T.R.’s Memoirs: Jim Sundberg, Texas Rangers great, reflects on stellar career (Part II)
(Photo courtesy of Jim Sundberg)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers over 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com, and is sharing his “memoirs” with this newsletter.
In the second of two parts, Sullivan sits down with Rangers legend Jim Sundberg to get the six-time Gold Glove catcher to reminisce about his distinguished 16-year career, including his clashes with manager Billy Martin and Doug Rader.
The Kansas City Royals won the American League West in 1984 with a modest record of 84-78.
They had good young starting pitching, a premier closer in Dan Quisenberry and a Hall of Fame third baseman in George Brett, who led an offense built more around speed than power.
They were swept by the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, and manager Dick Howser knew what he wanted to get the Royals to the World Series. He wanted a veteran catcher who could guide a potentially formidable rotation of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black.
He wanted Jim Sundberg.
At the time, Sundberg had enjoyed an All-Star year with the Milwaukee Brewers, re-establishing himself as one of the best catchers in baseball after one final tortuous ’83 season in Texas under manager Doug Rader. Sundberg threw out 50 percent of attempted base stealers in 1984, best in the American League at a time when teams were running like crazy.
But the Brewers, who had acquired Sundberg before the 1984 season, had a good young catcher in Bill Schroeder. They felt he was ready to be a No. 1 guy. Sundberg was looking at becoming a backup, so he formally requested a trade.
In making the demand, Sundberg was forfeiting his right to a $250,000 bonus if he was traded. Sundberg, according to the terms of his six-year contract, received that bonus from the Rangers when they traded him to the Brewers.
But the bonus was not owed if Sundberg actually demanded a trade as was his right as a 10-year player.
Then, on Monday. Jan 14, 1985, Sundberg got a call at his home in Arlington from veteran baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby, who was working for the Kansas City Star. Ringolsby, extremely well-connected in the business, told Sundberg that the Brewers and the Royals were deep in trade conversations.
“Dick Howser wants you,” Ringolsby told Sundberg. “He thinks they can win the World Series if they get you to work with the young pitchers.”
Sundberg thanked Ringolsby for the information.
“Can you let me know how it is moving along?” Sundberg said.
“Sure,” Ringolsby said.
Three days later, that Thursday, Ringolsby called Sundberg again.
“The deal is coming down tomorrow,” Ringolsby said. “They are trading for you tomorrow.”
Sundberg then made a brilliant move. He called Major League Baseball in New York and officially rescinded his trade demand.
“It puts the entire $250,000 back on the table,” Sundberg recalled. “The next morning, [Brewers GM] Harry Dalton calls me. He’s kind of hee-hawing. He says, ‘Jim, we got a trade worked out for you to go to Kansas City. We think it would be good, but I see you withdrew your trade demand.’”
“Yeah,” Sundberg told Dalton. “Tell you what. I’ll meet you halfway [on the $250,000 bonus] and we’ll call it a deal.”
“Done,” Dalton said.
It was actually a complicated four-way deal engineered by Dalton between the Brewers, Royals, Mets and the Rangers. Sundberg ended up in Kansas City with the Rangers getting catcher Don Slaught from the Royals while sending pitcher Danny Darwin to the Brewers.
Brewers owner Bud Selig wasn’t too happy Sundberg squeezed $125,000 out of him.
“Bud Selig saw me the next year at the World Series in an elevator and didn’t talk to me,’” Sundberg said. “They don’t like you playing hardball back in their face. Especially Bud. Bud did not like that.”
The Royals loved it. Sundberg was everything Howser hoped for in a veteran catcher. The Royals repeated in the AL West with 91 wins, then beat the Blue Jays in seven games in the ALCS and the Cardinals in seven to win the World Series.
Sundberg’s three-run triple was the decisive hit in the Royals’ 6-2 win over Toronto in the final game of the ALCS. He was also 6-for-24 with six runs scored in the World Series. But it was his work with the young pitching that made the whole trade worthwhile for the Royals.
“He brought a reliability and dependability to our pitching staff,” said Black, now manager of the Colorado Rockies. “Steadiness … I love that steadiness. As a group, we were relatively young and he was a veteran. He worked great with all of us, and the trust level that we had for with him was big for our success. In so many ways he brought out the best of us just because of his presence.”
You want to know one reason why Sundberg went to Kansas City?
Because he turned down a chance to go back to Texas and play for Rader.
Sunny and Billy
Sundberg was a rookie in 1974 when he got a chance to talk to Bill Freehan, a 12-time All-Star catcher with the Tigers. Freehan had played for Billy Martin in Detroit before he was fired late in the 1973 season. Martin had been out a job for about a week before being hired by the Rangers as manager, and now Sundberg was going to be his catcher.
Freehan told Sundberg, “Billy is going to be tough, man. I’ll tell you right now. You are just going to have to hang in there and do the best you can. He thinks the game centers around the catcher, and he’s going to be rough on the catcher.”
