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A Second Home at Second : After the Bronx Zoo, Willie Randolph Says Adjusting to L.A. Will Be Easy

Times Staff Writer

For a man who has worn only pinstripes for the last 13 years, beginning life as something other than a New York Yankee would seem to demand more than just a change in wardrobe.

But if you’re a 19-year-old kid from Brooklyn with roots in South Carolina and can adapt to playing baseball in French-only Thetford Mines, Quebec, which is 45 miles south of Quebec City and light years away from anything remotely familiar, then you can adapt to playing anywhere. Including Los Angeles, which is where Willie Randolph, now 34, has taken up residence as the new second baseman for the Dodgers.

“Adjusting to L.A. is going to be easy,” said Randolph, whose past excursion into foreign territory 15 years ago has more than prepared him for his move into the land of silk and money.

How jarring was Thetford Mines? Start with the language barrier, and the fact that Randolph’s roommates on the minor league team were Omar Moreno and Max Olivares, two Spanish-speaking players whose English was limited, never mind their French.

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Suffice to say, the three players kept exclusive company--their own. They shared a small apartment and pooled together $300 to buy a beat-up Chevy to take them to the ballpark and back.

Which brings up another problem. The field.

“It was so bad they had to condemn it,” Randolph said. “Our manager, Tim Murtaugh, said he would not put any players out on the field.

“There had been a lot of rain, and they had these big steamrollers on the field. Well, in short center field, one of the steamrollers sank down about 10 feet, leaving a big crater.”

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As uncomfortable as he felt in Thetford Mines, Randolph might as well have been on the moon. It hadn’t been this way in Charleston, S.C., where he was surrounded by relatives and had played his first full season of pro ball after signing out of high school with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But just when it might have been easy to start feeling sorry for himself, his mother gave him a pointed message during a telephone call home.

“She said, ‘Stick in there, be a man, and deal with the elements,’ ” Randolph said.

“I had to grow up real quick, and I did. I learned to make the best of the situation, and things would be better the next year.”

And they were. In the span of less than a year, Randolph had made the jump from Class-A ball to the big leagues, and the next season was the starting second baseman for the Yankees.

You think missing an occasional off-ramp on the L.A. freeways is going to faze Randolph?

“When you’ve played and traveled as much as I have, there isn’t such a big difference in the major league cities,” Randolph said. “You just look for the nice restaurants in town, find the way to the ballpark, and learn your way around.

“I’m not going to let everything else affect me.”

That’s not to say, however, that there wasn’t some sweet sorrow in Randolph’s parting from the Yankees, for whom he had played in five league championship series, three World Series, and had represented as an All-Star five times.

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The co-captain of the Yankees, stripped of the New York insignia when a younger man, Steve Sax, was signed by the Yankees as a free agent last November, was reminded of his connection to the town and the team when he took his 8-year-old son, Andre, to a Knick game at Madison Square Garden last December.

As is the custom there, the public address announcer introduced the celebrities in attendance, during a timeout in the second quarter. Keith Hernandez stood. Then Darryl Strawberry, Hernandez’s teammate on the New York Mets. Loud applause, a few scattered boos.

Then Willie Randolph was asked to stand. The ovation that followed, one usher later told the stunned Randolph, was the longest and loudest he had heard there in more than 20 years.

“It was embarrassing, but it was nice, a great feeling,” Randolph said. “That’s not my style, but the appreciation they showed that night, it was like they were saying, ‘We’re going to miss you.’

“I was ready to get on a plane and leave right then.”

But before he left, Willie Randolph had a chance to say goodby, and he did, blowing kisses to the Garden crowd.

“That was corny, I know,” he said at the time. “But that’s the way I felt.”

For the first time he could remember, Willie Randolph received a Christmas card from George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, last December.

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“It said, ‘Joy,’ ” Randolph said with a bemused smile. “I think his wife was upset at him. It was his attempt to be humorous, I guess.”

On New Year’s Day, Randolph had another surprise--a phone call from his new manager, Tom Lasorda of the Dodgers, the team that signed him as a free agent last December.

“That never happened with the Yankees,” Randolph said of the manager’s phone call.

“He made it very comfortable for me. When I came to Los Angeles for the first time, he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I respect you as a player and a man and I know what you can do. Get ready to play for me and you’ll be in there.”’

For a man who had played for such fiery types as Billy Martin and Lou Piniella, Lasorda was almost as great a culture shock as Thetford Mines.

“This is no knock on Billy and Lou, because Billy gave me my shot as a youngster and Lou was my teammate,” Randolph said. “But they weren’t able to show real emotion toward their players. They were under so much pressure to win, it was tough for them to let their hair down.

“I kind of minded that. I’m looking forward to having someone as expressive as Tommy.”

