Funny people, from Pagliaccio to Richard Pryor, have always had trouble getting serious people to take them seriously. This also has been the melancholy plight of Doug Rader, the manager of the Texas Rangers, an intelligent, sensitive, essentially serious man who is, nevertheless, hopelessly afflicted with the gift of laughter. It is Rader's additional fate to be part of a sport steeped deeper in legend and apocrypha than is Greek mythology, so that no matter how hard he tries—and he tries mightily—to downplay his reputation from his playing days as a prankster, he is reminded constantly in print and by word of mouth of his celebrated japes.
Rader will affect his soberest mien and expound with eloquent solemnity on why he had his leftfielder stealing second with no outs in the 11th inning of a tense game against Milwaukee when, sure as shooting, someone will ask him about the time, years ago, he fed baseballs into the dugout gas heater at Jarry Park in Montreal. Or he will be in earnest debate over the number of pitches a veteran lefthander on his staff should be permitted to throw, and some neo-mythologist will remind him of the time he advised Little Leaguers to eat their bubble-gum cards so they might better digest the information contained on them. When such reminders of his rambunctious past present themselves, Rader's brown eyes will roll back in his freckled face, and he will smite his forehead and groan pitiably. "I just can't imagine," he will say, "that people still want to hear about things that happened 10, 15 years ago. I know I'll never shake my reputation, but I'd be very happy if it just vanished."
It won't, of course. Rader, who turned 39 on July 30, has retained so much of his youthful exuberance that the unobservant will quite naturally have difficulty distinguishing the robust past from the more contemplative present. When Rader recently rejected a cup of coffee with the comment, "I don't take anything to alter the physiological condition of my body—it's running too perfectly on 82 percent body fat," listeners were reminded of baseball's mad bomber of old, who dropped water balloons on unsuspecting teammates from hotel windows. But after the job Rader has done so far this season with the once-woeful Rangers, it may well be time for even the most skeptical among us to take this man seriously. The Rangers lost 98 games in 1982 under two managers—Don Zimmer, fired in July, and his interim successor, Darrell Johnson. Rader, in his freshman season as a big-league manager, has taken largely the same team and has had it in contention in the American League West from the start of the season and in third place, 4½ games behind Chicago, through last Sunday.
He is as loath to accept credit for this extraordinary turnaround as he is to acknowledge any of his old jokes. "It's the players," he protests. "I'm just along for the ride." But those closest to the wondrous goings-on at Arlington Stadium, including the players themselves, insist that the Rangers have gone from sad sacks to contenders on the wings of Rader's own vital personality and his skillful manipulation of the personalities around him. He is primarily a man of intangibles, says his general manager, Joe Klein, but he has accomplished some specifics, too, particularly in Texas' once-sorry pitching department. The Rangers were 12th in the American League a year ago, with a staff earned run average of 4.28. As of Sunday, they were first, with an ERA of 3.49. Rader and his pitching coach, Dick Such, took Danny Darwin out of the bullpen and made him into an effective starter. They made a starter, John Butcher, into a long reliever. They took a minor league starter, Odell Jones, and made him into one of the league's better short relievers. And they convinced Rick Honeycutt that he was more than just a slider-sinker pitcher. These were merely moves. The rest has been pure inspiration.
"Doug's the reason for the change," says his hitting coach, Merv Rettenmund. "It's his aggressiveness, his handling of people. He has this ball club playing exactly up to its abilities. The only constant all year has been our intensity, and he's the reason for that. He has a rule that no one is allowed to hang his head after making a mistake, because that gives the other team a psychological advantage. He doesn't ever want us to appear down. He never does."
"Last year we just showed up and went through the motions," says Honeycutt, who has gone from a 5-17 season in '82 to 13-6 under Rader, with a league-leading 2.32 ERA. "You can get away with that at this level if that's all that's expected of you. But Doug expects so much more. He makes us work up to 100 percent every day, and he's showed us that if you do that you can stay competitive. It's hard to put into words what he's done for us, but you just want to do well for him out of respect."
"He deserves the credit," says Shortstop Bucky Dent, who had a miserable .193 season in '82 playing for the Yankees, who had lost interest in him, and for the Rangers, who had lost interest in everything. "I had come from one negative situation into another and then, all of a sudden, I hear this guy speaking positively. You have to be in the right frame of mind to play this game, and Doug has gotten us there. He has kept everybody loose off the field, but when we're on it, he has us playing with high intensity and total involvement."
