Gene Autry had this terrific idea for his third baseman, Doug DeCinces. "Now Doug," said the old cowboy, sidling up to the ballplayer last Wednesday, "why don't you get that hot bat of yours working again and maybe hit about two, three out tonight." DeCinces, who had gone hitless the previous two games, laughed. "Would two be all right?" "Just fine," Autry said, apparently satisfied. So DeCinces hit two home runs that night in Anaheim Stadium as the California Angels beat the Kansas City Royals 8-5 and advanced three critical games ahead of them in the American League West.
It doesn't always work that way, of course. But if anybody has earned the right to have his homers served up on command, it's Autry. Only the Lord and the IRS know how much Autry has spent trying to bring a winner to Southern California since 1961, when the American League expanded to Los Angeles. His payroll—which includes former Most Valuable Players Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn, Rod Carew and Don Baylor—is probably one heckuva lot larger than Republic Pictures' was decades ago when he was riding the backlot range with Smiley Burnette and the gang from the Melody Ranch. And all he's had to show for his investment up to now is one measly division championship, in 1979.
But if Autry has waited a long time for his reward, his manager. Gene Mauch, has waited longer. For 23 years, man and boy manager, Mauch has been trying to win something in major league baseball. All he's gotten for his Jobian forbearance so far is a mop of white hair.
These two, the munificent owner and the long-suffering manager, are out to prove that they can be winners. In fact, with the exception of Jackson, who seems to have been in more World Series than NBC, all the Angels have something to prove in the postseason. And so, when the Royals came to Anaheim, the Angels were spoiling for action. The two teams started their three-game series tied for first place. When it was over, the Angels were three games ahead. At week's end, they were 3½ up and en route to Kansas City for three more games against the Royals.
The Angels won the first two games at Anaheim 3-2 and 2-1, on pitching and defense, supposed weaknesses. Then in the last game, with the obedient DeCinces in the forefront, they flashed some of their vaunted power—Brian Downing also homered—just to show they hadn't lost the touch. California could well finish the season with six players—Jackson, DeCinces, Downing, Baylor, Lynn and Bobby Grich—hitting 20 or more homers each.
The Angels, who aren't supposed to be able to pitch, lead the league with a 3.82 ERA. Ken Forsch, Geoff Zahn, Steve Renko and Bruce Kison have surpassed all but Mauch's expectations of them, and Tommy John, acquired from the Yankees on Aug. 31 for three minor league "players to be named later," has given the staff dimension and experience in the stretch. John Curtis, who says he "just moved up the road [from San Diego on Sept. 1] from one pennant race to another," provides a lefthanded arm in the bullpen, where the absence of Righthander Don Aase (he came down with a sore arm on July 18) has been grievously felt.
And, oh, the fielding! The Royals pride themselves, with considerable justification, on their defense, particularly up the middle, where Frank White at second, U.L. Washington at short and Amos Otis in center roam widely over turfs natural and ersatz. But it was the Angels who made the big plays last week. Even Jackson, who will never be mistaken for Tris Speaker in the field, contributed a nifty running catch of Don Slaught's blooper in the third inning of the second game. In the next inning, Carew snatched a hard bouncer to his right off George Brett and transformed a potential hit into a three-six-three double play. Pitcher Forsch pounced on the speedy White's bunt in the fifth inning and threw him out with a strike to first. And Fred Lynn took another hit away from White in the seventh.
The next night brought no surcease. In the second inning, with runners on second and third and only one out, Grich plucked consecutive line drives, the second on a spectacular diving catch off Ron Johnson. And in the seventh. Downing in left slid on his barrel chest to take a single away from Washington.
But these gems were mere baubles when compared with what Lynn did in the fourth inning of the second game. With two outs and no score, Otis slammed a Forsch fastball deep to left center. Downing in left and Lynn in center set off in fervent pursuit, but the ball seemed certain either to arrive at the fence before them or sail over it. In fact, Lynn and Downing got there when the ball did, but it also cleared the fence—if only for an instant. Lynn, who is lefthanded, leaped above and into the barrier to catch the ball before it dropped to the other side, while Downing ducked at the last second to avoid a ruinous collision. The top of the fence was pushed back by the combined force of the two flying Angels and had to be hastily bolstered after the play. When Lynn raised his glove hand with the ball appearing safely inside, the crowd of 52,415 fell momentarily into an unbelieving silence. Then the cheers began. It was one of the great catches of the year, any year. Asked afterward if he'd ever seen a better one, Mauch responded, "No, I don't think I've seen anyone else make a better catch, but I've seen Lynn make some better."
By playing that night at all, Lynn was, in a sense, proving something. For the past several weeks he has been nursing a cracked rib on his left side that makes it painful for him even to drive a car, let alone play the outfield and swing a bat. Although he hit the fence on his right side, the force of the collision caused him even greater discomfort and he was unable to start the next two games. He did, however, single in one late-inning at bat at Texas on Thursday, belying a reputation for malingering that he had somehow acquired in his seven years with the Boston Red Sox. Despite the injury, he was hitting .297, with 19 homers and 83 RBIs. And catches such as the one he made in Anaheim defy comprehension.
