The hardest part of turning 30 was acknowledging the fact that I would never make the major leagues. Until then I had always retained a faint hope that some sharp-eyed scout would stop by the softball field one Sunday morning and detect the raw talent laboring there undiscovered and unheralded. Once I left my twenties, however, I knew the scenario could no longer have a happy ending.
“You sure swing that bat good, son,” the scout would say. “Ever been to a major league tryout camp?”
“Nope,” I’d answer calmly, “but I hit .333 in Little League in 1954.”
We’d talk a little longer, but eventually he’d get around to the dreaded question. “How old are you, son?” he’d ask, and I could envision his face changing, frowning, as I confessed to three decades on earth. “Too bad,” he’d say. “If only I’d found you earlier…”
My pessimism proved unfounded, however, for this spring I actually made it to the big leagues as a member of the Texas Rangers traveling party. (The club even issued a cherished press release, which, with a few well-placed ellipses, can be edited to read: “Paul Burka,… will join the Rangers today…”) And so, on a warm April afternoon, at about the time my regular Sunday morning softball game would be breaking up 200 miles away, I opened the door to the Ranger clubhouse and stepped inside.
Dallas. “Hey, Nelson. Lend me a dollar.” Infielder Lenny Randle came over to second baseman Dave Nelson expectantly. This request would not have been unusual except game time was just five minutes away, and all but a few stragglers in the clubhouse had already headed for the field. Question: why does a fully uniformed ball player need a dollar bill during a baseball game? I never did discover the answer to this riddle, although there was plenty of time to mull over the possibilities during the next two-and-a-half hours. The Rangers did nothing to focus my attention on the playing field, as they succumbed meekly to Kansas City, 2-0. It was their third consecutive loss to the Royals and their seventh defeat in eleven games—not an auspicious start for a team many people thought would lead the American League’s Western Division.
The Rangers’ only real chance came in the sixth inning. Randle, who couldn’t buy a hit all day (despite the dollar), reached first on an error. With one out Mike Hargrove, last year’s rookie-of-the-year, singled, putting the tying runs on base. Then the Rangers, who like to play aggressive baseball, worked a double steal with Jeff Burroughs at bat. Burroughs is a blossoming superstar; he led the league in runs batted in last year, and was its most valuable player. Even on a day when the other Rangers could do nothing Burroughs was formidable: he had three hits in four at-bats. But this was the fourth time. Kansas City pitcher Al Fitzmorris baffled Burroughs with a slow curve and struck him out. The team’s big man had failed to get even a fly ball to score one run—a sure sign of a losing ball club. A walk delayed what everyone sensed would be a painful end to a hopeful inning; then Toby Harrah hit the ball hard—but out—to third base and the game was gone.
The last game of a home stand is really the first game of a road trip. The two symbols of the road are a suitcase and a bus; they are as much a part of a ball player’s life as a curve ball. Before the Kansas City game the players’ matching royal blue luggage stood in a loose clump in a corner of the clubhouse; after the game the clump was gone, and a bus stood outside ready to depart for the airport.
I climbed on the bus somewhat timidly, half expecting fiery Ranger manager Billy Martin to be screaming curses at his players or at the very least to be fuming to himself. Martin, however, wasn’t even there. He had driven his black Lincoln Continental to the airport, setting a precedent he was to follow during most of the trip. He rarely rode on the bus with the team, keeping to himself most of the time, sometimes renting a car at the airport and driving into town.
Perhaps this is Martin’s way of emphasizing hegemony over his team. And the Rangers are Billy Martin’s team, not just because he manages them, but also because he has shaped the team’s personality. Unlike other clubs, the Rangers have no one, player or coach, who could be called a team leader, like Pee Wee Reese used to be for the old Dodgers or Martin himself was for the great Yankee teams of the Fifties. On the Rangers there is just Martin. Managing a baseball team’s field strategy is not a difficult job; managing 25 diverse personalities is, and Martin is a master at it. Baseball is a lonely sport; each performer is cruelly isolated. A player’s self-confidence—no matter how great his ability—is continually assaulted by a never-ceasing barrage of statistics. In no other game are the performers so extensively measured and catalogued: lifetime averages, season averages, record against left-handers, record against right-handers, hitting streaks, slumps, and on and on and on. Martin’s genius as a manager is his ability to stifle the self-doubt that nibbles at every ball player. The Rangers are not a troubled baseball team.
The atmosphere on the bus was neither rowdy nor subdued. No one seemed to be brooding over the defeat. Threads of conversation drifted to the front of the bus, none of them about baseball. In fact, none of them were about much of anything. It was all banter, idle chatter, hey-man-watcha-say talk. The players wore coats and ties—Martin is one of the few managers in baseball to impose a dress code for road trips—and several had cassette recorders playing rock music. The scene on the bus was typical of the Rangers, win or lose. They are not group-oriented and there is little group behavior. Their success as a team reflects changing patterns both inside baseball and in the larger society outside. A few years ago, winning athletic teams were often characterized by group behavior; today just the opposite is true. The contemporary ball player is far more individualistic than his counterpart in the Sixties. These were the years of the Baltimore Orioles and their Kangaroo Court; the El Birdos of Saint Louis, with their Latin music in the clubhouse; and even—in their one good season of 1969—the Houston Astros, singing their team song, “It Makes a Fella Proud to be an Astro.” It is impossible to picture the Rangers breaking into a chorus of “It Makes a Fella Proud to be a Ranger.” Stepping on the Ranger bus, a stranger could just as easily have concluded that he was traveling with a management training class for a big oil company, on its way to look at the company refinery, as with a major league baseball team.
