both 32, and relievers Joe Hoerner, 39, and Steve Hargan, 33. All of them have contributed significantly to putting Texas on top in the American League's team pitching statistics with a 2.75 earned run average.
May 16, 1976
Perry is probably too mean to grow old, or as Lucchesi would have it, "He is getting better, like fine wine." Whichever, he has won three of his five decisions this season. Advancing years have not so much bothered Singer and Briles as poor health. Singer has been afflicted with so many illnesses and injuries that even so celebrated a valetudinarian as Elizabeth Taylor seems robust in comparison. During the past 10 years he has had hepatitis, a severely pulled groin muscle, a sore shoulder, a broken knuckle, a fractured finger and a ruptured lumbar disc. He had a rib removed to correct a circulation problem, a joint extracted to repair a broken finger and, just last year, bone chips and cartilage taken out of the elbow of his pitching arm. Singer was 7-15 for California in 1975 with a 4.98 ERA. Traded last December to the Rangers for infielder Jim Spencer, he reported to spring training with a surgically repaired arm and pronounced himself ready to assume a place in the rotation. After five starts this year, he has a complete game and a 2-0 record. "My arm is getting stronger each time out," he says confidently.
He did not survive the fourth inning of the first game Saturday, but it was not so much bad pitching as bad fortune that undid him. The Rangers were leading 4-0 with one out in the fourth when Boston's Denny Doyle walked and Fred Lynn hit a weak bouncer through the infield for the first hit off Singer. Third Baseman Roy Howell then erred on Carlton Fisk's grounder, and Doyle scored. Jim Rice and Dwight Evans walked, and when Steve Dillard's pop-up to right fell untouched for a freak double, Lucchesi came out to yank his starter.
Briles has not been any healthier than Singer the past two seasons. Shortly before the start of spring training in 1974, he slipped during a workout in a gymnasium and tore cartilage in his knee. Surgery eventually was required, and he missed much of that season. He was coming back strong last year—he had won four of his first five decisions for Kansas City—when one day in Boston he was struck on the pitching elbow by a ball hit in batting practice by Lynn. The arm hemorrhaged and, in Briles' chilling description, "seemed to wither." He pitched very little during the remainder of the season.
He reported to the Rangers in fine shape this spring after being traded by the Royals for infielder Dave Nelson. Lucchesi immediately advised him that he would be inserted in the starting rotation. "A show of confidence up front, that was what I needed," Briles says.
Like Singer, who has had a 20-win season in each league, Briles is not a stranger to success. He won 19 games for the Cardinals in 1968 and was a World Series hero for the Pirates in 1971, shutting out the Orioles on two hits in the pivotal fifth game. Briles is also an aspiring entertainer, whose show-business career seems to rise and fall in direct proportion to his success in baseball. He got his start at the Holiday House outside Pittsburgh after the '71 Series, and took his act—some songs, a few impersonations, a little baseball patter—to Mister Kelly's, then a big-league club in Chicago. But his baseball injuries slowed him down on the stage. "I had to concentrate in the off-season on getting back in shape," he says. "I no longer had the time to put together an act." Now that he has begun this season with a 3-1 record and a 2.59 ERA, lowest among the team's starters, Briles is thinking about giving show business another try, possibly in Hollywood. "We're working on some screenplays," he says, employing the theatrical "we."
Shortstop Harrah is a mere fledgling compared with his team's wise old pitchers, but he may be the top sage on a club with a long philosophical bench. "Ballplayers are like overgrown kids," he says, pointing up the value of Lucchesi's stroking techniques. "We've played games all of our lives. We've been put above ordinary people by the fans. People write about us and give us things. It's easy to lose your perspective in this sort of life. But it's such a short part of our lives that we must try to enjoy it while we have it. That's what I'm determined to do—get the most out of it."
Harrah is a self-made player who seems to be expected to re-prove himself each season, despite increasingly fine performances at bat and in the field. Before Lucchesi succeeded Billy Martin as the Rangers' manager last July, the team's brass had toyed with moving Harrah to second or third to accommodate Roy Smalley III, an outstanding young shortstop. But Harrah is Lucchesi's type of player, an eager competitor and a willing learner. And he can hit. He batted .293 last year, hit 20 homers and drove in 93 runs. Lucchesi told him before spring training that he would be the shortstop and the cleanup hitter, and he has responded with good glovework and a .308 average. Lucchesi also told Smalley he would be the second baseman. Smalley is a special case. His father, Roy II, was a shortstop for the Cubs, and his uncle is Gene Mauch, manager of the Minnesota Twins. He was reared to play shortstop in the big leagues. But, like Harrah, he is a team player and a philosopher, even though he is only 23.