Another Angel with something to prove is Downing. "I came to spring training with no job security," he says. He was but one of four aspirants for the leftfield job—the others were Tom Brunansky (since traded to Minnesota), Bobby Clark and Juan Beniquez—and, as a former catcher who hit only .249 in 1981, he wasn't even the favorite. Downing had only begun playing the outfield on a semi regular basis last season (56 games), and he had done so reluctantly. But when the Angels purchased Bob Boone from Philadelphia last December, Downing threw away his shin guards. "I knew that Boone could do much more than I could in leading the team," Downing says. "He was the type of catcher we needed. I always looked on myself as more of an offensive player, so I made the adjustment and moved to the outfield. I didn't even report with the catchers this year. I don't think like a catcher anymore. I don't even own a cup. I stay completely away from the pitching situation." Downing figures that as an outfielder he is stronger at bat, an opinion borne out by his .280 average, 104 runs scored, 28 homers and 83 RBIs.
But the biggest change in the Angels has been brought on by the new men—Boone, Jackson, DeCinces and Tim Foli, a journeyman who started the year as a utility infielder but became the regular shortstop in the second week of the season when Rick Burleson was felled by a rotator cuff injury. "Foli saved our butts," says Downing. DeCinces, traded west from Baltimore for Dan Ford, has a career-high 97 RBIs and a batting average of .302. And he has fielded brilliantly. At Baltimore he played third base in the shadow of living-legend Brooks Robinson. "I never felt it consciously," he says of the shadow, "but I did feel a certain release when I got here. Everything seemed so good. Then when we played Baltimore and I went out on that field again, I felt this pressure. I found myself saying to myself, 'Now, don't make any mistakes.' Subconsciously, I must have always felt that pressure."
DeCinces likes practically everything about the Angels. "This is a team with so many great individual ballplayers, and yet everyone is pulling for everyone else," he says. "When you're playing with so many stars you can be more relaxed. You can be your own player because you know that there is more than one guy here to carry the load. And we all have so much admiration and respect for each other. We came out of spring training molded. This is a team of professionals, men of character and sophistication."
And they're appreciated. Last Wednesday's crowd of 51,273 brought home attendance in Anaheim to an American League record of 2,672,377, breaking the Yankees' 1980 record of 2,627,417; the Angels anticipate that more than 100,000 will turn out when they return home this weekend to conclude the regular season with three games against Texas.
Autry's not the only beneficiary of the Angels' record ticket revenues. When Jackson signed his $3.6 million, four-year deal last winter, he also negotiated an "attendance clause" whereby he'd receive 50 cents for every spectator once the Angels reached 2.4 million. His haul so far: $136,188.50.
The Angels and the Dodgers, who play only about 30 miles apart, together will attract well over six million fans. Toss in San Diego and the attendance total for Southern California approaches eight million. "No reason why we shouldn't draw," Autry says. "With all the stars we've got, it's like putting Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne up on the same marquee."
The Anaheim fans, who have added beach-ball tossing in the stands to their divertissements, were treated to some furious baseball in the Kansas City series. Too furious in the eyes of some Royals. In the seventh inning of the Wednesday game White stretched to accept a force throw at second base from Washington, who had fielded Beniquez' ground ball in the hole between third and short. A double play was out of the question, and White, positioned much as a first baseman, received Washington's throw with his right foot pressed against the bag, his right leg extended. Jackson, coming from first, slid hard into the bag and across White's foot. White was obviously hurt and jawed at Jackson, as did First Baseman Greg Pryor. Both benches cleared but nothing happened.
Jackson, meanwhile, had unaccountably picked up White's cap. As he trotted off the field after the fracas, he tossed the cap into the box seats, further enraging White. Jackson left the game the following inning for defensive purposes, and the limping White left in the same inning for a pinch hitter. Jackson walked down the hall to the Royals' clubhouse to seek out White and tell him that he had meant him no physical harm. That seemed to be the end of it. But not quite.
White was unable to play in the Royals' subsequent three-game series at Oakland, and though he is normally a gentle and soft-spoken man, he was visibly upset. Jackson's "unnecessary" takeout play was keeping him out of the pennant race. "My foot feels like a brick," White said on Friday, two days after the injury. "It's sprained. Yes, Reggie came into the clubhouse afterward, but I did not accept his apology. That ball was hit in the hole. Reggie's been in the game long enough to know the difference between a double play and a force out. He ran right into my leg. I told him, 'Reggie, you could've ended my career.' Then he takes my hat and flips it into the stands, adding insult to injury. I wish the Angels would clean up their act. If we all played that way, there wouldn't be anybody left to play this game. Reggie used to be one of my favorite players. I don't hate him now. I'm just disappointed. I've lost respect for him. I've never been hit in a situation like that before. That wasn't just a hard slide. I think Reggie was just looking for attention. He likes that spotlight. He always knows where the camera is. He hadn't been doing much with the bat, so he just needed some attention. I like to be in games that really mean something, and these do, but I guess I should be thankful I don't have a broken leg."
The Wednesday loss was the Royals' seventh in a row. On Friday night they broke the abysmal streak with a 7-4 win over the A's. But this was a Pyrrhic victory—Otis reinjured a groin muscle, Lee May reinjured a hamstring pull and Hal McRae, the major league leader in RBIs, fouled a pitch off his left shin. They all joined White on the bench on Saturday, and the Royals, beset with injuries as few teams have ever been, lost to the A's 10-3. On Sunday Oakland won again, 5-4. In all, K.C. lost eight games on its nine-game road trip, the last, mercifully, of the season.
As Royal General Manager John Schuerholz said while discussing his team's fate in Oakland last Friday night, "I guess you could say that negative momentum, like positive, has a way of sustaining itself."