As we headed for the airport, I introduced myself to an innocuous-looking middle-aged fellow sitting next to me. He turned out to be Charlie Silvera, one of the Ranger coaches. I had no trouble recognizing the name. He was, after all, the enemy. If you were young and a baseball fan in the Fifties, you either liked the Yankees or you hated them; there was no neutrality. I was a passionate Yankee-hater, and Charlie Silvera was a Yankee—Yogi Berra’s backup catcher. “Ah, yes, the old Yankee catcher,” I said to the balding man who sat beside me, thinking of all those miserable seasons and how I could extract a measure of satisfaction from this man who had been my unwitting tormentor.
Silvera, meanwhile, beamed innocently, totally unaware of the black thoughts inside my head. “Oh, were you a Yankee fan?” he asked. That was my cue.
“Sure was,” I heard myself saying.
That was the old Yankees, all right—always getting the opponents to crack under pressure.
The Ranger party was booked to San Francisco on a Delta 747. Most clubs fly commercial now, although the Dodgers own a large jet and a few teams charter planes whenever they are available. According to player association rules, the entire team travels first class and if a flight doesn’t have enough first class space, the club must buy three seats for two players in the tourist section. There was ample room in first class on the 747 though, after the coaches and writers were directed upstairs to the choice seats in the observation area.
The air age has had a continuing impact on baseball and the men who play it. Air travel made expansion possible, opening up California to major league baseball. Before the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York for the West Coast in 1958, the only ball park west of the Mississippi was in Saint Louis—and even that one was within walking distance of the river. The ball clubs traveled by train, and cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh were considered part of the “western” tour. Now both leagues sprawl nationwide, and during the season a ball player will fly approximately 80,000 miles. He will consume more than 40 precooked airplane meals, plus countless peanuts and cocktails. Sometimes he will fly all night, arriving at his hotel in the middle of morning rush hour traffic; occasionally he will even fly all day. The long cross-country flights, eliminating any possibility of regular sleeping and eating, test the fine equilibrium of an athlete’s body.
Expansion has changed the schedule, too. In the traditional eight-team American League as it existed from 1901 to 1952, the league was informally divided into east (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington) and west (Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Saint Louis). The eastern teams would play each other, then they’d head west for a two- or three-week swing, playing three or four games in each city. By contrast, only one of the eleven Ranger road trips this year will take the team to four cities, five of the trips have only two stops, and the team’s first trip was a three-day jaunt from Dallas to Chicago and back again. The result is a hectic, harried jumble of packing and unpacking, long bus rides to and from airports, and lost hours of sleep.
The air age has revolutionized baseball in another, far more subtle way. When teams traveled by train, the players spent more time together. They were also able to get together in large groups, a feat which is impossible in an airplane, even a 747. Trains were conducive to group horseplay; airplanes are not, and thus have helped create the more individualistic modern ball player.
On the flight west this individualistic pattern was obvious. A few players wandered around the first class section, but most stayed in their seats for the entire three-hour trip. Several—Burroughs, infielder Leo Cardenas, outfielder Cesar Tovar, pitcher Jim Bibby, and first baseman Jim Spencer—plugged an earphone into their cassette recorders and immersed themselves in music. Outfielder Tom Grieve read a book. Dave Nelson and rookie pitcher Jim Umbarger were deeply engrossed in a book and a mimeographed newsletter, both of which turned out to be about fine wines. Nelson expressed a strong preference for Moselle wines, and the German names rolled off his tongue as if he were a second baseman for the Dusseldorf Barkatze. (Other than wine names, Nelson speaks no German, but he picked up the pronunciation from his brother, who is fluent.)
In the back of the first class section, meanwhile, shortstop Toby Harrah was having problems. A few minutes earlier I had noticed him sitting in an aisle seat, half turned toward the window, staring down at the floor with his forehead buried in his palm. His pose still hadn’t changed, so I wandered back to see what his trouble was, and why his seat-mate, pitcher Bill Hands, seemed so oblivious to Harrah’s apparent discomfort. Harrah indeed had a problem. His king side was not properly developed, his king bishop was blocked by a pawn, and Hands was mounting a serious threat on the queen side.
