It's 3:30 on a weekday afternoon, fully four hours before game time, and already the mostly middle-aged—by baseball standards—members of the California Angels are filtering into their clubhouse. Soft rock is playing on a stereo, and in the center of the room a lively bridge game is in progress.
Pitcher Andy Hassler, 30, one of about half a dozen elegantly balding Angels, is explaining to a visitor why his team is prospering. "I don't know what you'd call it," he says. "Cohesiveness, I guess. We've got guys who are used to playing with...."
"Your deal," Shortstop Tim Foli breaks in. "Bridge comes before any interviews."
But not before baseball. Despite early-season losing streaks of seven and eight games, California was leading the American League's Western Division by two games at week's end. And in the process the Angels were justifying every hope and quashing every fear that had attended them during the preseason.
How, it was asked back then, could a team with four former Most Valuable Players—Rightfielder Reggie Jackson (Oakland, 1973), Centerfielder Fred Lynn (Boston, 1975), First Baseman Rod Carew (Minnesota, 1977) and DH Don Baylor (California, 1979)—possibly lose? Ah, but how could a club with a lineup averaging 33 years of age and a suspect pitching staff possibly win?
For the answer, consider what happened in Baltimore early last week. The Angels took two of three from the Orioles, baseball's hottest team since May 13. In the opener Jackson, 36, hit his third homer of the season off Scott McGregor—the same Scotty who once ate Reggie with his evening haggis. What's more, Jackson singled twice off tough McGregor pitches and made the key play of the game by alertly advancing from first to second on a fly ball. The move sparked a three-run, eighth-inning California rally and led to a 6-5 Angel victory. "He's got new life," McGregor said of Jackson, the Yankee discard.
The next night the rejuvenated righthander Dave Goltz, 33, worked into the sixth inning, and the unflappable Hassler pitched 3‚Öî innings of superlative relief. The Angels won 7-4 as Jackson started the scoring with a sacrifice fly and every regular had either a hit, a run or a run batted in. Before losing the series finale 8-7, California rallied from a 5-2 deficit to lead 7-5.
Though the Angels dropped the opener of a series in New York 6-3 on Friday night, Jackson retained his share of the league lead with his 23rd homer, a tremendous blast off Shane Rawley, and received a standing ovation from the 50,314 fans at Yankee Stadium. "I try to be unique and different," said Reggie. Even when the Angels lose, as they did in two of their three outings in New York, they provide theater.
In Anaheim, where California was 31-19 before this week's home stand, the Angels had drawn 1,676,944 in 50 dates—a 33,539 average that projects to a league single-season record of 2,716,659. It's easy to see why they're such an attraction: The nine regulars entered the season with a .278 career average, and through Sunday they were cruising along at a productive .283. There's the 36-year-old Carew, who figures to hit better than .300 for the 14th straight season. There are two bat-control experts in Catcher Bob Boone (.271, 18 sacrifices, five successful squeeze bunts) and Foli (.279, 17 sacrifices, 71 singles). And there are six sluggers who could hit 20 or more homers this year: Jackson, Leftfielder Brian Downing (15), Baylor (14), Lynn (12), Third Baseman Doug DeCinces (12), and Second Baseman Bobby Grich (10). The last club to accomplish that feat was the 1965 Braves. As McGregor says, "You have to be very careful pitching to this team."
At first hearing, Hassler's comment about cohesiveness may seem strange. Only five players remain from the 1979 Angels, who won the American League West, thereby giving California its only championship in its 22-year history. Four starters—Boone, DeCinces, Foli and Jackson, who came from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New York, respectively—are new to the team. But closeness apparently develops quickly on a club when all nine regulars have played at least seven seasons and have been on one or more division winners. Jackson has been on nine.
Of the four notable newcomers, Boone, 34, who has stabilized the pitching staff, and Jackson have received most of the credit for the Angels' ascendancy, but DeCinces and Foli, both 31, have made equally important contributions, on defense. DeCinces has filled a yawning void at third, and Foli has made only nine errors at short while replacing Rick Burleson, who's out for the season with a torn rotator cuff suffered on April 17. The Angels have been one of the league's fielding leaders all year. "You have to give a special asterisk to the infield," says Downing, 31. "They've bailed us out." And had fun in the process.
In a game last week Carew half lunged, half fell in pursuit of a Ken Singleton humpbacked liner and caught it with his feet about an inch off the ground. DeCinces hooted and whistled, Grich held his thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart and Foli called out, "Only black guy in the infield and he didn't jump!"
