In the visiting manager's office at Fenway Park early last Saturday evening, Frank Lucchesi of the Rangers gently pushed aside a paper plate containing the oddments of a fried chicken dinner and, nodding conspiratorially at those privy to the magnitude of his gesture, lit a cigar. To the uninformed this may have seemed the act of a man who wished to relax with a smoke after a ball game. But that is to underestimate the Rangers' manager, whose every little movement has a meaning all its own. Lucchesi was not lighting up to relax; he was lighting up to show that he was relaxed, a significant difference. With a stogie protruding from his Mediterranean countenance, he was communicating that, for the moment at least, he had it made.
On this day, he did indeed have it made. His team had just swept a double-header from the Red Sox, 6-5 and 12-4, for its fifth and sixth wins without a loss this season to the American League champions. The victories were the Rangers' sixth and seventh in succession, another team record. By scoring 18 runs and getting 27 hits in the two games, Texas had tied team records for most runs and hits in a doubleheader, and by rushing across nine runs in the second inning of the second game, it had tied a club record for most runs scored in an inning. Juan Beniquez, the centerfielder Lucchesi had obtained this winter in a controversial trade with the Red Sox for the popular pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, had embarrassed his old teammates and encouraged his new ones by hitting safely five times in nine at bats and by making a dazzling, game-saving catch. Toby Harrah, the shortstop other Ranger managers had threatened to move to less demanding positions, had made spectacular stops and throws all afternoon and had hit a two-run homer. Bill Singer, the supposedly sore-armed pitcher who started the opener of the doubleheader, had thrown hard, if without luck. And Texas relievers, considered old and shopworn, had been vibrantly effective. Vindicated and triumphant, Lucchesi lit up his cigar as if he were Churchill on V-E day.
The Rangers' performance on Saturday and throughout this young season—they led the American League West by three games at week's end—demonstrated one of Lucchesi's pet theories, the so-called Pitchfork Principle. "You cannot serve water with a pitchfork," he insists. Translated into conventional sports lingo, that means, "You cannot win without the horses." It is Lucchesi's contention that the Rangers, whose roster had been regarded as less than intimidating by preseason forecasters, are not quenching their thirst with hayloft implements. Texas, he claims, has the thoroughbreds to ensure that its recent surge will not turn out to be merely an early-season fluke.
Indeed, the Rangers have a lineup of proved young batters, including 25-year-old rightfielder and former MVP Jeff Burroughs, First Baseman Mike Hargrove, 26, the 27-year-old Harrah and Designated Hitter Tom Grieve, who is 28. They have a pitching staff of seasoned—some would say overseasoned—veterans: starters Gaylord Perry, 37, and Nelson Briles and Singer, both 32, and relievers Joe Hoerner, 39, and Steve Hargan, 33. All of them have contributed significantly to putting Texas on top in the American League's team pitching statistics with a 2.75 earned run average.
Perry is probably too mean to grow old, or as Lucchesi would have it, "He is getting better, like fine wine." Whichever, he has won three of his five decisions this season. Advancing years have not so much bothered Singer and Briles as poor health. Singer has been afflicted with so many illnesses and injuries that even so celebrated a valetudinarian as Elizabeth Taylor seems robust in comparison. During the past 10 years he has had hepatitis, a severely pulled groin muscle, a sore shoulder, a broken knuckle, a fractured finger and a ruptured lumbar disc. He had a rib removed to correct a circulation problem, a joint extracted to repair a broken finger and, just last year, bone chips and cartilage taken out of the elbow of his pitching arm. Singer was 7-15 for California in 1975 with a 4.98 ERA. Traded last December to the Rangers for infielder Jim Spencer, he reported to spring training with a surgically repaired arm and pronounced himself ready to assume a place in the rotation. After five starts this year, he has a complete game and a 2-0 record. "My arm is getting stronger each time out," he says confidently.
He did not survive the fourth inning of the first game Saturday, but it was not so much bad pitching as bad fortune that undid him. The Rangers were leading 4-0 with one out in the fourth when Boston's Denny Doyle walked and Fred Lynn hit a weak bouncer through the infield for the first hit off Singer. Third Baseman Roy Howell then erred on Carlton Fisk's grounder, and Doyle scored. Jim Rice and Dwight Evans walked, and when Steve Dillard's pop-up to right fell untouched for a freak double, Lucchesi came out to yank his starter.
Briles has not been any healthier than Singer the past two seasons. Shortly before the start of spring training in 1974, he slipped during a workout in a gymnasium and tore cartilage in his knee. Surgery eventually was required, and he missed much of that season. He was coming back strong last year—he had won four of his first five decisions for Kansas City—when one day in Boston he was struck on the pitching elbow by a ball hit in batting practice by Lynn. The arm hemorrhaged and, in Briles' chilling description, "seemed to wither." He pitched very little during the remainder of the season.
He reported to the Rangers in fine shape this spring after being traded by the Royals for infielder Dave Nelson. Lucchesi immediately advised him that he would be inserted in the starting rotation. "A show of confidence up front, that was what I needed," Briles says.
Like Singer, who has had a 20-win season in each league, Briles is not a stranger to success. He won 19 games for the Cardinals in 1968 and was a World Series hero for the Pirates in 1971, shutting out the Orioles on two hits in the pivotal fifth game. Briles is also an aspiring entertainer, whose show-business career seems to rise and fall in direct proportion to his success in baseball. He got his start at the Holiday House outside Pittsburgh after the '71 Series, and took his act—some songs, a few impersonations, a little baseball patter—to Mister Kelly's, then a big-league club in Chicago. But his baseball injuries slowed him down on the stage. "I had to concentrate in the off-season on getting back in shape," he says. "I no longer had the time to put together an act." Now that he has begun this season with a 3-1 record and a 2.59 ERA, lowest among the team's starters, Briles is thinking about giving show business another try, possibly in Hollywood. "We're working on some screenplays," he says, employing the theatrical "we."
Shortstop Harrah is a mere fledgling compared with his team's wise old pitchers, but he may be the top sage on a club with a long philosophical bench. "Ballplayers are like overgrown kids," he says, pointing up the value of Lucchesi's stroking techniques. "We've played games all of our lives. We've been put above ordinary people by the fans. People write about us and give us things. It's easy to lose your perspective in this sort of life. But it's such a short part of our lives that we must try to enjoy it while we have it. That's what I'm determined to do—get the most out of it."