Rage in the Clubhouse!

sunberg

The first piece I wrote for SDI was the sad story of promising outfield prospect George Wright, who was basically hounded out of the game by mercurial Rangers manager Doug Rader.

While my sympathies lie with Wright, Rader is a far more interesting story. His tenure in the Rangers clubhouse was highlighted by temper tantrums, verbal abuse, contempt for respected veterans and downright nasty treatment of the local news media.

Manager Doug Rader in the Rangers dugout

Manager Doug Rader in the dugout

Full disclosure: Although I was covering the Rangers at the time and attended several post-game sessions, I never asked Rader a question. Didn’t have the nerve.

Here are the bare facts: Hired in November 1982; never finished above .500; Rangers fired him in 1985, after 2 years and 2 months on the job.

Rader had enjoyed an 11-year playing career, mostly with the Astros, as a light-hitting, slick-fielding third baseman who won five consecutive Golf Gloves.

He was known as a good player, a good teammate and a “flake,” a label he protested – “I was never a flake,” he said – but the facts say otherwise.

Once during a TV interview, Rader advised Little Leaguers to eat bubble gum cards because “they have lots of good information on them.”

A Houston teammate invited himself, and his wife, to Rader’s house. Rader wasn’t in the mood for company, so he greeted them at the door, buck naked. They left. He told a Houston reporter, “It works every time.”

One of his teammates had a notoriously weak stomach, so in the dugout, Rader would get the teammate’s attention and then stick bubble gum up his nose.

And one time when a teammate’s family sent a birthday cake into the clubhouse, Rader climbed up on the table and took a dump right on the cake.

Rader was the Rangers’ 11th manager in 12 years. For those who weren’t paying attention before Ron Washington, and are accustomed to managers who last more than a season, this may seem strange, but that’s the way it was back then. The team changed managers, GMs, even owners just about every time they bought a new desk calendar. Veteran Chicago baseball writer Bernie Lincicome wrote, “Texas has been a franchise governed by impulse, impatience and poor judgment.”

Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Frank Lucchesi, Don Zimmer – none of them made it through a third season. It got to the point where few beat writers, or players, invested in getting to know the managers because they’d just be gone soon.

But even considering that track record, hiring Rader was one of the worst personnel decisions the team ever made. And it was bad from day one – the other finalist was Jim Leyland, who went on to win pennants in both leagues and one World Series championship.

The situation then worsened because Rader, as he admitted later, acted “like a jerk.” Everyone agreed that Rader the player was a fierce, relentless competitor on the field. His nickname was “Red Rooster.” As a manager, he expected similar ferocity from his players. When it didn’t happen, he all but lost control.

He became a profane, angry, tyrant whose behavior grew more reckless and, rather than confronting players constructively in private, he criticized them publicly and harshly – just as he had done with George Wright.

As the great Jim Reeves wrote in a Star-Telegram retrospective, “Rader would prove to be a disaster as a manager and a leader, and his dispirited players lost all hope in the miserable atmosphere that enveloped the team.”

After a game in which young, raw closer Tom Henke allowed a run to score on a wild pitch, Rader told reporters, “I don’t think he has the guts to throw the ball over the plate.” Henke was gone by the end of the 1984 season. He went on to earn 237 saves in eight seasons with Toronto.

Later that same year, Rader stormed the mound and angrily dressed down starter Dave Stewart in front of a full stadium, for allowing a home run. Stewart was sent packing, too. He won 119 games over eight seasons for the Hated A’s.

Rader also managed to alienate rock-steady veterans like third baseman Buddy Bell and outfielder Larry Parrish with his harsh ways.

“He took everything too personally,” said Bell.

Rader didn’t like the media much, either. After the team had lost four straight in Kansas City, a post-game question so enraged him that he flung a pair of pants on top of a writer’s head. In another instance, Rader got angry with a writer and responded to his every question with the same two-word expletive, for ten straight days.

But for me – and for most Rangers fans – the final black mark in Rader’s book was running off the team’s most popular player, Jim Sundberg.

Nice guy "Sunny" Jim Sundberg

Nice guy “Sunny” Jim Sundberg

Rader didn’t like the fact that Sundberg was a non-confrontational guy with a good sense of humor who got along with everyone. Sundberg had also learned to avoid home-plate collisions, which prolonged his career – but Rader wanted players who ate nails and gunpowder for breakfast.

The tipping point came in a 1983 game the Rangers would lose. At one point late in the contest, with a runner on third, Sunny lost track of the count. The count was actually 3-and-1, but the scoreboard operator had mistakenly posted it as 2-and-2. The next pitch was a strike, Sunny thought it was the third out and rolled the ball back to the pitcher’s mound. The runner scored and Rader’s head exploded.

“The guy just didn’t like me,” said Sundberg. “I made a mistake, and he aired me out in front of the whole club, like he was looking for situations to belittle me.”

Rader demanded the team get rid of Sundberg, one of his two best players, because he wanted “a different kind of human being.” So Sunny went to Milwaukee in return for Brewers catcher Ned Yost.

Rader said, “We made the deal because Ned Yost is a better catcher than Jim Sundberg. Period.”

Here are the facts:

Sundberg won six consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1976 to 1981, leading AL catchers in fielding percentage, putouts and assists. He was Rookie of the Year and made three All-Star Teams. He averaged catching 126 games a year in his 12 Rangers seasons. Richard Kendall of the Society for American Baseball Research dubbed him the third most dominating fielding catcher in major league history. In his 16-year career, Sundberg’s average caught-stealing rate was 41%. His career bWAR, with the Rangers, was 34.7.

Ned Yost lasted one season with Texas. He caught 80 games. His caught-stealing rate was 17%. His bWAR was -3.4.

After the 1984 season, Rader met with Sundberg, apologized for his inexcusable behavior and begged him to come back. Sundberg said no, and went on to Kansas City where he won a World Series ring. He didn’t return to the Rangers until 1988.

By then, Rader was long gone, fired after the 1985 Texas club started 9-23. He became a base coach for the White Sox and Tony LaRussa in 1986, that lasted one season. He was named manager of the Angels in 1989, and was fired when the 1991 team fell from first place to last in a month. He joined the Marlins as a coach in 1992, left in 1994 and has been out of baseball since.

Asked to sum up his time with the Rangers, he said, “I got so out of line … that I became terrible. I was hard and mean with them, short-tempered and sarcastic. I look back on that and say to myself, ‘You really were an idiot.’”

He won’t find many to disagree.

Joe Stroop
I was a sports reporter in DFW throughout the 70s and 80s. I'm a former member of BBWAA and shared the Arlington Stadium press box with all the big boys. I'm here to remind you of the past. I own a Nokona.

One comment

  • Doug Rader worked as the hitting coach for the A’s in 91′ I was there. One of the best guys ever. He talked to me man to man. Firm but fair also shared his Red Man tobacco with me during BP and when I took too much (AZ sunshine will do that), I almost past out he bet me $5 I didn’t make it to the drinking fountain in the dugout. lol I made it, he never paid !

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