Basic and Aggressive, That's Lanier's Astros : With Their Fast Start, Houston Players Took to Believing in Their New Manager

Times Staff Writer

To Willie Mays, Hal Lanier will always be Maxie, the kid he used to take out to center field for a game of pepper in the Polo Grounds.

The name didn't change in San Francisco, where Mays and Lanier were teammates on the Giants, Mays a future Hall of Famer, Lanier a .228-hitting infielder.

And it's still Maxie when they get together for a round of golf. There is Mays, back in a Giant uniform as a batting instructor, and Lanier, the 44-year-old manager of the Houston Astros, the best team in the National League West in 1986.

"Willie says he remembers taking me out in center field," Lanier says with a smile. "He says he remembers changing my diapers, too, but I was too old for that."

But as Maxie, son of big league pitcher Max Lanier, he was just the right age to accompany his father to the clubhouse of the New York Giants.

"I was always around baseball," Lanier said. "If I didn't behave myself, I wasn't allowed to go to the ballpark, and I hated to have that privilege taken away."

He'd already seen that privilege stripped from his father, and the way Max Lanier suffered for it. Max Lanier pitched in three World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, but there was a contract dispute. When Lanier was offered big money to play in Mexico, he jumped at the chance.

The Mexican adventure turned sour, however, when baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler imposed suspensions on those players who had gone south of the border. Lanier was suspended for two years before returning to the Cardinals. He was traded to the Giants in 1952, Mays' second season. Hal Lanier was 10 at the time.

"He had his pension taken away from him, too," Hal Lanier said. "But I think he probably would have done the same thing at that particular time.

"He spent 13 years in the major leagues. I don't think he ever did anything to discredit the major leagues at all. He always loved baseball."

When Hal Lanier signed a $75,000 bonus contract with the San Francisco Giants in 1961, the contract included a provision that the Giants hire Max Lanier as a scout.

As his father's son, Lanier got the chance to frolic with Mays.

As a player with credentials of his own, Lanier earned the chance to play with Mays and two other Hall of Famers, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey. And that experience helped mold his philosophy as a manager.

"Those three players were among the outstanding players of their era," Lanier said. "We had a good ballclub, but we finished second five years in a row.

"When I look back on it, I think of all the little things we didn't do, the things the Cardinals and Dodgers always did--the fundamentals.

"We always waited back for the home run. Sometimes we got 'em, sometimes we didn't."

Lanier's survival in the big leagues depended on his ability to do the little things. That's how he lasted 10 years in the big leagues as a light-hitting, good-fielding infielder.

"I was fortunate to play for teams that could carry a shortstop who hit .228," he said.

It also worked to his advantage to finish his playing career with the New York Yankees, when Ralph Houk was managing. From Houk, who used to turn to Lanier on the bench and ask him what he would do in certain situations, Lanier learned to watch the game from a manager's perspective. He also learned the value of a team's extra players, the importance of making them feel like they were contributing, too.

After managing five seasons in the Cardinal farm system following his retirement as a player in 1975, Lanier returned to the big leagues for five years of advanced study as third-base coach under St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog.

"He's (Lanier) a graduate of the Whitey Herzog Finishing School," said Astro General Manager Dick Wagner, the man who hired Lanier last winter to replace Bob Lillis.

Lanier said he learned how to handle pitchers in the minor leagues. Under Herzog, he refined that knowledge and also adopted the gambling, aggressive style of play that brought pennants to St. Louis in 1982 and 1985.

But would it work in Houston, where the Astros had become a plodding, predictable team that had won as many as 85 games just once since 1980, the only season the Astros have gone to the World Series?

"I wanted to accomplish two things in spring training," Lanier said. "I wanted us doing fundamentals a lot better and I also wanted to create a running style of game. The Houston club I had watched for the last five years didn't make anything happen. They just went from base-to-base and never pressured the defense.

"In Glenn Davis and Kevin Bass, I knew we had legitimate power hitters, but I felt that some people hadn't utilized the speed they had.

"I wanted to bring a brand of baseball that was different and more exciting to the players. And I think they wanted the change."

The players wanted change all right--so much so that they went 9-18 during spring training. They looked awful.

"We didn't just lose, we played poorly," veteran catcher Alan Ashby said. "I had reservations. Everybody understandably did.

"But all of a sudden in the first three weeks we were 15-6, for whatever reason. I wondered why we didn't play that way in the spring; it was a little confusing. But the believers resurfaced, and it pretty much carried over through the season."

The Astros went from aggrieved to aggressors. A team that stole just 96 bases in 1985 finished with 163 steals this season, with four players--Billy Doran (42), Billy Hatcher (38), Davey Lopes (25) and Kevin Bass (22) stealing at least 20.

Doran probably would have had 50 if he hadn't pulled a groin muscle in the last three weeks. Hatcher came in a trade from the Chicago Cubs before the season; Lopes came from the Cubs in July.

Bass and Davis, as expected, provided power. Bass, surprisingly, also hit .311.

A pitching rotation that had just three reliable starters--Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper--picked up a fourth in rookie Jim Deshaies. And in what was perhaps Lanier's most astute move, rookie Charlie Kerfeld was shifted to the bullpen, where he became arguably the best setup man in the league with an 11-2 record and 7 saves.

Kerfeld, the Astros' resident character, wasn't sold on the move at first. For that matter, he wasn't sold on Lanier, either.

"I wasn't exactly thrilled about it," Kerfeld said. "I didn't realize the importance of a setup man. You don't see too many guys in the minor leagues who want to be a setup man.

"In spring training, I was kind of negative toward him (Lanier).I didn't know him, but I had heard about the comments he'd made during the winter, about losing weight or not making the team."

But Kerfeld dropped 40 pounds and he also dropped his reservations about Lanier.

"We have a different personality this year," Kerfeld said. "When I was called up last year, I thought this team was flat and dead. Kind of boring, I thought."

Same old boring Astros? Hardly. Houston won 24 games in its last at-bat.

"Lucky? Not when you do it that many times," said third baseman Denny Walling, who said the five comeback wins against the New York Mets and Montreal Expos right after the All-Star break were the turning point of the season.

The Astros finished with a club-record 96 wins, 10 games ahead of second-place Cincinnati.

"We've been underdogs the whole year," said Lanier, who believes the presence of coaches such as Yogi Berra and Gene Tenace helped to inject a winning atmosphere.

"Nobody picked us to be here, No. 1. A lot of people don't realize we've been in first place this season longer than any other team in baseball. I told that to a New York writer in Cincinnati and he said, 'No way,' but you can look it up."

One thing Lanier did not inherit from Herzog was a flamboyant public personality, though he managed to convey to his players that basic mistakes would no longer be tolerated.

"I hate to understate or overstate what he's done for us," Ashby said. "I didn't have reservations about him. I had reservations about us.

"What turned around the Astros? Change of leadership was one thing, but there's also a slightly different blend. Billy Hatcher was added to our team, the emergence of Kevin Bass and Glenn Davis, Mike Scott . . . there's a laundry list of reasons."

Same old boring Astros? When Orel Hershiser hit Davis in the back with a pitch, the second time in a month Hershiser had hit the Astro slugger, there was Lanier on the top step of the Houston dugout, ready to lead a charge to the mound. And afterward, it was Lanier who was fuming that Davis hadn't gone out and challenged Hershiser.

It was Lanier who put Ryan on the disabled list, against his star's wishes, and Lanier who sat down Bass for missing an assignment in the outfield.

"I'm not laid back," Lanier said. "I'm not quiet. I'm aggressive. I'm upset when we don't do things right and I let the players know it."

Just call it Maxie's way. And, say hey, it works.

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