Putting A Stop To A Long Slide

Thanks to Inky, Dr. Gadget and an empathetic Valentine, the once lowly Texas Rangers are winning
June 22, 1986

The scene at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Saturday was almost surreal. Willie Mays was digging in at the plate, and Catfish Hunter was on the mound. Orlando Cepeda was in the on-deck circle. Joe DiMaggio was in the Oakland dugout fairly aglow in A's green and gold (the Clipper once coached, ever so briefly, for Charlie Finley), while Bill Rigney was on the San Francisco side (he now works for the A's), calling the shots, just as he did as a manager at various times in the '50s, '60s and '70s. There was an all-star company of shades in the two dugouts—Juan Marichal, Stu Miller, Billy O'Dell, Hank Sauer, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Ken Holtzman. They weren't ghosts, of course, just participants in yet another old-timers' game, this one between former A's and Giants. And they were not, by any reckoning, the most unusual figures on the Coliseum turf that afternoon. No, that honor belonged to the visiting team in the day's main event to follow, the Texas Rangers.

What's that? The Rangers unusual? Well, yes. Consider that they started the season with five rookie pitchers; that their first five-man rotation had a career major league record of 36-64; that their ace missed the first month of the season because of a handshake; that one of their busiest relievers, the redoubtable Mickey Mahler, holds the record for wins by an American citizen in the Dominican Republic (41) but had until this season appeared in only 26 big league games since 1980; that their pitching coach is completing his Ph.D. in psychology; and that their cleanup hitter is playing in his very first professional baseball season. Not enough? Then how about the Ranger pitchers warming up on the sidelines during the geezer game?

So? They were just throwing the ball around, weren't they? Yes, but the ball was a football. They were out there like so many NFL quarterbacks spotting receivers downfield. But that's not what was most unusual about these Rangers. No, the really weird thing was that, after a history of losing comparable to Harold Stassen's, Texas was leading the American League West by 4½ games.

In fact, the Rangers have been in first place since May 24 and have been in either first or second since May 10. Even after they lost 3-2 to the A's on Old-Timers' Day and 9-2 on Sunday, reducing their lead to 3½ games, their record included 9 wins in their last 12 games and 13 in their last 20. Following a 9-10 April, Texas whipped through May and the first half of June at a 25-17 pace, despite innumerable injuries. Three of the five starting pitchers have been felled at one time or another. Mike Mason, who has a 4-2 record, is on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring. He is joined there by Dwayne Henry, a rookie reliever with a sore elbow. Jose Guzman, who this season became the first rookie to win on Opening Day since Fernando Valenzuela did so five years ago, has pitched with a pulled rib-cage muscle and with feet so badly blistered he had to have them iced before and after one game.

Every Ranger regular, except for first baseman Pete O'Brien and infielder Scott Fletcher, has missed at least one game because of injury. DH Larry Parrish was leading the team in RBIs with 32 on May 20, when he tore a rib-cage muscle. He has been out ever since. Three catchers have bitten the dust: Don Slaught was hit in the face by an Oil Can Boyd fastball on May 17 and is still recuperating from reconstructive surgery; Darrell Porter strained a muscle in his left leg on June 4 when he slipped in the on-deck circle in Chicago while chasing a pop foul; and Orlando Mercado was hit in the left hand by a Steve Ontiveros fastball on Friday night in Oakland.

But the most bizarre of all Ranger injuries occurred before the season even began. Midway through spring training, 38-year-old Charlie Hough, the club's winningest pitcher over the past four years (61-56), attended a reception for a friend who had just been appointed to the circuit-court bench in Fort Lauderdale. Hough reached out to shake the new judge's hand, only to discover His Honor had quite a grip. Hough recoiled, joshingly protesting that to protect his knuckleballer's grip, he shakes hands only with his little finger. He hooked his pinkie around the jurist's pinkie and gave a friendly yank. Oh! Oh! The broken finger sidelined Hough for the entire month of April. That, he says emphatically, "is the dumbest thing I've ever done." Agreed. But, as second baseman Toby Harrah says, if the Rangers have looked good so far, "just wait until we get everyone healthy."

Manager Bobby Valentine knows a little about injuries. He was a hot prospect playing for the California Angels on May 17, 1973, when he chased a drive by Oakland's Dick Green to the leftfield fence in Anaheim Stadium. The ball cleared the wall. Valentine hit it. "I was running full speed," he recalls, "and I used my right leg to break the impact. It snapped." The leg was broken in two places, and though Valentine played another six years, he was never the same player.

The injury, says the 36-year-old Valentine, "made me old before my time," a condition that has served him well as the major league's youngest manager. Aside from enthusiasm and patience, Valentine figures that the most valuable attribute he brings to his job is "empathy." He explains: "Look, I've run the cycle. I was a Number 1 draft choice and a heralded rookie—a wisecracking 20-year-old. I've been a third-place hitter in the order and [all too briefly] a star. I was a seriously injured player. I've been a traded player. Finally, I've been a released player. So a lot of the things my players are going through I've already been through."

Valentine's empatico approach seems to work, especially with the many tyros on the Texas roster. He gives them confidence through trust. When the Rangers traded third baseman Buddy Bell to Cincinnati last July 19, they brought up Steve Buechele, a 24-year-old former Stanford star, to replace him. Buechele had been a second baseman in college, and only last season had he started learning the hot-corner trade at Triple A Oklahoma City. Valentine had already promoted another collegian, Oddibe McDowell (Arizona State), and after a painfully slow start, the 23-year-old McDowell was beginning to scintillate at bat, on the base paths and in centerfield. Valentine decided to give Buechele the same chance, knowing that in replacing Bell, perhaps the franchise's best player ever, he was putting enormous pressure on the youngster.

