ON THE RIGHT TRAIL AT LAST? : Long Texas' Lost Team, Rangers Are Riding High

Times Staff Writer

First, some Texas Rangers history:

This is an organization born of 1961 expansion as the Washington Senators and moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Arlington in 1972 with Bob Short, a Minnesota trucking and hotel magnate who had once moved the Lakers to Los Angeles, as owner and fishing authority Ted Williams as manager.

Whitey Herzog followed Williams in 1972 and Billy Martin followed Herzog in 1973, and what almost always followed never made sense and left the Rangers appearing like one of the midway attractions at the nearby Six Flags Over Texas amusement park.

In 14 years there have been three owners, six general managers and 13 field managers, including four during one week of the 1977 season.

This is the organization that traded pitchers Dave Righetti, Ron Darling, Walt Terrell and Len Barker even before they got a chance in the big leagues, that failed to protect Jim Clancy, who is still pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, in the 1977 expansion draft, and lost reliever Tom Henke to Toronto as 1985 compensation for the Rangers' signing of free agent Cliff Johnson, who was traded back to Toronto even before that season ended.

Listen to Charlie Hough, the 38-year-old knuckleball pitcher who first became familiar with Ranger history when he was traded from the Dodgers in 1980:

"We'd go on road trips and the trainer would point out all the guys who used to be with us and it seemed like every time we got beat it was by a former Ranger and I'd finally say to myself, 'Why the hell aren't these people still with us?'

"I mean, it was pretty obvious that this was an organization that had never been run with any kind of plan beyond next week.

"It was the type organization that would get to the last week of spring training, discover it needed a left fielder and trade half the club for one."

Now Larry Parrish, the 32-year-old infielder-outfielder of the Rangers, is sitting in the bar of an Anaheim hotel on a quiet Sunday night, the Rangers having just arrived for a three-game series with the Angels.

Parrish is alone. He is asked why. A smile lights his face and he says, "Hell, there's only about five of us on this club old enough to drink."

Tom Grieve doesn't look like he'd be one of them. He is 38 and in his third year as baseball's youngest general manager.

He says the Rangers have always been an organization that traded for veteran players in a futile hope they would made an immediate impact.

"It's ironic that we've now done that with the type kids that they always used to trade," Grieve said.

There are 14 players 27 or under on the current roster and 7 rookies. An eighth is on the disabled list. Kansas City Royals Manager Dick Howser recently shook his head and said, "They're starting the bleeping Olympic team."

It is too early to predict whether it will come up gold for a club that lost 102 games more than it won over the previous four seasons and was last at 62-99 in the American League West last year, but these Strangers have now been first in the West since May 24 and either first or second since May 10, overcoming injuries, inexperience and that long absence of credibility and continuity in the front office.

Now, under Grieve and his equally positive and enthusiastic managerial choice, 38-year-old Bobby Valentine, the Rangers seem to have created a new philosophy and respect. Hough, for one, definitely believes in it.

"When I came here there wasn't really an organization and there wasn't the attitude, 'Let's go win a game,' " he said, noting that not one player or coach remains from that 1980 team. "There was no attitude at all expect to show up, put the uniform on and go play. I mean, guys hoped to get three hits or pitch a shutout, but the attitude was like you find in the minors. They wanted to do well so that they would be sent somewhere else.

"But now, since Bobby and Tom Grieve took over, we're playing to win and believe that we can. I love playing here now. I have the feeling this is going to be one of the best organizations in baseball."

Who would have believed it?

Not Randy Galloway, a columnist and former baseball writer with the Dallas Morning News who said the franchise died when Herzog was fired in 1973 and did not revive until Grieve took over.

Herzog had been the New York Mets farm director. He was hired by Short with the same commitment Grieve now espouses: Go with kids, build from within, accept the risks and plan to experience three years of growing pains.

The Rangers had finished 38 1/2 games out in 1972, Williams accompanying the team to Texas only as a favor to Short. The ensuing commitment to Herzog lasted barely three months, let alone three years.

