The first-place California Angels are at home and righthander Jim Slaton is struggling. The 15-year veteran is trying to recall his favorite defensive play by centerfielder Gary Pettis but is having a hard time with the details. "The one when I was pitching this year and he jumped over the fence and brought the ball back," says Slaton, who remembers that he won the game but forgets the team he faced. Minnesota, he thinks.
Slaton scans the clubhouse for Pettis, finds him and asks for help. The 27-year-old outfielder laughs and says, "No, that wasn't Minnesota. It was Toronto, a drive by Jesse Barfield. I've saved you so many times, you can't remember."
If Pettis's defensive gems are starting to blur in people's minds, that's because he has had so many in his season and a half with the Angels. Here is an eye-feasting menu, featuring the catch of the day:
•April 12, 1984—Pettis runs down Davey Lopes's long drive to save a 3-2 win over Oakland. "One of the greatest catches I've ever seen," Lopes says.
•April 27, 1984—Pettis runs from right center to left center, dives and, extended horizontally about a foot off the ground, backhands a sinking one-iron by Seattle's Dave Henderson. This is manager Gene Mauch's personal favorite.
•April 18, 1985—In Minnesota, Pettis robs Tom Brunansky of an extra-base hit in the eighth, then reaches above the fence to steal a game-tying homer from Mike Stenhouse in the ninth.
•May 2, 1985—He hijacks Barfield's homer. Canadian telecasters ask high jumper Dwight Stones to analyze the leap. Barfield later requests that Pettis stick to stealing bases.
Only reliever Donnie Moore (with 15) has earned more saves for the Angels than Pettis, who makes the sensational common. Like two weeks ago in Chicago, when the White Sox' Harold Baines cracked a drive to center with two men on. Pettis caught the ball above the 11-foot wall, then held onto it as he smashed into the fence. The catch was spectacular but Mauch, who has come to expect such plays, says, "It gets no rating from me."
Before the 1984 season, four-time Gold Glove winner Fred Lynn moved from center to right to make room for Pettis, then a rookie. So his great fielding didn't exactly come as a surprise to the Angels. But they still are in awe. "He's made more good plays already this year than I've seen a centerfielder make in an entire year, including Paul Blair," says California second baseman Bobby Grich, Blair's former teammate with the Orioles.
Because of Pettis, Angel broadcasters now have what literary savants call a "willing suspension of disbelief." Listen to KMPC's Al Conin call Barfield's drive on May 2:
"It's swung on and hit a mile into deep left centerfield. Pettis going back to the track, to the wall, and it's gone! A home run. No! Pettis goes over the fence and pulls it back. Unbelievable!"
"He plays center like Ozzie Smith plays shortstop," says outfield neighbor Reggie Jackson. "And I say that as a compliment to Ozzie Smith."
On the lead-footed California club, Pettis is the only Angel with wings. Called up in September 1983, Pettis stole eight bases and led the team. This year he is second to Rickey Henderson in the AL, with 30 steals in 34 attempts, and twice he has stolen home.
But if the 6'1", 159-pound Pettis plays center like a dream and runs like a deer, he also swings like a rusty gate and strikes out like, well, Reggie Jackson. "If he hits .280," Reggie says, "he'll make a million dollars a year."
During the off-season, Pettis worked with hitting guru Harry Walker. As of Sunday, Pettis was hitting .256, 29 points better than last year. But he also had a team-leading 74 whiffs, 14 more than Jackson, the alltime leader.
But through good times and bad, Pettis is well-spoken and polite, and seemingly reserved. "He might throw an Eddie Haskell on the reporters for a while," teammate Rob Wilfong says, referring to Pettis's sometimes obsequious treatment of media people.
Good morning, Mr. Murray. Your column was certainly a pleasure to read this morning. Isn't it wonderful what they can do with metaphors these days.
Pettis says Wilfong is just sore because last year Pettis rigged Wilfong's cigarettes with joke-shop explosives.
But Pettis claims innocence for another supposed caper that has brought him recent notoriety. Gary's 1985 Topps baseball card features a picture of a 14-year-old Pettis, Gary's youngest brother, Lynn. Topps claims chicanery. Pettis says balderdash, the photo was shot last year at a Family Day baseball game when Lynn was in uniform. "Now Lynn runs around the stadium signing autographs," Pettis says.
Lynn, the last of the five Pettis boys, lives at home in Oakland with mother Ola Mae. His brother Stacey, 22, plays for the Redwood Pioneers, the Angels' farm club in the Class A California League. Like Gary, he's a centerfielder who leads off, steals a lot of bases and strikes out too much.
And he's unfazed that the Angels have a centerfielder. "Gary will have to learn to play right," Stacey says. "Actually, we'll only need two outfielders. He can play right center, and I'll play left center."
As it is, Pettis already covers a lot of ground. Head grounds-keeper Brian Nofziger estimates that Pettis covers about 35,000 square feet, slightly less than an acre. He is also fearless—Sunday he hurt his wrist diving for a ball.
Pettis works on his over-the-head and over-the-fence catches every day, taking balls off the fungo of coach Jimmie Reese. Reese calls Pettis "Leather," in tribute to his defensive artistry. "I've never seen a better one in all my career," Reese says, and his career spans 67 years.
Muses Jackson, "When people ask me what I'll miss about the game, I tell them I'll miss being able to stand on the field and watch Gary Pettis play defense."