Ron LeFlore is a 22-year-old center-fielder who has less than two years of professional experience and learned his baseball during a 38-month hitch at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, where such big-league staples as breaking balls and night games were absent. Yet his hits and base running have been instrumental in five of Detroit's victories. Last week, the Tigers were hot off a five-game winning streak in which LeFlore, who bats leadoff, had homered twice.
The week took LeFlore back to the site of his Aug. 1, 1974 major league debut, Milwaukee's County Stadium, where he had struck out three times in four at bats. And who should the opposing pitcher be but Jim Slaton, the very man who had given him such a humiliating initiation.
Slaton and LeFlore faced each other as the game began at 6 p.m., an hour that qualifies as daytime to satisfy the player-owner agreement that a night game should not precede an afternoon contest on a getaway day. In this twinight zone Slaton again hoped to tease LeFlore with outside breaking pitches. LeFlore waited him out. Slaton fell behind and was forced to come in with fast-balls. Thwack! And thwack twice again. LeFlore hit two singles and a double—60% of Detroit's offense in a 6-2 loss. Slaton was impressed.
The next day three of Detroit's pitchers absorbed a 17-3 pounding, but LeFlore had a single and a triple, stole a base and caused two Milwaukee throwing errors. "He's improved 100% over last year," said the winning pitcher, Pete Broberg.
With a .284 average and five stolen bases in the team's first 17 games, LeFlore was almost on target for his seasonal goals of a .300 average and 60 thefts, a feat last performed in Detroit by Ty Cobb.
But his manager, Ralph Houk, says realistically, "We won't know about him until we've played every team at least once. Then they'll have scouting reports on him, which I'm sure they never bothered to do last year."
Last summer LeFlore was brought up from Evansville and inserted in the starting lineup after Mickey Stanley suffered a broken hand. Having played just nine games of Triple A ball, LeFlore botched flies and lunged after bad pitches. But with the Tigers well out of the race and no substitute pressing him, he had time to improve, finishing the season with a .260 average and 23 steals in 59 games.
Reflecting on his progress, managers began to speak of him as one of the most promising young players in the league. Certainly he is one of the swiftest. "If a race were held between LeFlore and Claudell Washington of our club," says the A's world-class sprinter, Herb Washington, "the winner would be the second-fastest runner in baseball." Says Milwaukee Shortstop Robin Yount, "On one play last year he hit a hard shot at me and I threw quickly to first. Bang-bang. Just got him. From the right side he's the fastest to first I've seen."
LeFlore can steal second from a short lead and a late jump. He usually works his way on base by slapping the ball to right and right center. He is also the kind of ballplayer who can look ridiculous on two pitches and hit the third one out. Talk of stardom, though, is premature. LeFlore has weaknesses and is still picking up pointers he ordinarily would have learned in the minors. The Tigers would love to see him bunting on the American League's 10 grass infields, but so far he hasn't the knack. He is no longer an easy mark on inside pitches, but he can't pull them with power, and he still strikes out far too often on curves. Additionally, fly balls are sometimes cause for embarrassment. In the Milwaukee series Henry Aaron hit a lazy fly perhaps 10 yards short of him. LeFlore moved in, stopped, moved again and took it on the bounce. "LeFlore's got his own wind out there," said a press-box wit. LeFlore readily admits, "I'm still not familiar with all the fundamentals of baseball," but maintains that his fielding, bunting and hitting are coming along fine.
Learning to hit breaking balls and play under the lights are not the only adjustments Ron LeFlore is making. They are, in a sense, the least difficult for him.
"I told Ron that people would ask a lot of questions, and he had to answer them," says Tiger pinch hitter Gates Brown, an ex-con himself. "Because he's playing in his hometown, he also could have the problem of falling back into the same environment he came from. I know that because every time I go back to Ohio, guys I was in the joint with come up to me, and they haven't changed. You have to say hello and goodby to people like that. And Ron has to be careful of the way he acts because people will be looking for things."
Accordingly, LeFlore lives at his parents' house, doesn't question umpires and does answer questions, no matter how personal. A television announcer once introduced him as a man who had gone "from stealing cars to stealing bases." LeFlore winced. "I never stole cars," he said later. He had, however, been a thief.
Although Leflore's background on the East Side of Detroit was middle class, he stole $1,000 from a supermarket when he was 11 by probing a cash deposit box with a stick that had a wad of gum attached to it. He went on to con games, shoplifting and casual heroin sniffing. At 17 LeFlore was sentenced to 5 to 15 years for armed robbery.
The State Prison of Southern Michigan is no Attica, but it isn't exactly a country club, either. LeFlore had fights, spent several months in solitary and saw a man murdered by a rival over a third inmate's affections.
LeFlore turned to sports, picking up 25 trophies in baseball, basketball and football. Hearing of his .569 prison average, the Tigers got him out for a day's tryout (on June 16, 1973, his 21st birthday) and assigned him to their Clinton, Iowa farm club when he was paroled two weeks later. In 13 months he completed the change from prison denim to Tiger double knit.
"There are a lot of people in prison who could play professional sports," LeFlore says, "but society doesn't want a thing to do with them. It seems to me that if you've committed a crime and gone to jail, you've paid the price."
To baseball's doubting employers the Tigers could point out that LeFlore has been applauded everywhere in the league and is something of a folk hero in Detroit. Besides, ex-cons have one distinct advantage over other rookies. "I guarantee there's no pressure on us," says Gates Brown. "Not after what we've been through."