I had come down from the observation area prepared for anything. I would not have been fazed by the sight of a stewardess being raped in the aisle—indeed, judging by some recent baseball literature, I thought it rather likely—but chess? Several Rangers, notably Hands, Harrah, and Burroughs, are relatively serious chess players, although they have little time to study the game. Burroughs even bought a fancy oriental chess set in San Francisco during the road trip. None of the three is ready to challenge Bobby Fischer, but all are adequate, thoughtful players who plan ahead. As the days passed and after I watched them play several games of both baseball and chess, I realized that they played both games alike: Burroughs, the power hitter, is aggressive offensively in chess, too, but has a tendency to overreach. Hands, the 35-year-old pitcher, utilizes experience and cunning; he has an instinct for the right move. Harrah is a scrapper, still learning, making mistakes but coming up with big plays and big moves.
Harrah finally got his bishop into play sometime around the Grand Canyon; by the time we got to San Fran cisco he even had the upper hand in a pawn-dominated end game. But they declared the game a draw. This proved to be another characteristic of the Rangers: they don’t take their recreational games too seriously. They play to win, of course, but they don’t resent losing: style is important but results are not. No one got upset when he made a bad move in chess or got stuck with the queen of spades at hearts. I reflected on this a while, having played tournament bridge and watched grown men, high-priced lawyers, sling furniture around a room over the loss of a finesse. Perhaps the difference is that baseball players are acclimated, if not to losing, then at least to living with defeat. Even good hitters fail to hit safely seven out of ten times, and the best baseball teams are doing well to win six games out of ten. Every loss for a contending football team is a catastrophe, but baseball teams do not—and cannot—regard losing as even a minor tragedy. Oakland is an appropriate place for this stoic observation for it is the home of the World Champion A’s, and as likely a place for a visiting team to lose as any in baseball.
Oakland. Every ball player plays two games: one on the field and one in the box score. The Rangers had lost to Kansas City on the field, and that game was gone forever; but as the bus entered San Francisco and headed for the Oakland Bay Bridge, a few players were still brooding over that other game. The controversial play had come in the fourth inning. Burroughs had bounced a ground ball to the right of KC shortstop Freddie Patek. It was an easy play for the sure-handed Patek; he took two steps, fielded the ball on a big hop, and began his throwing motion. The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the infield dirt with the ball still in his hand and Burroughs was perched safely on first base. Patek’s feet had slipped out from under him. The issue: hit or error?
Mike Shropshire of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the official scorer, ruled the play an error. It never even occurred to me that the play could have been anything else. It was not a difficult chance for Patek; if he’d made the play properly Burroughs was a dead man. But the call enraged the Rangers. They had complained about it in the dugout, so much so that Martin had actually accused Shropshire during the flight of losing the game for the team. “You put a burr in our guys’ ass,” he complained. Shropshire answered in kind. I hadn’t heard the exchange, as I was kibitzing the chess game at the time, but all the Rangers knew about it and now a number of them were standing in the aisle of the bus berating Shropshire.
“At every other park in the league, the scorers always give the home team the benefit of the doubt,” someone was saying. “Only our writers are different.” I had this vision of eleven similar arguments going on around the league, with every other team making the same allegation.
The players’ case went like this: Patek had no chance to make the play cleanly. He didn’t mishandle the ball; therefore, he didn’t commit an error. What happened to Patek was certainly no worse than an outfielder misjudging a pop fly and letting it drop—and that is indisputably a hit. Shropshire gave the obvious answer: Patek had fielded the ball cleanly, had plenty of time, and didn’t get anybody out. How the hell can that be a hit?
Listening to the argument, it became obvious that ball players and sportswriters see two different games. The players know how hard their game really is and are convinced that sportswriters don’t share their understanding. They argue that the official scorer should watch a game from the field level so that he can see the same game the players do. Baseball is an intensely geometric game, with its long foul lines, 360 feet around the bases (one foot for each degree of a circle), and its constant application of the familiar principle that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. But in the press box a writer sees the game in only two dimensions; in the dugout, a player has the added dimension of height. The difference in perspectives is the difference between plane and solid geometry. Listening to the players and Shropshire bicker back and forth, I mentally resolved to watch the Oakland series from dugout-level seats.
It was the right decision, but the wrong stadium. The Oakland Coliseum is not a typical American League park. It is one of those modern monstrosities called a multipurpose stadium, a giant concrete bowl designed for both football and baseball. The National League has a number of multipurpose stadiums, notable among them the new ball parks in Saint Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, but Oakland is the only one in the American League. The place is cold and forbidding, made colder still by a chill wind blowing off the bay. The temperature the first night was in the low fifties, and ten degrees lower the next night.
The first game was a disaster for the Rangers. They had a brief lead in the fourth inning, but Oakland quickly struck for five runs. The final score was 11-6, and my scorecard showed that the Rangers had committed four errors and had made other ghastly mistakes, including two wild pitches that let in a pair of Oakland runs. Much is made of the importance of pitching in baseball, but if pitching is baseball’s basic monetary unit, then defense is the bullion that backs the currency. A team might get by with skimpy pitching but no one ever wins a championship without a good defense. All of those Cleveland teams of the early Fifties couldn’t win with pitchers like Feller, Lemon, Wynn, and Garcia until George Strickland replaced sieve-like Ray Boone at shortstop. The Red Sox came within one game of the World Series championship in 1967 with Jim Lonborg as the only pitcher you’d want to entrust with a baseball, mainly because Mike Andrews at second base and Reggie Smith in center field were two rookies who could save a lot of runs. There are countless other examples of the importance of defense buried in baseball history. The Rangers are the counter-example. They can hit and they have the pitching, but last year the Rangers were twelfth in fielding in a twelve-team league. The first Oakland game showed why.
