Bat Man Hoping to Stick Around for a While Longer

For a guy who has won four batting championships, Bill Madlock gets bought, sold and traded so often, he might as well be listed on TV's Home Shopping Network.

He is now with the Detroit Tigers, his sixth big league team, and must dedicate himself to convincing the baseball world that he is not washed up at 36. Doing so will not be easy, particularly since Madlock is swinging against American League pitching for the first time since he broke in with the Texas Rangers in 1973.

His batting titles all were won in the National League, one of them as recently as 1983. But to the brains of baseball, that is ancient history. Madlock's compact, hedge-clipper swing is not what it used to be, at least to the Dodgers, who turned him loose.

"It doesn't really matter what you hit over there," Madlock said, after getting three hits Thursday at Boston in his first American League game in 14 years. "You've just got to prove yourself, over and over."

He certainly could understand why the Dodgers wouldn't need him any more, what with those Cooperstown-bound third basemen, Jeff Hamilton and Tracy Woodson, now on the premises. Those guys probably will win four batting championships apiece.

To the Dodgers, Madlock was a man with bad wheels making big money, and it was time to let the younger boys have a chance. Maybe if the National League had designated hitters, Madlock could have been useful. After all, as Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson said after landing Madlock, "That guy could hit a fastball blindfolded."

What is difficult to comprehend is why "Buns" Madlock, as the Chicago Cubs used to call him--"Mad Dog" came later, with the Pittsburgh Pirates--has bopped around the bigs the way he has. Why does a guy with a career batting average of .307 wind up changing sides on the average of once every 2 1/2 years?

Madlock doesn't know. He doesn't know if it is because there is always a market for hitters, or because he is outspoken and as candid as Allen Funt's camera, or because in this day and age, the players with the large incomes are cut loose more quickly when their numbers on the field fail to equate with the numbers on their paychecks.

All he knows is that the Tigers wanted him, pursued him and reeled him in, all for the bargain price of about 40 grand. All they owed him was a percentage of the major league minimum of $62,500. That left the Dodgers on the hook for the rest of Madlock's $850,000 salary.

"I didn't consider any other team," Madlock said. "I felt things could move more quickly with Detroit. And Sparky knows what kind of player I am. The Tigers were the team that showed the most interest in me, right off the bat."

Precisely. Right off the bat.

The Tigers knew a good stick when they saw one. "We needed a right-handed bat, and over in this league we also have the DH," Detroit club President Jim Campbell said Friday. "As for what Madlock can do with a bat, well, that's no secret."

Will Madlock be the third baseman every day? "That's strictly up to Mr. George Anderson," Campbell said.

But Sparky sure needed one. The kid who opened the season there, one Darnell Coles, had deteriorated from one of the American League's most promising infielders into a young man so rattled that one night, fed up with his low batting average and high error total, Coles took a baseball and threw it over the Tiger Stadium roof. In your scorebook, the play went 5 to Texaco station.

Coles is now on the disabled list, which is another reason Detroit needed a third baseman. When he comes back, there is a chance he could be tested in the outfield or at first base, or possibly brought in as a late defensive replacement, if the Tigers ever need somebody to hit a relay man across the street.

Madlock, meanwhile, will be missed in Los Angeles. His was a vibrant personality, and he was always an interesting presence in the clubhouse. It has been this way ever since he won consecutive batting titles in Chicago with averages of .354 and .339, and at San Francisco as well, and particularly at Pittsburgh, where he joined the Pirates in June 1979, just in time to earn passage to his only World Series.

"We Are Family" was the Pirate motto that season, and Madlock was one of the brothers. He and Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen and the rest were a lively bunch, if ever there was one. They had a great time together, on and off the field.

One day the next season, Madlock regaled a reporter with tales of the Pirates at play. The reporter quoted the infielder anonymously, not wanting to get him in any trouble. It was a story of "the National League's Animal Clubhouse," where there were all sorts of wild goings-on.

The next day, an angry Parker stormed into the clubhouse and demanded to know who was spreading all those stories. Reveal yourself, Parker said. He even threw a chair, smashing it into firewood.

Bill Madlock stood right up, braced himself and said: "Yeah! Who's been spreading all those stories?"

Another time, Buns was in a coffee shop across from Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers were about to play a big football game against the San Diego Chargers. He spotted a couple of old acquaintances from Chicago, slid into a booth and spent a few minutes shooting the breeze.

"Think you'll finish your career here?" Madlock was asked.

"I'll finish my career anywhere they need a hired bat," he replied.

So, he moves on.

Bill Madlock and the Dodgers no longer are family.

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