Presenting the one
and only Mickey Rivers. He walks to home plate, slowly, delicately, as if all
10 toes and both heels are broken. His use of the English language is unique.
His visits to the racetrack are legendary. He's been known to take a day off
when there isn't one scheduled. But understand this: when he wants to, Rivers
Rivers plays for
the Texas Rangers these days, and his 1980 stats tell just how good he can be:
a .332 batting average, 205 hits, 32 doubles, 60 RBIs, 18 steals in 24
attempts. His remarkable speed makes him a capable centerfielder, and he
compensates for a weak arm with a curious, quick release that makes his arms
flap like a chicken. As good as he is, though, he used to be even better. With
the pennant-winning Yankees of 1976, 77 and '78, he was an intimidating leadoff
man, just as Willie Wilson is now for the Royals. Mick the Quick could make
pitchers, catchers and infielders squirm. No more.
Rivers isn't as
mercurial as he used to be off the field, either. "I figure it's a little
bit more settling for me here," he says, referring to Texas. "I relax.
It's a different pace. New York's got a bad pace. I got to get up and do
something every day there. I'm not going to say it's better for me here, but I
think I needed a change of pace. It's been much easier here. Different people
As the season
winds down, the Rangers are fading, and Rivers is watching, because a cast was
placed on his left leg last week. He has calcium deposits in his left ankle and
may not play again this year. There have been times when Rivers said he
couldn't play and was a minority of one in that opinion. This time, it's
Rivers is often a
minority of one. There's no one quite like the Gozzlehead. Rivers, who is from
Miami, used to call almost everyone on the Yankees Gozzlehead, a word he first
heard as a child in the ghetto. Sometimes he would use Warplehead. About once a
month he would come out with Mailboxhead. For the uninitiated, a Gozzlehead is,
according to Rivers, "Just, you know, like a bullfrog face. Now a
Warplehead, that's a different shape. A funny-looking creature. Odd-shaped.
terrify country-club Republicans. He's pure, unreconstructed ghetto, completely
spontaneous. He's been known to dance in the aisles of the team bus when the
music from the tape decks moved him. Just about every black athlete makes some
accommodation in speech and dress to a white-dominated world. Rivers has never
considered anything of the sort. Mickey just does what seems best for Mickey,
which is often so off the wall that in some circles Rivers is known as Mick the
Bucky Dent, who went to Miami Dade Community College North a year after Rivers
left the school to play pro ball, makes this contribution to the legend of the
Gozzlehead: "There was a lake between the locker room and the field. They
tell me, sometimes Mickey would stop and sit by the lake, fall asleep and show
up in the first or second inning. One day our pitcher was warming up to start
the fifth inning, and the umpire looked around and said to our coach, 'Hey,
where's your centerfielder?' Apparently Mickey had jumped the fence and took
off. He told the coach later that he thought some guys were going to come out
on the field and get him."
For all his
quirks, Rivers is also a sweetheart, too generous sometimes for his own good,
certainly too trusting. Children follow him like the Pied Piper. "You can
be real with them," Rivers says. He also looks at life as a joyful,
uncomplicated experience, something to be taken only one day at a time. Listen
to Oscar Gamble, a Yankee teammate in 1976 and one of the players for whom
Rivers was traded last year when the Gozzlehead went from New York to Texas.
"You come out to the ball park with him," Gamble says, "and he'll
pick out a kid and give him $5 or $10 to get something to eat. He's got one of
the nicest hearts you'd ever want to see."
Rivers started in
the Braves' organization in 1969 but was traded to California for Hoyt Wilhelm
after that season. He made it to the Angels to stay in 1974 and hit .285 with
30 steals. After he stole 70 bases in 84 tries in '75, he and Ed Figueroa were
traded to the Yankees for Bobby Bonds.
Oh, what a '76 he
had, hitting .312 and stealing 43 bases in 50 attempts. The Yankees blew out
the American League East and Rivers was the igniter, winning four times as many
votes as Thurman Munson in a team MVP election taken at the end of August. But
in the league MVP competition, Munson was the winner, and Rivers, who got hurt
in mid-September, finished third. It should be noted that Rivers had already
started to la-di-da it when he got hurt.