Call them the pride of the White Sox: Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Ron LeFlore.
Bought for Chicago cash, this trio now plays for pride. Wounded pride.
In the major leagues, there is no surer motivation, no better bet for success, than the excellent player who, once spurned, drives himself with the undiminished anger of self-vindication.
It's hardly novel for baseball players to discover in midcareer that they have fallen from grace in the eyes of their bosses. However, it is unique for three perennial all-stars, all still in the prime of their athletic life, to find themselves exiled simultaneously. And to all end up on the same team.
In Boston, 33-year-old catcher Fisk was told that after 14 seasons of distinguished service in the Red Sox' cause, he was, in the eyes of ownership, an ingrate because he thought it wise to find out his open-market worth as a free agent. Despite their protests to the contrary, Boston never made a serious effort to sign Fish, and in fact, wanted him to leave as part of their discount rebuilding.
"What they've done is cut off their nose to spite their face," Fish says.
In Philadelphia, Luzinski was told that at the age of 30 he was washed up. Despite 446 RBI from '75 thru '78, the Phillies considered the Bull to have too little eyesight and too much stomach.
"Only one man in Philadelphia ever said I was washed up," rumbled designated hitter Luzinski. Unfortunately for him, the man who held that infallible opinion was General Manager Paul (the Pope) Owens.
In Montreal, 28-year-old outfielder LeFlore was told that 97 stolen bases and 95 runs scored weren't enough to offset what the Expo brass considered to be his offensive defense and personality. "I hope he doesn't get hit by the door on the way out," said an Expo official, welcoming LeFlore's exodus as a free agent.
"Nobody, in Montreal ever told me they thought I was a bad guy of a so-called 'troublemaker,' " said the disarmingly articulate and dashing-looking LeFlore. "Ever since I got out of prison (in '72) and got a chance to play pro baseball, I've made myself into a hitter (.300 average for the last five years), made myself into a base-stealer (391 thefts), made myself into an outfielder. The only thing I didn't make myself was a troublemaker. Other people did that for me. I didn't work on that myself."
If there is one absolutely invariable thread that runs through all good major league players, it is a quality of pride that is so palpable that, at least in the surroundings of a ballpark, it amounts to a peacock aura of confidence and glowing self-esteem.
The reason that players with multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts still torture themselves to get into top shape, still run into walls, still slide hard, still get into brawls over an insult -- and many a top player is still in this category -- is nothing more or less than an athlete's pride.
When he is in a restaurant, a ballplayer may use the wrong fork; when he's involved in a TV interview, he may mangle his grammar; when he talks about politics, he may sound like a grade-schooler. But the big leaguer, taken strictly as a man with a passionate vocation, is a dignified and pride-filled creature. Between the white lines, as they say, he has a quality of regal self-posession. He knows that this bearing while in combat may be the best of him, and he will do almost anything in his power not to lose that sense of professional dignity.
Sometimes, inevitably, that pride gets flabby; the drive to succeed is dulled by success achieved. When that happens, nothing restores motivation, brings a man back to himself, like the 'B movie' slap in the face, better than a good old-fashioned public humiliation.
That, in one way or another, is what Fisk, LeFlore and Luzinski share now. And each, in his way, is paying the world back for his embarrassment.
On opening day in Boston, Fisk beat his old Red Sox mates with a melodramatic, three-run eighth-inning homer into the screen that turned a Fenway Park 'boovation' into a standing ovation. At the White Sox home opener in Comiskey Park, Fisk performed an instant replay with another three-run eighth-inning homer, this time for a victory over Milwaukee.
"If first impressions really are the most important," said Fisk with a grin, "then I'm a lock in Chicago. In all my years in Boston, I was never called out of the dugout to tip my cap the way I was in Chicago on my first day as a White Sox. That's nice."
At present, Fisk is second in the American League in slugging percentage (.730), on-base percentage (.478) and is hitting .351 with 14 RBI in 12 games.
"The day Fisk walked into the clubhouse, he became the team's leader," says a White Sox front office official. "He just has that special bearing."
Fisk, defiantly calling attention to his crusade to prove the Red Sox wrong, has reversed his famous Boston number from "27" to "72."
"People ask me in the on-deck circle if I'm playing catcher now or tackle," says Fisk. "I just wanted to turn everything around . . . same tune, different words, I guess you could say."
If Fisk's hurt is subtle, Luzinski's is as broad and visible as his huge shoulders. The Bull ought to be in a good mood these days, what with his .500 on-base percentage, his three homers, decent .300 average and dozen walks. However, all it takes to bring a storm to his face is a hint at the memories of his last two slump- and bench-ridden years.
"I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I'm 30 years old. I'm a grown man. I've proved myself all I need to in this game. The hell with anybody says I have to prove anything," says Luzinski, who is obviously obsessed with proving something.
"This trade (for cash) has benefited me all the way around," says Luzinski, a Chicago native. "They got DHs in this league who are 40 years old," added the man who was told in Philly that 30 might be too old.
When the Bull, who has lost at least 30 pounds in the last year and a half, walks through the White Sox clubhouse, he finds ways to keep his shirt off. It's his svelte way of saying, "Does this look like a fat man? Does this look like a has-been?"
While Fisk has had to leave home (New England), and Luzinski has come home, LeFlore would be content to steal home. The speedster is hitting .348, stole bases in his first three games as a Sox and is impatient over a thigh-muscle pull that has kept him out of seven of 13 Chicago games.
"You better believe I'm motivated to get back in the lineup," says LeFlore. "If I stole 97 bases last year when I hit .257 in a new league, how many will I steal if I hit over .300 back in this league?"