Now the Herzog tenure is remembered only for the ballyhooed debut of Houston high school sensation David Clyde, who started for the Rangers at Arlington Stadium only about two weeks after they had made him their No. 1 selection in the June draft of '73. Herzog argued against it, but Short sensed a sellout, got it, sensed another, and continued to pitch the 18-year-old Clyde at a point in his career when he needed refining and maturing away from the pressure.

Clyde ultimately failed to fulfill his expectations. He retired in 1979 with a major league record of 18-33. Herzog was fired in August of '73 after Martin had been fired by Detroit. Said Short: "I like Whitey Herzog, but I'd fire my grandmother to hire Billy Martin."

Martin worked his usual miracle in 1974 as the Rangers finished second and drew more than one million for the first time, but he was then fired before the 1975 season ended. There were the usual player complaints and a reportedly drunken fight with Burt Hawkins, the 65-year-old traveling secretary, on a flight to Kansas City. Hawkins' wife had attempted to organize a Ranger wives club. Said Martin: "The wives can destroy a ball club."

Brad Corbett, who had made his money manufacturing plastic pipe, owned the club by then, having bought out Short for an estimated $10 million in 1974. Corbett promised to stay out of the club's operation, but his promise went the way of plastic pipe.

Corbett replaced Martin with Frank Lucchesi, who announced in the spring of '77 that he intended to give Lenny Randle's second base job to Bump Wills, which prompted Randle to say that he might leave camp. Lucchesi then said that Randle was nothing but a $90,000-a-year punk, to which Randle took physical exception, decking Lucchesi as he stood by the batting cage two days later.

Randle, fined and suspended by the Rangers, reflected on his success with punch lines and ultimately went into comedy. Lucchesi turned to scouting after Corbett delivered the unkindest blow of all, firing his manager in June, when he announced grandly that he had lured Eddie Stanky away from his coaching position at South Alabama.

Stanky joined the club in Minnesota, won his first game, and retired undefeated, flying out the next morning after notifying Corbett that he preferred campus life. Coach Connie Ryan managed the club for six games, after which Billy Hunter, a longtime coach with the Baltimore Orioles, got the job, the fourth manager in a week, still a record.

The Rangers, by this time, were baseball's answer to Ringling Bros., but it didn't end with Hunter, who merely produced a 146-108 record in 1 1/2 years at the helm only to be fired by Corbett, listening to player complaints that branded Hunter a "little Hitler."

Most of the complaints reportedly came from Corbett favorite Dock Ellis, who admittedly was at a point in his life when the bar never closed, one of the many eccentrics to wear the Texas uniform.

There was John Ellis, for example, who retired to pursue Bigfoot, and Richie Zisk, who held conversations with the wall next to his locker, and Roger Moret, who slipped into a catatonic state while dressing for another Ranger loss, and Pepe Frias, who, on landing with the team in Toronto, said, "Ah, Canada, my kind of town," and Pat Putnam, who ate dog biscuits and played an exhibition game with a dead frog in his hip pocket, and Jim Kern, who grabbed the paperback that a writer was reading on a flight, tore out the final chapter and ate it.

Duke Sims and Sparky Lyle and Mike Marshall, the former Dodger relief pitcher, also enhanced Texas folklore, as did Jim Fregosi, who once jumped writer Galloway for reporting that he had blown a routine grounder.

"No grounder ever hit to me is routine," Fregosi said.

Then there was poet laureate Mickey Rivers, whose twisted syntax delighted writers, such as the time he reflected on a Texas losing streak and said, "Ain't no sense worrying about things you got no control over, 'cause if you got no control over them ain't no sense worrying. And ain't no sense worrying about things you got control over, 'cause if you got control over them ain't no sense worrying."

The impetuous Corbett worried, fretted and fit right in.

He once fought with fans who had been riding the Rangers from box seats behind home plate in Cleveland, and he reacted to the news that some of his partying players had torn up a hotel room by calling a press conference at which he said:

"I want to say one thing about the Texas Rangers. They're dogs on the field and dogs off the field."

Though Corbett handed out many of the earliest multi-year contracts, often unable to distinguish between those who deserved them and those who didn't, his primary concern was financial survival. The plastic pipe business went bad and there was no broadcasting income, Short having sold 10-year rights to the city of Arlington for $7.5 million in 1972.