Jim Bibby wild-pitched in a run in the second inning. After the Rangers had gone ahead 3-1, Spencer at first base threw wildly to the plate with runners on second and third and one out. The mistake was all Oakland needed: two extra-base hits put the A’s ahead 5-3. Now came another wild pitch: 6-3. It was 6-4 with two out and two on for Oakland in the sixth when Joe Rudi hit a line drive to left field. Tovar ran hard, got to the ball, should have had it, but dropped it. The official scorer called it a double (Shropshire winced at the call in the press box), but it was two more gift runs. Still, the Rangers weren’t through. They closed to 8-6 on a Harrah home run, but with two out for Oakland in the eighth and no one on base, Jeff Burroughs dropped a fly ball in right field. This one was unmistakably an error. Then Harrah muffed a ground ball at short, an error I could see coming from the field level seats, for the ball began taking wicked, uneven hops as it closed in on Toby. Three runs later the game was out of reach and Texas had lost its fourth straight.
It was an awful game, an embarrassing loss. When it was over Texas had committed four errors and had come close to half a dozen more with sloppy play. Oakland had cashed every mistake and looked awesome. Viewed from behind the dugout, Reggie Jackson looked so menacing and dangerous at the plate that I wished I had a copy of the California penal code to see whether he could be prohibited by law. I couldn’t imagine why anyone could have thought Texas could play on the same field with Oakland, much less beat them for the pennant.
And I wondered: don’t the Rangers themselves know that Oakland is a better team? Can they really doubt the superior talent of this marvelous ball club that has won three straight World Championships: Bando, the best third baseman in the league; Campaneris, the all-star shortstop; Rudi, maybe the best all-around player in baseball; Tenace, the World Series hero; Big Bad Reggie, Vida Blue, Billy Williams?
I asked the question of Toby Harrah, without expecting much more than an inconclusive reply, but his answer was deeply revealing of how baseball players think. Yes, Toby admitted, Oakland is a great team; and no, the Rangers are not, though they are a good one. But to Harrah that means nothing; it says nothing about who is going to win the pennant. What Oakland really has going for it, he says, is not a collection of superstars, but the knowledge and the confidence that it can win. Harrah was saying that Oakland is winning not because it has superstars; rather, those players are superstars because Oakland is winning.
Harrah’s attitude expressed the almost mystical respect ball players have for their game. It is so difficult, so demanding, so impossible to master, that they regard winning as much a function of destiny as of skill. Theirs is a very deterministic philosophy; in the final analysis, they believe, a ball player really has very little control over his performance. The batter-pitcher confrontation in baseball involves inserting a narrow piece of wood into the path of a sphere traveling at great speeds and doing some strange things along the way. Who wins this classic battle is resolved by a matter of inches, sometimes fractions of inches, on the circumference of the baseball bat. A player just swings and hopes for the best. To be sure, he can improve with practice and experience, but his basic skills—the hand-eye coordination of a hitter, the ability to throw hard of a pitcher—are God-given instincts beyond the conscious control of an athlete. In no other team sport is excellence so far removed from the will of an individual player. In baseball, Harrah was saying, ability alone does not decide who wins; the hardest part of winning is knowing how to win. The Rangers respect Oakland not only for its ability, but also because their rival has grasped the elusive secret. And this is the Rangers’ hope: that as the long season heads toward September, the magic will settle on them—and that they will be worthy of it.
But this was April, and the way things were going, it was beginning to look like the pennant race might be over for the Rangers by May. The season was only two weeks old and the team was already five-and-a-half games behind Oakland; it had lost four straight and in the next three days would face three of the best pitchers in baseball: Ken Holtzman of Oakland and Bill Singer and Nolan Ryan of California. A seven-game losing streak was far from inconceivable.
The only bright spot was that the Rangers’ best pitcher, Ferguson Jenkins, would be pitching against Oakland, but even that was a mixed blessing. Jenkins was winless in his first two starts and had pitched poorly; another bad outing would be a severe blow to his—and the team’s—confidence. By every standard, therefore, the second game against Oakland was a Big Game, as sportswriters like to say. I thought that after the Rangers’ shoddy performance on Monday, Martin would live up to his tough reputation by holding a clubhouse meeting to call the team to task and point out the importance of the Tuesday game. The writers were tense, but Martin appeared to be wholly relaxed (he is toughest, the players say, when the team is winning) and the team seemed unconcerned. Ball players do not think about Big Games in April.
