Fred Koenig, alarge and friendly bald-headed man who has the bad luck to be employed as acoach for the California Angels, was sitting in a Chicago tavern last week,washing down another of his team's acrid defeats with a cold beer, when he wasovertaken, as so many Angels are these days, by a compulsion to explain.
There is anendearing fragility to these explanations, all of which dangle helplessly fromone of two prefaces: "I like Alex personally, but..." or, heard asoften, "This thing has been blown out of all proportion...."
Koenig drew deeplyfrom his glass, turned finally and, clearing his throat, began: "You know Ilike Alex personally, but...."
"Hey,"interrupted the dapper sort on the next stool, "are you guys talking aboutAlex Johnson?"
July 4, 1971
"I like Alexpersonally," Koenig said, brushing aside the interruption, "but Idespise him professionally."
"That Johnsonis really something, isn't he?" the intruder persisted. "Now there's apersonality. I think he's good for the game.... Hey, where's your friend going?He's got my matches."
But Koenig hadswiftly exited, escaping what obviously was shaping up as yet another Johnsonimbroglio. It is unlikely that any Angel coach, player, front-officefunctionary or even casual fan would long sit still for such blasphemy, evenfrom the mouth of an innocent. In fact, if any of them were carrying agun....
Alex Johnson (seecover) is the prime anti-hero in baseball's strangest play. He is at the coreof a complex drama that has been only temporarily muted by his suspension lastweekend "for failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games."If the suspension should last longer than 10 days, Johnson can appeal his caseto Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Despite histremendous ability—he was the 1970 American League batting champion—Johnson'sabsence will not be lamented by his teammates, many of whom had been wonderingwhy it took Angel General Manager Dick Walsh so long to get around tosuspending him. Johnson's slipshod play, which had torn his team apart and ledto wild rumors and accusations, dates back to spring training in Arizona, wherehe was observed during one exhibition game positioning himself in the shadow ofan outfield light standard. He followed the moving shadow throughout the longhot day, ignoring normal defensive alignments against the various hitters.Figuratively, he has been playing in the shade ever since.
It was not so muchthat Johnson was simply having an off year; it was that his non-efforts seemedso calculated. Singles hit to Johnson's field became doubles; runners freelytook extra bases on him and he refused to run out ground balls, although he wasthe fastest man on the team. These offenses, coupled with a consistently lowbatting average, did not sit well with his teammates.
"He showedmanagement he was going to do things his way," said Outfielder Billy Cowanshortly before the suspension, "and he's still in the lineup. It looks likehe has a point to prove, and he's proving it."
Now Alex Johnsonis no longer in the lineup, and his point, whatever it was, may now beirrelevant. But the mystery of his behavior and the destructiveness of itpersist.
"It'stragic," says Walsh, who had unsuccessfully tried to deal Johnson awaybefore the June 15 trading deadline. "Here is a man with so much talentgoing to waste. And careers are so short in this field. Alex Johnson just isn'tmotivated by some of the things that motivate other people."
Motivation, let itbe said, docs not seem of the least concern to this moody, unpredictableman.
"I'm inbaseball," he said, "because it is a healthy activity. It associatesitself with creativeness and is a source of refinement.... To put money aboveeverything is wrong. You've got to put things in perspective. Baseball is notfirst. The individual is first. A lot of people forget that. A ballplayer isunder contract for his ability on the field, not as a human being."
It is as ifJohnson were groping for respect of a different kind, for an appreciation ofthe person, not the athlete. And in his groping he has developed asuper-sensitivity to any slight, real or imagined.
"Last yearwhen I won the batting championship on the last day, the guys shook myhand," he says. "But some guys didn't want me to win and they gave methe weakest handshakes I've ever felt."
Conspiraciesspring up for Johnson like clover in an outfield. No area is immune. Take thebatting cage.
"Battingpractice is supposed to be for hitting. But on this club, guys don't pitch soyou can hit. I'll stand up there and say, 'Ball one, ball two, man on first,call the bullpen.' Then in the shower you hear those pitchers say, 'Hear whatthat Johnson was saying? Hear what that Johnson was saying?' On a good majorleague team pitchers would accept what I said so they could help the hitters.On other clubs I say, 'Ball one,' and the pitcher says, 'O.K., O.K., I'll getthe ball over for you.' "
What other clubs?In fewer than eight seasons in the major leagues, Johnson has played forPhiladelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati and the Angels. Walsh nearly shipped himoff to Milwaukee for Tommy Harper last month, but Harper, dormant most of theseason, suddenly sprang to life and the transaction was called off. One generalmanager, says Walsh, seemed hurt by the suggestion that Johnson might be avaluable acquisition for his team.
"Gee,"Walsh quoted him as saying, "I thought you were my friend."
Walsh has notentirely abandoned his quest. "There are always problem players," hesays, "and there is always someone who feels he can handle them."
