Christian Science Monitor - March 25, 1980

All-new Luzinski for 1980


By Larry Eldridge, Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor 


CLEARWATER, FLA. — They call him the Bull, and for years he has carried a large part of Philadelphia's baseball franchise on his massive shoulders. Last season the load felt heavier than usual as Greg Luzinski struggled through an off year -- and learned a few lessons about the fleeting nature of fame and the fickleness of fans. But that's history now as the slugging outfielder concentrates on regaining his old awesome form and leading the Phillies toward the top once again.


It's a streamlined, all-new 1980 model Luzinski who showed up for spring training this year. He is wearing glasses now, he has had his hair cut short again after letting it grow long and shaggy last year, and in probably the most important change of all he has trimmed off about 20 pounds.


"I think Greg Luzinski looked in a mirror and decided which way he wanted to go," says new Phillies manager Dallas Green. "Nobody told him to do any of this. It was all on his own. That's why I'm so proud of him.


"Last year was a frustrating season for the Bull. He has a lot of pride -- not only for himself but for the team. He signed with this organization when he was 18 years old and he's been raised with us. He hated to see and hear the negative reaction of the media and the fans last year."


The Phillies, of course, were one of 1979's major disappointments. Heavily favored to win their fourth straight National League East title -- and perhaps go on to the pennant or even a World Series victory -- they collapsed instead to a sorry fourth place finish. Rightly or wrongly, much of the blame was heaped on Luzinski, whose .252 batting average, 18 home runs, and 81 RBIs were all far below his usual production.


"He didn't have a Greg Luzinski year," Green said. "Those stats would be okay for most guys, but we've come to expect more from him. We certainly look for a lot more this season. He looks great, and he's in a good frame of mind."


And does this suggest that mental attitude was part of the problem a year ago?


"I can't speak for Greg Luzinski," said Green, a long-time top Phillies executive who took over as manager late last season. "I don't know what was going on in his mind. But as I said, I think he has looked in a mirror."


Something surely was wrong with the man who had hit .300 or better in three of the previous four years while averaging 32 homers and 112 RBIs. Luzinski prefers to blame much of it on a leg injury which bothered him most of the season, but even he admits that the overall situation must have gotten to him.


"This was a new experience for me," he said. "I had always had the fans on my side before. I don't think I got down on myself. I'm pretty straight in my mind. But I can't say it didn't affect me at all when the statistics show I hit .303 on the road and .187 at home.


"It was a frustrating year for everyone -- myself, the club, and the fans. Remember that in February and March everybody was talking as though we had already won the East Division. It was just a question of the playoffs and the World Series. I'm the guy who was always fourth or fifth in the lineup, so when things didn't work out, I took the brunt of it. I sort of became a victim."


Luzinski, who had ballooned up over 235 pounds, obviously decided some changes were in order -- starting with slimming down.


"I began right after the season," he said. "Mainly I did it by eating one meal a day, watching what I ate and drank, and keeping active. My wife helped by not buying the sort of things you nibble while watching TV."


The regimen worked, and Greg checked into camp with a relatively svelte 217 pounds spread over his 6 ft., 1 in. frame. Furthermore, the Bull said he didn't think it had cost him any strength. On the contrary, he compared his situation to that of New York Mets manager Joe Torre, who did a similar off-season streamlining in 1971 while playing for St. Louis and responded by hitting .363 with 24 homers and 137 RBIs en route to the Most Valuable Player award.


Whether the Bull can effect a similar resurgence remains to be seen, but he certainly seems fully recovered both physically and mentally from that difficult 1979 campaign.


Luzinski is far from the first Philadelphia player to encounter crowd hostility. Over the years the city's fans have had a way of turning on their heroes in times of adversity -- and usually it's the big sluggers they single out. A generation ago it was Del Ennis, the cleanup hitter for the pennant-winning 1950 Whiz Kids, who heard the cheers turn to boos when the team failed to repeat its success. In the mid-1960s it was Richie Allen, another slugger, who was virtually jeered out of town.


"Well, you know, so much has been written about the fans," Luzinski shrugged. "As Howard Cosell says, they have a reputation and they live up to it."


Luzinski, who does things like spending $20,000 of his own money every year for seats for underprivileged kids and who had always been a big favorite until last season, doesn't really expect the hostility to continue.

"I got a lot of letters from fans last year saying they were with me," he said. "And so far the fans down here have been great. I expect a good reaction in Philadelphia."


He'll probably get one, too. But if not?


"I feel I learned a lot from what happened last year," he said. "I think I'd be better prepared to handle it now."