During spring training, manager Bobby Valentine said his goal was to make the Texas Rangers the most improved team in baseball. Now that he has accomplished this, Valentine continues to push for more consistency, more improvement, and more victories from his Rangers, the surprise early leaders in the American League West. ``When I took over Texas partway into last season, I felt like a guy who had suddenly gotten off an airliner in some little-known foreign country and couldn't speak the language,'' Bobby says.
``My players didn't know what to expect from me, and coming over from the National League [where he had been a Mets' coach], I didn't know much about their strengths or weaknesses.
``Naturally I wanted to win big right away, and when we didn't, it was disappointing. But at least I was finding things out about my personnel.''
Valentine says that in his first training camp with the Rangers this spring, he no longer felt burdened by not knowing his material, even though eight members of his opening-day roster had less than one year of major league experience.
Instead of worrying about this lack of seasoning, which included five rookies on the pitching staff, Valentine opted to rely on the fresh talent. Result: Jose Guzman became the first rookie in five years to win on opening day; Ed Correa has been a solid starter; and Greg Harris, working out of the bullpen, already has 12 saves.
Bobby probably took an even bolder gamble when he made rookie outfielder Pete Incaviglia his cleanup hitter.
There are several things you should know about Mr. Incaviglia. First, Pete originally belonged to the Montreal Expos, who traded him to Texas when they were unable to satisfy his money demands. Second, although Incaviglia hit .464 last season, with 48 home runs and 143 runs batted in, he did so with Oklahoma State, where a curveball is often more like a gentle bend in the road than the sharp breaking stuff a batter sees in the majors.
The point is, those who play the lead in ``The Music Man'' for the local Grange chapter in Kearney, Neb., aren't usually the ones to do it on Broadway. And although Pete has had moments when he couldn't find his batting script, overall he has done extremely well, hitting with enough power to stay near the American League's home run leaders.
Other names who have earned a spot on the Rangers' marquee are first basemen Pete O'Brien, outfielder Oddibe McDowell, and third basemen Steve Buechele, although actually everybody on the roster has made some kind of meaningful contribution.
If Valentine isn't careful, his kids, his young veterans, and his well-seasoned veterans are apt to make him American League Manager of the Year. Piniella says Yanks need mound help
With the New York Yankees' pitching staff having trouble finishing what it starts, these have not been the best of times for rookie manager Lou Piniella. In fact, Piniella has reportedly told owner George Steinbrenner that he can't stay close to division leader Boston without adding another starting pitcher.
Yet when I talked with Lou a month ago on the West Coast, he said he was satisfied with his team and its close proximity to first place in the American League East.
``I think we're OK,'' Lou said. ``Even though the Red Sox have been playing extremely well, we're not that far behind in the loss column. All we need is continued improvement from our pitchers and hitters.'' As for trades, he said that the Yankees had nothing going. Reds just need to execute
Asked if his struggling Cincinnati Reds had any major deals in the works, player-manager Pete Rose replied: ``We don't need a trade to turn us around, because all the people we need to win are already here. Baseball, because of its long season, is different from other sports. A good team can get away poorly and still have time to right itself. And I still consider us a good team.''
On his own lack of hitting, Pete said: ``I had something like 65 at-bats coming into June. You don't judge anybody on figures like that. I'll be the first to know when I can't hit anymore. Nobody will have to tell me.''
Three starting pitchers on whom Rose was counting heavily -- Mario Soto, Tom Browning, and John Denny -- are all under .500. And reliever Ted Power, who had 27 saves in 1985, seems to have misplaced his rhythm. People need to be reminded, too, that 39 of Cincinnati's 89 victories last season were by one run. Even a minor shift in that department can result in major problems. Elsewhere in the majors
From Don Sutton of the California Angels, whose three-hit, 5-1, complete-game victory over the Texas Rangers made him only the 19th pitcher to win 300 major league games: ``I've always felt that a pitcher's job was to keep his team from losing. The winning part of it has to come from the eight other guys on the team, nine if you're talking the American League where they have the designated hitter. It's up to the other players to drive in the runs. After winning 300 games, I'll be remembered, but not in the same way that pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale have been remembered. Fans are always going to remember the spectacular performer ahead of the methodical one, and with only one 20-win season in my career, you'd have to call me methodical.''
Whenever a big league manager is fired partway into a season, it's always popular to say that he could no longer communicate with his players. That may have been true in the case of Jim Frey, whose players quit on him before he was fired by the Chicago Cubs. General manager Dallas Green confirmed this, while at the same time saying that he didn't blame Jim for what happened. Now the Cub job belongs to Gene (Stick) Michael, who was twice fired as Yankee manager.
Mickey Mantle expressed his gratitude to Reggie Jackson recently in a pregame ceremony at Anaheim Stadium, where he presented a trophy to the California Angel slugger for passing him on baseball's all-time home run list. ``When you've failed to make contact as much as Jackson and I did, 537 is a lot of home runs,'' Mantle said. ``I always told Reggie that sooner or later he'd get me out of the record books for most strikeouts, and about two years ago he did.''