There was a time, as Texas Manager Billy Hunter recalled last week, when baseball owners were seen but generally not heard. They made a token appearance in spring training to welcome back the veterans, introduce themselves to the rookies and wish everybody a good season. That was it. Then they vanished into the boardroom.
"The George Steinbrenners and Ray Krocs have changed all that," said Hunter. "It doesn't seem to matter whether they're involved in shipping or hamburgers. If those kind of people don't like the way their ball club is performing, they're going to let the manager and the players know what they think."
Although he referred specifically only to Steinbrenner and Kroc, it is not likely that Hunter had forgotten about his own owner. Hardly. Six nights earlier Brad Corbett had kicked open the door of the Rangers' clubhouse, following a 2-1 loss to Milwaukee, and harangued Hunter, his coaching staff and all 25 players on their various shortcomings.
"It's incredible to me that this team—with all its talent—has scored 153 runs less than Kansas City," he shrieked, ignoring the fact that the number was actually 63. "We've got to start playing with some pride. We're going to have a winner here in Texas—if not this year, then next, though I haven't written off this year. It's certainly not because you guys aren't well paid. I'll go broke if I have to. I'll fire till I'm dry."
Nobody would call Brad Corbett chintzy, what with the high-priced free agents—Bert Campaneris, Doyle Alexander, Richie Zisk, Doc Medich and Mike Jorgensen—he has brought to Arlington in the past two years. Not to mention the salaries that he is paying to stars obtained in trades, like Jon Matlack, Al Oliver and Bobby Bonds. So far, however, all the Rangers have to show for Corbett's wheeling and dealing and spending is a second-place finish last season and a lot of high hopes for a strong finish this year.
The 2-1 loss to the Brewers was the fifth defeat of what was to become an eight-game losing streak for Texas, something the Rangers could ill afford since it came at a time when the division-leading Royals were in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. The Milwaukee loss was particularly galling to Corbett because it came in the 10th inning when Campaneris booted a grounder at short and Bump Wills dropped a pop-up behind second. Corbett waited until the final out, which reduced Texas' record to 46-48, 6½ games behind Kansas City. Then, with several belts under his belt, he headed for the Ranger clubhouse.
"At first he didn't say anything," says First Baseman Mike Hargrove. "But he was breathing mighty heavy."
"I didn't think anything of him coming down," says Oliver. "I know Brad is a leaper. The only thing I care about is the fact that we don't intimidate opponents the way those Pittsburgh Pirate teams I played on did. The Rangers have got the bats. We just haven't shown it out on the grass."
"You have to remember," says Hunter, "that most of our guys haven't been together very long and, believe it or not, playing together as a team is just as important in baseball as it is in, say, football. But when Brad says, 'Let's do it,' he means right now."
Corbett's outburst was hardly uncharacteristic. On July 4 last year he broke into tears following a 1-0 loss and said, "I'm selling this team because it's killing me. They're dogs on the field and they're dogs off the field." But Corbett did not sell his Rangers, though his problem then was the same as it is now: lots of stars but too many egos, lots of hitting but too many slumps, big thrills and big disappointments. In other words, feast and famine.
For example, the Rangers' vaunted infielders—Hargrove, Wills, Campaneris and Toby Harrah—are hitting an average of 55 points below their lifetime figures. Harrah, the whole show in Texas when the team moved there from Washington in 1972, is sulking. Hargrove, a steadfast, dedicated veteran, has an explanation for the team's failings. "I guess we're still trying to impress each other instead of the opposition," he says. "I know for myself, as a matter of pride, I want to show someone from the National League—like Al Oliver—that I'm a good hitter, too."
For their part, the outfielders have been either hot, horrid or hurt. Zisk, who was considered the top catch in last year's free-agent market and signed for a whopping $3 million, made Corbett look like a genius when he slugged a ninth-inning homer on opening day to beat the Yankees and their much-ballyhooed free agent, Rich Gossage.
But at one point Zisk went 25 games without a home run, then injured his hand on July 2 and went into a 4-for-51 slump before he would allow doctors to place the hand in a cast. The cast came off Monday. Oliver, who had missed a month with a pulled muscle, returned shortly after Zisk's injury and kept Texas respectable. In his last 15 games Oliver has smacked nine doubles and vaulted ahead of Catcher Jim Sundberg as the Rangers' leading hitter, .312 to .305 Oliver twice had four-hit nights during his hot spell, most recently last Friday in Chicago as Texas defeated the White Sox 9-5.
