Bargaining with Rick Monday
Like bellbottoms and white loafers, Rick Monday has drifted in and out of style. On more than one occasion, he has dressed the diamond with aplomb - the most beloved or desired baseball player in the country. At other times, you just want to box him up and cart him off to Goodwill.
From my earliest moments as a baseball fan to today, for 30 of Monday's 40 years in the game, he has been one of the most vexing characters I have witnessed on the baseball stage. And I'm going to tell you why.
* * * * *
Let's start out of chronological order, with an anecdote.
When I was a kid - and I couldn't remember the age without looking it up, but it turns out I was 12 - I was sitting in the reserved level of Dodger Stadium on a school night with my dad. The Dodgers were in a tough game against the Reds, still their top division rival of that era.
By this time, Rick Monday had established himself as a true disappointment in Los Angeles. Through his first three seasons with the Dodgers, he had managed 34 home runs after hitting 32 alone in his final season with the Chicago Cubs. He wasn't a complete failure - white loafers don't go out of style overnight. But he was an easy target for disdain for a kid in the blue seats who had already seen better.
I was a quiet kid and a small kid, but a huge fan. This manifested itself in cheering when things went well and quiet moans when things did not. But frustration with Monday had been building for a long time.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Monday came up to bat. And while he was at the plate, I suddenly screamed out, "Monday - a homer or your life!!!"
You just have to imagine the distaste that I must have built for Monday for such an eruption. My father, not prone to shock, was agog. In the row in front of me, a stranger, a veteran of the baseball wars, turned back and growled, "Dream on, kid."
The pitcher (Doug Bair) threw. Boom! Over the fence. Ballgame. Dodgers win.
The hero was Rick Monday? The hero was Rick Monday.
My dad was beside himself. The man in front turned back, his turn to be agog.
Not for the first time and not for the last, Dodgerdom had sold its soul to a fickle Monday.
* * * * *
The ups and downs of Rick Monday don't start with the Dodgers, of course. Monday, as many of you know, was the first amateur baseball player drafted by the majors, ever. He was picked No. 1 by the Kansas City A's in 1965, after starring at Santa Monica High and Arizona State. Monday then rewarded the A's a year later by going 4 for 41 with six walks (.384 OPS) in his first season - evidence that his seductive charms could not be trusted blindly, though it's hard to blame Monday, who was still only 20 years old.
For several years thereafter, before he penetrated my consciousness (I was born in '67), Monday was a good player, if not a star. Ten consecutive seasons with an OPS+ over the league average of 100, nine of those seasons above 120. Monday had some power, some speed, and could draw many a walk, first with the A's (in both Kansas City and Oakland), then with the Chicago Cubs.
Trying to catch up to the Big Red Machine in 1976, the Dodgers had already been engaged in trade discussions with Chicago concerning Monday when the Cubs came to town for a three-game series in April. Monday went 1 for 8 in the first two games, but was still batting an enticing .345 (1.053 OPS, not that anyone paid attention to that then) on April 25.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, 37-year-old William Errol Morris and his 11-year-old son suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the Dodger Stadium outfield with a flag and some lighter fluid. To this day, I had always wondered why, and baseball researcher Bob Timmermann found me a newspaper clip to explain it. "The man who tried to burn the American Flag at Dodger Stadium was attempting to draw attention to what he claims is his wife's imprisonment in a Missouri mental institution, authorities say," wrote the Los Angeles Times on April 30.
The incident has always been painted as a protest against the country, but by this evidence it seems there was something more eccentric at work - which frankly fits with the story I'm trying to tell. In any case, Monday's response to the attempted flag-burning, in the nation's bicentennial year, won national acclaim.
"He got down on his knees and I could tell he wasn't throwing holy water on it," Monday told the Times, and you can just hear the future broadcaster in him, can't you? "If he's going to burn a Flag, he better do it in front of somebody who doesn't appreciate it. I've visited enough veterans' hospitals and seen enough guys blown off defending that Flag."
And so Monday dashed over from his center field position and swiped the flag so that it could be delivered to safety - which at that time was known as police impound. (Ultimately, it found a haven in Monday's residence.)
With this dramatic act, Monday became the most popular man in baseball. Ceremonies honored him in virtually every city he visited. From the famous Los Angeles Herald-Examiner photo of the flag rescue a poster was made, a copy of which found a spot in my bedroom. Yep, I was eight years old and on the Rick Monday bandwagon.
He had become too popular, it appeared, for the Dodgers to continue entertaining their dream of acquiring him.
"There's no way they'll trade him now," Dodger vice president Al Campanis told Ross Newhan of the Times. "He's Mr. Red, White and Blue."
