After signing California Angel contracts totaling $5.2 million last November, free-agent draftees Don Baylor, Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich properly rewarded themselves with, respectively, a Mercedes-Benz, a Laguna Beach home and a Hawaii vacation. Everyone agreed that the club would receive its reward once the season began. Last week, however, the biggest investor in baseball's free-agent marketplace was beginning to look like the biggest loser, too. While Baylor fought a batting slump, Rudi recuperated from a broken hand and Grich rested his aching back for another try next spring, the Angels were sinking like the sun in the American League West.
The princely amount that owner Gene Autry approved and General Manager Harry Dalton spent seems a staggering price to pay for mediocrity. But California may have been victimized more by bad luck than bad business. Every starter in the lineup has missed at least one game because of injury, and Rudi and Grich are only two of the eight players who have languished on the disabled list. Meanwhile, a few more have had a disability of another sort. Cleanup hitter Tony Solaita has a .236 average and only 34 RBIs, and the pitching rotation has been Tanana and Ryan—and two days of cryin'.
In an effort to salvage the season, Dalton has done everything but call in the 7th Cavalry, trading for four pitchers, replacing the manager and the pitching coach, hiring a batting instructor and bringing in a hypnotist to instill some badly needed positive thinking. None of it seems to be working, though. After finishing in a tie for fourth in 1976, last week California was down to fifth, five games under .500 and 12½ games out of first place. Sitting in his office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Autry declared hopefully, "The season's not over yet." But considering what has gone on so far, his team might be better off if it were.
Failure is no stranger to the Angels' clubhouse. The team has had only four winning seasons in its 16 years and has never finished higher than third nor closer to the top than 7½ games. Broadcaster Don Drysdale, the former Dodger pitcher, likens the club to a restaurant that has tried every possible motif and menu without ever finding a loyal clientele.
July 31, 1977
This season was supposed to be different, however—an assertion made by no less an authority than Agent Jerry Kapstein, who negotiated the three free agents' contracts. "The Angels might be the most exciting team in baseball," he predicted. "They should be one of the three or four strongest teams in either league." The enthusiasm naturally spread to the fans, who bought a record 6,000 season tickets, and to the players, who felt they would finally learn how the upper half lives. Third Baseman Dave Chalk, who has spent four seasons in Anaheim, says sadly, "I'd been through the bad times and it wasn't a helluva lot of fun. I thought we had a chance this year."
Whatever chance they had was squandered early. California opened the season by losing seven of 12 to Seattle and Oakland, two teams it might have swept. By the end of May the Angels were in third place with a 24-23 record, but in June, Grich and Rudi suffered their injuries. The team was still two games above .500 on July 5, but five straight losses to Minnesota and Texas sent it sprawling again and prompted Dalton to replace the popular Norm Sherry with Dave Garcia. In protest, angry fans said Dalton should have fired himself since Sherry had the best record (76-71) and the shortest tenure (dating back to July of last year) of any manager in the team's spotty history. "I just didn't think Norm was getting all he should have out of the players," Dalton said.
The general manager seems much more understanding of the former free agents, saying, "Joe and Bobby were fulfilling our expectations and we have a tolerant view of Baylor because we feel he'll come around the last half of the season." Grich went out on June 9 with a herniated disc, one day after he had hit a game-winning home run in the 13th inning to beat Toronto. Although he was batting .243, 19 points below his career average with Baltimore, his homers and RBIs were up and he had made a satisfactory switch from second base to shortstop. Rudi was injured on June 26, while fending off a pitch sailing toward his head. At .264 he was 11 points below his Oakland career mark, but had tied the league record with 27 RBIs in April and his 13 home runs equaled his output for all of last year.
Baylor, who had been driving to the stadium with Grich and Rudi, now travels—and endures the criticism—alone. He is batting .230 and has had only four homers and 17 RBIs since the beginning of May, meaning he will fall well short of the season expected of him—at least a .280 average, 20 to 25 home runs and 80 to 90 RBIs.
Baylor believes there are several explanations for his failure to meet those expectations. "I think I've been trying too hard because of the money," he says. "The best thing would be for me to forget about the contract, but it can't be done." He thinks his own output will improve in the second half of the season, especially since Garcia has promised to use him regularly in the outfield instead of as a DH as Sherry did. Baylor is playing left field now but when Rudi returns he will go to center. "The DH is implanted in my mind as a negative," he says. "I don't mind going out and seeing the same blade of grass every day. I really believe that if I'd been playing out there all year I'd be having a good season."
Baylor's problems may be worse than he realizes. Frank Robinson, who came over to serve as batting coach after being fired as manager at Cleveland, has made him a special reclamation project. "Don is so fouled up now that he needs a lot of work," Robinson says. "A hitter of his caliber shouldn't be in a slump like this. He's not staying back in the box, he's overstriding and he's holding the bat too high. But the first thing I told him was to relax."
The same advice could be given to the other Angels. The promises of spring and the problems of summer have put them on a psychological roller coaster. Rightfielder Bobby Bonds, who is leading the team in virtually every offensive category, observes, "I figured we would win our division and I couldn't wait for the season to start. Then when Bobby and Joe got hurt it was like an earthquake had knocked down a house we were building. Since then we haven't been as enthused or aggressive as we should be."
According to Tanana, the opposition has been quick to take advantage of the Angels' condition. "Other teams know we're down so they're confident they can walk over us. There's no reason to fear us. Certain guys, like Rudi and Grich, can carry clubs and other guys are supplements. Well, that's what we have now."
Even so, wishful noises are being made about a closing pennant rush. Robinson, in fact, is taking batting practice just in case his 41-year-old body is needed. Garcia called the team together before a three-game series in Minnesota last week to tell everyone, "It can be done, it's not impossible." Whereupon the Angels lost two of three, with Ryan and Tanana starting in the losses. The lone victory was turned in by Lefthander Ken Brett, who had lost his previous four decisions since coming over from the White Sox on June 15. Autry was so pleased at this piece of good news that he called Brett to congratulate him.
Neither Dalton nor Autry regrets splurging on the free agents, and both suggest that they will go looking again this year in a continuing effort to improve the team. Despite his fame as the singing cowboy and his fortune as a broadcasting magnate, Autry admits that he has always been a frustrated ballplayer. At 69, he may be too old to be activated, but there is still enough time, he says, to fulfill "one of my last dreams, which is to win a pennant and carry it into the World Series."