Texas Ranger first baseman Pete O'Brien has youth (28), wealth ($300,000 a year) and strapping California good looks (blond hair, blue eyes). Although he doesn't get much recognition in a league with first basemen like Don Mattingly and Eddie Murray, he has some impressive baseball statistics—a .310 batting average, 35 runs scored, 25 runs batted in and a .382 on-base percentage—and his team is the surprising, startling, shocking AL West division leader. These should be happy times for Pete O'Brien.
But they're not. He began this season trying to cope with the pain of a failed marriage, but even that pales beside the ordeal of his father, Jimmy O'Brien, 65, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. "It's not so bad really," says Jimmy, a Pebble Beach, Calif., stockbroker. "Who more than a first baseman's father deserves to have Lou Gehrig's disease?"
That laughter in the face of serious illness has buoyed the entire O'Brien clan. This spring Pete, the youngest of seven children, took his father and mother, Janice, on the Rangers' two road trips through the AL East. "He has given me so much," Pete says. "Now it's my turn to give what I can."
Says Jimmy, "I work in an office where people trade paper money for paper stocks for paper losses and paper gains. What's real about that? But baseball. Ah, baseball. It's people. It's outdoors. It's reality. It's life. I call these baseball trips to watch Pete my personal search for reality."
His son's own search for reality has been circuitous. A self-described late bloomer, O'Brien didn't reach the majors until he was 24. He was neither drafted nor offered a scholarship when he graduated from Carmel High. Playing for a local junior college, he did well enough to earn a last-minute half-scholarship to Nebraska. The Rangers drafted him in the 15th round in 1979.
O'Brien won the first base job after four years in the minors, but he hit only .237 as a rookie in 1983. He headed for the weight room, and the work paid off. His smooth, lefthanded swing produced 40 home runs and 172 RBIs the past two seasons. When Bobby Valentine took over as Ranger manager last May, O'Brien's average was well below .200. He told O'Brien to be more selective when he was ahead in the count and to take every at bat seriously. "I wasn't a student of the game," O'Brien says. "It's easy to get wrapped up in the gaiety of sports, the excitement, the attention. Now, the results create the fun."
This spring, while tinkering with his swing, O'Brien moved his hands away from his body and found he could handle the inside fastballs that used to lock him up. He got off to his best start ever. "I haven't had that elite year, like Mattingly or Murray, but my attitude is, 'Let's see how good you can be,' " he says. " 'Quit fantasizing. Lay your cards down. See what kind of hand you've got.' "
Valentine has noticed the change. "Pete's a leader of men," he says. "If he was on a jury, there would be 11 heads turned his way." As it happens, O'Brien is turning heads all over baseball.