Having spent all but 1976--when he played 30 games with the Pirates before being traded to the Yankees--in the American League, Randolph knew Lasorda only by reputation. And he’d heard that Lasorda was something of a comedian.

Instead, in his first weeks here in Dodgertown, Randolph found that Lasorda reminded him of his first Little League manager back in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.

“Galileo Gonzalez,” Randolph said fondly. “He was almost a father figure to me, very emotional, very zestful. I was only 8 or 9 years old, and he taught me how to play the game.”

The difference he found in the Dodger clubhouse didn’t end with the manager. For Randolph, a battle-scarred survivor of the Bronx Zoo, where someone--Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly--was either battling Steinbrenner or fighting among themselves, there is fresh air amid the Los Angeles smog.

“The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed here, even though a lot of the tension in the Yankee clubhouse never really bothered me,” Randolph said. “Maybe I was just so used to it.

“But it’s a lot nicer to come to the ballpark to think about baseball and laugh a little more.”

As lightly as Randolph would tread in the Yankee clubhouse, where he spoke softly and carried a big glove, he wasn’t entirely immune to the scene of more intrigue than exists on “Falconcrest.”

There was the time in 1981, for example, when Steinbrenner, furious about the way the team was playing, called a workout on short notice for a day off. Randolph had committed that day to a fund-raising appearance on behalf of a mental health group, at which 1,000 people were expected. Randolph went to the fund-raiser. Steinbrenner fined him. The ensuing controversy kept the tabloids in headlines for days.

“He eventually took the fine and donated it to charity himself,” Randolph said.

And then there was the fallout last spring from the book written by teammate Winfield, in which Winfield suggested that Randolph believed that a black player could never be considered a true Yankee great, a charge that Randolph vehemently denied. That ended their friendship.

“I was probably one of the few close friends he had on the team,” Randolph said. “But to use a friend like that to make a point was wrong, and to do that to me . . .

“I don’t know if he intentionally wanted to hurt me, but you’d think he would have thought about the ramifications. I don’t know how Dave could have let that happen.”

To this day, Randolph said, Winfield has not apologized.

“I think it’s hard for him to apologize,” Randolph said. “It’s tough for him to do that, that’s why.”

There are many people who suggest that Randolph will find it tough to replace Sax, the popular leadoff man who had one of his best seasons in 1988, batting .277, stealing 42 bases in 54 attempts, and showing a lot steadier hand at second base than he had in the past.

Randolph, meanwhile, missed 51 games last season with an assortment of injuries, underwent arthroscopic surgery after the season, batted only .230, scored just 43 runs, and stole just 8 bases, career lows in all categories.

Sax turned 29 in January. Randolph will be 35 in July. Sax missed one game last season and a total of 11 in the last three seasons. Randolph reported to training camp in good shape and pronounced himself fit, but Dodger fingers remain crossed.

Randolph also was something of a last alternative, after the Dodgers failed in an attempt to sign free agent Tommy Herr or trade for Wally Backman of the Mets, among other second base options.

But if you believe Randolph is coming here with the idea of replacing Sax, think again.

“We’re different-style players,” Randolph said. “I’m going to play my game, I’m not going to try and replace or duplicate his game. People are going to try and compare us, but I’m not going to do that.

“I don’t have to fill anybody’s shoes.”

In one sense, the suggestion that he must is almost an affront to Randolph, long regarded as one of the smoothest-fielding second basemen in the game and who just two seasons ago hit over .300 (.305) for the first time in his career.

“I’m going to challenge myself to do the best that I can do,” he said. “I know I can’t live on what’s happened in the past. I have to earn the respect of my teammates and the fans.

“Even though I . . . was an All-Star five times, I know that doesn’t mean anything to people now. They couldn’t care less about that now, they want to know what I can do to help the team win now.”

What he is expected to do by Executive Vice President Fred Claire, the man who signed Randolph to a two-year contract for $1.75 million, is give the Dodger infield more stability than it has had this decade. For his part, after playing with 31 different shortstops in his Yankee tenure, Randolph is looking forward to playing with another veteran, Alfredo Griffin.

“I haven’t had the luxury of playing with an experienced shortstop since Bucky Dent,” said Randolph, citing his infield partner of more than a decade ago. “I played with Rafael Santana last season, but that was only briefly.”

Can Randolph find happiness in Los Angeles?

“I just want to show I’m still one of the best second basemen around,” he said. “And more than anybody else, I want to prove that to myself.”

Notes

The Dodgers won their fifth straight exhibition and sixth in the last seven games when they beat Montreal, 7-2, in West Palm Beach. Tim Belcher pitched six strong innings, striking out five while yielding both Expo runs, and Tim Crews and Jay Howell kept Montreal scoreless in relief. The Dodgers took advantage of the wildness of Expo starter Randy Johnson to score five runs in the third.


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