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A good sign for the Cubbies

Hard-hitting Keith Moreland is making a name for himself with Chicago

Red-haired, blue-eyed Bobby Keith Moreland, variously the catcher, leftfielder, third baseman and rightfielder for the Chicago Cubs, is a strawberry statement from Texas who angles for catfish, hunts for quail, drinks blended whiskey, dips smokeless tobacco and is something of a universal baseball machine, what with playing all those positions and batting a tough cleanup. At week's end, as the sixth-place Cubs were on the rise with seven wins in their last nine games, Moreland was among the National League Top 10 in hitting (.351), homers (eight), runs batted in (29), slugging percentage (.595), on-base percentage (.390) and hits (46).

Moreland moved to Chicago from the Phillies last December as part of the Green Connection—that busload of players and other personnel who accompanied Chicago General Manager Dallas Green from Philadelphia. To get Moreland, the Cubs had to part with their most consistent starting pitcher, Mike Krukow. "On this club we felt Keith's versatility would help, especially on offense," says Green, who managed Moreland for two-plus seasons in Philly. "He's a winner, he plays hard, and we needed somebody other than Bill Buckner to drive in runs. I have great confidence in Keith in RBI situations. He just gears up." Sometimes he seems to go into overdrive, as on May 7, when he had two homers and seven RBIs in a 12-6 win over Houston.

Even as a pinch hitter and substitute catcher with the Phillies, Moreland was an outstanding batter. Coming into this season he had a .291 lifetime average—.314 in 1980—and had hit .333 as a designated hitter in the 1980 World Series.

Moreland says he'll never contend for the Triple Crown, his current stats notwithstanding. "To win a batting title you've got to run well and usually hit from the left side," says Moreland, a righthanded batter with below-average speed. "And to win the home run title you've got to be as powerful and consistent as a Mike Schmidt or George Foster [Moreland's high was 20 homers with Oklahoma City in 1979]. I'd like to bat .300 and drive in 100 runs. That would be a great season."

Moreland is as gracious as he is talented. Last week he actually thanked a photographer for taking his picture. That was hardly startling, considering that Moreland seems to be deeply grateful for the smallest of life's favors. "I was fortunate enough to grow up in Carrolton, Texas, outside Dallas, where they have an excellent Little League program," he says. "I was fortunate enough to play on a world championship Connie Mack team. At R.L. Turner High School I had a great coach, Jim Arnold, who had winning teams every year. Then I was lucky enough to play on the 1975 national championship team at Texas and for the Phillies when they won the World Series. Everywhere along the line I've had great people and great programs.

"Why am I playing so well this year? Because I've been living in a tree, as we say in baseball. Lucky. I've hit the ball as hard before, but it seemed like a lot of them got caught. This year, every time I make contact, it drops in or goes out of the park. Even when I don't make good contact, it drops between people."

As he spoke, Moreland was relaxing at his condo in a complex in Glenview, a Chicago suburb. It was twilight and he could see geese landing on a pond near the complex's tennis courts. In the driveway a pair of Datsuns, Keith's Maxima and wife Cindy's 280ZX, were parked side by side. In the living room Lacy, a poodle, was romping with Cleo, a beagle. Cindy, a tawny brunette, was brushing the long blonde tresses of the Morelands' 4½-year-old daughter, Courtney, who is as fetching as a young Cinderella.

Moreland spit some Skoal into an empty beer bottle. "I know the Cubs would be more competitive if we had lights at Wrigley Field," he said, repeating Green's standard line, "but it's nice getting up early and coming home in time to see your kid before she's gone to bed."

It's easy to recognize Moreland at the park. He wears long sleeves even in hot weather, the better to protect his freckled arms from the sun. He gets a lot of fever blisters on his lips—another redhead's malady. And every spring he grows a beard to keep the Florida sun off his fair face. "I shave when I head north," he says, "because if I don't it gets orange and I look like Bozo."

"Before Courtney was born, Keith said he didn't care how she turned out, just as long as she wasn't a redhead," Cindy interjects.

"It's get tough or die," explains Keith, "like being a boy named Sue. You get kidded so much about your hair. People call you 'a red bump on a log' and some other things I can't repeat. Sometimes they don't even remember your name. It's 'Red this' and 'Red that.' "

Originally a third baseman, Moreland was switched to catcher by the Phils during the 1976 Instructional League season so his bat wouldn't languish in Schmidt's shadow. By the last half of the 1981 season, he had deposed Bob Boone as the Phillie starter. Nonetheless, Philadelphia let him go in favor of Bo Diaz, who was acquired from Cleveland.

"I supposedly couldn't throw out runners, but the Phillies have a guy now who has a tremendous arm, and he's not throwing out runners," Moreland says. "Their pitchers just have a tough time holding men on."

Through May 4 opponents were successful in 24 of 35 attempts to steal—including 11 of their first 12—on More-land, but Chicago Manager Lee Elia says that's not the reason Moreland was moved. Jody Davis, who is less versatile, is the catcher now. "I'd still like to catch," Moreland says, "but the main thing is to find one position and stick with it." Though he seems to have found a home in right, some observers feel his optimum spot may be as a designated hitter in the American League.

Then there's the matter of Moreland's football career, without which he might never have reached the majors. He wasn't drafted after his senior year in high school, and he attended Texas on a football scholarship, playing a little defensive back for Darrell Royal. "People talk about college baseball as if it's a holdback," he says. "Hey, I played in the 1973 College World Series with guys like Fred Lynn [not to mention Dave Winfield and at least 16 other future major-leaguers]. Besides, I wasn't that great a football player. That's just publicity."

At Texas, Royal told Moreland he could miss spring practice only if he were likely to start in baseball. He did that and more, becoming an All-America and Southwest Conference Player of the Year before being drafted at the end of his junior season. As for football, Cindy remembers, "I watched him play in the Cotton Bowl. I kept jumping up and down every time I saw him. Then his cousin sitting behind me said it was no big thing: He was only playing on the special teams."

Even so, the football identity has stayed with him. After day games in Class A ball at Spartanburg, S.C. he would play water football—a playful if potentially brutal game contested in the shallow end of a pool. Because Moreland was hard to bring down, teammates began calling him Zonk, after Larry Csonka, and the nickname has stuck.

"Football did get me used to playing before large crowds and hearing boos," he says. The Cubs believe football also made him tough, motivated, competitive—a gamer.

Atlanta Pitcher Bob Walk is the last to dispute that description. "Earlier this year we were ahead by 10 runs, so I thought I'd see what he could do with my fastball," says Walk. "I'll never throw him one again."

You might say he zonked it.