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In nearly every particular it had been a typical week for that most contentious of baseball families, the Oakland A's. Gene Tenace groused that the team's quirky management had violated a solemn vow never to play him at catcher, barring dire emergency. Tenace insisted that his hitting suffers when he is forced to move from first base to behind the plate. That night Tenace had been ordered by Manager Alvin Dark—or, quite possibly, by Owner Charles O. Finley—to catch. He did, and hit a grand-slam home run in the A's 7-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Did that feat assuage his sense of outrage or jar his conviction that as a catcher he is a poor hitter? Not if his torrent of profanity is evidence.
Tenace was a first baseman the following evening as Larry Haney caught Blue Moon Odom, who, despite a 1-3 pitching record, was tossing live fastballs at the Brewers until his unexpected departure at Dark's behest in the seventh inning with two men on base and two out. Odom stomped off the mound and was smoldering in the clubhouse by the time the A's had succumbed 5-3.
"If I never pitch another game," he observed acidly, "I'll still say I don't think I should have been taken out of this one."
This sort of acerbic chatter is heard as often among the A's as it is in the Bunker m�nage. It is as characteristic as a Joe Rudi line drive. What was missing in this otherwise vintage A's series was, in fact, a Rudi line drive. The poor man was in what for him was an abysmal slump: he had gone three games without a hit and his average had dipped to .292. It was only the fourth time this season that Rudi had suffered through more than two games without even a single. Normally, he hits in better than 70% of his games, and the Brewer drought was mystifying to teammates grown accustomed to "Joe's two hits." Rudi's own reaction to this lapse was typically detached.
"A slump," he said, speaking softly amid clubhouse roistering, "is just one of those things. I haven't seen too many guys who haven't had them."
And then he strolled off to the showers, seemingly unconcerned, a tall, good-looking, well-set-up, anomalously placid man on a team noted as much for rancor as ability.
Not that anyone much notices when Rudi is in a slump or even when, as is more often the case, he is on a hitting tear. He does his job so unobtrusively and in such a workmanlike manner as to be virtually unobserved. And yet his manager—and most, if not all, managers in the American League—consider him to be the finest leftfielder in baseball. Rudi has already hit over .300 in two of his four full major league seasons and he has been a star in the A's consecutive World Series triumphs. He made only two errors last year, which is exactly one more than he made in 1972. Slump or no, he could hit .300 again this season, drive in 100 runs and hit about 20 home runs and 40 doubles. Says the A's captain, Third Baseman Sal Bando, "His value to this team is no more and no less than Reggie Jackson's. I think of them as equals."
And yet everybody knows Reggie Jackson. His face and muscular body adorn the covers of prestigious national publications. The very mention of his name will elicit choruses of cheers or catcalls in stadiums across the country. Rudi, meanwhile, must content himself with the distinction of being, as Jackson has jested, "the most overrated underrated player in baseball." " Joe Rudi," says Bay Area Writer Herb Michelson, "is the Arnold Tucker of baseball"—an allusion to the talented Army quarterback of the 1940s who had the bad luck to play in the same backfield with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard.
Rudi's misfortune—although he scarcely considers it one—is to play on the same team with such publicity grabbers as Jackson, Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Bill North and Bando. Not to mention the Bible-thumping Dark and, inevitably, Charlie O. himself.
Rudi, the quiet man in a noisy place, is merely the prototypical unsung hero; he is not the only one. The Cincinnati Reds have three outstanding players whose praises are sung ever so softly—Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo—when compared with the choruses raised on behalf of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. Of the slugging Pittsburgh Pirates, hardly anyone seems to notice that Al Oliver has hit .312 and .292 the past two seasons and has driven in 89 and 99 runs, respectively. Oliver, in the event you missed him, is also among the league's top 10 hitters again this year.