A good portion of Corbett's income came from the trades in which he yielded that good young talent. Righetti, for example, went to the Yankees in a 10-player trade that enriched the Rangers by $400,000. The Corbett staff had argued against it, telling the owner to make the trade only if New York also included a young infielder named Damaso Garcia, now with Toronto. Corbett said he would insist on Garcia.

The deal was soon consummated, but instead of Garcia, the Rangers got Domingo Ramos. The staff was infuriated.

"Hell's bells," Corbett said. "All those Latin names sound alike."

Now Corbett knows better. He is said to have made a new fortune exporting gaskets to Central and South America. He owns a luxury box at Arlington Stadium, but the owner's office belongs to Eddie Chiles, who purchased the club in 1980 for a price similar to what Corbett had paid six years earlier.

Chiles owns the Fort Worth-based Western Company of North America. The company leases equipment for oil drilling. Stock sold at $32 per share in 1980. Then came the glut.

Western stock is now at 1 3/8. The company recently declared losses of $140 million over the last three years and suspended payment on $400 million on loans while pursuing new capital.

Ironically, all of this has worked to the Rangers' advantage, keeping Chiles busy in Fort Worth while Grieve and Valentine establish their new philosophy in Arlington.

It wasn't like that originally. Chiles, like Corbett before him, had promised to keep hands off, saying he bought the club only as a civic gesture and knew nothing about baseball. He was soon into everything, including the firing of Manager Don Zimmer, whom he then asked to remain on for a few days while a replacement was found.

Zimmer, of course, refused, and Chiles took heavy media criticism, of which he said, "What was wrong with asking him to work a few more days? I had to pay him anyway."

Chiles ultimately appointed himself general manager, accepting the advice of the media, who said he could do no worse than Eddie Robinson had, the general manager who sent Darling and Terrell to the Mets for Lee Mazzilli. Robinson said Mazzilli was the final piece in the Ranger puzzle. That was 1982, when the puzzle fell apart again, the Rangers losing 98 games.

Chiles, meanwhile was distracted by his oil losses and dispatched a senior Western executive named Mike Stone to keep an eye on the Rangers as Doug Rader took the managerial reins.

Grieve, at this point, was director of player development, having moved up from group sales after spending seven of his nine seasons as a big league outfielder with the organization. He became general manager on Sept. 1, 1984, and waited out a Stone-Rader alliance in which Rader reportedly attempted to take control of the organization. Then, with Chiles reportedly recognizing the need for change but too busy to interfere in the selection of a successor, Grieve chose Valentine, with whom he had been a New York Met teammate in 1978.

"We got a chance to watch a lot of baseball together that year," Grieve said. "Neither of us played very much."

Grieve also lived with Valentine and his wife that year, gaining another perspective.

"I had no idea then that any team would ever give me the opportunity to select a manager but when it came, he would have been the guy I picked even if all 26 managers had been free agents," Grieve said.

Grieve said he based his choice on Valentine's enthusiasm, his rapport with young players and his ability to change the attitude of the team and the perception of the fans.

It has worked well for both men since Chiles recently extended their contracts through 1989, saying he had made mistakes out of ignorance in the past and did not intend to repeat them, that he finally had the right people.

He also told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that if it hadn't been for his wife and the play of the Rangers during what has been a disastrous period in the oil business, "I'd have probably died from an overdose of depression."

Much of it has been chronicled.

Said Grieve: "We simply got to a point where it was very difficult to feel we were going to get better."

Translation: Out with the old and in with the new.

So long, Buddy Bell, Frank Tanana, Dave Schmidt, Cliff Johnson, Dave Rozema, Wayne Tolleson, Billy Sample.

Welcome to third base, Steve Buechele, Here's center field, Oddibe McDowell. Left field and DH? They're yours, Pete Incaviglia. A right fielder to replace the injured Larry Parrish? Let's bring up Ruben Sierra and keep him when Parrish is well. A new pitching staff?

Put Ed Correa, Jose Guzman and Bobby Witt in the rotation and use Mitch Williams and Dwayne Henry out of the bullpen. Having fun yet? "It's a lot more fun going in this direction," Valentine said.

