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Boys of Arlington: The Legend of Pete Incaviglia (Part 2)

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at Pete Incaviglia and his stormy time with the Rangers.

 

Major League Baseball blew it with Pete Incaviglia.

They should have invited him to the All-Star Game and included him in the Home Run Derby. Who cares if he wasn’t selected to play in the actual game?

The Home Run Derby would have been enough. It would have been spectacular. Incaviglia would have put on a show.

National broadcaster Tony Kubek once watched Incaviglia in the cage and said, “One of the best batting practice exhibitions I’ve seen since Mickey Mantle.”

But Incaviglia never got to be in the Home Run Derby because he never was an All-Star. All the tremendous excitement and enthusiasm generated by Incaviglia and the Rangers in 1986 evaporated quickly the next year. The Rangers lost 10 of their first 11 games, and they never did get to .500 that year.

Incaviglia was pretty much the same hitter as before. In fact, his numbers went up from .250 to .271 in batting average, .463 to .497 in slugging and .783 to .829 in OPS. After hitting 30 home runs with 88 RBIs as a rookie, he hit 27 homers and drove in 80 runs in 1987, but in 14 fewer games.

Back then, those were decent numbers. Every club was pining for guys who could hit 25-30 bombs and drive in 85-90 runs. But Rangers fans wanted something along the lines of Babe Ruth, Roy Hobbs and Joe Hardy from Damn Yankees, and were disappointed when that didn’t happen.

The strikeouts were still there and so were the errors. He was playing left field instead of right to accommodate Ruben Sierra, but it didn’t matter.

It also didn’t matter that their starting rotation was hit hard by injuries and the bullpen broke down, or that other young players had their struggles. There were multiple reasons why the Rangers fell to sixth place in both 1987 and ’88.

Still didn’t matter.

When the Rangers went bad, Incaviglia was an easy target. Steve Campbell of the Star-Telegram summed it up succinctly: “Incaviglia went from a can’t-miss star to a target the fans can’t miss.”

Read Part 1 of the Legend of Pete Incaviglia

Hard work, same results

It wasn’t like he was dogging it. Incaviglia played the game hard, sometimes too hard: too many dives after balls he had no chance of catching, too many crashes into the wall and too many strong throws that had no chance of getting the lead runner but allowed the runners behind the play to advance.

Then, there was the mystifying belly flop into first base trying to beat out a ground ball. He’d always be out, but it would look like he was hustling. I asked manager Bobby Valentine about it once. He just shrugged and shook his head.

Finally, there was Incaviglia’s personality, as temperamental and mercurial as any Rangers player through the years. There were times when Incaviglia could be warm, friendly, engaging, accommodating and a great quote. Other times he could be mean, rude, nasty, threatening and damn well intimidating.

When the Rangers went bad in 1987 and 1988, Incaviglia felt the wrath and heard the boos. He was an easy target because of all the strikeouts and all the errors.

The fielding got better in 1988 because of all the work he put in with coach Davey Lopes. Because no matter what, Incaviglia was always a hard worker. Maybe too much.

One day during batting practice before the game, Valentine looked over toward the dugout and saw Incaviglia getting tips from Rangers equipment manager Joe Macko. Another time in spring training, Valentine found Incaviglia working with Mike Epstein, a former Rangers first baseman who had been retired for 15 years and was a successful commodities trader. Epstein was just visiting camp, but there he was helping Incaviglia.

Nobody worked harder with Incaviglia than Valentine. The tireless manager would spend hours throwing batting practice to Incaviglia. Valentine begged Incaviglia to stick to one approach. Incaviglia couldn’t do that for an entire game.

He was too hard on himself. Incaviglia wanted it badly.

“Almost like a hypochondriac,” Incaviglia told Campbell. “If I made an out it was like, ‘What did I do wrong.’ I was constantly ridiculing myself.”

The high fastball and the breaking balls in the dirt were his undoing from the time he showed up in 1986 until the end, especially against right-handed pitchers.

Over the course of his career, Incaviglia had an .846 OPS against lefties and a .710 average against righties. Soft-tossing lefties like Bud Black, Frank Tanana and Bruce Hurst? Incaviglia murdered them.

Hall of Fame right-hander Jack Morris? Incaviglia was 3-for-24 with 17 strikeouts and no home runs. Roger Clemens? Incaviglia took him deep twice. He was 3-for-24 off him, though, with 17 strikeouts and no walks. Bret Saberhagen, who won two Cy Youngs? Incaviglia had three singles in 20 at-bats, no walks, eight strikeouts. He was 3-for-21 with nine strikeouts against Dave Stewart.

From 1987 to 1990, Incaviglia averaged 24 home runs and 84 RBIs per season while hitting .247 with a .458 slugging percentage. Oh yeah, he averaged 151 strikeouts per season.

The fans booed, the manager grew increasingly frustrated, the club grew impatient and Incaviglia … well he was Incaviglia. He seemed to fight with everybody: fans, manager, front office, media. He wanted it bad, the team wanted it bad for him, the fans wanted it most of all.

Incaviglia at one point responded by unadvisedly referring to the fans as the “drunks in left field.”

Incaviglia gave it everything he had. Not once was he ever accused of not hustling, not trying, not wanting to win. But the frustration for everybody was boiling like a volcanic eruption.

The end in Arlington

In 1990, Incaviglia played in 153 games and hit .233 with 24 home runs and 85 RBIs. He had a .420 slugging percentage and struck out 146 times.

His most memorable moment — his biggest hit with the Rangers — came on July 25 when 41,954 fans showed up to see Nolan Ryan win his 300th career game. Ryan did not. The Rangers trailed 7-5 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Incaviglia hit a monster home run off Dave Righetti to tie the game. They ended up winning in the 11th on a Rafael Palmeiro home run.