Jenkins was, well, beautiful. It was art. The superstars of Monday night were helpless on Tuesday, all except Billy Williams, who took Jenkins downtown in the second inning for Oakland’s only run and got a harmless single in the seventh. Those were Oakland’s only hits, but just saying Jenkins pitched a two-hitter doesn’t come close to describing his mastery that night. Williams’ hits were the only balls Oakland hit solidly. I don’t think Jenkins ever threw the same pitch twice: he mixed speeds, spots, and types of pitches like he was giving a demonstration at a pitching clinic. With only a 2-l lead in the ninth, he had to face Bando-Jackson-Rudi, but even this terrible threesome never had a chance. Bando was the toughest, fouling off several breaking balls with two strikes before Jenkins unleashed his hardest fastball of the game for the strikeout. Jackson fouled out weakly to third and exchanged bitter words with someone in the Ranger dugout while the ball was still in the air. Then Rudi grounded out to third and the losing streak was over. The Rangers took their win in stride, just as they would have taken a loss, but if they go on to win the pennant, I’ll always believe that it could not have happened had the result been different that cold night in Oakland.
We were spared the misery of an hour-long bus ride to the San Francisco airport since the club had arranged for a charter flight from the nearby Oakland terminal. Nevertheless, it was after midnight before we left the Bay Area to head south above the Pacific shoreline for Los Angeles. It was a foggy night, and I was not looking forward to arriving at the notoriously hazardous LA airport. Behind me Tom Grieve and Jim Spencer were having a conversation about an unusual subject for the Rangers—baseball. They were trying to re member who the Angels had in the bull pen, when Grieve told Spencer the Rangers would be facing Singer and Ryan. “Don’t tell me that,” Spencer said. “I’m hitting .180 and I thought I was due for some hits. Now you’re telling me I’m about to go into a slump.” He was right. He didn’t get a hit during the entire road trip.
It was the first time I had heard baseball discussed since I had joined the team. The modem ball player is not a one-dimensional man, and there are those in the game who think less of him for it. One is Jim Fregosi of the Rangers, a 33-year-old veteran in his fifteenth major league season. Fregosi is past his prime but still a tough out, one of a handful of players Martin keeps around to balance out the extreme youth of the team. Later in the week Fregosi talked at length with rookie third baseman Roy Howell about the old days in baseball (if the early Sixties can be considered “old”), when players had what Fregosi calls “situation baseball” drilled into them in the minor leagues. “Now they just give you a bat and a glove and tell you to go out there and play,” Fregosi complained, while Howell sat spread-legged on a bench, hands on knees, elbows out, hanging on every word. “If you strike out with the bases loaded, you can’t stand out there in the field thinking about it for the next two innings,” Fregosi warned the rookie. “You have to keep your head in the game, remember who’s on base and how fast he is, who’s up and what pitch he likes to hit.” Fregosi turned to Willie Davis, standing nearby, and said, “You know what it was like, you were a Dodger, they taught you how to play this game.” Davis was with Los Angeles for fourteen years, a solid, championship-caliber performer in the best organization in baseball, and he had a faraway look in his eyes as he said, “Yeah man, that’s how it was.” At 35, Davis wears a Ranger uniform but inside he is a Dodger still.
Anaheim. Someone once described Los Angeles as seven suburbs in search of a city. Anaheim is one of the largest—an amorphous sprawl of recently developed and about-to-be-developed land crisscrossed by freeways. It is the heart of Orange County, the home of Disneyland, and the conservative bastion of California politics. But most of all, Anaheim is a long, long bus ride from Los Angeles International Airport—33 miles, to be exact. By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was 2 a.m. Our luggage wouldn’t arrive for another hour, but no one showed any interest in waiting up for the truck; the hotel could store the bags until morning.
Anaheim is a popular stop on the American League circuit. A number of the Ranger players live or have family in the Los Angeles area and don’t even stay in the hotel with the rest of the team. For those in the hotel, Disneyland is only one block away. Just outside the front door is a miniature golf course, where Harrah and Spencer challenged Grieve and pitcher Jackie Brown to a match. (Everybody wants to challenge Grieve; he is, by his own admission, a turkey.) But this was Grieve’s day he held his losses to $2.
The first game of the series began auspiciously, as Ranger first baseman Mike Hargrove homered off Singer in the first inning. Clyde Wright was pitching well, but lost the lead on an error in the fifth inning. Another error and a botched double play made it 3-1 California in the sixth and the game was slowly slipping away. It ended 4-1, as the Rangers never even threatened Singer again.
In the clubhouse after the game, Wright was the first Ranger I saw show any emotion over a loss. He has been a twenty-game winner in the American League (for California in 1970), but last year he lost twenty (for Milwaukee), and twenty-game losers aren’t in great demand. Martin began the year with six starting pitchers and one was certain to end up in the bull pen. Wright must have been thinking about all of this as he sat half-dressed on a stool in front of his locker long after most of the other players had already showered and dressed. What hurt most was that he’d pitched well and had only a loss to show for it. “One of these days I’m going to go out there and not give up any hits at all,” he said to no one in particular. I think he meant that he was pitching so well, something good ought to start happening to him, but he may have been lamenting his luck, saying a no-hitter was the only way he would win a game. It was an awkward moment, an unwanted glimpse of a man in pain.