Bonds came back to life that same night, ending an 0-15 drought as a Ranger in Comiskey Park by stroking a pair of skyscraper home runs.
Anchored by Matlack, the former Met, the pitching staff has been surprisingly good. But although his 2.18 ERA is second in the league to the Yankees' Ron Guidry's, Matlack is just as starved for runs in Texas Stadium as he was in Shea Stadium. In his last 60 innings he has given up only seven earned runs, luckily coming away with a 3-1 record despite a curious silence from Texas' bats.
"Matlack has just been super," says Corbett. "But our defense is no good, and all we ever talk about is how good we are. When I went down to the clubhouse the other night, I said, 'All right, fellows, let's see it for a change.' I hear that Don Zimmer called us a collection of stars with no chemistry. Well, we have players who have been winners on other teams. I don't see why they can't do it in Texas. The business world is different. I know exactly what to do there. The problems are tangible. The problem with the Rangers is ego—as in 25 different ones. I'll tell you it's pretty frustrating trying to deal with something like that."
Away from the ball park, Corbett is a cool customer. A native of Long Island whose own major league baseball aspirations fizzled out deep in the minors in Fargo, N. Dak., Corbett has the appearance of a man who is always between weights. You can't tell by looking at him whether it is the trim ex-athlete or the fatso that is struggling to get out. He moved to Fort Worth in 1968 and two years later was a millionaire at 32, parlaying a $300,000 Small Business Administration loan into a fortune in the plastic-pipe and chemical-tubing business. He is president of Robintech, Inc., a company with 18 plants in eight states. With his financial success goes the company Learjet and a nationful of friends and business associates. He thinks nothing of taking 50 people to dinner at the Pimlico Hotel in Baltimore, throws a lavish party at the Boca Raton Club every year during spring training and knows a '67 Lafite-Rothschild from a bottle of Lancer's Rosè. In New York he stays at the Sherry-Netherland and in Chicago at the plush Whitehall Hotel, where the Rolling Stones holed up for two weeks during their recent American tour.
Corbett bought the debt-ridden Rangers two days before the 1974 season began and Texas nearly beat out the world champion Oakland A's for the division title. Attendance almost doubled that year and has remained at over a million every season since.
Like Charlie Finley, Corbett is shrewd, hyperemotional, a workaholic and omnipresent. And also like Finley, he doesn't seem to know when to stop maneuvering and let his players get used to one another.
"Brad became a successful businessman by selling one plant here and then buying another one over there," says Texas General Manager Danny O'Brien. "It means I have to be, shall we say, very flexible."
Some people—Archimedes for one—get their brightest ideas in the bathtub. More often than not Corbett receives his inspiration while poring over sports pages and record books with 14-year-old Brad Jr. Indeed, Corbett readily admits it was the youngster who had the final say on a proposed Harrah-for-Graig Nettles trade with the Yankees in the spring of 1977. One night the phone rang at the Corbett home in Fort Worth and Yankee General Manager Gabe Paul, thinking he had Brad Sr. on the line, said, "Brad, are we going through with that Nettles-for-Harrah deal we were talking about?"
"No," said Brad Jr., who then hung up. And that was the end of that.
When the Rangers lose three or four in a row, Corbett has been known to turn manic. He is not above leaping onto a chair in the Stadium Club and quivering from head to toe with delight when a particularly appealing example of logic strikes him. His finest moments in this regard occurred at the winter meetings in Hawaii last December when he almost single-handedly engineered a four-team transaction involving 11 players that netted him Matlack and Oliver in return for six players of his own.
"Do you think this is the biggest deal ever made?" he shouted. Burt Hawkins, the Rangers' traveling secretary, informed him that it wasn't, that there had been a 17-player swap in 1954. But Corbett was already yelling at someone on the telephone.
"I did it! I did it!" he was saying. "I got Oliver and Matlack.... What do you mean I gave up too much...? This is the biggest deal.... Here, Paul, you explain to him what this means for the Rangers."
"Who is it?" said Paul Hagan, a Dallas Times Herald writer, taking the phone.
"It's Brad Jr.," said Corbett.
That's no victory cigar for Corbett, whose money hasn't yet bought Texas happiness or a pennant.