The Rangers went 83-79 for the second straight year. When the season was over, the Rangers tried to gauge interest in Incaviglia from other teams and found none.

They went into spring training in 1991 with him as their left fielder. But Valentine started considering alternatives, especially with highly regarded power prodigy Juan Gonzalez getting ready to crack the lineup.

But Valentine wanted something different. One option was Jack Daugherty, a switch-hitting outfielder who had hit a combined .300 in a part-time role for the Rangers the previous two seasons. He didn’t have much power, but the strikeouts weren’t overwhelming. It was a different look.

Then, there was Brian Downing, who was 40 years old and a free agent. Downing could hit — a professional hitter who ripped one line drive after another — but had no position. Once the starting left fielder on some good Angels teams, he hadn’t played the field in four years and couldn’t get a job.

Valentine could care less about defense. He had outfielders, but what he wanted was a leadoff hitter. As spring training progressed, Downing remained unsigned, and the Rangers’ interest grew. Ryan was among those who lobbied to sign Downing.

At one point, Valentine put out a lineup for a spring training game that had Incaviglia batting seventh. Valentine was also beginning to hint at the possibility of Incaviglia splitting time with either Daughtery or Kevin Reimer, a left-handed version of Incaviglia with less power and worse fielding ability.

Incaviglia reacted by storming into the manager’s office in Port Charlotte and screaming. He made it clear that batting seventh in a part-time role was unacceptable.

“When he did that, I knew Pete Incaviglia wasn’t on the team,” Valentine said.

Finally, as the spring training went past the halfway point, the Rangers got busy. Valentine and Grieve hatched their plan. Step One was to sign Downing, which they did March 29 for $425,000. On that same day, the Rangers played a 12-inning game with the Blue Jays in Port Charlotte. Incaviglia sat on the bench the entire game.

As the sun set behind the stadium, Incaviglia walked down the right-field line with a look on his face that was a combination of frustration, resignation and disgust.

The next morning, Jim Reeves and I got a phone call at 7 a.m. at our condo on the Myakka River. Rangers PR vice president John Blake was on the phone.

We needed to get to the park right away. The Rangers were releasing Pete Incaviglia. It was probably the most stunning spring training announcement in my 32 years covering the Rangers.

The writers — six to eight of us — first talked to Incaviglia. He was surprisingly cordial and talkative. He vented his anger at Valentine.

“Releasing me is his way of showing he’s the boss,” Incaviglia said. “When you go out and do your job, but you’re not real close to him, this is what happens. Bobby and I weren’t getting along. We haven’t talked much lately. He’s been giving me the treatment. But that’s the way he is.”

Then we went into Valentine’s office. Grieve was there. Managing partner George Bush also made a surprise and unprecedented visit. This was a big one, and the bosses were there to support the manager.

Valentine hotly denied it was personal.

“Pete can still do it, but our team is better,” Valentine said. “Personally, I liked Pete. On three days of the week, he’s likable. On the other days, I learned to live with him. I spent more days of my life with Pete than any other player.”

Said Bush, “The truth is he got beat out in left field.”

Money had something to do with it. By releasing Incaviglia, the Rangers were on the hook for just one-fourth of his $1.6 million salary under the rules way back then. That more than enough covered for Downing and helped a team that was $1 million over budget on the payroll.

As far as trading Incaviglia, Grieve said, “From November until now, there was not a deal to be made. Not that I know of. And let’s just say our sights were real low.”

The Rangers didn’t miss Incaviglia that season. They put together their best offense ever in the Arlington Stadium era, leading the American League in runs scored. Downing was the leadoff hitter they wanted, and Gonzalez hit 29 home runs and drove in 102 runs. He became the player the Rangers once envisioned Incaviglia would be.

Incaviglia ended up in Detroit in 1991 and the Astros in 1992, both in part-time roles. He hit 11 home runs in each of those two years. Then in 1993, he signed with the Phillies and flourished in a part-time role there under manager Jim Fregosi, hitting 24 home runs for a team that went to the World Series.

He fit perfectly, an Italian in south Philly on a team with plenty of oddballs, including Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Mitch Williams and Curt Schilling.

Then, in a strange twist of fate after the 1994 season came to an abrupt end because of the players’ strike and much still unknown about what would happen in 1995, Incaviglia was convinced to go play in Japan.

The guy who convinced Incaviglia was none other than Valentine. The two had kissed and made up, and now Valentine was going to manage the Chiba Lotte Marines. Incaviglia happily joined him while baseball sorted out its labor problems.

Valentine “was big enough to approach me, and I respect him for that,” Incaviglia told the Dallas Observer. “I think both of us grew from it.”

What was also bizarre was the guy who had no desire to play in the minor leagues became a baseball nomad in the twilight years of his career. He played in Triple A, the Mexican League and the independent Atlantic League. It all ended in 2002 with Atlantic City in the Atlantic League. He was 38, and the power was no longer there.

As Incaviglia put it, his career kind of went backward. But he never lost his love for the game. The guy who once drove his major-league manager crazy became a manager himself. And a good one.

Incaviglia has managed for 14 years in independent baseball, compiling an impressive record with Grand Prairie, Laredo, Sugar Land and a team in upstate New York. He has a won-loss record of 752-609, a .553 winning percentage, two league championships and just one losing season.

This year he will be with the Cleburne Railroaders of the American Association. To paraphrase from the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

This the West, sir. When the myth becomes legend, hire the legend.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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1 Comment

  1. Boo May 4, 2024

    Another great read by T.R.!

    Reply

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