The only good thing that happened to the Rangers all night was a clubhouse visit by former teammate Duke Sims, a reserve catcher for the team last year. Sims is out of baseball now, and his main distinction with the Rangers was his role as the club’s leading flake—an affectionate baseball term applied to an unconventional person. The Rangers have had their share of flakes in the past, most notable among them Alex Johnson, a talented but controversial outfielder now with the Yankees. In shaping the team, Martin has released or traded players so that the Rangers are now a team without a flake. The only player even close to that description would be Willie Davis, who is deep into Eastern philosophy and religion. Davis has an odd egalitarian theory about baseball: he dismisses physical ability as a factor in determining a winning baseball team. “All teams are the same,” he told me. “They’re all good enough to win. Baseball is a war, man, a war between you and yourself. Whether you win or lose is decided by what goes on inside of you.”
Willie Davis is a strange man, but he is no flake. His philosophy of baseball is shaped as much by his years with the Dodgers, who won pennants with teams of marginal ability, as by his much publicized philosophical beliefs. Davis was once touted as a future superstar; he never quite made it, but he is still one of the few players in baseball who is a force by his mere presence. Not many players are capable of playing electrifying baseball, but Davis is one. Perhaps he is too good to be a flake, too much of a threat even when he is going badly, as he was early in the season. Davis is a loner, a man who prefers to sit by himself on the bus or in a hotel coffee shop; on the field he remains a man apart—a quality ball player, polished in his skills, an expert at his trade.
Thursday was another travel day. Our suitcases had not been in our rooms much more than 24 hours before we were packing them again. The luggage had to be in the lobby by 5:10 p.m., five minutes before the bus would take the team to the ball park, and two hours and fifty minutes before game time. It was not a game the Rangers were looking forward to playing; no one in his right mind wants to face Nolan Ryan, who is said to throw the swiftest fast ball ever—it has been clocked at 100.8 miles per hour. The problem is that he doesn’t quite know where it’s going.
“What makes baseball the hardest sport,” Harrah said after the game, “is the element of fear. You go in against Ryan knowing that sooner or later a pitch is going to come at your head. You know it could kill you, but you just gotta keep choking that fear down and stay in there.”
The Rangers were pitching Jackie Brown, who is about as different from Ryan as a pitcher can get. He throws mostly breaking balls and off-speed pitches, making the game a study in contrasting styles. Ryan, however, was undefeated, the winningest pitcher in baseball, while Brown was off to a mediocre start. Ryan was indeed superb through the first five innings, striking out seven Rangers. Somehow, though, Texas had squeaked out a run on a couple of cheap hits, and Brown was making it stand up. In the sixth Howell came up with the bases loaded and two outs, causing Dallas Morning News sportswriter Randy Galloway to reach for his wallet in the press box. Howell had struck out in the third, and when he batted again in the fourth Burt Hawkins, the Rangers’ publicist and traveling secretary, announced that Howell was about to hit a home run. Times-Herald sportswriter James Walker put a fifty dollar bill on the table and said, “Fifty to one, Hawk.” Howell popped to third and Hawkins paid a dollar. Now Galloway wanted some more easy money. “Same bet, Hawk?” he asked, but before he could complete the question the ball was flying on a smooth, white arc for the far reaches of the park. It was the first time I had ever heard someone literally swallow his words. The ball hit the top of the wall and fell back in for a three-run double.
“Hell,” said Howell after the game, “if I’d only known, I’d have waited a pitch and hit it out for sure.”
That was the game, though the Rangers added another run in the eighth to win 5-0. The Rangers started calling Brown “Ace,” and promised him the privilege of pitching against all the top pitchers in the league. (The joke and the nickname turned out to be shortlived. It was Brown, not Wright, who wound up in the bull pen when Martin cut back to five starters in May.)
The long trip to LA International began inauspiciously when the bus driver (all bus drivers are called “Bussie” by ball players) didn’t have any idea how to get to the airport. We wandered around Orange County for fifteen minutes before choosing a freeway. The absurdity of our bus driver not knowing where she was going, plus the exhilaration of an unexpected win, created a rather raucous atmosphere for the first and only time of the trip. Jim Bibby, a giant, talented, but erratic pitcher seated across the aisle from me, wanted to know why the Rangers were taking along another horseshit sportswriter; weren’t three horseshit sportswriters enough for any team? I wanted to know why he was pitching so badly, but kept it to myself and instead tried to explain that I wasn’t I horseshit sportswriter, mainly because I wasn’t a sportswriter. Bibby announced that he probably ought to whip up on me anyway. I looked at his hand as he made a threatening fist. It was immense—as big, I thought, as an actual-size picture of boxer George Foreman’s fist I had seen in Esquire. I held my hand up next to his. “Don’t you know all honkies have small hands?” Bibby said. It was the beginning of a discussion about race that lasted all the way to the airport.