"This is a Doug Rader reversal," says Coach Wayne Terwilliger. "He's got these players believing in themselves." "Consciously or not, we seem to have adopted his personality," says Billy Sample, a part-time player until this year, who at week's end was hitting .281 and had stolen 31 bases as Rader's regular leftfielder. "We have assimilated his mental makeup."
Rader is fielding ground balls at second base during the Rangers' batting practice before a game with the Brewers. He cuts an unusual figure on the field, the red face with its prominent nose thrust forward, cap pulled low on the forehead, red hair puffing out at the back, pants slung low, shirttail out. Rader is a large man—6'3" and 230 pounds—and his voice has the same harsh resonance as Broderick Crawford's, when Crawford played Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Taking grounders is Rader's therapy, his release from tension. For all of his ursine bulk, he is still remarkably agile and quick, and Coach Rich Donnelly is frustrated trying to hit a ball past him. As a third baseman with the Houston Astros, Rader won five Gold Gloves in succession (1970-74), and he seems to have lost little of his touch. He makes a fine backhand stop, wheels as if to throw to first and then flips the ball to second without looking. Donnelly hits him another hard smash. Rader gobbles it up and comically throws an exaggerated one-hopper to second. Finally, Donnelly hits two balls, one after the other, at him. As the second rolls past him, Rader bellows in mock rage. He tosses his old glove in the air and jogs back to the dugout cursing noisily.
Ranger Second Baseman Wayne Tolleson watches this performance with undisguised admiration. "That's the unique thing about him," Tolleson says. "He can do all of those things and not lose any respect. His rapport is different from that of any manager I've ever known. He makes you feel like you're real good friends with him, and yet you know that you aren't quite. He has a hold on how to treat each player. And he's the first guy at this level who ever showed any confidence in me. He told me I was his second baseman after Mike [Richardt] got hurt, and he turned me loose. I was grateful, and it's made a difference."
Until this season, Tolleson, now 27, had a career major league batting average of .128 in 52 games. In 38 games for Texas last year he hit .114. In 71 Triple A games at Denver he hit .241. Under Rader this season he is hitting .278 as the lead-off man and has 23 steals.
When the 40-year-old Klein took over as the Rangers' general manager last October—they didn't really have a G.M. for much of the '82 season—he knew exactly what he was looking for in a skipper. "What this club needed after the depression of last year was a motivator," says Klein, who has worked in the organization as a minor league player and manager and director of player development. "I didn't think a recycled major league manager was the sort of person we wanted, so we made a thorough search among younger coaches and guys who had been successful as Triple A managers. I had naturally heard a lot about Doug, but I thought that even if he'd done all the crazy things he was supposed to have done, they might prove to be more of an asset than a liability. He could still be an attraction, after all. We needed someone to get the players' attention.
"Then I looked at his career. He spent nine seasons with one team [Houston] and was its captain in his last two years. He was traded [to San Diego], then coached and worked for three years as a minor league manager [in Hawaii]. The only way I could interpret all this was that what we had here was stability. The rest, the reputation, was just window dressing. I'd never met him before, so I wasn't exactly picking an old drinking buddy. And when I did meet him, he made a terrific first impression." That should come as something of a surprise to Rader, who asserts he doesn't make a good first impression or a good second impression or....
Rader's managerial philosophy is based partly on a synthesis of his own good and bad experiences with managers he encountered in his 11-year playing career and partly on instinct. "The managers who had the most positive influence on me were Johnny McNamara [in San Diego in 1976 and part of '77] and, to a certain extent, Harry Walker [in Houston from '68 to '72]," says Rader. "Harry had a very good heart, something a lot of people don't know about. Johnny Mac showed me that there doesn't have to be a gap between the manager and his players, that familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt."
McNamara and Rader even collaborated on a prank during spring training in 1976. McNamara called a team meeting on the practice diamond. "We're on a tight schedule this morning," he said, placing a watch he had borrowed from Coach Don Williams on the ground in front of him, "but there are some things I want to say." At this juncture Rader, by pre-arrangement, leaped to his feet, shouting, "Mac, your time's up." Then, before the horrified eyes of the coach, he grabbed a bat and smashed the watch to smithereens. It was a gag McNamara tried several years later with the Angels, this time with Reggie Jackson as co-conspirator. When Jackson swung at and missed the watch, Rod Carew commented dryly, "Skip, next time you've got to pick a contact hitter."
