There was a baseball game in 1980 played in the Texas’ September heat that featured two lousy teams, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, a three-time World Series champion with the Oakland A’s, the son of a MLB journeyman, the starting pitcher in the Florida Marlins’ inaugural game, the offspring of a fleet-footed Los Angeles Dodgers great and a pitcher who never won a big-league game — but could have if his team’s bullpen that night hadn’t blown the save.
And I was there.
Baseball fate is weird that way. My first MLB game wasn’t a season-opener, or a home-opener, or a playoff game, or even a matchup between memorable teams. Given my age, I could have been weaned on 1970s greatness: Cincinnati, Boston, New York (Yankees, of course) or the Dodgers. But no. Not even St. Louis, the team nearest to my home and closest to my heart that spent that decade redefining baseball mediocrity.
I wound up at Arlington Stadium on Sept. 20, 1980 — a Saturday, if that matters — because my family had driven to Dallas for a Cowboys game. Baseball wasn’t in our plans. And if it had been, I can’t fathom any scenario in which those plans would have revolved around watching the California Angels and Texas Rangers play an utterly forgettable late-season American League game. But, fate.
The Cowboys in those days played in Irving, and we drove over to Arlington because it was better than twiddling our thumbs all night in a hotel room. (OK, the truth: I begged to go.) Because we had no concept of (a.) how bad the Rangers were, and (b.) no inkling that tickets would be easy gets, we went that afternoon just to make sure. Imagine the scene, the Rangers’ stadium, surrounded by a sea of asphalt, not a car in sight but ours, and we’re the only people at the ticket window when it opened. And our tickets were still awful.
That was 40 years ago. I’ve thought of that night maybe a handful of times in those four decades, usually as part of some larger beer-fueled tabulation of how many MLB stadiums I’ve been to. (It’s 16: Texas, two in St. Louis, two in Atlanta, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Kansas City, Cincinnati, two in Philadelphia, two in Chicago, Arizona and Baltimore.) As for the game, I had no recollection about who won, or how they won, or who played in the game. Except for Rod Carew. I remembered him.
So I looked it up, and what I found proved one of baseball’s most romantic truths — that within any game, and any boxscore, are troves of stories buried within players’ resumes and a game’s statistics. Even meaningless affairs like the one played Sept. 20, 1980, in Arlington, Texas.
The Angels won, 6-4, in 10 innings before 10,938 fans. (Arlington Stadium, a former minor-league park, had bleachers for 41,000 in 1980, so you get the picture.) The Rangers led 4-0 going into the eighth inning, but the Angels scored once in that inning, three times in the ninth to tie the score and twice more in the 10th. I vividly remember walking around the upper deck during the final innings, a teenager with his own section. We may have been the only people still in the place when the game ended.
But that aforementioned fate did me a favor — not in the game itself, but in who played in it.
Carew, a 1991 HoF inductee, pinch hit and played first in the final inning. (Yes, the game’s only HoFer didn’t start. Go figure.) He scored the Angels’ final run on a Carney Lansford double.
The Rangers’ cleanup hitter was Rusty Staub, the “Le Grand Orange” from his Montreal days and a 2012 inductee in Canada’s baseball HoF. He doubled and scored a run. Texas’ lineup also included Buddy Bell (son of MLBer Gus), Bump Wills (son of MLBer Maury) and Bud Harrelson, the long-time New York Met infielder only a few weeks shy of retirement.
The Angels may not have started Carew, but they did use Dickie Thon (who went on to a lengthy 1980s career with the Houston Astros), Brian Downing and Bobby Grich. Freddie Patek, the diminutive former Royals shortstop, pinch ran. Bert Campaneris, the former A’s standout, even pinch hit. Typing those names recalls the voice of Mel Allen on “This Week in Baseball.”
Don Kainer, not so much. But of all the men who played that night — Carew and Staub, Campaneris and Wills, Harrelson and Patek — it is Kainer whose story is undoubtedly the one worth filing away.
The Astros drafted the right-handed pitcher in 1974, but he instead played for the Texas Longhorns and was a freshman on UT’s 1975 College World Series championship team. The Rangers then took him in the 13th round of the 1977 draft, wound him through the minor leagues and called him up in September 1980.
His second MLB appearance — and first MLB start — was that night against the Angels. (He was subbing for starter John Butcher, who was scratched.) Fortune allowed him to face a woebegone opponent on its way to a 95-loss, sixth-place finish in the American League West.
Forget the Angels’ ineptitude; ignore the lousy crowd; Kainer should have earned his first MLB win that night. He scattered eight hits over 7 1/3 innings, struck out five and allowed only one run. Rangers manager Pat Corrales pulled him in the eighth and with a 4-0 lead.
“He said his shoulder tightened up,” Corrales told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I can’t leave a guy in there when he says that.”
Corrales brought in Bob Babcock, who gave up two runs.
Corrales brought in Danny Darwin, who gave up another run.
In the 10th Corrales brought in knuckleballer Charlie Hough — who started the Marlins’ first game in 1993 — and stood back from the carnage. Hough faced seven batters. Two of them he walked. Two of them reached safely. Two of them scored.
Here’s how reporter Paul Domowitch described it in the Fort Worth paper:
“A Texas Ranger starting pitcher must trust no one. When Pat Corrales heads for the mound with hook in hand, you cry, you scream, you threaten to hold your breath until you turn blue … anything. But don’t give up the ball when there’s a lead attached to it.”
Kainer pitched twice more that month for the Rangers but never cracked an MLB roster in the following years. His career pitching line: Four games, three starts, a 1.83 ERA in 19.2 innings, 10 strikeouts and nine walks. Career record: 0-0.
If only the Rangers’ bullpen had held up. If only Kainer had recorded his first career win. And if only I’d remembered how he pitched that night. But at least I was there.