Everything was great in 1974, when the Rangers surprised everybody with an 84-76 second-place finish after losing 105 games the year before. But it all fell apart in 1975 when the Rangers started losing, and Sundberg was reminded almost nightly about what Freehan told him.
“Billy would always say to me, ‘If the game is on the line, you don’t let the hitter hit a fastball,’” Sundberg said. “It had to be a breaking ball. And Jim Fregosi kept saying, ‘It’s because Billy couldn’t hit a breaking ball.’
“I would get in major trouble, but it didn’t make sense from a game-calling standpoint. It didn’t make sense and doesn’t today. Then he would say to me, ‘If you want to know what to call, just look at me and I’ll tell you want to call in certain situations.
“Well, every time we’d get where the game was on the line and I would be a good soldier and ask him, he would not be looking at me or he is getting a drink of water. I’m sitting there and the pitcher is waiting for the call. Finally, I made a call, and whatever got hit was the wrong call. That deteriorated our relationship.”
The shit hit the fan July 5 in Minnesota with Ferguson Jenkins on the mound. Sitting in the stands were owner Brad Corbett and club president Bobby Brown.
In a crucial situation, Martin had Rod Carew walked with two outs to load the bases so Jenkins could pitch to Dan Ford. Sundberg kept calling for the breaking ball and Jenkins kept calling him off.
Finally, Jenkins threw a fastball and Ford hit a two-run single.
“And I hear bats and helmets flying in the dugout,” Sundberg said. “He’s on the top of the steps, his veins are popping and he’s looking at me. So, I go into the dugout and he jumps me. This is the first time I stand up for myself … ’I didn’t throw the pitch. Fergie threw the pitch. He is a seven-time 20-game winner. You go talk to him.’”
Sundberg’s night ended when Tom Grieve pinch-hit for him. The Rangers lost, 5-4, and Sundberg knew Martin would be in a foul mood in the clubhouse. He sat on the bench and then took his time walking back to the clubhouse.
Brown and Martin, who had once been teammates with the Yankees, were screaming at each other.
“You’ll send Sundberg down to the minor leagues over my dead body!!” Brown screamed at Martin.
“That’s what I hear coming into the clubhouse, and all the guys are scampering into the training room or getting out the way,” Sundberg said. “They are going head-to-head. Billy wanted to send me down because I let Fergie shake me off. He was fired two weeks after that incident. He was gone.”
Martin was replaced by Frank Lucchesi, a highly successful minor-league manager who had also managed the Phillies. Lucchesi made a point of supporting Sundberg, but he also wore him down by catching him every day. Sundberg ended up hitting .199 as he wilted in the Texas heat.
The following year, Sundberg hit .228 but people finally recognized his defensive prowess. Sundberg earned the first of six straight Gold Gloves.
Best catcher in the league
From 1977-81, over a five-year period, a strong case could be made that Jim Sundberg was the best catcher in the American League. That’s right, the best.
According to baseball-reference.com and Wins Above Replacement, Sundberg had a 21.3 WAR over those five years, second only to Hall of Famer Gary Carter of the Expos at 26.2. According to FanGraphs, Sundberg and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk were tied for first at 19.2 among AL catchers.
In the baseball-reference rankings, four of the top six were Hall of Famers. Carter led, followed by Sundberg, Gene Tenace and Hall of Famers Fisk, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench. Of course, those five years were at the tail end of Bench’s incredible career. Beyond that list were Thurman Munson, Darrell Porter, Lance Parrish.
“I think the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s were the Golden Era for catchers,” Sundberg said. “I don’t know if another era had so many good catchers.”
But the July 29, 1978, issue of The Sporting News had Jim Sundberg on the cover with a simple headline:
The evidence was compelling, beginning when Billy Hunter took over as Rangers manager during the chaotic summer of 1977. Hunter was the Rangers’ fourth manager when he took over June 28. The Rangers were 34-35 and in fifth place in the AL West.
“I loved Billy Hunter,” Sundberg said. “Billy Hunter was good for me. He came on the scene when I was being pinch-hit for a lot. I became a seven-inning, eight-inning catcher, and that just ate at me. When Billy Hunter came on, he stopped that. One of the reason he stopped that was my career batting average against Baltimore was .301. He came from Baltimore, so he had seen me hit well against good pitching.”
Sundberg, with the help of Fregosi, had developed the “inside-out” swing that helped him use all fields. Hunter also used Sundberg more on the hit-and-run play. The result was Sundberg became a terror at the plate.
Over the final three months of the 1977 season, and the first three months of ’78, Sundberg played in 154 games and hit .333 with 24 doubles, five triples, seven home runs, 67 runs scored and 71 RBIs. His defense was as good as ever. He was the Rangers Player of the Year in 1977 and was an All-Star in 1978.
He kept it up for three more years while catching around 150 games a year. Sundberg was a .275 hitter from 1979-81 while finishing off his run with three more Gold Gloves.