Rader learned from McNamara that a manager could be stern without being distant, in control without being insensitive. "I want to be friends with my players," Rader says. "I want them all to know that I give a——about them. At the same time, I don't want to get so that I go around shouting, 'Hey, guys, where're we going tonight?' The Dick Williams [distant] approach may work over the short haul, but for long-range results I think it's important that you be sensitive to personalities.
"I think you also have to give responsibility to your coaches. When I coached in San Diego [under Roger Craig] in '79, I felt useless. I epitomized the popular notion of what coaches do—pick up helmets and hit fungoes. That's not the way it should be.
"I'm not a great exponent of computers, either. I think you should manage your own team, not manage against another one. Instinct is more important to me. You've got to have a feel for this game—not that I have a choice. The way I treat these guys is the way I am. I do have some advantages, too. I'm a little bit younger, so I'm not so far removed from playing that I can't remember how hard it is, and, of course, I haven't been fired yet so I don't have any prejudices against certain types of players."
Rader hasn't gone as far as inviting the Rangers over for Sunday breakfast, as he did the Hawaii Islanders in the San Diego chain when he managed them in 1980, '81 and '82, and he can't very well take his players snorkeling deep in the heart of Texas, as he did his players in Hawaii, but he does have an easy rapport with them, and he does treat them impartially in that he calls them all Meat. But then again, he also calls his mother Meat. "She calls me Son," says Rader.
If McNamara was Rader's inspiration as a manager, Alvin Dark, who succeeded Mac in San Diego in 1977, was nearly the cause of Rader's quitting baseball forever. "I've seen Doug down only once," says Rettenmund, who was his teammate on the Padres that year, "and that was when Dark sold him to Toronto in '77 because he said he was a bad influence on the team. Bad influence? Why, he was the heart of the club."
"The reason I got sold was why I was down," Rader says now, bristling yet over the old slight. "I always believed in the work ethic, and I worked hard for Dark and played well. Then he told me I had to go because I reminded him of the way he was before he got religion. He's telling me I'm a no-good s.o.b. and he doesn't even know me. Very few people really know me, although many think that they do because of what they've read. Well, I've been married to the same woman for 16 years, and I believe in most of the important things in life, including religion. I was raised a Presbyterian, but I converted to Catholicism, my wife's faith and my mother's, in 1979. But even if I was the world's worst heathen, Dark still prejudged me. He didn't know me from Adam."
Rader had hit .271 in 52 games for the '77 Padres when he was sold. He hit .240 in 96 games with Toronto. Then, in March of 1978, he called it a career. "Outwardly, he never changed," recalls his wife, Jeannette, of those Dark days. "He never does. Doug keeps it all inside him. But after that move to Toronto, all the spirit went out of him."
Rader spent the spring and early summer of '78 with his wife and three children at their home in Stuart, Fla., some 40 miles north of West Palm Beach. "It's just a quiet little town," says Rader. He devoted those months to deep-sea fishing with his pals, diving for lobster, reading his favorite author, Ernest Hemingway, and helping out his friend, Dave Husnander, in his plumbing business. In August, Bob Fontaine, the San Diego general manager that year, offered Rader a coaching job. Dark by this time had been fired. Rader accepted and coached through the '79 season. He made two important decisions in that period: He decided he wanted to become a manager and he started writing his journal.
Fontaine gave Rader the chance to manage, assigning him the Hawaii club, and in his three seasons Rader won two half-season pennants and never finished worse than .500 with teams the Padre front office readily admitted were inferior. "We gave him an absolutely terrible team last year," the San Diego minor league administrator, Tom Romenesko, says, "and he won more games than he lost." It was in Hawaii that Rader's unique ability as a handler of personnel first became recognized. Tim Flannery, now a Padre infielder, recalls that in the first game he played for Rader he struck out three times and dropped a ball that cost the Islanders the game. Flannery was near tears when he was called into Rader's office after the game. "The reason I've got you in here," Rader advised the nervous youngster, "is to try and talk you out of showing up tomorrow." Says Flannery, "I started laughing, and that's what he wanted me to do. The thing I like about Doug is that he makes you believe in yourself."
Rader's journal represents still another aspect of his rather complex personality. He is the first to admit that his tomfoolery is merely protective armor. It's the soft underside he wishes to protect. Even as an apparently carefree high school jock in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill., he concealed his serious side. He might have been a clown on the outside, but he was a brooder underneath. "I found then that it helped if I just wrote down what was bothering me," he says. "I'd always tried to keep things hidden inside. When something would bother me, I'd cover it up. People felt I was flip and non-serious. That's as far from the truth as you can imagine. It's just that I never wanted anybody to know I was worried, that a lot of things affected me. I know I always give the impression I'm only concerned about the immediate, but the things that I tend to worry about are things I can't control—the future, for example. I found that if I just wrote these things down they seemed less important. So I started making lists."
