It's business as usual in the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and with the Pittsburgh Pirates in town, that means anything goes. At the moment Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock are mimicking teammates Omar Moreno and Tim Foli. Madlock (Moreno) prances back and forth on the carpeting, breaking with each imaginary pitch and diving back to "first" because Stargell (Foli), shaking and sweating profusely in the "batter's box," is too scared to swing at the ball.
Most of the players are roaring with laughter, but Mike Easler sits quietly in front of his locker pondering which pair of shoes to wear for today's game against the Cubs: the spiffy-looking patent leathers that hurt his feet or an uglier pair that is infinitely more comfortable. Two lockers away, Lee Lacy is also sitting quietly, oiling a new glove. Easler thinks the glove is nice and tells Lacy so. Lacy thanks Easler and offers an opinion on the shoes.
The brief interchange is just small talk, but implicit is the respect and appreciation the two men have for each other. Heretofore both had been peripheral players. Now that they are having outstanding seasons of their own, their journeyman past has become a sort of bond.
The 29-year-old Easler started only three games last year, but by week's end he had started 67 in 1980 and led the Pirates with a .358 average and 14 home runs. The 31-year-old Lacy, hobbled by injuries a year ago, had started 47 games and was right behind Easler with a .353 average. Among National League hitters with 200 or more at bats, nobody else was close. Manager Chuck Tanner, never one given to understatement, says, "When they share the position, we have the best leftfielder in the league."
August 17, 1980
Though Easler, who bats left, and Lacy, who bats right, have been platooning in left, their ability to play other positions has been instrumental in keeping the Pirates at or near the top of the NL East. When last year's leftfield tandem, John Milner and Bill Robinson, struggled at the plate early this season, Easler and Lacy filled the breach. When Dave Parker recently hurt his left knee and missed five games, Easler took over in rightfield, which meant that both hot bats were in the lineup.
The two men have a special place in the Pirate fam-a-lee, a reflection of their recent success and of their personalities. Easler, whose batting stroke and .400 average with men in scoring position have earned him nicknames such as "Hit Man" and "Line Drive," is quiet and introspective and credits religion for helping him grow as a ballplayer and as a man.
Lacy is also quiet, but his silence is more a matter of intensity than introversion. When he speaks, his eyes bore in on the listener. He would do great on the stare-downs that often precede title fights. He probably would pack a pretty good punch, too; his teammates say that on the Pirates only Parker is a better athlete. They also admire Lacy's ability to switch positions; he can play second and third as well as the outfield.
"Lee Lacy is the key to this team," Easler says. "His good year has me having a good one." Lacy is equally generous. "Mike is having a great year. It couldn't happen to a more deserving person."
The plaudits have been a long time coming. Easler spent most of his 11 professional seasons in the minors before sticking with the Pirates in 1979, mainly as a pinch-hitter. He expected more of the same this season. "If I worked real hard and had a good spring, I hoped Chuck would play me more," Easler says. "My goal for the season was to start 10 games. I thought if I did that I would be ecstatic." In Easler's first start on April 22 against Montreal, he hit two home runs and had four RBIs in a 5-3 Pirate win. He continued to play regularly, and on June 12, in a 10-6 win over Cincinnati, he hit for the cycle and drove in two runs.
Always an outstanding hitter (six .300-plus seasons in the minors, two AAA batting titles), Easler had been hampered by a lack of adroitness in the field, which, combined with the talent on the teams he was trying to make (e.g., Cesar Cedeno, Lou Brock, Don Baylor, Jim Rice), assured a long wait.
Easler seems out of place at times in the cacophony of the Pittsburgh clubhouse. His favorite singer is Johnny Mathis, and while Easler does a fine impersonation, the sweet strains of Chances Are floating through the air are often drowned out by the heavier disco and salsa beats favored by his teammates.
Chances are Easler doesn't mind. "People see Mike Easler of the Pittsburgh Pirates and think that's just great, but they have no idea of what it took to get here," he says. What today's fans aren't seeing are yesterday's $500-a-month paychecks, or the jobs Easler took to augment that salary: as a bellboy, an assembly-line worker putting together heating registers, an employment-agency temp. "A man has to take care of his family," he says.
Easler never doubted he would make it in baseball, for, as Stargell says, "His heart was always in the game. He could never leave it until he succeeded."
That drive is apparent at the plate, particularly in the clutch, as was demonstrated on May 21 against San Diego when Easler led off the bottom of the ninth with a pinch-hit home run that tied the game at 3-all and ignited the winning rally. On July 1 against St. Louis, Easler's feet won a game for the Pirates. Pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 10th with men on first and third and one out in a 3-2 game, Easler hit an apparent double-play grounder to shortshop but beat out the relay to first to let the winning run in.
Lacy knows a lot about winning, too, even if he has often viewed it only from the dugout. Last year marked his third consecutive World Series and the fourth in six years. "The key to this game is being able to rise to the occasion when it's show time," Lacy says. "I've always known that. Put me out there and I'll play for you." Show time arrives for Lacy almost daily now and refutes the knock that he's nothing more than a glorified substitute. "A yew-til-i-ty player," Lacy says with disdain.
Lacy believes the talk stems from his seven years in L.A., where he was never able to crack the Dodgers' lineup. He also became involved in an "unjust and confusing situation" in 1975, "just when I was coming into my own."
That season, Lacy's first with more than 300 at bats, he had his best year as a hitter—.314. Encouraged by what he says was a verbal commitment from management to give him a starting outfield spot the next season, Lacy went to the Instructional League to master leftfield. But in November he was traded to Atlanta.
The Braves moved Lacy back to the infield for 50 games, then returned him to L.A. Lacy felt he should start every day for the Dodgers and said so. Second Baseman Davey Lopes considered Lacy a threat and maintained that he wasn't good enough to start on the team.
Maybe not, but when Lacy entered the free-agent reentry draft in 1978, he was one of five players selected by the maximum 13 teams. Lacy's self-confidence was demonstrated by the fact that he passed up a chance to join a team for which he would definitely play regularly to become a member of the talent-laden Pirates. Of course, a five-year $1.5 million contract helped him make up his mind.
"No matter what goes down, if you do your job you're going to get your credit somewhere down the line," Lacy says. "I've always been a winner. They know that here and they appreciate it."
Mike Easler couldn't have said it better himself.