In the past,however, Johnson's problems seemed merely temperamental. He was uncommunicativeand frequently sullen, although the "I-like-Alex-but" contingent hasalways said that he is amiable enough out of uniform. Neither Walsh nor AngelManager Harold (Lefty) Phillips claim, for that matter, that Johnson is aproblem anywhere but on the field. He is good with children, and his mostrecent notoriety seems even to have improved his disposition with outsiders. Hewas talking to newspapermen and radio and television broadcasters as neverbefore, cheerfully granting interviews that, because of his ellipticalrhetoric, invariably failed to reveal the source of his deep discontent. Thetrouble was locked within Alex Johnson, and there it remains.
"Ever get sickof a thing?" Johnson asked. "I mean sick, sick, sick? I mean reallysick, sick, sick? That's the way it is with me and this club. I didn'tconsciously decide to do this [not hustle]. But things are just so disgusting,it drills on my mind, drills on my mind. It hurts to look back on a game likethat, but I can't do it any other way. I'm not playing any part of the game upto par. I can't. I can't get my mind to want to play the game the way othersdo."
Black journalistshave quoted Johnson as saying his troubles are racial, but Johnson, while notentirely disavowing the issue, is as vague in discussing it as he is with othertopics. He is more inclined to blame the insensitivity of his teammates, the"dishonesty and hypocrisy" of Walsh and Phillips and, preeminently,Chico Ruiz, his teammate, former friend and the godfather of his adopteddaughter.
"He is thecause of dissension," Johnson says of the utility infielder who seemsgenerally popular with the other Angels. "He keeps trying things againstme.... I never knew a man to be so determined in a negative way...."
Johnson touchedoff the biggest brouhaha on this truly star-crossed team when he accused Ruizof menacing him with a pistol in the Angel clubhouse during a game withWashington on June 13.
"We had bothbeen pinch hitters," Johnson said. "The game was still on, but I wasdone, so I showered. I had my street clothes on. Ruiz was in the clubhouse,too. He was rattling something, making a noise, so I looked up. What he wasdoing was tapping his gun on a chair. I looked up and he pulled the gun out ofits holster. He did it one time last year and was more jovial about it. Thistime he was not jovial."
"It did nothappen and I can swear to it on a Bible with both hands, with my wholebody—even sit on it," says the embattled Ruiz.
There were nowitnesses to the alleged incident, and a club investigation has failed toestablish the facts. But it did lead to some murmurings about armed Angels andit excited believers among them as well as nonbelievers.
"This thinghas been blown out of all proportion," said Jim Fregosi, shortstop, teamleader and nonbeliever. "I've never seen a gun or anything you wouldconsider a weapon in the clubhouse."
But there had beenguns, as well there might be on a team owned by Gene Autry. The old moviecowboy himself had been known to tote a six-shooter or two into the lockerroom. Only last year he gave one of his pistols to Pitcher Eddie Fisher.
"It's one ofmy prized possessions," said Fisher, a gun collector. "He used it inone of his movies. I own about 65 guns and I've kept them in my lockers for thepast five or six years. Most of them are antiques. I've even had TonyConigliaro's shotgun in my locker. But all of this has nothing to do withviolence. And I'll tell you one thing, I don't have any guns there now. Notafter all this."
The gun storieshave made the Angels the butt of some predictably bad jokes. A bellman carryinga player's suitcase felt obliged to quip, "I better not drop this, it mightgo off." A sign above a hotel cigar stand read, "Please check your gunshere." Opposing ballplayers, enjoying a bench jockey's field day with thehapless team, inquire whether the Angels would prefer to take batting or targetpractice.
The Angelsthemselves have converted this potential serious situation into a running gag.They will stalk each other in the clubhouse in mock shootouts or leap uponunwary newsmen in make-believe death struggles. A full-blown pregame riotseemed well under way in the outfield among various Angels in Milwaukee lastweek. It was strictly for big laughs.
There was,however, nothing remotely funny about Johnson's curious rebellion. His mockeryof the game cut his fellow players doubly deep. In a world of performance, torefuse to perform seemed to make fools of those who did, seemed to makenonsense out of the pure patterns of the game they played. The most strenuousexercise Johnson permitted himself at the ball park was putting on his uniform.He did not take outfield practice before games, and his actions in gamesapproached parody. Occasionally, as in last week's doubleheader at Milwaukee,he would give tantalizing flashes of his old brilliance, running at full speedor leaping against a fence for a fly ball. But these brief episodes werefollowed by long stretches of inertia.
At best, Johnsonwas barely adequate as an outfielder, and his defenders used this deficiency toexcuse his shoddy showing in the field. But he was making plays that wouldshame a Little Leaguer.
Two days beforehis suspension, in a game against the Brewers, Johnson broke late on a linedrive to left field that bounced by him for a double, igniting a five-runMilwaukee fourth inning. In the seventh, with Harper on first, Gus Gil hit aground single to left which Johnson failed to charge. Harper raced all the wayto third base, from where he eventually scored on an infield hit. Not even baserunners of Harper's acknowledged speed can expect to advance routinely fromfirst to third on balls hit to left field.
