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Of All the Possible Challengers to the Angels . . . : Could Those Really Be the Rangers in Second? : . . . This Was the Team Voted Least Likely to Succeed

September 09, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Tex. — There is something terribly wrong here. Yes . . . no . . . yes, it is--Ranger players in white shorts and T-shirts taking batting practice as the Boston Red Sox, dressed in their elegant grays, look on with quiet amusement.

Does Tom Lasorda know about this, and if so, should he lecture his protege, Bobby Valentine, from the bible of Dodger Blue? Or should he order a gross or two for Al Campanis and the boys?

And get a load of this: Ranger pitchers tossing footballs on the sideline. Not long after they started this little ritual, knuckleballer Charlie Hough was heard to say that although the Ranger pitching staff may have its occasional problems, "we lead the league in third-down conversions."

It gets worse. Rah-rah signs are posted in the Ranger clubhouse. "Stay Aggressive," reads one. "Winning Is An Attitude, " reads another.

On and on it goes until you discover that these harmless lugs, with their pregame softball togs, their Saturday morning cartoon nicknames -- Inky, Wardo, O.B., L.P., Boo, Toby and Geno -- their organization's sordid history of management bumblings, are in second place, just 7 1/2 games behind the division-leading California Angels.

Have the proper authorities been notified?

This is the team that normally finds its way to the bottom of the American League West standings by, say, June. Game attendance dips into four figures. In the old days , you could hit fungoes into the Arlington Stadium seats and not hit anyone .

Of course, Ranger tradition called for at least one imbecilic trade or oversight a season. Remember Doyle Alexander, Walt Terrell, Ron Darling, Len Barker, Bert Blyleven, Bill Madlock, Rick Honeycutt, Jim Sundberg, Tom Henke, Juan Beniquez, Dave Righetti? That's right, all former Rangers. "There was a real lack of credibility throughout baseball as far as our organization," Valentine says.

First baseman Pete O'Brien was playing golf with Terrell and Darling, two of the organization's most promising pitchers, the day they were traded to the New York Mets for outfielder Lee Mazzilli. So upset was O'Brien, that he briefly questioned whether he was in the right profession. If those knuckleheads in the front office could do this to Terrell and Darling, just think of the possibilities with O'Brien.

O'Brien stayed and suffered through the 1982 season when the Rangers finished sixth, 29 games out of the lead; 1983, when they finished third, 22 games back, despite having led the division by two games at the All-Star break; 1984, when they finished seventh, 14 1/2 back and last season, when Texas ended up in last place again, this time 28 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Royals.

Now, you'd need a court order to evict O'Brien from the Rangers. Though time is running out, his team is in a pennant race and already has won more games than four of the last five Ranger teams. Attendance is up, too, an average of about 7,600 fans, and every time the Rangers play at home they reset their record. Recent local television ratings show Ranger viewership at an all-time high, up 27,500 households compared to 1985. And don't laugh, but Ranger playoff tickets have been ordered--just in case. Postseason hotel arrangements have been made. Media credentials and seating are being considered.

Now when the Angels glance over their shoulders, they don't see the Royals, but this strangely assembled Ranger team.

"It's like a Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid feeling, you know: 'Who are those guys?' " O'Brien said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to stay on (the Angels). If they falter, late in September, middle of September, heck, we could overtake them. It's going to be a lot of fun. It's going to be fun to see how September develops."

Said General Manager Tom Grieve: "Raw talent-wise, we've got more talent than (the Angels) do."

And this from third baseman Steve Buechele: "Everybody says we're the surprise team in the baseball. The only people not surprised by it are the people in this clubhouse."

Positioned happily in the middle of all this post-adolescent irreverence is Valentine, 36, youngest manager in the major leagues, younger than two of his players, four of his coaches. Young.

Valentine is a mover, a shaker. He was voted sexiest man in the Metroplex. He owns restaurants. He signs autographs until his wrist aches.

Take a drive here and you find the landscape dotted with V-Ball billboards. Bobby V. and big D are becoming tight.

This is Valentine's first full year as Ranger manager. Grieve, who at 38, is the youngest general manger in the big leagues, hired him to replace Doug Rader 32 games into last season.

Valentine and Grieve were teammates with the Mets. They used to stay up late at night and discuss personnel moves, baseball strategy, management techniques. When Grieve was named general manager in 1984, his first, and really his only, choice to rescue the Rangers was Valentine, who spent his time tending the third base coaches' box for the Mets.

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