The biggest disappointment of spring training?
That’s easy. Doug Rader.
Or, I should say, the alleged Doug Rader.
When Angel General Manager Mike Port decided to hire Rader to mismanage the ballclub, Port didn’t have to enter a bidding war. Rader’s only previous big league managing experience was with the Texas Rangers. If Rader wasn’t despised by every person in Texas when the Rangers fired him in 1985, it’s because he was there only two years and it’s a big state.
Most guys, you give them a chance to manage in the big leagues and no matter how badly they bungle the job, they’re in the managerial pool forever. Rader’s debut was so rocky, though, you had to figure his managerial future was behind him.
Why Port wanted to hire this human storm cloud was anybody’s guess. All I knew was we had every right to expect Rader to arrive at Angel camp in a smoldering fury, which is a state of mind, not a model of car.
This would be an exciting spring, and it was our due. Why should the New York Mets have all the fun? Why should the Boston Red Sox corner the market on dissension and character assassination?
We sportswriters were thrilled at the prospects of the Rader era. We wouldn’t have to write about sore arms, now that we were blessed with baseball’s original sorehead. All we would have to do was ask questions, and duck.
Very early in camp, however, ominous rumors began to circulate. Rader was seen petting dogs, joking around with kids, having nice talks with his players, even offering soft drinks and pizza to sportswriters who ventured into his office. In two weeks, it was whispered, he had yet to utter a negative word.
I motor over to Mesa in a smoldering Ford to check out the rumors.
Alas, they are true. Rader is a shell of his former managerial self.
He greets me, a total stranger carrying a notebook, with a smile, if not a pizza. He doesn’t flinch when I ask him about the reaction among Angel fans to his hiring. Here is a man whose reputation preceded him like garlic breath.
“I doubt that (the public reaction) was anything earth-shattering, until the media got involved,” Rader says. “Most people didn’t know or care what a Doug Rader was. What happened in Texas was of little importance to them, until unfortunate things got resurrected, things that were pretty much disfavorable.”
Here we go. Rader is about to tee off on the sleaze-mongering jackals of the sporting press. Let spring training begin!
But the disarming smile remains. He clears his throat and continues.
“I’m not saying (the advance bad publicity) was wrong,” Rader said. “It was much to my advantage to have all that stuff exposed, to get it out of the way, to purge it all at one time. ‘I . . . up, let’s try it again.’ ”
I try again to set Rader up with a letter-high lob. I remark on the difference between Rader the Ranger and Rader the Angel. Did he achieve the marked personality transformation with the aid of psychological counseling?
“My mistakes were so obvious,” Rader says, still smiling, “I didn’t need any help analyzing them. They weren’t deep-seated. Basically I tried too hard, too fast. I took myself too seriously. I thought I could make a direct impact in a hurry.
“You can’t push, belittle and prod over any length of time and expect a team to survive it. You can’t have an adversary relationship with anyone over a length of time without exhausting everyone.”
It is becoming clear that this is a man who, over the last two years, has been using his considerable native intelligence to dissect a colossal failure, to assume responsibility for it and to use it as a tool for self-betterment.
Either that or he drove a golf cart under a low-hanging tree branch.
Rader vows to motivate his players with reasoning and kindness rather than using the sneer-and-insult style that helped make his stay in Dallas short but bitter.
“I don’t believe in the adage that you should never be close to a player,” he says. “It’s important to be close to a player. I think players will take less advantage of you if they know you like them. No question I can be a disciplinarian. My problem before was timing. I’d try to correct a situation on the spot, rather than waiting for a more genteel time.”
We shouldn’t give up on Rader yet. It’s still spring. The Angels have yet to blow a real game, the press has yet to pounce on strategic mistake or second-guess Rader’s pitching rotation or compare him unfavorably to Cookie Rojas.
The season is young. Unborn, in fact. So far, though, Doug Rader has been a terrible disappointment.