The California Angels do not have a chance. Just look at them. The manager is a rookie. The third baseman is a rookie. The shortstop is a third baseman. The second baseman can't hit. The catcher is always hurt. The pitchers are too young. Anyway, you get the idea. For these Angels, Heaven can wait.
Or so it would seem to rational observers of the American League West. But at week's end, after they had swept a three-game series from the Baltimore Orioles in Anaheim, there were the Angels in virtually a tie for first place, just .001 behind Kansas City. Can this really be California, the team that has languished for years in the shadow of the Dodgers, Disneyland and most of the American League?
No American League team has ever won the pennant after making a midseason managerial change, but the Angels, who five times have changed managers during a season, might well do it under 36-year-old Jim Fregosi, who began his major league career as an Angel cherub in 1961, the year the team was formed. Archangel Gene Autry picked Fregosi to succeed Dave Garcia on June 1. At the time, Fregosi was playing neither well nor often for Pittsburgh. But when the Angels lost 17-2 to Chicago for their fifth straight defeat, Autry decided that Fregosi was just the medicine his slumping team needed.
"Garcia was a dandy guy, but he was too quiet," Autry says. "Jimmy is a scrapper, a go-getter. I felt he would be someone the players would respect."
Fregosi began making changes immediately. Among them, he moved Rick Miller from rightfield to center, shifted Lyman Bostock from center to right and installed Brian Downing as the full-time catcher. The latter move was particularly bold because the Angels' top pitchers, Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan, had been working almost exclusively with Terry Humphrey behind the plate. Says Fregosi, "When I first made the change, Tanana came into my office and said, 'Humphrey catches me,' and I told him, 'Not anymore.' "
Downing subsequently has emerged as "the MVP since I've been here," says Fregosi. Downing is true grit. He is forever putting an ice bag on a sore limb, but his injuries never seem to stop him from running full bore into the dugout after a foul pop or blocking the plate. "It makes you sick to the stomach to see a guy like Downing play in that kind of agony," says the Angels' executive vice-president, Buzzie Bavasi. Says Downing, "I always liked to be hurt, or at least I wasn't afraid to be. The only time I felt totally healthy this year, I went into a slump." Since becoming a regular, Downing's average has risen from .250 to .270. In July, when California spent almost half the month in first place, Downing hit .347.
Downing says he is happy to be in California where he can play every day and not worry about White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who harassed him mercilessly in Chicago last season. "He's the only person in the world I really hate," Downing says. "He basically ran me out of town. Every minor mistake I made became a World Series blunder, and the fans who listened to him stayed on me all the time. It really hurt me to be booed on a baseball field, because I try to play so hard. Even though I hit pretty well [.284], I worried what he might be saying about me when I was up at the plate. Thinking about how bad it was has made me want to do even better this season."
Bostock also has been motivated by criticism—the self-inflicted kind. A .318 hitter in three seasons with the Twins, Bostock joined the Angels through the reentry draft. However, he was unable to buy a hit, even with his $2.3 million contract. Bostock became so unhappy with himself, in fact, that he donated part of the salary to charity, saying he didn't deserve it. At the end of May, Bostock was still hitting under .210, but he welcomed his new manager with a 4-for-4 performance and was off on a tear that has lifted his average almost 100 points to .300.
"For a while I didn't think I'd break out of it," Bostock says. "I would have been very happy to hit .250."
The Angels have gotten mixed results from their 1977 free-agent class of DH Don Baylor, Leftfielder Joe Rudi and Second Baseman Bobby Grich. Rudi and Grich are able to play, which is an improvement over last year when they were injured most of the time, but they haven't been at their best. Baylor, who now takes an occasional whirl at first base, leads the team with 25 home runs, 68 RBIs, 84 runs and 18 stolen bases. After beating Baltimore with a two-out homer in the bottom of the ninth Friday night, Baylor declared, "As I go, so goes the team."
Baylor may well be right. On Sunday afternoon he broke up a spectacular pitching duel with a 14th-inning double that scored Rick Miller from first base and gave the Angels a 1-0 victory.
Because of an injury incurred on April 27, Rudi didn't start producing much offense until after Fregosi's arrival. Even though his average is still a laggardly .237, Rudi has 12 home runs and 62 RBIs, including 25 in the last 27 games. "At last I feel like I'm making a contribution," he says.
Grich is not contributing much of anything. He is batting only .232, and after a particularly awful performance last week against Boston, in which he went 0-for-4 and committed a costly error, Grich went into Fregosi's office and asked to be removed from the lineup. Aware that Grich had been pressing, Fregosi was only too happy to oblige.
Autry shelled out $7.2 million for free agents the past two years, but some of his best players cost almost nothing—particularly Third Baseman Carney Lansford, who was drafted out of high school by the Angels in 1975 and signed with them for small change. Only 21, Lansford batted .332 with Double A El Paso last year. He was ticketed for Triple A Salt Lake City this season, but a strong spring training performance kept him on the roster. When Dave Chalk was switched from third base to shortstop to replace slumping Ranee Mulliniks, Lansford suddenly was a regular. He has responded with a .273 average and a sure glove, but he admits that the major league grind is beginning to wear him down. "I'm starting to feel tired," he says. "I'm not used to playing this many games."
Another rookie regular from the drafted ranks is Outfielder Ken Landreaux. He was the minor league Player of the Year last season, batting .354 at El Paso and .359 at Salt Lake City, but he is down to .229 with the Angels. "The pitchers are good up here, but not devastating," Landreaux says. "The difference between the minors and majors is that more balls are caught."
The emergence of two other draftees from California's farm system, DH Danny Goodwin (.292 and nine RBIs in 14 games) and Infielder Jim Anderson (.235), prompts Bavasi to say, "Most of our best prospects are in the major leagues right now. But we need their help because we're not able to go with a set lineup. We're going to succeed or fail with the entire roster."
The success of these youngsters has changed the Angels' thinking about free-agent investments. After spending lavishly during the last two years, Autry is ready to cool it. "I don't think you can buy enough free agents to put a winning team on the field," he says. "It's better to develop the young players. I don't think we'll sign any more unless we are right on the edge of winning a pennant and we think one particular player can make the difference."
In Tanana and Ryan, the Angels have long had the kind of pitchers that can make the difference. Tanana is 16-7, even though arm trouble has prevented him from throwing as hard as he usually does. Ryan—who, incidentally, came to the Angels in the deal that sent Fregosi from California to the Mets—has thrown as hard as ever; he leads the league with 205 strikeouts, but with less satisfactory results (6-11, 3.84 ERA). Ryan suffered a rib injury Sunday and had to leave the game after seven innings. Recently, the most effective righthander has been Paul Hartzell, 24, who joined the rotation on July 24. On Saturday he defeated Baltimore 4-3 for his fourth win in five starts. Two other young pitchers obtained in off-season trades—Don Aase, 23, from Boston, and Chris Knapp, 24, from Chicago—have winning records. Dave La-Roche is the bullpen stopper, with nine wins and 17 saves.
What little success the Angels have enjoyed in their 17 seasons—four winning records and three first-division finishes—all occurred while Fregosi was a player, often the key player. Now that he is back, they may not have to wait for Heaven much longer.