"It had always been my dream to play shortstop in the big leagues," he says. "But then I started to think about it. I was being given a chance to be an integral part of a winning team. Now that I see what kind of guys we have, I can only say that I'd rather play second base here than shortstop for any other team."
Spoken like a true Ranger. To hear most players talk, there is not a team in baseball (with the notable exception of the A's) that does not practice togetherness. Some of this is sincere; most of it has as much foundation as a protestation of undying devotion from Zsa Zsa Gabon The ideal of one for all and all for one is almost never realized, but the Rangers may be coming close.
"We're still a hungry team," says Harrah. "Except for the pitchers, most of us haven't been around long enough to get involved in too many other things, so we spend a lot of time together. It's not quite like the old days when the players traveled on trains, but a lot of us live in Texas all year and we hang around together. Take yesterday when we were rained out. You'd have expected the players to rush back to the hotel, but our guys stayed at the park for three hours. We were organizing relay races and having a good time together. This game is kind of like life speeded up. You experience everything so quickly. Even friendship."
Harrah and most of the Rangers credit Lucchesi with creating a congenial atmosphere. "Peace of mind" is another of his principles, and to this end he imposes certain rules on himself:
•Always let a player know the day before a game if he is not going to play.
•Never use the word "bench," as in, "I'm benching so and so." Say "rest" instead.
•Always put yourself in the other person's shoes. Say our young third baseman, Howell, should boot one. I'll ask myself: How would it be to be Roy Howell right now?
•Always make the extra men feel like they're part of the team.
•Never allow a player to leave your office mad.
•Always keep your door open.
When strictly observed, Lucchesi's open-door policy can create inconveniences. Some years ago when he was a minor league manager in Salt Lake City, he found himself being awakened at 2:30 a.m. by rapping on his hotel room door. The caller identified himself as one of the team's outfielders.
"Do you realize what time it is?" Lucchesi inquired.
"Sure, but you said your door was always open."
"Yes, I know, but. . . ."
"Well, I'm 0 for 19."
"O.K., c'mon in."
Lucchesi arrived at his managerial philosophy after a long course in hard knocks. Prompted by the advice of Yankee scout Joe Devine, who told him the only way a player of his size (5'8") and ability could reach Yankee Stadium would be by postcard, Lucchesi started managing at age 23. He calculated that with such an early start he would be managing a team in the big leagues when he was still a young man. He did not make it to the majors until 19 years later, when the Phillies hired him.
He says the Phillies told him that he could be the new Walter Alston, signing one-year contracts into eternity. He lasted 2½ years. In 1975 he joined Martin's staff in Texas. Like most of Martin's other coaches on the Rangers, Lucchesi is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. He was raised in the North Beach district and graduated from Galileo High School, which spawned the likes of basketball's Hank Luisetti, the several DiMaggios and O. J. Simpson.
Late last July Martin called the coaches, all of whom were old friends, into his office to tell them that they and he had been fired. There was one exception—Lucchesi. "They like you, Frank," Martin said. They did, but not enough to offer him anything more than the interim manager's job. Lucchesi argued for a contract that would extend through this season, contending, typically, that it would give both him and the players "peace of mind." Board Chairman Brad Corbett eventually succumbed. Most people do.
After little more than a month of the season, no one can predict how far the Rangers will go with their blend of old pitchers and young hitters. But it does seem they will have some fun along the way. And if they should falter, they will not alibi, since that would violate another Lucchesi precept. Last Saturday, for example, Burroughs spent much of his afternoon staggering under balls in right field, finally misplaying one fly by Boston's Bob Montgomery into a cheap triple. Asked if it was the sun or the wind that led to the mishap, Burroughs paused a minute, obviously weighing the various ways out. Then like a true Lucchesian, he said, "No, I'd say it was just bad playing." That is something the Rangers have not had much of so far.