But with Monday, you never knew.
* * * * *
Monday, who earned $90,000 in 1976, requested a multiyear contract in the offseason that Chicago wasn't willing to offer, reopening the door for the Dodgers. "A romance of considerable duration was consummated" on January 11, 1977, wrote Newhan, when with reliever Mike Garman, Monday came to Los Angeles in exchange for Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus and Jeff Albert. Newhan wrote that Campanis had pursued Monday for "nearly four years."
Even back then, I had mixed feelings. Buckner had been a Dodger my entire baseball-watching life, and I liked him. So as warm as I might have been toward the patriotic Monday, I didn't take this as particularly good news.
And my pessimistic instincts were right. In Monday's first season with the Dodgers, they won the National League pennant. But Monday wasn't a part of it. In his worst season since he was 20, Monday batted .230 (91 OPS+) with 15 home runs in 118 games.
But Monday is getting one of the last laughs on me. When I went back this week to look at his stats from ensuing seasons, I found they have aged well. From 1978-1983, Monday's OPS was .837, which is something for that era as a Dodger.
Still, it's safe to say that Monday probably would have faded into Dodger oblivion had it not been for his second dramatic moment: a pennant-winning home run in the 1981 NL Championship Series against the Expos, a blast that I heard in the middle of another school day, late for class, on a transistor radio surrounded by about 20 schoolmates in front of my high school library.
The hero was Rick Monday? The hero was Rick Monday.
The clip of Monday jubilantly rounding first on his home run sprint probably received more local airtime in the 1980s than any other Dodger memory. It became as imprinted on your brain as anything that side of Kirk Gibson. And count me among those who wonder if Monday's two games of Capture the Flag paved the way for him to begin a broadcasting career in Southern California, and who wonder sometimes if those flags were worth it.
* * * * *
Driving home from work one night this month, I listened to the Dodger radio broadcast with a hint of this story in mind. I turned on the radio and prepared to keep track of the number of minutes it took for Monday to give the score of the game.
It's a sad prejudgment, but all too reasonable. On the radio, you will hear Monday extoll the virtues of baseball fundamentals, all the while failing to execute the primo fundamental of calling a ballgame - providing the score.
When I left my desk that evening, the Dodgers were winning, 4-2 after seven innings. In the car, I waited for an update. When the half-inning ended, Monday said that the Dodgers ended up with nothing except a two-out walk by Milton Bradley, and that going into the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers led, 5-2.
Huh? Was I crazy? Where did that run come from?
As it turned out, Hee Seop Choi had homered in that eighth inning while I was walking to my car. But by the time three outs had been recorded, Monday had apparently forgotten about it.
Listening to Monday broadcast is really a strange phenomenon. He can speak, or at least be understood - that's not the problem. And the fact that some of his insights aren't always that insightful isn't the most aggravating thing. He honestly just seems easily distracted. He seems to treat the game as background music, mere accompaniment for his solo. Sure, he'll look up and check out what the band is doing on a regular basis, but his focus just seems to be somewhere else for long stretches.
In a sense, he covers a game like a blogger, giving you something extra from time to time but relying on you to fill in the nuts and bolts. A radio blogger is an interesting concept, but not an ideal choice for the game's play-by-play man.
Ross Porter, the recently martyred Dodger broadcaster, might not be the announcing magician that Vin Scully is, but with Porter, there was no mistaking his solid understanding that the game was the thing. For all the grief Porter took - some of it unfair - over peppering his broadcast with stats, the game always came first. It isn't the case with Monday, who you'll often catch calling two pitches at once because his digressions have put him so far behind. ("The first pitch is a ball and now he strokes a single into right field ...") The idea that Monday remains a Dodger broadcaster to this day, that he has essentially been tenured, almost makes me want to give back the '81 title, and gives me non-serious thoughts about wishing William Errol Morris had been allowed to make his husbandly statement.
And yet, I find I have misjudged Monday more than once in the past. This guy has been part of my baseball life for pretty much the whole time, and figures to be around for a while longer. He doesn't seem like a bad guy to me. He seems very much who he is, very flawed but very genuine.
I want to like Rick Monday. I want my long association with Monday to ultimately be positive. I want to be able to cherish his heroics, rather than rue them. Wouldn't that simplify my life?
Perhaps someday I'll meet Monday, and just knowing him will do the trick. But if that day doesn't come, I'm still willing to make a deal. I'm willing to try, once more, to embrace him. I just have this one request.
"Monday, the score or your life!!!"
Jon Weisman writes many different things, most relevantly about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts, a part of Baseball Toaster.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]