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.