The first punch, thrown in a moment of intense anger, caught Texas Manager Frank Lucchesi under the right eye. And once Lenny Randle got started, he just couldn't stop swinging. That's the way it is sometimes with guys who smile a lot and rarely lose their cool. When they do blow up, watch out! By the time teammate Bert Campaneris pulled him away, Randle had landed two or three more punches to the face and several shots to the body of his 49-year-old manager, who crumpled to the ground before a Ranger spring training game against the Twins in Orlando, Fla.
The Texas second baseman and his boss had been at odds since Lucchesi had announced that rookie Bump Wills would be taking over Randle's old job when the Rangers broke camp to begin the 1977 season. Randle, 28, was versatile enough to have played seven different positions in five seasons with the Rangers. He had hit .302 as recently as 1974 and could not understand why there wasn't a place for him in the regular lineup. He threatened to jump the club unless a spot was found. Retorted Lucchesi to newsmen, "I'm sick and tired of these punks saying, 'Play me or trade me.' Let them go find another job."
That was nine weeks ago, and Lenny Randle has found another job, though it is not making license plates, as some Texans had hoped. After the Rangers sold him to the New York Mets on April 26, Randle, in turn, bumped Felix Millan out of his second-base job and has become one of the hottest hitters in the National League with a .351 batting average.
But a lot more than that has happened to Randle since the day in March when he stalked off the field in a violent rage because Lucchesi, lying there battered and bloody, had, Randle alleges, called him "a punk" to his face. The next day Lucchesi was operated on by a plastic surgeon who removed bone chips from his fractured cheek and restructured his face. Randle, probably the most popular Ranger among his teammates before the incident, was suspended by the club for 30 days without pay (a loss of $9,000 in salary), fined $10,000 and finally shipped off to the Mets for a measly $50,000 and a player to be named later.
In addition, a Florida warrant citing Randle for aggravated battery—a felony—is hanging over his head. If he should be convicted of this charge, he could receive a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Nobody—including Lucchesi—expects Randle to be tried in criminal court, but he could face a large civil suit brought by his former manager. When Randle signed with the Mets, New York President M. Donald Grant offered Lucchesi $10,000 to smooth over the matter. Lucchesi refused the money and is still considering a suit, which can be filed anytime in the next 22 months.
Anxious to put these horrors behind him and to begin playing again as soon as his 30-day suspension was lifted, Randle stayed in shape. He even wore a sweat suit to the April 29 meeting during which he signed a five-year $400,000 contract with the Mets. Before the ink was dry, he was out jogging along the harbor in San Diego, where he had joined the team for the start of a long West Coast road trip.
During his first appearance with the Mets, as a late-inning defensive replacement in left field, Randle made a somersaulting catch to help Tom Seaver beat the Padres 4-1. In his first at bat the next afternoon, he picked on the first pitch and drove it into the right-field corner for a triple. He had three hits for the day, took part in two double plays at second base and, after driving in a run in the ninth inning, stole home to put the lid on an 8-2 victory. The Mets loved him, and oh how they needed him.
"Hey, what did you have for breakfast?" asked Catcher Jerry Grote. "I wish I had four or five more just like him," said Manager Joe Frazier.
That was just it, the Mets had nobody else like Randle—a switch hitter who plays the game the way Pete Rose does. New York had been making inquiries about him even before his run-in with Lucchesi. When he became available, albeit under irregular circumstances, the usually conservative Met ownership looked the other way while the front office consummated the deal.
"I think they liked my bat, my glove, my legs and the fact that I get my uniform dirty," says Randle. "I'd be perfect for a Tide commercial."
The San Francisco Giants can attest to that after Randle put them through the wringer during a recent three-game series at Shea Stadium. In the opener, Randle handled several tough plays at second base with ease and rapped a couple of hits as the Mets won 8-2. In the third inning of the second game, which was delayed by a rainstorm, he stretched a double into a triple when Outfielder Darrell Evans threw to the wrong base; in the fifth inning, he made a lunging backhanded stab of a line drive; in the seventh, he raced down the right-field line and made a diving catch in a puddle to rob Bill Madlock of extra bases; and in the ninth, he leaped high to snare another line drive and help preserve Jon Matlack's 2-0 shutout. He also had three of the Mets' seven hits. New York swept the series with a 4-3 victory the next day, as Randle made another sparkling catch and slugged his second home run within a week. During his first home stand with the Mets. he had gone 14 for 28 at the plate.
That kind of hitting, coupled with Randle's dazzling speed and acrobatic fielding, did not surprise anyone who had followed his athletic career at Arizona State. Used primarily as a kick returner in football, because his size (5'8", 165 pounds) and 9.7 speed made him difficult to tackle, Randle ran back five punts and a kickoff for touchdowns in two seasons. One of them was a 57-yard dash that helped ASU beat Arizona 38-24 to win the WAC title in 1969. The 1969 Wildcat baseball team won the NCAA championship with Randle at second base. After hitting .335 the next season, he decided to leave school a year early in order to sign with the then-Washington Senators, who made him the No. 1 pick in the secondary phase of the 1970 free-agent draft.
Unlike a lot of athletes who drop out of college, Randle went back to Arizona State in the off-season and got his degree. Randle is a sensitive and intelligent man who studied social science at ASU. It is just these attributes that make it difficult for him to casually shake off the Lucchesi incident as many egocentric pro athletes might. He is also a sophisticated person who has made it a point to do something different during each of the last four off-seasons. One year he sold real estate; another year he taught at a government-funded model-school project for multiracial children. He has played baseball in Venezuela and visited London and Rome. He practices yoga—but is not a black belt in karate. as was reported after his outburst—and is so good-natured that he was able to joke with Wills, a fellow Arizona State alum, about their competition for the Rangers' second-base job up until the time of the fight.
The fact that the Mets decided to take a chance on a player as suddenly controversial as Randle, after ignoring the flock of free-agent stars available this winter, is at once surprising and not so surprising. On one hand, the Mets' top brass has enough problems to cope with already, what with Dave Kingman's ongoing salary demands and Seaver calling Grant "a maniac"—which is certainly worse than being assailed as "a punk." However, the Mets are also in the Eastern Division cellar, and a player of Randle's skills and enthusiasm could be the key to getting them out.
Pete Rose seems to think so. In a recent game with the Reds, Randle raced into the hole and nearly took a hit away from Rose. As Rose stood on first base, he applauded Randle's effort, and when he arrived at second base a moment later, Rose said, "Nice try, fella. We need more players like you in this league."