#36 on the list of the greatest Rangers of all time is yet another player from the very early days of Arlington baseball. A former first round pick with an MLB pedigree, this guy is a player who seems to have disappeared from the common memory...I can't remember the last time I heard someone mention him.
And that's understandable. He didn't have a real long career. He was out of baseball by the age of 30. He was never an All-Star. And the main reason I remember him is because, as a kid, he was my middle brother's (the one who won the Ticket's Madri Gras etouffee eating contest) favorite player, and had a stuffed Ranger doll that he named after this player, even though the doll was the wrong ethnicity.
#36 wasn't a great player, but he gave the Rangers several years of solid performance, and that's good enough for Bump Wills, the 36th greatest Ranger ever, to make the list.
Bump Wills was the son of Maury Wills, the legendary Dodger basestealer (and one-time Mariner manager). Wills was drafted in the first round of the secondary phase of the 1975 draft by the Rangers, 6th overall.
Less than two years after being drafted, Wills was was the starting second baseman for the Rangers, and a footnote in one of the more infamous incidents in Ranger history.
See, everyone knows about Lenny Randle sucker-punching Frank Lucchesi in spring training of 1977, leading to Randle being suspended and to one of the more infamous black eyes (literal and metaphorical) in Ranger lore. But what most people don't realize is that Randle's sucker-punch was the result of him learning that he had lost his starting second base job to a wet-behind-the-ears rookie without so much as a single major league plate appearance.
That rookie? Bump Wills.
Wills started Opening Day at second base and hit second, behind veteran shortstop and leadoff hitter Bert Campaneris. He drew a walk in his first plate appearance of the season, in a first inning that seems typical of Rangerness. Baltimore Oriole ace Jim Palmer gave up a leadoff single to Campy, who was then thrown out trying to steal. After Wills' walk, left fielder Claudell Washington hit into a force play. With cleanup hitter Dave May at the plate, Washington was also thrown out trying to steal, giving Palmer a 1-2-3 inning while not getting a single batter out (since the one out that wasn't on the basepaths was still a fielder's choice that let Washington get to first).
Wills then went hitless in his next three at bats, before coming up in a tie game in the 10th inning against Palmer with 2 outs and Juan Beniquez on third. Wills singled for his first major league hit, and when Bert Blyleven set down the O's 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning, Wills' first hit and first RBI ended up being the game winner.
Despite this nice start, Wills struggled his first couple of weeks in the majors, and after the first two weeks of the season he was hitting just .225/.254/.225 with no extra base hits and 3 steals in 5 attempts. He gradually warmed up as the month went on, though, before breaking out with a huge game on May 3, going 4 for 5 (his first 4 hit game of his career) against Detroit, and also logging his first career homer (in the 9th inning of a 13-0 win, off of Bob Sykes).
Wills continued to be hot through May, and when the Rangers ended a homestand against Chicago in early June, Wills had a .323/.399/.457 line, quite impressive for a middle infielder in the mid-70s. While the bat slowed down, he still remained respectable on the year, ending the year with a 771 OPS and a .278 EQA, while providing very good defense at second base.
Wills also solidified his place in Ranger history by participating in an incredible sequence at Yankee Stadium that summer. He and Toby Harrah, on August 25, 1977, hit back-to-back inside-the-park homers off of Yankee pitcher Ken Clay. Wills also homered (the traditional way) off of starter Mike Torrez, in a game started by Blyleven for the Rangers (he also started the 13-0 game when Wills got 4 hits...clearly, there is some mystical link between Wills and Blyleven).
I remember this particular game -- the Rangers thumping the first place Yanks, 8-2 -- because I saw it on TV. You young 'uns need to understand, back then, a Ranger game being televised was a big deal. It wasn't like nowadays, where they are all on TV...back then, only road games were televised (they were afraid no one would come to the park if a home game was on TV), and even then, there were only about 10 games or so that were televised locally (on channel 5, back then).
So for me, as a six year old, to not only get to actually watch a Ranger/Yankee game on TV, but to see history made...well, it was one of those life-defining experiences. In fact, it may be that I wouldn't be sitting here blogging right now if Mickey Rivers had run down one of those two inside-the-park homers.
Anyway, giving the second base job to Wills, who turned 25 in the middle of the season, appeared to be an inspired move by Lucchesi. Wills finished 3rd in the A.L. Rookie of the Year balloting, behind future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and A's outfielder Mitchell Page, and was second in VORP among A.L. second basemen, behind only Milwaukee's Don Money. The Rangers appeared to have in place a solid young building block for the future.
As it would turn out, though, that was Wills' best season in the majors.
1978 and 1979 were both solid seasons for Wills...his power dropped off dramatically in 1978, although Wills did steal 52 bases, good for 3rd in the A.L., which kept his EQA up to a solid .268. It dropped to .258 in 1979, though, as the steal totals dropped, the slugging percentage stayed around .350, and Wills' OBP hovered in the .330-.340 range.
Still, Wills was 3rd in the A.L. in VORP in '78 and 7th in '79, and his defense was still good, which made him one of the better second basemen in the league.
In 1980, BP's defensive stats show that Wills went from being 12 runs above average to 13 runs below average. His range factor was about the same, and his fielding percentage improved, so I'm not sure what BP is picking up there, but Wills' bat remained about the same, posting a .260 EQA despite his OBP dropping down to .322, and Wills was still 6th in the A.L. in VORP among second basemen, and 9th in the majors, with such stars as Joe Morgan, Bobby Grich, Paul Molitor, and Willie Randolph lodged ahead of him.
In 1981, though, things fell apart. In that strike-shortened season, Wills had a mildly disappointing, if still respectable, .265/.321/.336 line when the players walked, albeit with only 8 steals in 14 attempts. He was miserable in the second half, though, hitting .235/.281/.273 with 4 steals in 7 attempts, and his anemic bat was a contributor to the Rangers' poor post-strike performance.
1981 saw Wills post career lows in OBP, slugging, steals, and EQA, and Wills plummeted to 11th in the A.L. in VORP, behind the immortal combo of Alan Bannister and Rob Wilfong.
1981 was also the end of Wills' Ranger career. On the eve of the 1982 season, Wills was dealt to the Cubs, with Doug Flynn (acquired in the offseason for Jim Kern) taking over at second base for the 1982 season.
Wills had a solid bounceback season with the Cubs, posting a .276 EQA and stealing 35 bases, but never played in the majors again after that, although he did play in Japan.