Richie Zisk sat in the Seattle Mariners' dugout last week—Wednesday, to be precise—looking like a man who had discovered the proverbial sunny side of the street. Proverbial is the key word here—he was sitting in the Kingdome, one of the few stadiums in which the sun never shines. Besides, it is a well-known fact that there are no sunny sides of Seattle streets. But Zisk looked pleased. "Tickled pink," was the way he put it. And why not? Here was one of baseball's most consistent hitters, a man in the fourth year of a 10-year contract that pays him approximately $300,000 a year, off to the best start of his career. He was in the top five in the American League in home runs (seven), hits (40), batting average (.345), total bases (68), and slugging percentage (.586). All this from a man who ordinarily doesn't tickle pink until the hot weather arrives. What's more, his wife and three children love Seattle, Zisk loves the cozy dimensions of the Kingdome, and after the dry, sweltering summers of Arlington, where Zisk was a Texas Ranger the past three years, the interminable drizzle of the Pacific Northwest is perfectly fine with all of them. "The first thing I did was buy myself a raincoat," said Zisk. "Umbrellas don't work here, because they blow inside out. But if one month in Seattle is any indication—and it may not be—I'm going to be really happy here."
His happiness will be tested, though. The Mariners had a 59-103 record last year, the worst in baseball. This season they started out by losing 18 of their first 24 games, the worst start in the league, and the worst in the Mariners' five-year history. That very morning Seattle Manager Maury Wills had been fired, a move that in itself was enough to make Zisk beam. Wills was replaced by Rene (Latch) Lachemann, formerly of the Mariners' Triple A farm team in Spokane. At the age of 36 years, two weeks he is the youngest manager in the majors. It was a popular choice, and the young Mariners responded with four straight wins over Milwaukee and the Yankees, including a 12-1 drubbing of the Brewers in Lachemann's debut, which brought out the champagne. "It was depressing around here," Zisk said of the Wills regime. "A change was definitely needed. Now there's finally some electricity and enthusiasm."
Under Wills there was mostly confusion. Few players—Zisk was a notable exception—knew where they stood. Wills repeatedly told everyone that young Dave Edler was his third baseman, but in the 24 games Wills managed this year, Edler started only nine. Five different Mariners played shortstop over that span, and in those 24 games Wills used 21 different batting orders. His entire theory of managing seemed to be summed up by a sign taped to the wall in his office: GRANT ME PATIENCE, LORD. AND I WANT IT RIGHT NOW.
It wasn't so funny. In an early game against California, the Mariners trailed 6-3 with the bases loaded in the seventh. Zisk, the team's hottest hitter, was on second, and Wills sent Relief Pitcher Bryan Clark in to run for him. "First of all," says Zisk, "I wasn't the tying or winning run. And he had said he would never use a pitcher as a pinch runner anyway. And Clark was our only lefthanded reliever." As it turned out, Clark didn't score, and when Zisk's place in the batting order came up again in the ninth his replacement struck out. The Mariners lost, 7-4.
May 17, 1981
As the losses mounted, Wills began to act like a desperate man. Early on the morning of April 19, with a doubleheader beginning at 12:30, he angered many of his players with a 1:30 a.m. bedcheck—a move he had vowed never to resort to without first warning the players—rousing them from their sleep to answer his calls. A week later against Oakland he ordered the Mariners' groundskeeper to illegally lengthen the batter's box—that cost Wills a $500 fine and a two-game suspension. Early in the season, Seattle was getting hitting but no pitching. Then the pitching came and the hitting went pffft. "The only thing we led baseball in was team meetings," says Zisk. "It was a joke with the rest of the clubs. Meeting after meeting. Like the kid who gets a chocolate sundae every day, after a while they sort of lose their effect."
The only consistent thing about the Mariners the first month was Zisk's bat. Seattle had acquired him and Atlanta's Jeff Burroughs in the off-season to get righthanded power. Playing as the DH, Zisk hit safely in 23 of the team's first 26 games and during one stretch had five homers in five games, one shy of tying the American League record. "I would have loved to break the record," Zisk says, "but what pleased me most was that even though I failed, in the sixth game I still got three hits. Some hitters can get homer-happy. I've just been trying to hit the ball hard."
Zisk gives much of the credit for his fine start to Seattle's batting instructor, Tommy Davis, the two-time National League batting champion who finished his career as a DH in the American League. "I'm not quite ready to put him on a pedestal yet," says Zisk, "but when he talks, hitting people should listen."
Teacher and pupil have much in common. Both were born in Brooklyn and became big, slow-footed righthanded line-drive hitters with good lifetime batting averages (Davis: .294; Zisk: .289). Davis won batting titles in '62 and '63, but in '65 he broke his ankle, an injury that hobbled him the remaining 11 years of his career. Zisk, who is 32 and weighs 215 pounds, has had five different knee operations. He blames them on a condition he calls "internal tibia rotation." He is so determined that his children not grow up pigeon-toed, as he is, that he has taken to sewing their pajama heels together so that they will sleep without turning their toes in. "They hop to the bathroom and think it's all pretty neat," he says.
Davis and Zisk have concentrated on increasing his hits, not his home runs. "If he gets 180 hits, he'll get his 25 home runs," says Davis. "It's automatic because of the way he's built. He has a short, quick swing, and one of my theories is to get the bat to the hitting area as quickly as possible."
Says Zisk, "We've talked a lot about staying within myself, not trying to hit the six-run homer. I got into some bad habits in Texas, where the wind blew in from right center. I started trying to pull the ball too much, which isn't my natural style at all. It's been fun to rediscover the things I can do with a bat."
For Texas, Zisk hit .262 twice and .290 last year, averaging 20 homers and 75 RBIs. They were good stats, but coming after his vintage 1977 season with the Chicago White Sox (30 homers, 101 RBIs, .290), they were disappointing. When he signed his 10-year contract with Texas it was the second most lucrative in baseball history. The Rangers billed him as the righthanded power hitter who would bring them the pennant, but they never came close. "One man can't win a pennant," Zisk says now. "A lot was expected of me, but we didn't put it together as a team."
When he first learned about the Seattle offer, Zisk exercised his contract's no-trade clause and nixed it. He slept on the matter, however, and talked it over with his wife, and together they decided a change would be for the best. The prospect of moving back north and playing in the Kingdome, in which more homers have been hit in the last two years than in any other stadium, was too tempting to resist. The foul lines in the Kingdome measure 316 feet, and the power alleys are only 357, and for some unknown reason the ball simply carries well there. "It's the first park I've played in where the dimensions are reasonable," says Zisk, who remembers only too well the centerfield wall in Chicago, which is 445 feet from home and 18 feet high. He is one of only four men ever to hit a ball out in dead center.
"I'm very proud of the fact that none of my seven home runs have been Dome-dongs—one that plops into the first row. But after the parks I've played in. I'm looking forward to my first one."
Then he smiles, tickled—yes—pink at a memory. "You know, my first at bat this year was an infield single," he says. "I knew right then it was going to be a very good year."