Funny people, from Pagliaccio to Richard Pryor, have always had trouble getting serious people to take them seriously. This also has been the melancholy plight of Doug Rader, the manager of the Texas Rangers, an intelligent, sensitive, essentially serious man who is, nevertheless, hopelessly afflicted with the gift of laughter. It is Rader's additional fate to be part of a sport steeped deeper in legend and apocrypha than is Greek mythology, so that no matter how hard he tries—and he tries mightily—to downplay his reputation from his playing days as a prankster, he is reminded constantly in print and by word of mouth of his celebrated japes.
Rader will affect his soberest mien and expound with eloquent solemnity on why he had his leftfielder stealing second with no outs in the 11th inning of a tense game against Milwaukee when, sure as shooting, someone will ask him about the time, years ago, he fed baseballs into the dugout gas heater at Jarry Park in Montreal. Or he will be in earnest debate over the number of pitches a veteran lefthander on his staff should be permitted to throw, and some neo-mythologist will remind him of the time he advised Little Leaguers to eat their bubble-gum cards so they might better digest the information contained on them. When such reminders of his rambunctious past present themselves, Rader's brown eyes will roll back in his freckled face, and he will smite his forehead and groan pitiably. "I just can't imagine," he will say, "that people still want to hear about things that happened 10, 15 years ago. I know I'll never shake my reputation, but I'd be very happy if it just vanished."
It won't, of course. Rader, who turned 39 on July 30, has retained so much of his youthful exuberance that the unobservant will quite naturally have difficulty distinguishing the robust past from the more contemplative present. When Rader recently rejected a cup of coffee with the comment, "I don't take anything to alter the physiological condition of my body—it's running too perfectly on 82 percent body fat," listeners were reminded of baseball's mad bomber of old, who dropped water balloons on unsuspecting teammates from hotel windows. But after the job Rader has done so far this season with the once-woeful Rangers, it may well be time for even the most skeptical among us to take this man seriously. The Rangers lost 98 games in 1982 under two managers—Don Zimmer, fired in July, and his interim successor, Darrell Johnson. Rader, in his freshman season as a big-league manager, has taken largely the same team and has had it in contention in the American League West from the start of the season and in third place, 4½ games behind Chicago, through last Sunday.
He is as loath to accept credit for this extraordinary turnaround as he is to acknowledge any of his old jokes. "It's the players," he protests. "I'm just along for the ride." But those closest to the wondrous goings-on at Arlington Stadium, including the players themselves, insist that the Rangers have gone from sad sacks to contenders on the wings of Rader's own vital personality and his skillful manipulation of the personalities around him. He is primarily a man of intangibles, says his general manager, Joe Klein, but he has accomplished some specifics, too, particularly in Texas' once-sorry pitching department. The Rangers were 12th in the American League a year ago, with a staff earned run average of 4.28. As of Sunday, they were first, with an ERA of 3.49. Rader and his pitching coach, Dick Such, took Danny Darwin out of the bullpen and made him into an effective starter. They made a starter, John Butcher, into a long reliever. They took a minor league starter, Odell Jones, and made him into one of the league's better short relievers. And they convinced Rick Honeycutt that he was more than just a slider-sinker pitcher. These were merely moves. The rest has been pure inspiration.
"Doug's the reason for the change," says his hitting coach, Merv Rettenmund. "It's his aggressiveness, his handling of people. He has this ball club playing exactly up to its abilities. The only constant all year has been our intensity, and he's the reason for that. He has a rule that no one is allowed to hang his head after making a mistake, because that gives the other team a psychological advantage. He doesn't ever want us to appear down. He never does."
"Last year we just showed up and went through the motions," says Honeycutt, who has gone from a 5-17 season in '82 to 13-6 under Rader, with a league-leading 2.32 ERA. "You can get away with that at this level if that's all that's expected of you. But Doug expects so much more. He makes us work up to 100 percent every day, and he's showed us that if you do that you can stay competitive. It's hard to put into words what he's done for us, but you just want to do well for him out of respect."
"He deserves the credit," says Shortstop Bucky Dent, who had a miserable .193 season in '82 playing for the Yankees, who had lost interest in him, and for the Rangers, who had lost interest in everything. "I had come from one negative situation into another and then, all of a sudden, I hear this guy speaking positively. You have to be in the right frame of mind to play this game, and Doug has gotten us there. He has kept everybody loose off the field, but when we're on it, he has us playing with high intensity and total involvement."
"This is a Doug Rader reversal," says Coach Wayne Terwilliger. "He's got these players believing in themselves." "Consciously or not, we seem to have adopted his personality," says Billy Sample, a part-time player until this year, who at week's end was hitting .281 and had stolen 31 bases as Rader's regular leftfielder. "We have assimilated his mental makeup."
Rader is fielding ground balls at second base during the Rangers' batting practice before a game with the Brewers. He cuts an unusual figure on the field, the red face with its prominent nose thrust forward, cap pulled low on the forehead, red hair puffing out at the back, pants slung low, shirttail out. Rader is a large man—6'3" and 230 pounds—and his voice has the same harsh resonance as Broderick Crawford's, when Crawford played Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Taking grounders is Rader's therapy, his release from tension. For all of his ursine bulk, he is still remarkably agile and quick, and Coach Rich Donnelly is frustrated trying to hit a ball past him. As a third baseman with the Houston Astros, Rader won five Gold Gloves in succession (1970-74), and he seems to have lost little of his touch. He makes a fine backhand stop, wheels as if to throw to first and then flips the ball to second without looking. Donnelly hits him another hard smash. Rader gobbles it up and comically throws an exaggerated one-hopper to second. Finally, Donnelly hits two balls, one after the other, at him. As the second rolls past him, Rader bellows in mock rage. He tosses his old glove in the air and jogs back to the dugout cursing noisily.
Ranger Second Baseman Wayne Tolleson watches this performance with undisguised admiration. "That's the unique thing about him," Tolleson says. "He can do all of those things and not lose any respect. His rapport is different from that of any manager I've ever known. He makes you feel like you're real good friends with him, and yet you know that you aren't quite. He has a hold on how to treat each player. And he's the first guy at this level who ever showed any confidence in me. He told me I was his second baseman after Mike [Richardt] got hurt, and he turned me loose. I was grateful, and it's made a difference."