As candidates for the Team of the Future, the California Angels would seem to merit consideration alongside the Virginia Squires or the Portland Thunder. When last observed, the Angels were dead last in the Western Division of the American League, tagging 19 games behind the Kansas City Royals. Their once-promising pitching staff had fallen into disarray, and the rest of the lineup was as familiar to baseball fans as the viola section of the Cleveland Orchestra. The Angels' most newsworthy performance in months occurred last Friday, when they fired Manager Dick Williams and replaced him with Third Base Coach Norm Sherry.
Ah, but this, as we hear so often in congressional corridors these days, is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the foundering parent team are the most potent farm clubs in the game, staffed mainly by youngsters who, the Angels hope, are only a season or two away from the big time. At the end of last week, four of California's five minor league teams were leading their leagues or divisions, and the fifth, Idaho Falls of the rookie Pioneer League, was running a strong second, just 3½ games back. Salt Lake City was in first place in the Eastern Division of the Triple A Pacific Coast League by two games; El Paso was 1½ ahead in the Western Division of the Texas League; Salinas, winner of the first half of the Class A California League season, was also leading in the second half; and Quad Cities was atop the Class A Midwest League.
The Salt Lake City Gulls had four regulars hitting over .300, paced by the speedy Carlos Lopez' .350. Third Baseman Ron Farkas of the El Paso Diablos led the Texas League until late last week with a .345 average, having supplanted teammate Fred Frazier, who was promoted to the Gulls on July 12 when he was hitting .363. But the hottest Diablo of all was the 21-year-old, 215-pound First Baseman Willie Mays Aikens, who was batting .330, had hit 23 homers and had driven in an astounding 88 runs. Aikens, whose given names were inspired by the delivering physician's exclamation that he was the bawling image of the Giants' centerfielder, is especially prized because of his power, a commodity in short supply on the Angels.
According to California's Special Assignment Scout Ray Scarborough, there are top shortstop prospects on all of the farm teams. The most promising are Salt Lake City's 23-year-old Mike Miley, a part-time player with the Angels in 1975, his second season as a professional, and Rance Mulliniks, the El Paso whiz. There is a catcher, Tom Donohue of El Paso, who is highly regarded though currently sidelined with a crushed knuckle on his right hand; an outfielder, Thad Bosley of Salinas, who has stolen 68 bases in 96 games; and a relief pitcher, Mike Overy of Salt Lake, who has a career-long habit of amassing more strikeouts than innings pitched. At last count, Overy had 88 whiffs in 71 innings this season.
Of course, outstanding minor league performances do not major-leaguers make, but the Angels have a right to be optimistic. The man behind this accumulation of talent is Executive Vice President-General Manager Harry Dalton. who moved to Anaheim in 1971 from Baltimore, where he had been the person most responsible for building the farm system that led to the various Oriole championships of the late '60s and early '70s. Among Dalton's first acts as an Angel was to surround himself with six former Oriole scouts. All told, the Angels employ 14 full-and part-time scouts.
Dalton cautiously suggests that California's scouting was not what it might have been before he joined the Angels. Of all the youngsters signed from 1966 to 1970, only one, First Baseman Danny Briggs, is now playing regularly; he is a modest .230 hitter. The current Angels include numerous Dalton-era farm products, although most of them still have some ripening to do. By Dalton's timetable—which he has carefully plotted, taking into account his Baltimore experience—California should "move up" in 1977. He figures 1978 should be "a very, very good year."
The future Angels will have played on victorious teams, a significant consideration. "Winning pennants is not the ultimate goal of our farm system," Dalton says. "Player development is. But winning is an important adjunct to the training system. It becomes a matter of habit. Why, we had players coming up to the Orioles in the '60s who had been on two or three pennant winners in the minors. They were used to winning."
Dalton, his coolly efficient Minor League Director Tom Sommers, Scarborough and Special Instructor and Coach Bob Clear descended on Salt Lake City last week, an occurrence not lost on Gulls Manager Jimy (yes, one M) Williams and his players, who soundly defeated Hawaii 5-2. The visitors clucked happily over the speed of Centerfielder Gil Flores and Designated Hitter Lopez, whom Clear clocked at 3.8 seconds on one sizzling sprint to first base. They moaned in close harmony as Miley was hit on the kneecap with a pitch and was forced to leave the game. Though he remains unsigned for 1976, the young shortstop is the top prospect at his position in the system, reason enough for the brass to cluster around him in the clubhouse like so many grieving relatives. To their relief, Miley's injury proved to be more painful than serious.
Baseball is a serious business and a bit more to Dalton, an Amherst graduate who once aspired to be a writer. "This is my form of creativity," he says. "I'm not putting words together as I once intended. I'm putting people together. I wasn't growing bored on the job in Baltimore. No, I came to California for three reasons—I loved the state, I knew the area couldn't miss for baseball and I had the chance to do the creative thing all over again. It's our life's blood in this business, taking crude material and creating something."
There are no masterpieces in Anaheim yet, but there just might be one the year after next.