One Pack. No Turning Back.

So You Think You Can Rance? Down and Out (or Up and In) with Rance Mulliniks

Day 1: Oakland, CA to Visalia, CA. 6.19.15


Fate brought me and Rance Mulliniks together. 

I didn't choose Rance, Rance chose me; or rather, the whims of chance chose for him to be one of the 14 players who happened to be bundled together in this single wax pack of baseball cards. So if things go a little sour with him or any of the other 13, I can always chalk it up to that--"sorry, (insert player name here), I didn't ask for you to be part of this. Blame the pack."

This was one of the thoughts that raced through my head as I made the drive from Oakland to Visalia earlier today, wondering how I'd be received by one of the most prolific utility players of the 1980s, so prolific that he was named to Sports Illustrated's Dream Team in 1985 (position: utility). I eased my aging Honda Accord onto Route 99 South, a major freeway that runs the gut of California's Central Valley. If SF and LA are the showroom of California, the Central Valley is the boiler room, the gritty, dust-caked agricultural epicenter. You won't find Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hanging out on the 99 unless they're shooting a movie on meth or migrant workers.

I hit scan on my AM dial and forced myself to linger on one of the many Christian station options. Today's topic, according to our host with a permanent trace of condescension in his voice, was baptism, specifically: "What do you do if you need to perform a baptism and there's no water available?" In my 34 years on God's green Earth, I've spent approximately 2.1 seconds thinking about baptism (and that includes while I was being baptized) and exactly 0 seconds pondering this question, which seems absolutely ludicrous (what possible scenario exists nowadays in which no water is available? Oh, maybe if you and your baby and a bunch of your closest family and friends are hiking together in some far corner of the desert and you suddenly stop and say, "hey, how about we baptize little Johnny right now? Oh right, water...") 

Anyway, apparently the book of baptism rules (such a thing exists!) has anticipated this conundrum, and states that in such a case, there is certain "doubtful matter" that can be used as a temporary substitute to guarantee absolute salvation. Doubtful matter includes saliva, tears, or light beer. You must either immerse the body or part of the body (sprinkling doesn't count!) in the doubtful matter as a placeholder, and then when you get back to civilization, perform again with water. So the next time you're hiking in Death Valley and have the urge to baptize somebody, crack open a can of PBR or think about that last scene in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad. Next stop: Heaven. 

 About 25 miles outside the city limits, I got my first whiff of Hell. I mean, Visalia. 

California’s Central Valley stretched as far as I can see in either direction, an endless expanse of agriculture.  The carefully gridded sea of ranches and farms bore little resemblance to the land roamed for centuries by the Yokut tribe of Native Americans. Gold-seekers flocked to the area in the early 1850s, and when they didn’t find the bounty they expected, they settled for working the soil laden with minerals that washed down from the Sierra Nevada mountains. An editorial in the first issue of the Tulare County Record and Fresno Examiner summed up the region’s promise well: 

“With such unbounded resources, such facilities and natural advantages, it takes no prophetic vision to see that our county is destined ere long to become one of the richest, if not the very richest, portion of the state.” 

Looking through the windshield at the clusters of boxy houses and front yards sheathed by chain-link fences, it was clear that Visalia peaked during James Buchanan’s presidency.

If you read enough 1980s Toronto newspapers, you quickly get a sense for the kind of player and guy Rance was. The same adjectives are used to describe him again and again: “Thoughtful,” “smart,” and “mild-mannered” for his personality; on the field: a “gamer,” “hard-nosed.” Only one article in 16 years of beat writer coverage hinted at a chink in his diplomatic armor, a 1988 piece written by Garth Woolsey in the Toronto Star suggesting that he may have a darker side simmering below the surface. 

“Probe into the heart of the man…and you find traces of a mean streak,” wrote Woolsey.

While he never had more than 427 plate appearances in any of his 16 seasons (1977-92), he always made the most of those appearances. 

He’s “the smartest hitter on the team,” Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston once told the Toronto Star. Or as George Bamberger, the former Milwaukee Brewers manager spat after Rance banged up their pitching: 

“He does nothing but hang out ropes against us.” 

I exited around downtown and pulled into a small shopping plaza. I had arranged to meet one of Rance's childhood friends and cross-town baseball rivals, Jorge Ramos, at his office, an outfit called USA Staffing that places temp workers. 

Jorge welcomed me at the receptionist's desk, all smiles and nods, a healthy tan taking years off his appearance. He was one of those people that are so friendly and accommodating ("we have cupcakes in the office today! Do you want one? How about some water?) that you almost don't want to talk for fear of disappointing him and taking even a little bit of air out of his balloon. He practically skipped down the hall to a conference room, shut the door, and gleefully said, "Now let's talk some dirt about Rance before he gets here!"

Jorge and Rance followed parallel tracks in high school. Although Rance was a year older, they were both shortstops and their schools' star players, Rance for Monache HIgh and Jorge for Porterville High. They were rivals but not enemies, maintaining a healthy respect for each other. Rance even dated Jorge's sister Marta ("I think Rance is actually Mexican. He loves Mexican food, he loves Mexican chicks, he even talks Mexican sometimes. He grew up in Woodville, I tell him, 'Rance, I think you should have been Mexican, why are you so white?'"). They partied together ("Of course Rance would drink but not that much--he always maintained. He kept himself together."). But their tracks diverged at one critical juncture: college. Both were recruited by Major League clubs (Rance was more highly touted), but while Rance signed with the California Angels (and got a nice $30,000 signing bonus), Jorge told professional baseball no, saying "I'm going to college" and betting on himself to still make it out of college. He played a couple of years of junior college and then transferred to Cal Poly, where he had the unenviable job of following a decent little shortstop named Ozzie Smith. He never played a day in the pros, where Rance had 16 seasons in the Show.

But that doesn't mean Rance thinks he made the right decision. He told me later that night that if he could do it again, he’d do things differently.

“People ask me all the time if their kid should sign out or go to college, and I always tell them college. You should get your education, and if you’re good enough, you’ll make it to the big leagues anyway.”

I asked him what he would have studied had he gone to college.

"History," he said without hesitation. "I love World War II history."

After chatting with Jorge for awhile, Rance walked in (I had told him to meet us there).

"Great, I can't talk any more dirt about you now," Jorge quipped with a smile. 

Rance strode towards me with a quiet, athletic swagger, perfectly coordinated. He was wearing a black golf shirt and grey plaid shorts, his gray/brown hair slicked straight back, a bit thinner than his playing days. The mustache, thank God, was still there, but with a lot more salt than pepper now. He casted a figure bigger than his 6 feet, with a late-middle-age leanness belied only by some settling around the midsection that says fatherhood. His face was ruddy and his features a bit avian, with a weak chin and big warm bluish eyes. He extended his hand and introduces himself. I immediately notice the large rock on the ring finger of his left hand, his 1992 World Series Champions ring.  He looked content, yet vigilant enough that if a ground ball came screeching down the corridor, he would instinctively crouch down and snuff it.

We settled around the USA Staffing conference table in black leather chairs and started chatting. 

To be continued...