BOSTON — We interrupt these NBA championships to take a walk with the Dog. Mad Dog. Bill Madlock. The baseball player. To be honest, I am not sure how you address a man who, among other things, has pushed a glove in an umpire’s face, been tossed out of every National League ballpark at least once, and has children nicknamed the Mad Puppies. I mean, do you just say hello here, or do you need a bone?
As it turns out, hello is enough. On Saturday in Fenway Park (just a few miles from Boston Garden), Madlock, 36, was suiting up for his third game as a Tiger, the sixth team in his career. And as I said, hello was enough. Because Bill Madlock has never been at a loss for words.
“Hey, if I think I’m right I’m gonna say it,” he admitted after a few minutes of conversation. “I’ve always been that way.”
True enough. This is a guy who, when Chuck Tanner predicted his drooping Pirates would soon be pennant contenders, responded by saying: “No way.” And he was on the team! After being traded from Chicago, Madlock once remarked:
“I never really fit the Cubs’ image of a player — although you’d think after all those years of losing, they might want to change their image.”
So he could always talk. And he could always hit. He usually did both. Four NL batting titles. A lifetime .306 average. A short, compact chop that usually made contact. Combine that with his candid criticisms, his umpire squabbles, and his base-path melees, and he has earned his place with the Englishmen who come out in the midday sun. Forget the rest
“Aw, the Mad Dog stuff is mostly because I play intense,” Madlock said. “I do a lot of screaming at the umpires, I slide in hard to break up double plays, that stuff.”
“How about the off-field stuff?” I asked.
“Let’s forget about that,” he said.
“The time when . . . “
“Forget about that. Let’s talk about today.”
Well. All right. Today and tomorrow will be challenging enough. Madlock is coming off an uncharacteristic .180 average in 61 at-bats with the Dodgers this season. And now, here is a whole new league, with new pitchers, new parks. “I go out there not knowing what to expect,” he admitted. “Mostly I’ve been asking Darrell (Evans), ‘What’s this guy throw?’ then going out and looking for it.”
On top of that, Madlock has now played three positions in three days, first base, designated hitter and third base. (“That’s all the positions I know,” he said, laughing.) And yet, the variety indicates the enormous needs the Tigers have for a productive right-handed hitter in the lineup.
So it’s a big stick there for Mad Dog to fetch. And yet, should it work out, his acquisition — which is costing the Tigers only about $40,000 of his
$850,000 salary, with the Dodgers paying the rest — could be nothing short of
terrific, like getting a top-quality model from a public auction.
True, the Tigers have rarely been an organization to pursue players with controversial reputations. Sparky Anderson likes quiet leaders. The front office does not tolerate public criticism. And the fact is, Madlock has rarely left his teams on good terms.
But the same intensity that brings the stinging comment brings the hit when
it’s needed, the hard slide, the spark. “I like playing with him,” said Evans, who did so in San Francisco. “You’re apprehensive playing against him, because of his intensity, his arguments, his occasional fights. But he plays the game hard, and nobody here is threatened by that. It’s a perfect situation for him.”
‘He wants to win’
So everybody hopes. On Saturday, Madlock showed some of the very intensity that makes a difference. In the eighth inning, score tied 2-2, he swung badly at two Roger Clemens pitches, then chopped one up the middle for a single. He stole second, and scored on a single by Matt Nokes, giving the Tigers a 3-2 lead. He also made a nice defensive snare at third base for the final out in the Tigers’ 14-inning victory.
“He wants to win, that’s all,” Evans said. “Back in ’78, with the Giants, I was platooning. Madlock went to Joe Altobelli (the manager) and offered to play second base just so I could get in the lineup regularly. And he did. And we had the best second half in baseball that year.”
So Mad Dog, older and wiser, could work out just fine with Detroit, even with his edge. “Hey, sometimes,” he said, “the reputation helps me.”
“Well, you know,” I said, “I was a little apprehensive coming up to a guy known as Mad Dog. I was afraid you’d chew my head off or something.”
“Oh, no,” he said. But I noticed a grin.
Ruff. CUTLINE Bill Madlock