This once-cherished training camp of Washington baseball fans offers a strong sense of deja vu . The Texas Rangers' owner, Brad Corbett, the poor man's Gene Autry, needs money and talks of selling the team -- and trades for veteran players after the farm director signs excellent young ones.
Oh, yes, Bob Short still pops in now and then, although his major function seems to be allowing Corbett and special team officials and players the use of his yacht. (It ran aground the other night, some of you will be pleased to know.)
Corbett has traded with such enthusiasm the last few years that 27-year-old Jim Sundberg is the senior player in point of service. The lone original Ranger (or should it be last Senator?), Toby Harrah, was sent to Cleveland during the winter meetings for Buddy Bell.
That was part of Corbett's change in philosophy. Having lassoed several big bats in prior years, he finally realized it is helpful if somebody can stop the ball on defense and trot in from the bullpen without the opposition clubbing each other to get to the plate.
Last season, Ranger infielders lost their man 116 time, a humiliating contrast to the Orioles' regulars making just 36 errors. So instead of a vacuum on the left side of the infield, the Rangers have a pair of vacuum cleaners in Bell and rookie shortstop Nelson Norman.
And the bullpen now bulges with muscle and characters, if not character. From the right, comes Jim Kern and heat, from the left Sparky Lyle and deceit, or that slider that becomes even more evil as his arm tires.
Lyle performed for the first time as a Ranger Monday, and in three innings against the Braves seemed to have lost nothing during his year of obscurity with the Yankees. Somewhat typically, Lyle had planned to throw nothing but fast balls, then figured "what the hell" when he got to the mound and went almost exclusively with the slider.
"I didn't bust my butt out there," he said after a one-hit, nobody-past-first show. "But I grunted a couple of times." He laughed in that odd, seal- like way and said: "A couple of times I threw balls that don't usually break like that till June. By the end of camp, I'll be ready to throw four or five days in a row."
Kern cost the Rangers Bobby Bonds and a 1-5 pitcher; Lyle cost defensive center-fielder Juan Beniquez and three fine young pitchers.
But Jon Matlack may at last have a record that indicates his ability. Last season, Matlack had a 2.30 earned-run average in 270 innings -- and a 15-13 record. With folks who can field and throw -- and stop rallies -- behind him, Matlack affects a welcome-spring glow.
Change brings occasional conflict, and Lyle handled his transition in, well, Lyle-like fashion. When he noticed his familiar No. 28 already was worn by a second-year pitcher coming off an 11-5 season, Steve Comer, Lyle asked the trainer to ask Comer about a switch.
Comer readily agreed -- and a day or so later found in his locker a thank-you note from Lyle. And 10 $100 bills.
The Rangers gave up speed and power for infield defense and relief pitching, and lost General Manager Dan O'Brien and Farm Director Hal Keller to Seattle. Both were said to be frustrated by Corbett's disregard for minor-league prospects.
In truth, the Rangers have a splen-did outfield prospect in Bill Sample, who hit.348 and.352 in two full minor-league seasons but tends to make an adventure out of routine fly balls.
"We're gonna platoon him and (John) Grubb and play the hot hand, if one starts hitting," said Manager Pat Corrales. "But Sample's a good hitter, and he won't have too much pressure here because he'll be among guys with good bats (Al Oliver and Richie Zisk).
"I remember when I was with Cincinnati I was always hitting better because I never felt part of the bunch, with Bench and Rose and Perez and the others also in the lineup. Then I went to San Diego and became part of the bunch."
Corrales became manager the final game of the year -- and enters his first full season unbeaten. Billy Hunter apparently lost control last season when several players began wearing T-shirts with "Pinball Wizard" on the front and Hunter's number on the back.
It was the players' way of saying Hunter "managed off the wall," according to Dock Ellis. The shirt and anyone inside it could well manage to fly off the wall if something similar should appear this season.
Corrales is from the tough-but-fair school -- and left a lasting impression throughout the league with a royal whipping of some Royals during a brawl a few years ago. Of Corrales, former Manager Frank Lucchesi said: "A coach is supposed to protect his players and keep the peace. Pat hit.500."