What's this? The high-priced and sensitive Angels kidding each other? They also make fun of themselves. After diving for a Texas leaguer and playing it into a triple, Jackson asked DeCinces, "Can I say it was the lights?"
The refrain about cohesiveness is heard repeatedly; only the words differ. "No superstar outshines another, so there's no jealousy," says Boone.
"People say, 'There are so many egos and problems—how can you get along?' " says Jackson. "It's because everybody is so confident based on what he's done in the past. If you're not in awe of a guy, you're not afraid to laugh at him if he does something odd on the field. The other night I had trouble holding onto the ball. Freddie Lynn pretended he was dribbling a basketball."
Baylor, 33, says Jackson's presence takes pressure off the others. Jackson says the others take pressure off him. But the Angels do bear his stamp. Even the dugout has become positively Jacksonian, rocking with the popular chant he originated, "Get the hammer out."
In every sense of the word, Jackson is enjoying a homecoming. The chance to be nearer his homes in Carmel and Oakland was the biggest reason he chose California over Baltimore after becoming a free agent last fall. Whether the word modifies his team or place of residence, Jackson is a Californian through and through. "With this club there aren't people asking players their view of management, as they did in New York," he says. "The big difference for me is that I'm more relaxed." Indeed, his face has never looked softer, and there's a glint behind those glasses. Jackson has a condo in Newport Beach and is looking for yet another house in Laguna. He's a familiar but unhassled sight tooling across Balboa Island on his Vespa motor scooter.
Virtually a loner in his five seasons with the Yankees, Jackson has already invited Carew to Carmel. Jackson's best friend on the team is Baylor, an old buddy with a strong sense of Jacksoniana. "In 1970 Reggie and I played for Frank Robinson in Santurce, Puerto Rico," says Baylor. "Reggie grew up a lot that year. Charlie Finley had sent him to winter ball after the two of them had a salary dispute the spring before and Reggie's homers dropped from 47 to 23 that season. In one game under Frank, Reggie hit a pop and just stood there looking at it. The fielder staggered under it, didn't catch it and still threw out Reggie at first. When he got back to the dugout, Frank said, 'If it happens again, it'll cost you $500.' Well, the exact thing happened a week later. Frank said, 'That'll cost you $500.' Reggie said, 'I'll go home before I pay that.' Frank said, 'O.K., after this inning I'll go inside and help you pack.' Reggie went inside and paid the money. He was fine after that. He hit 20 homers in 50 games and we won the league." In 1976 Jackson was traded to Baltimore in a deal that involved Baylor. This year Jackson lived for a month with Baylor before finding his own condo. "A beautiful man," says Jackson, who is as comfortable and cheerful as he has ever been in the majors.
At the start of the season Jackson tried too hard to impress his new teammates and fans; he had a poor spring and didn't get his average over .200 until May 4. Then he moved away from the plate and shifted his weight more to his back foot. "I don't want to give myself too much credit," Jackson says. "I'm not analytical or scientific like Carew, and I still strike out a lot, but when you get older you have to be more flexible. If you move around in the batter's box, you change the pitcher's pattern. Your weak areas become your strong areas. Then you get hits while the pitcher's learning to change on you."
Reggie's spirit is catching. At least half the Angels who pitch or bat on a regular basis have made comebacks of one sort or another. In his first full season as a leftfielder and leadoff man, Downing, 31, has fielded flawlessly and hit for average (.295 through Sunday) as well as power. His 15 homers have surpassed his previous season high of 12 in 1979, and in the 11 games from July 11 through last Sunday, he has reached base 28 times in 50 appearances. Once reluctant to give up catching, Downing now says, "I'll be happy if I never see that glove again."
Pitchers Steve Renko, 37, Geoff Zahn, 35, and Bruce Kison, 32, are 24-11 overall, the latter two in the wake of surgery. Quite literally the wake for Zahn, who exercises his postoperative left knee by running through swimming pools. "I get some stares," he says.
After playing hurt in 1980 and inconsistently in 1981, Baylor was tied for the league lead with 14 game-winning hits and had 59 RBIs. Southern Californian Lynn played edgily in his first season at home but is back to his 1979 Red Sox form and was pacing the Angel attack of late with a 15-game hitting streak through Sunday. Average-conscious in April, Lynn tried only to make contact at the plate. Then he checked out some old films of himself and began swinging aggressively. During his streak he batted .439, with six homers and 24 RBIs.