He continued the list-making through Glenbrook High School and two years at Illinois Wesleyan, where he played shortstop. After the 1964 season Rader quit college—"It's the only thing I've never finished," he says—to sign with Houston. In 1967, while playing winter ball in Nicaragua, he met Jeannette, the native-born daughter of a wealthy Cuban exile whose business interests included insurance, a brewery and a hotel.
As a player, when Rader wanted to let off steam, he'd simply do something wacko, like delivering the Astros' starting lineup to the umpires in a skillet or greeting teammate Norm Miller and his wife from behind the door of his house wearing only an impish grin. This ploy, he advises, "works every time" with unwanted guests.
Of those supposedly halcyon days, Rader says, "If I saw an opportunity to have fun, I took it. Otherwise I would've gone crazy." A teammate in Houston, Jim Bouton, began recording some of the Rader antics in his own journal, and the publication of his sequel to Ball Four, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, enshrined Rader as the game's premier flake. Rader liked the book and he was a staunch Bouton defender when many baseball traditionalists were denouncing him, but he deplored the reputation he gained from Bouton's writing and loathed the word "flake." In his view, it connotes irresponsibility, and, indeed, Rader was an aggressive, conscientious player whose capriciousness was confined largely to clubhouses and hotels. "He's certainly no flake," says Jeannette. "The more you get to know him, the more you see he's not that way. He just knows how to enjoy life."
Rader started keeping his own journal in that do-nothing 1979 season as a coach under Craig. Instead of jotting down anecdotes and one-liners, he began writing impressions and pensées. "I put down how I feel about certain things," he says. "There are no specifics about any game in the journal. It's mostly about my state of mind. I've always wanted to write. I fooled around with it at first. Now it's addictive." A few examples:
•"Anyone who doubts the existence of God should visit Hawaii. The beauty of these islands stretches beyond the imagination. From the landscape to the flowers to the people, Hawaii is the epitome of perfection. It's a damn shame their team is only Triple A."—Sept. 30, 1982.
•"Tomorrow I report to Pompano Beach. The first day entails only a meeting with the coaches and front office personnel. We have to make sure we are all on the same wavelength. It also gives us an opportunity to drink a few beers, tell a few war stories and drink a few more beers. Maybe we'll have time to get in 18 holes. I'm sure Joe [Klein] will have everything under control. I just hope I remember to wear shoes."—Feb. 17, 1983.
•"I hate leaving the house, but I can't wait to get there [spring training]. It's a crazy routine. Leaving home for spring training has always been, for me, the toughest part of this game. Yet after I arrive at my destination and get around baseball people, I'm fine.... I guess it has something to do with severing the security cord of home, family and friends. Then, upon seeing the other players and coaches, you realize you're not the only guy in the boat."—Feb. 17.
•"Right now a lot of things are racing through my mind. Will the players accept me? Will the team live up to my expectations? And where the hell are my cigarettes?"—Feb. 17.
•"I'm a sturdy 260 pounds.... I need to lose about 25 pounds. Looks like soup and salad for a while. The six-pack is cold, so I'll have to start tomorrow."—March 1.
The possibility remains that he will put these thoughts in a book someday—he has, in fact, consulted with a potential collaborator—but it will be quite unlike Bouton's, he says, and quite unlike anything someone who knows Rader only superficially might expect.
Not that he has become an old stick-in-the-mud. He still doesn't like to miss a chance for a little action. His penchant for mischief, for example, has left many a menu reading "Rader Vic's." In his office recently, Rader expressed dissatisfaction at the listless reading of a radio public-service announcement made by Ranger trainer Bill Zeigler on health care in hot weather. Rader persuaded broadcaster Eric Nadel to let him tape his own version for the trainer. "Hi! This is Bill Zeigler," Rader announced in a monotone uncannily like Zeigler's. There followed a riotous ad lib in which Rader as Zeigler advised listeners to wear "light and airy" clothes and to be certain after exercise to "drink plenty of beer." "That's a keeper," said Nadel.
And so, we assume, is Rader, managerial wunderkind and prankster emeritus. Well, almost emeritus.