Is there a risk?

"A big risk and a big reward," he added. "But I like basing my decisions on that risk-reward ratio."

Is he surprised?

"We felt that the young talent was there," he said. "We didn't know how close it was to being ready."

A succession of high draft choices was the reward for the string of bad finishes. Not all of the key newcomers came out of the Texas system, but the majority did, and there may be more.

"The Rangers have always done a consistent scouting job," Grieve said.

"The kids just never got a chance before--or only got their chance after being traded."

The kids brought much of their own enthusiasm and confidence, having played successfully for college and high school winners.

Valentine's job was a little less demanding, but only a little, Grieve said.

"Their perception of the players here has always been that of a last-place team," he said.

"The attitude has been, 'Hey, we can play as hard as we want and it doesn't matter if we lose because no one expects us to win.'

"The turnover in cast helped, but changing the attitude was still a monumental task after losing for so long."

The key, Valentine said, was establishing his own credibility.

He held a team meeting about six weeks after taking over last year and told each of the players what he thought of them, an attempt to let the others decide if he knew what he was talking about.

"I think it succeeded," Valentine said. "A lot of the guys came up to me later and said they had never heard that said about them or that they felt that what I had said about the other guy had needed to be said."

Valentine also believes he brings a degree of empathy stemming from the fact he has run the gamut, from heralded rookie to brief stardom to severe injury, to being traded, to being released to being hired as a coach.

"Many of the things my players are going through I've already been through," he said.

Valentine is baseball's youngest manager and that also helps in relating to baseball's youngest team. He also has a young coaching staff of recently retired players in Tim Foli, Art Howe, Joe Ferguson, Tom Robson and Tom House, the pitching coach who is known as Dr. Gadget.

House caught Henry Aaron's 715th home run in the Atlanta bullpen, his claim to fame as a player. He is now approaching a doctorate in psychology at the University of Humanistic Studies in San Diego.

Among his concepts: The belief that throwing a football serves to unlimber and strengthen the muscles a pitcher most often uses, and that employing a lighter baseball and bat increases arm and bat speed through the process of underloading.

"We're coming up to a new century," Valentine said. "There are things out there that can make us better. I'm a baseball traditionalist, but I'm not against change."

He and Grieve have proved that with their new emphasis on youth. The future is bright. Can the Rangers sustain the present?

Valentine understands the problems, knowing only time will determine if the young Rangers can cope with the heat of a Texas summer and the pressure of an unexpected pennant race.

He said, however, that he was excited, that his goal of the Rangers becoming baseball's most improved team this year was based on the premise that the young players would improve as the season went on, and that each of them still has room for more.

Said Grieve: "It doesn't look like there's a dominant team that's going to run away and hide. If we keep performing the way we are now, there's no reason we can't stay competitive."

The Rangers have remained competitive despite a battery of injuries and the pain of their own aggressiveness, which is exemplified by the fact they have been caught stealing more often than they have stolen and that third base coach Foli is known as Coach Kamikaze because of the many runners he has sent to their death at the plate.

This is the way Valentine wants it, however, and it is also a fact that the resilient Rangers lead the league in come-from-behind victories.

Are the fans excited?

"Pumped," columnist Galloway said. "They're going nuts. We've never had anything like it here. I mean, I don't think that anybody thinks they're going to win, but it looks like they're finally on their way, developing the young players instead of trading them."

The ultimate question may concern Valentine's future. Will he succeed Tom Lasorda as manager of the Dodgers, as rumored, or will he stay? Charlie Hough smiled and said that he sees in Valentine's aggressiveness and commitment a reincarnation of Lasorda.

"He dives into things with that same intensity and noise," Hough said. "When you see Bobby in street clothes at 8 in the morning working on a wet field in spring training to get it ready for a practice, then you know how deep his commitment is. I mean, he's stuck his neck out with some of these kids, but it's clear that the only thing he's interested in is helping the team win."

Valentine frowns. The persistent Dodger rumors have reached a point of annoyance. He says he is only interested in now, in changing that historical perception of the Texas franchise. "I don't think we've arrived at our destination but I do think we're properly ticketed and that we've cleared customs," he said.

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