Johnson also didhimself no favors at bat. Leading off the ninth, he slapped a hard ground ballup the center of the diamond that Milwaukee Shortstop Ted Kubiak fielded offbalance. Normally, an excellent throw would have been required to catch arunner as swift as Johnson moving at full speed. But excellence was hardlynecessary since Johnson never reached the vicinity of first base, joggingbarely two-thirds of the distance down the line before sauntering off into thedugout. Phillips benched him the next night in Chicago, and Walsh flew in fromCalifornia.
Walsh, whoacquired Johnson in a trade with Cincinnati, admitted he had triedunsuccessfully to persuade him to perform up to his capabilities. Thesuspension is testimony to the failure of those powers of persuasion.
Phillips, who hadbeen the man in the middle throughout the long ordeal, is now at leasttemporarily relieved of his burden. But for how long? Five times during theseason Phillips benched Johnson, only to be overruled, apparently from on high.And throughout his travail, Phillips found it hard to believe that anyone ofJohnson's exceptional skills would willingly play so far beneath himself.
Lefty Phillips isa near-perfect victim. He has the face for it—a long, sad-eyed countenance onwhich the skin hangs in loose folds like a hound's. He has the disconcertinghabit of speaking with his mouth full of either tobacco or an unlit cigar, bothof which he chews forcefully. These are the mannerisms that have made himvulnerable to all sorts of clubhouse mimics.
Phillips was nevera major league player. He turned to scouting after a sore arm cut short hiscareer while he was still in the low minors. But for all of his down-homepersonality, he is an apt student of baseball. He was an excellent pitchingcoach for the Dodgers, and three years ago he was made the Angels' director ofplayer personnel. In May of 1969 he succeeded Bill Rigney as the team'smanager. The next year he piloted the Angels to an 86-76 won-loss record,equaling their best season. Now in 1971 he seems cruelly destined to lead themto one of their worst—just when they looked like pennant contenders.
The Angels havenot been hitting. Some of their stars—notably Fregosi and Conigliaro—have beenplaying with injuries, and lesser lights have fallen prey to some unusualaccidents. Pitcher Rudy May hurt his arm after he tripped over his dog, andPitcher Andy Messersmith survived a 90-mile-an-hour auto collision. ButPhillips is convinced that Johnson is the villain of the piece.
"I came up inthis game the hard way," he said recently from behind his cigar. "I canunderstand if a man plays bad when he has no ability, but this fellow has greatability, super ability. There's always been players who couldn't get along withtheir teammates. Cobb was one, and Tinker and Evers almost never talked to eachother. The difference was, they played good. This fellow won't even try. Andthat's not just bad for us, it's bad for baseball."
This last is arecurring theme: by refusing to play as well as he is capable, Johnson was notonly hurting his team, but attacking the game's basic ethic.
"I wouldn'ttake a kid of mine to see Johnson play," said Fisher, echoing sentimentpopular among the Angels. "A kid seeing him play might say, 'So that's howthey do it in the major leagues.' Well, that's not how they do it in the majorleagues. I've never been on a team where the players didn't give 100%. Thisthing just leaves you disgusted. Finally you end by compromising the things youreally believe in. That's the hard part. This man is the most unusualballplayer I've run into in 14 years in the game. Every man on the team hastried to reach him. None of it has worked."
"What do yousee when you see a person walking down the street like this?" saidConigliaro, hunching his shoulders in a poor imitation of a Lon Chaneycreation. "You know that person is sick, right? That's how I feel aboutAlex. He's got a problem deep inside him that he won't talk about. He's so hurtinside, it's terrifying. He's a great guy off the field. On the field, there'ssomething eating away at him."
Johnson seemsconvinced "there are those who want to see me break down. I'm not close tobreaking down. Probably 99% of human beings would be. Not me. And thatfrustrates them even more."
He is playing hisown game now, but it isn't baseball. Despite his protests to the contrary,there is a possibility that Johnson simply has lost his taste for the sport. Hehinted as much the other day in what amounted to a parable. "When I wasabout 13 or 14," he said, "I kept hearing about pizza. I didn't knowwhat it was. I thought they were saying, 'piece of,' like 'piece of pie.' Oneday I went into a place and ordered the biggest pizza there. I ate and ate andthen left and got sick. It wasn't what I had expected. I had expected a sweettaste."
On the team buscarrying the Angels to yet another defeat, Pitcher Jim Maloney satcontemplating the humming Chicago traffic. "Alex Johnson," he said,just trying the name out. "Alex Johnson. Now that's not a difficult name,not a name like Yastrzemski or something like that." Maloney seemed ontosomething. "You know, it's really just a simple name."
Just a simple namefor a complex and troubled man whom no one, Alex Johnson least of all, canquite understand.
Maloney probablyappreciated the irony of that.