Baseball, Bibby said, is a white man’s game—not on the playing field, but in the stands. Black people don’t come to the ball park any more, and it bothers him. Basketball and boxing are the sports black people care about; baseball and hockey are played before white audiences. Bibby’s brother Henry played, basketball at UCLA and now performs for the New York Knicks before racially mixed audiences, and Jim envies his brother’s position. We talked at length about why blacks shun baseball, and came up with a number of theories: the aggressive policy of segregation that preceded Jackie Robinson; the hostility Robinson received when he broke the color line; the subtle barrier baseball maintained against blacks in the Fifties (like unwritten quotas for the number of blacks on a team and in the starting lineup); the new trend toward suburban ball parks far from the central city where most blacks live; and the revival of interest in baseball as part of a nostalgia craze in which blacks—not being terribly fond of the past—do not share.
The Rangers themselves appear totally without a sign of racial tension. It is difficult to support such an assertion with facts or anecdotes; harmony on a ball club is something that is sensed rather than observed. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Rangers have it. Nelson is the team’s player representative, its bargaining agent with management; and Jenkins, of course, is the bellwether, the acknowledged superstar. And Bibby is the Rangers’ resident Good Old Boy; a rhythmic pronunciation of his name, almost a corruption of “baby” but lingering a little on the double-B, is all that’s needed to provoke laughter on the bus or in the clubhouse.
It was 1 a.m. before we were airborne out of Los Angeles. The traveling party consisted of 40 people in the first class section of the DC-10, leaving two seats for a mother and her teenage daughter who had unsuspectingly bought first class tickets. No one slept all night. Two hearts games occupied a third of the team, while the rest of the players listened to music, kibitzed, or helped Bibby perform street theater for the two women. The banter never stopped, and somehow the tense atmosphere that had surrounded the team for the first few days of the trip was dissipated. “You watch,” pitcher Steve Hargan told me. “This team is getting ready to kick some ass.”
Minneapolis. Friday fortunately was an off-day. It would make more sense to have spent the night in Anaheim and taken a day flight, but Hawkins assured me the players don’t like to spend their off-day flying. So instead we spent it sleeping. It was after 7 a.m. by the time we arrived at our downtown hotel.
The first thing Billy Martin did when he arrived in Minnesota was check the weather. Martin managed the Twins for two years and knows all too well how bad April weather can be in Minneapolis. The news he got wasn’t encouraging: rain was expected through the weekend. On the bus in from the airport, Martin talked about how badly he wanted to play these games. Minnesota’s ace pitcher Bert Blyleven had pitched Thursday and would not be ready for the Rangers. The Twins’ second best pitcher was on the injured list. That left two turkeys and a rookie to go against Bill Hands, Jenkins, and Bibby. The Rangers had a great opportunity to win three straight (there was a doubleheader Sunday)—if they could get all the games in.
The afternoon game Saturday meant that players had to get up early in order to eat breakfast and leave for the park by 11:00. Harrah complained that his system still hadn’t adjusted and Hands, who was scheduled to pitch that afternoon, said he “didn’t sleep worth a damn all night.” I wondered if the Rangers had maintained the feeling of a team about to break loose and start winning, so I asked Toby if the club had a good chance to win three straight. “Oh, do we play three games here?” he answered.
The Rangers were dismayed when they arrived at the stadium. Playing conditions were horrible: the field, where the football Vikings also play, had been resodded as soon as weather permitted. In Minnesota, that means early April. The grass still hadn’t completely grown together and the outfield footing was treacherous. To make matters worse, a strong wind whipped in from center field, making the chill factor near freezing. Hands stood in front of his locker smoking a cigarette, making it perfectly clear that he’d like to be someplace else.
The game was scoreless through three innings, before Burroughs hit what should have been a double to left field. But Minnesota had moved its outfield fences closer during the winter, and the shortened distance converted it into a home run. Later in the inning catcher Jim Sundberg hit what a year ago would have been a harmless fly to the same spot. This time it was a three-run homer, and the Rangers had a comfortable lead. The rain hit in the sixth inning with Minnesota batting, holding up the game for an hour and nine minutes. In the clubhouse, Randy Galloway asked Hands whether he wanted to finish the game, or would he be satisfied to quit now and take the win. Hands looked at Galloway as if he had to be crazy.
Martin, who only a day earlier had been desperate to play, now wandered around the clubhouse cursing the umpires for not calling off the game. (After five innings, a baseball game becomes official and a rain-out is treated as a complete game.) The rainy interlude offered a rare glimpse at the real Billy Martin, who up to this point in the trip had not lived up to his volatile reputation. In the clubhouse Martin was an animated figure, holding a meeting with Sundberg and Hands to discuss signs, and walking from one cluster of players to another. One of the coaches came back from the field to report to Martin on the status of the game. “What they waitin’ on?” Martin asked. “They say they’re gonna play, Billy,” came the bad news. “You’re shittin’ me,” Martin said bitterly. The next day the outfield would become Minnesota’s 10,001st lake, but Martin would be just as unhappy because the games were postponed.