The club's youngest starter at 30, Lynn early in the season groused about batting deep in the order—as far down as seventh—especially when he was situated behind Jackson. "That guy never gets on base," he was overheard to say. Lately, however, he has begun talking of team stats. "There are days when I don't feel like coming to the park, but when I get here my attitude changes," says Lynn. "And I can finally go where I want when I leave. Nobody recognizes me since I've grown a mustache."
Other Angels, like the 33-year-old Grich, who is hitting five points below his career average (.267), are having routine years. But no one is in a slump.
For Manager Gene Mauch, the 1982 season will be either a watershed or a Waterloo. He's at once baseball's most celebrated strategist and most infamous record breaker. He has managed an unprecedented 21 major league seasons without a title, leading to criticism that he overmanages. "Well, he's never had championship material," Mauch boosters shoot back. He does now.
Surprisingly, Mauch's current players praise him more for his psychological support than his strategic manipulations. Testy and temperamental, Mauch, 56, treats opponents like enemies and Angels like sons. The Dodgers gave up trying to make a power pitcher of Goltz and released him on May 3. Mauch recommended that California sign Goltz and urged him to return to his old knuckle curve. Goltz, 9-19 in two-plus seasons with Los Angeles, was 4-2 as an Angel through Sunday.
Mauch has been criticized for his obsession with sacrificing. Despite their power, the Angels led the league with 85 sacrifices through Sunday. "Who's got the sacrifice hits?" Mauch asks. Boone, Foli, Carew and utility Outfielder Juan Beniquez, 32, are each in double figures, but Jackson and Baylor have none. Baylor blew his chance for one in the 13th inning of a game against Baltimore on May 1. After fouling off two pitches, he hit a game-winning homer. When he returned to the dugout, Mauch told him, "I like your idea more than I like mine."
Explaining why he plays for one-run innings, Mauch asks another question: "How would you play against a Ron Guidry? Would you pass up the chance to go for one run when you can get it?" Against weaker pitchers? "Let 'er rip."
"Gene has changed," says Foli, who also played for Mauch in Montreal. "In the past he had to try to get more out of us than we were capable of giving. That was our only chance. Now he's just trying to get out of us what we're capable of." And without wholesale platooning, which was once his trademark.
"He makes us sacrifice so much because he has so much confidence in the next guy—and the next guy," says DeCinces. "In one game he had Grich bunt the runners over to second and third. Before Grich bunted, Gene told me to drive in the runs. In other words, he already knew that Bobby would get them over and that Baylor would be walked intentionally to bring me up." DeCinces singled home two runs.
Mauch is constantly thinking ahead. His choice of the slow, free-swinging Downing as his leadoff man is instructive, even to Downing, who says, "I'm not naturally—this is an understatement—a leadoff hitter."
"What's wrong in leading off with a homer?" Mauch asks in his challenging way, without copping out by saying California has no natural No. 1 batter on its roster. "Besides, I was thinking of his fielding. By leading him off I figured I'd get him to hit three or four times and then get a better fielder in for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. I didn't know he'd be such a good leftfielder. So now I just leave him there most of the time."
And what about batting Carew second, with natural No. 2 hitter Foli down in the eighth position? Carew is still noted for pure hitting, not for taking pitches or hitting to the right side. "If we had a leadoff man like Omar Moreno, Foli would bat second," says Mauch. "He'd stand up there, wait until Moreno stole second and then move him to third. But we don't have a leadoff hitter like that." (Downing has stolen just one base.) So Mauch expects Carew to move Downing with hits and sacrifices.
Mauch plays as many as 54 holes of golf a day during the off-season and is a regular at the pregame bridge table. One afternoon last week he sat looking at a three-no-trump hand he had just bid. The nine tricks he needed were there, if only he could get to the board. Trouble was, Mauch's opponents, Foli and Boone, had higher cards than the board. Refusing to give up, Mauch intelligently played out the sure tricks from his hand, attempting to set up a favorable end play. He failed and went down one. "Fascinating," he muttered.
It will be fascinating to watch how Mauch juggles his bullpen, which is shaky beyond the lefthanded Hassler. An unimpressive 13-16 in one-run games and 15-16 in relief decisions, the Angels have lost five games they led going into the ninth, the most in the majors. On the other hand, Mauch and his gentlemanly card sharks were scheduled to play 21 straight games against relatively undistinguished competition, Oakland, Minnesota and Seattle, after leaving New York. By mid-August the old master may not have to second-guess his end plays. In bridge parlance, the division title could be a laydown.