The Yankees and the Rangers faced off three times in the postseason during the 1990s, with the pinstripes winning each of the Division Series matchups. Yet, a good argument can be made that the Yankees avoided having to face the best team in Rangers’ franchise history. That would have been the 1977 Rangers, who won 94 games but finished a distant second in the American League West. Instead of facing the Rangers, the Yankees squared off against a very fine Royals team managed by Whitey Herzog. We know the Yankees ended up winning that Championship Series in five games, but it’s interesting to consider what might have been against a very good group of ‘77 Rangers, who were recently profiled by longtime Star Telegram baseball writer Jim Reeves.
First and foremost, the Rangers had a dominant defensive team in 1977. Their catcher, the strong-armed Jim Sundberg, ranks as one of the greatest fielding receivers of all-time. The Texas infield, spearheaded by Mike Hargrove at first base and veteran Bert Campaneris at shortstop, provided reliable, sure handed fielding and adequate range. In the outfield, center fielder Juan Beniquez won the Gold Glove, while flanked capably by the speedy Claudell Washington in left field.
The Rangers’ defensive scheme supported a very good pitching staff, which stood behind only the Yankees and the Royals in the league rankings. Unlike their teams in the 1990s, the ‘77 Rangers had excellent starting pitching. They had a Hall of Fame ace in Gaylord Perry, a future Hall of Famer in Bert Blyleven (yes, he will make Cooperstown in January), a very capable junkballer in Doyle Alexander, and an efficient Dock Ellis, who pitched to the tune of a 2.90 ERA after joining the team in a mid-season trade with the A‘s. In a short best-of-five series (the format for the LCS in the 1970s), the Rangers’ front four would have been difficult to handle, though their lack of a left-handed starter might have been a concern against a lefty-laden Yankee team.
The Rangers, however, did not have nearly the same level of strength in the bullpen. Mike Marshall would have been their relief ace under normal circumstances, but injuries limited him to 12 appearances. Left-hander Paul Lindblad, normally a fine reliever, struggled through one of his worst campaigns. So the Rangers turned to journeyman right-hander Adrian Devine, who won 11 games and saved 15 others, but was hardly a dominant fireman, striking out a mere 67 batters in 105 innings. In front of Devine, the Rangers featured two competent left-handers in Darold Knowles and Rogelio “Roger” Moret, and a 21-year-old Len Barker, who had not yet established himself as a starting pitcher. All in all, a fairly mediocre bullpen.
Offensively, the Rangers ranked as a run-of-the-mill team in 1977. Out of 14 teams, they finished sixth in the American League in runs scored. They had only one hitter with more than 20 home runs, the perennially underrated Toby Harrah. No one slugged higher than .479. Given the absence of power, the Rangers relied more heavily on speed. Five of their players–Harrah, Bert Campaneris, Washington, Beniquez, and rookie Bump Wills–stole 20 or more bases. Combined with Harrah and Hargrove’s ability to draw walks, the Rangers’ speed allowed them to put pressure on opposing pitchers and catchers.
Given their speed, their starting pitching, and their defense, the Rangers would have provided a formidable opponent in a short series. But the nuts and bolts of the ‘77 Rangers tells only a small fraction of their story. From practically the opening day of spring training, the Rangers found themselves fraught with conflict and controversy. Let’s consider the following episodes:
*Veteran second baseman Lenny Randle became upset when the Rangers told him that he would have to compete for a starting position against Wills, the switch-hitting son of Maury Wills. When Randle found out that he had lost the job, he physically attacked manager Frank Lucchesi, who had referred to the veteran infielder as “a punk.” Lucchesi ended up in the hospital with broken ribs and a fractured cheekbone, while Randle landed on the 30-day suspended list before being traded to the Mets for backup infielder Rick Auerbach.
*After winning the first four games of the season, the Rangers settled into a pattern of playing .500 ball. The mediocrity frustrated tempestuous owner Brad Corbett, who began to have meetings with team president Eddie Robinson and general manager Eddie O’Brien. In mid-June, Ranger management decided to fire Lucchesi, replacing him with former major league infielder Eddie Stanky, who was the coach at South Alabama at the time. Known for his old school tenacity, Stanky seemed like an interesting and unconventional choice, but his tenure lasted only a few hours. Stanky resigned after one game, realizing that the stress of managing a major league team in the mid-1970s was simply not for him.
*Left in the lurch by Stanky, the Rangers hired third base coach Connie Ryan as their interim manager, offered the fulltime position to Harmon Killebrew (who turned it down) and then settled on longtime Orioles coach Billy Hunter. An extreme disciplinarian, Hunter restored order to the Rangers, stressed practice and fundamentals, and coaxed the team to a 60-33 finish. Some Rangers observers felt that if Hunter had managed the team from Opening Day, the Rangers might have significantly closed the eight-game gap between them and the Royals.
*The 1977 Rangers had their share of unique characters. Dock Ellis liked to wear his hair in pink curlers after games. Darold Knowles once described Reggie Jackson by saying, “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog.” Mike Marshall, a full-fledged rebel known for being abrasive with reporters, spouted his own unique theories on the mechanics of pitching. Johnny Ellis, a backup catcher-first baseman known for his toughness, would lead a player revolt against Hunter the following season. And perhaps most sadly, Roger Moret, troubled by mental illness, would fall into a five-hour catatonic trance while sitting in the Rangers clubhouse in 1978. A talented left-hander with a live arm, the 28-year-old Moret would never again pitch in a major league game.
Clearly, a revealing book could be written about the ‘77 Rangers, though it would lack the climactic finish provided by a postseason appearance. But there’s more to the ‘77 Rangers. A quick scan of the Rangers’ roster shows a stunning connection to the Yankee franchise. Three of the starting pitchers–Ellis, Alexander, and Perry–had pitched for the Yankees or would pitch for them in the future. Of the relievers, Lindblad would finish his big league career one year later, pitching for the Yankees.
A look at the position players reveals an even stronger tie to the Yankees. Campaneris and Harrah, the left side of the Ranger infield, would play for the Yankees in the 1980s. Randle, who did not play a game for the ‘77 Rangers, would play for the Yankees two years later. Two of the starting outfielders, Washington and Beniquez, would also play for New York. Backups Johnny Ellis, Sandy Alomar, and Jim Mason had previously played for the Yankees in the seventies. And the Rangers’ designated hitter, Willie Horton, would become Billy Martin’s “attitude coach” with the Yankees in 1985.
So what does this Yankee-Ranger connection mean? Other than the fact that the franchises have often made trades with each other, not much. But it is interesting to note that two of the most prominent of the current Yankees, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, happen to be former Rangers. Without much doubt, Tex and A-Rod will be two of the most critical factors in determining how the latest chapter of the Yankees vs. the Rangers plays itself out.
Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for The Hardball Times.