A baseball clubhouse is not likely to win an award for aesthetics. The visiting dressing room at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium is decorated with baseball pennants lining the walls and very little else. It comes equipped with a four years’ supply of old Sports Illustrated magazines, playing cards, candy, and—after a game—cold cuts and deviled eggs. During the unscheduled intermission, the Rangers followed their usual habit of talking about everything except baseball. Burroughs, waving a baseball bat, talked about stereo equipment and income tax write-offs. A group of pitchers played hearts, and a number of players stood around a TV set watching George Foreman demolish five successive nobodies in a boxing exhibition. Tom Grieve, thumbing through the old magazines, came across some artistic basketball photographs of Julius Erving with his arm deliberately distorted by the camera, and made a tour of the clubhouse showing off his discovery.
Like Grieve, most of the Rangers are basketball fans. Although the action in basketball is frenetic compared to the almost languid pace of baseball, the sports have some significant similarities. Despite the necessary function of teams, both basketball and baseball are primarily individual sports, where the ultimate pressure is on one man. The players have unique and recognizable on-the-field personalities: a baseball player has his favorite pitch and a basketball player his favorite shot. A performer in both sports has to be able to master offense and defense. Finally, both sports have an element of grace in them; the players consider themselves artists rather than jocks. On the other hand, I never heard any Ranger say a single good word about professional football: it is too brutal, too dehumanizing, too dull, predictable, and specialized; in a word, too ugly.
Eventually the rain stopped and the game ran to its cold and windy conclusion with the Rangers winning easily, 7-2. There were still two games left on the road trip, but nobody really thought the doubleheader would be played on Sunday. The forecast was for more rain, and it was accurate: the precipitation started around 3 a.m. and lasted all through the night and morning. By midmorning even Martin had accepted the inevitable, and at 10:30 the Twins called the games off. Traveling secretary Hawkins spent the morning on the telephone, trying to find a way to move 40 people across the country in first class seats before 7:30 p.m., which is when the post-game flight was scheduled to leave. He finally succeeded in getting an afternoon flight to Chicago with a connection (if a walk from one end of the immense airport to the other can properly be called a connection) to Dallas-Fort Worth, and all that was left of the road trip was breakfast in the coffee shop and the journey home.
The coffee shop was filled with ball players reading the sports page, for Sunday is the day that newspapers carry the batting and pitching averages of everyone in the league. One of the most avid readers was Ferguson Jenkins, who sounds like a college professor when he talks about pitching. Jenkins has his trade down to a science; not only is he blessed with great natural skills, but he knows how to pitch. “The essence of pitching is the art of changing speeds,” he said that morning. He studied the box scores from the night before and all the batting averages, and you could just see the filing system in his mind putting all the information into its proper place. What is Player X hitting? Who has he been batting against? What were they throwing him? That morning Jenkins talked about the Dodgers and the Reds, whom he once faced in the National League, and why they weren’t as overwhelming as their reputation suggests. As he talked, you just knew that somewhere in Ferguson Jenkins’ mind is a record of every pitch he has ever thrown, and even though some of them may be in the dormant file, God help Johnny Bench if the Rangers and Reds wind up in the World Series. And that’s why Ferguson Jenkins is a great pitcher—or, as ball players say, he is a pitcher, not just a thrower.
There was one stop left, one last visit to the ball park so that the players could tip the clubhouse boy and pick up any belongings they had left behind. Martin was still shaking his head, wishing the Rangers could have played, but the ball players had no regrets about not winning two games that day. If they have to face Blyleven in July and they lose, it could cost the Rangers the pennant and, consequently, thousands of dollars, but there wasn’t a single ball player who was thinking about such things in the 50-degree weather.
After an hour at the clubhouse, the Rangers climbed on the bus one last time. The road trip had been a success; the Rangers had won three and lost two, bettering a traditional baseball rule of thumb which holds that even a championship team need only break even on the road. Moreover, the Rangers were coming home to play the weakest team in their division, the Chicago White Sox, and prospects for a winning streak were good. In fact the team went on to win seven straight, followed shortly by another string of four in a row, and for a brief moment in mid-May they were alone in first place.
In one week we had flown almost 5000 miles and spent twenty hours traveling to, from, and between airports. You might think that the pace of the road would turn the trip into a blur, making one city indistinguishable from another, but surprisingly, that is not the case. Boston is the most popular stop in the league; it is a good baseball town with rabid, knowledgeable fans and unique, tradition-rich Fenway Park. It also has a reputation for being the best groupie town. New York is still a favorite, and Chicago also gets high marks. The worst cities are Baltimore and Cleveland, where downtown is dead at night (and, some would say, in the daytime). In Cleveland the players even have to walk to the ball park, since their hotel is only a short distance from the stadium. After a night game the return trip is so dangerous that players taking late showers have been known to call a cab.
The flight home was uneventful. Most of the players were scattered through the tourist cabin—the first sign that our group that had lived together for a week was beginning to dissolve. At DFW, the arrival area was filled with young women in slacks, holding their babies. Once off the airplane, the Rangers had little to say to each other. They waited for their luggage and left separately with their families, like all the other businessmen in the airport who had come home from a long trip on the road.