"It's funny, but I didn't even think about pressure at the time," Buechele says now. "Looking back, I can see there was a lot of it." Buechele had good reason to feel insecure this year when a knee injury sidelined him for three weeks of spring training. "Bobby just told me to take my time recovering, that I was his third baseman," he says. "That helped." With eight homers already this year, Buechele has responded to his manager's faith by adding invaluable punch to the bottom of the Texas batting order. As a onetime college roommate of Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway, Buechele naturally also stars in the pregame football warmups.

The pigskin ploy is just one of myriad schemes swirling in the crowded mind of pitching coach Tom House. Among other activities, House is writing his doctoral dissertation on terminal adolescence in professional sports, a work he—and certainly most sportswriters—are convinced is long overdue. House, who says the highlight of his 6½-year big league pitching career was catching Hank Aaron's 715th home run in the Braves' bullpen, got the football idea some years ago from Dick Dent, the San Diego Padres' trainer. Dent had his pitchers warm up with footballs, too, but usually away from the ballpark. House's hurlers are right there on the sidelines for everyone to see. This is no mere passing fancy, either.

"It is a useful training device," says House. "For one thing, you can't throw a football wrong mechanically and make it spiral. I think quarterbacks have the best throwing mechanics of any athlete. They observe the absolutes—proper positioning of the shoulder and elbow, positive weight transfer. A pitcher can do things wrong mechanically and still get the ball over the plate. A quarterback must always be sound to be successful."

Even in uniform, House looks more like a pipe-puffing academic than a coach. The Texas newsmen call him, with some affection, Dr. Gadget. Indeed, he brims with ideas about nutrition, about teaching the knuckleball to otherwise inferior young pitchers and about "underloading" (increasing arm and bat speed through the use of lighter balls and bats). Mostly, House wants to see to it that ballplayers learn to deal with the shock of "career termination. Society programs athletes to act in a certain way, and then with 40 years of their lives left, we expect them to go out in the world with no life skills. That's not easy."

In Valentine, House has found a receptive ear. "I'm a baseball traditionalist," says the manager, "but we are in 1986 and we'll soon be in 1990. There are some things out there that can make us better." Valentine's most daring experiment may have been installing the untested Pete Incaviglia, 22, in his lineup on Opening Day and leaving him there through thick and thin. Not that Incaviglia didn't come to the Rangers with credentials. At Oklahoma State a year ago, he set NCAA records for homers (48), RBIs (143), total bases (285) and slugging percentage (1.140). He also hit .464. However, all that was in college ball and with the lively aluminum bat.

Incaviglia was drafted by Montreal last year, but because of a dispute over his signing bonus, he didn't agree to a contract until Nov. 2, at which point the Expos traded him to the Rangers. In his first batting practice in spring training, Incaviglia hit eight balls out of the park and shattered the fence with a 380-foot line drive. Valentine was impressed.

After the first two weeks of the season Inky, as Valentine calls him, was hitting only about half his weight. Valentine was not discouraged. "There were tell-tale signs," he said. For example, of the six hits Incaviglia had in his first 50 at bats, all were for extra bases—three doubles and three homers. Valentine also made Incaviglia quit writing a column for the Dallas Morning News, on the sound enough assumption that the author was probably worrying as much about describing his adventures as he was about having them.

Out of print, Inky has been writing his own ticket. At week's end he was hitting .272 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs. He won a 2-1 Friday night game in Oakland with a run-scoring, eighth-inning single up the middle, and he drove in another run in the Saturday loss to the A's with a bouncing single to right. Incaviglia is a 220-pound slugger, but he has shown that he can hit the timely short ball.

Incaviglia was an interested spectator as the old-timers took the field on Saturday. He grew up in Pebble Beach, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, and at least until he signed with the Rangers, he had been a lifelong fan of both the Giants and the A's. He watched from behind the backstop as the aging legends were introduced and then settled into the dugout to watch the game.

Sauer, a Giants scout and former player, stopped by, looking uncomfortable, at age 67, in his double-knit uniform. Sauer shook his mighty head at the sight of Incaviglia. "I tried to sign that boy after high school," he said. "Isn't that right, son?" Incaviglia agreed it was. "But they said he was a one-dimensional player. One-dimensional?" Sauer spat out the expression in disgust. "Hell, that dimension was hitting. And who can't use that?" Incaviglia smiled.

The great Mays trotted in, looking a little worse for wear. Early in the game, he had dropped a fly ball, and even at 55, errors do not amuse him. Rigney was standing outside the dugout. "Hey, they want us to play another inning," he told his players. "Whaddya say?"

Mays looked up at him wearily, and then he glanced down the dugout at Incaviglia and the other young Rangers. "Naw," he said, picking up his glove. "It's time to let these other guys play."

And so, finally, for Texas, it is.

TWO PHOTOSCRAIG MOLENHOUSEOn Sunday, Geno Petralli, the fourth Ranger catcher of 1986, tagged out Stan Javier. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERAt 36, Valentine is indeed a kid skipper. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEAfter having laid down his pen, Inky has been anything but spotty in the batter's box. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERUnder the attentive eye of House, rookies Dale Mohorcic (left), Mitch Williams (center) and Bobby Witt hone their motions NFL-style.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)