What ended the run of Gold Gloves?
“I never won a Gold Glove after catching Charlie,” Sundberg said.
Hough was a knuckleballer who was brutal on his catchers. The Rangers acquired him July 16 1980, first as a reliever and then moved him into the rotation late in the 1981season. He became a full-time starter for the Rangers in 1982 and stayed there for nine outstanding years.
Over Sundberg’s first six years, from 1974-79, he had 42 passed balls. From 1980-83, he had 51 passed balls in four seasons.
“I used to have nightmares catching Charlie,” Sundberg said. “I used to wake up in the middle of the night shaking. It was so erratic, jumping up in bed. It would wake Janet up, and she would say, ‘You’re having another Charlie Hough dream again, aren’t you?’ I would have dreams I would get hit in the face without wearing a mask.”
Soon, Hough wouldn’t be the only one giving Sundberg nightmares.
Sunny and the Tahitian Warlord
The Rangers lost 98 games in 1982, firing manager Doug Zimmer midseason and finishing with Darrell Johnson as the interim. New general manager Joe Klein went looking for a new manager after the season and hired Doug Rader.
Rader had 11 solid seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the Astros, and then three winning seasons as a manager for Triple A Hawaii. He also felt he would have been better off in another time as a Tahitian Warlord.
He was pretty much that with the Rangers. Before he even showed up for his first spring training, Rader had a few things to say about the Rangers’ most popular player.
Longtime baseball writer Phil Rogers chronicled it in his 1989 history of the Rangers: The Impossible Takes a Little Longer.
“I’ve heard Sunny doesn’t always go hard into first base or that he doesn’t always round first base hard,” Rader said. “I’m going to expect players to go hard at all times.”
This about a guy who was catching some 150 games a year.
But what may have irked Rader more than anything was Sundberg rejecting the offseason trade to the Dodgers that would have brought future All-Star pitchers Orel Hershiser and Dave Stewart to Texas. Sundberg turned down the deal because the Dodgers wanted to renegotiate the contract.
“So, I stayed in Texas and Doug made sure I wasn’t going to stay another year,” Sundberg said. “It was like he was set on it. For some reason I don’t think he liked my style of play. It didn’t hit with him. I don’t know if I wasn’t aggressive enough, mean enough.
“It was an awful year.”
There was the night of Aug. 6 in Cleveland when Sundberg was 2-for-3 with three RBIs in a 6-1 victory. But after a two-run single in the second inning, Sundberg was thrown out trying to steal on a 2-2 pitch.
“I got onto first base, Rich Donnelly was the first-base coach, and the count [to the hitter Bucky Dent] is getting deep. And I look on the scoreboard and it says, 3-2. But I’m thinking, I kind of lost track of the count, and I turned to Rich and I said, ‘Is the count 3-2?’
“He says, ‘Yeah, you are running.’ So, I take off, the count was 2-2 and I get thrown out. We win the game but Doug Rader rips me a new asshole after the game.”
It was another tough season under a mercurial manager and Sundberg struggled offensively, hitting .201. Rader had seen enough.
“I don’t think we can go much farther with Jim Sundberg,” Rader said, according to Rogers. “I think we need a different kind of human being. We need a little more offense out of that position, and a little more overt get-up-and-go.”
Sundberg was traded to the Brewers for part-time catcher Ned Yost. The Rangers also got minor-league pitcher Dan Scarpetta in the deal.
“We made the deal because Yost is a better player,” Rader said. “I would have traded him even up.”
It was a disastrous trade for the Rangers. Sundberg had an All-Star year for the Brewers and Yost hit .182 for the Rangers while being treated for an eye issue.
And yet …
There was a surprising sequel to the whole bizarre affair. After the 1984 season, Sundberg wanted the Brewers to trade him rather than be a backup catcher to Schroeder.
Who was interested?
The Rangers. Who were still managed by Rader.
“I get a call from [Brewers GM] Harry Dalton one day and he says, ‘Texas wants to talk to you about coming back to the Rangers.,’” Sundberg said. “I go, ‘No way!’ He says, ‘Yeah’
“He says, ‘Do you want to talk to them?’ I said, “Yeah, I’ll talk to them.’”
Sundberg and his family were still making their permanent home in Arlington. He agreed to have lunch with owner Eddie Chiles and club president Mike Stone in downtown Arlington.
“They spent lunch trying to convince me to come back to the Rangers,” Sundberg said. “I said, ‘Your manager is crazy.’ They say, ‘He’s got a high IQ. We think there is a lot to work with there. Would you just meet with him?’
“So, I agreed to me with him. It was confidential. I don’t know if anybody ever found out about it. I met him at the airport. We had about an hour together, and he was all smiles and very charming and very charismatic. I didn’t change my mind. I left that meeting and said, ‘No. It’s not going to happen.’
“I declined to go back.”
A few weeks later, Sundberg was traded to the Royals and ended up winning a World Series.