Richard M. Brown, president and chief executive officer of the California Angels, is sharing an apple with his parrot, Yogi, in their tastefully appointed office at the team's new spring-training headquarters, in Tempe, Ariz. Brown is resplendent in a red-and-blue jogging costume emblazoned with the Angels' new logo (an interlocking C and A). Yogi, perched on the limbs of an ersatz fig tree beside Brown's desk, is more conservatively plumed in executive gray. For the moment, at least, Brown is doing all the talking. Yogi interrupts him only to squawk for more apple.
"When I took this job in November 1990, it was with the understanding that this team would be built from within," Brown says, handing up another slice to his feathered confederate. "That is the only way a team creates chemistry and continuity. In the past we've been inconsistent in this regard. We traded for talent. We went after free agents. We used the farm system. We had a payroll of $35 million to $40 million, and we had mediocre teams.
"But now we've made a commitment to building the right way, with young players. And we have some of the best, both from last year and now, with players like Tim Salmon and J.T. Snow. Six of our eight position players will have had two years of experience or less, yet I can assure you the 1993 Angels will be a much better team than the 1992 Angels were. These youngsters have so much enthusiasm you can feel it."
"That's correct," says the parrot, finally entering the conversation.
March 15, 1993
Brown regards him with obvious pride. "Yogi may not always agree with me," he says, "but at least he has the common sense not to say so."
"I love you," says Yogi.
The bird's affection for the CEO was not wholeheartedly shared by the Southern California baseball community this winter. In fact, when the Angels traded star pitcher Jim Abbott to the New York Yankees in December for three unproven prospects—Snow, a first baseman, and pitchers Russ Springer and Jerry Nielsen—Brown was vilified by fans and the press alike for having cast off the team's most popular player. "We received a great deal of negative publicity," says Brown.
Had the Abbott deal been the only controversial move of the off-season, the turbulence might have subsided in time. But California let another popular pitcher, closer Bryan Harvey, slip away to the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft. Then the Angels acquired third baseman Kelly Gruber in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, only to discover that he had a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder.
Abbott was the big loss, acknowledges Angel vice-president Whitey Herzog. "But we offered him $16 million for four years, and we couldn't sign him," Herzog says. "If you can't sign a player after four years on your ball club, you better move him before he gets to free agency. And we got three guys for him that the Yankees had protected in the expansion draft. I tell you, if those three can't play, I'll be on the next plane back to St. Louis."
Springer, 24, was 8-5 and had a 2.69 ERA in 20 starts for Triple A Columbus in 1992, when he also pitched briefly for the Yankees. He is ticketed to be California's fourth or fifth starter. Nielsen, a 26-year-old lefthander who was 3-5 with a 1.19 ERA at Double A Albany, should see specialized duty out of the bullpen. The real pressure, however, will fall on the 25-year-old Snow, who was the principal player in the Abbott transaction.
Snow is no stranger to high expectations. As the son of former star Notre Dame and Los Angeles Ram wide receiver Jack Snow, he has always had a name to live up to in Southern California. In fact, Jack, now a broadcaster for Los Angeles radio station KMPC, announced the deal that brought his boy home.
"I was doing a Ram game at Tampa Bay when the station called to say the Angels had made a trade," Jack recalls. "Then they gave me the particulars, and I about froze when I heard J.T.'s name. I was going to give the announcement to play-by-play man Paul Olden, but I "grabbed the mike and did it myself. The difficult part was maintaining my objectivity on my talk show that week. At one point I made the comment that trading Abbott was a hell of a gamble and that if I'd had the responsibility, I don't know that I'd have done it."
Actually it was Jack, the old gridder, who kept J.T. ("He's Jack Thomas Jr.," says the father, "but Jack didn't seem right for him") in baseball. The boy was such a standout in three sports while growing up in Seal Beach, Calif., that he was wearing himself to a nubbin playing them year round. One day, at 15, he went to his father and said that he wanted to give up at least one sport.
"Well," said Jack, "it won't be baseball," knowing full well that J.T. preferred football and basketball but that his future was on the diamond. As it turned out, young Snow continued to play all three sports at Los Alamitos High, earning major-college scholarship offers in each, but he concentrated on baseball at Arizona and finished his three-year career with the Wildcats as a .333 hitter.
Last year, his fourth as a Yankee farmhand, J.T. hit .313 with 26 doubles, four triples, 15 homers and 78 RBIs for Triple A Columbus. Although lefthanded, at his father's suggestion he has been a switch-hitter since Little League. Also with help from his father—"I'd throw 50 balls in the dirt to him at a time," Jack says—J.T. has become a brilliant fielder. "As an athlete myself," says Jack, "I knew the value of the work ethic."
Herzog compares J.T. defensively to Don Mattingly, the first sacker Snow would have been obliged to compete with had he remained a Yankee, and thinks Snow has the potential to be Mattingly's equal at the plate. J.T. cringes at the thought. "Talk about pressure," he says. "What if I'd had to replace that guy, a future Hall of Famer?"
J.T. is an athletically structured (6'2", 205 pounds), good-looking man who projects an intriguing combination of youthful exuberance and mature composure. "If you're the son of an All-Pro, you grow up with pressure," he says. "But I'm not trying to fill anyone's shoes. I keep thinking how Wally Joyner had to replace Rod Carew at first base here. That's pressure. It's the way you handle it and channel it that counts. We're all young guys on this team, and I think we'll feed off one another, help each other through the ups and downs. My approach is that nothing's ever given to you. I've got to prove I belong here."
Salmon, 24, is an even more exciting prospect as the Angels' new right-fielder. Tabbed for stardom from his days at Phoenix's baseball-happy Grand Canyon College, for which he set career home run (51) and RBI (192) records, he struggled his first three years in the minors, averaging .253. Then in 1992 he summoned up all his formidable talent, hit .347 and led the Pacific Coast League in homers (29) and RBIs (105).
Salmon missed the Triple Crown by .004 in batting average but was named the league's MVP. He led all minor leagues in extra-base hits (71) and slugging percentage (.672) and was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. He's 6'3" and almost 220 pounds, and he has a natural righthanded power swing. Herzog envisions Salmon not only as the power hitter the Angels so desperately need but also as a "complete player who can field and throw."
Salmon was born near Snow, in Long Beach (though he grew up in Phoenix), and he, too, shrugs off the pressures applied to him by a prayerful front office and a skeptical public. "I'm not going to concede to any pressure," he says, almost resentfully. "That's something you put on yourself. I know what I can do. I'll do the same things I'm capable of."
Salmon, also like Snow, has the luxury of knowing that he's penciled into the Opening Day lineup. "You don't have to be so hard on yourself if you're not fighting for a job," he says. "But we're all competitors here, and you still have to prove yourself. We're all trying to be better ballplayers. None of us are flukes. Whitey watched us last year, and I think I proved I can play. But this is no Cakewalk."
Whatever it is, it'll be better than last season, when the Angels finished in a tie for fifth in the American League West, 24 games out of first, and experienced enough off-field calamities to enliven a gothic novel. Consider that in rapid succession, pitcher Matt Keough, attempting a comeback, was nearly killed by a batted ball while he sat in the dugout during spring training; popular coach Deron Johnson died of cancer at age 53; and then, early in the morning of May 21, a team bus en route from New York to Baltimore hurtled off the New Jersey Turnpike and crashed into a grove of trees, injuring manager Buck Rodgers so severely that he did not return to the job until Aug. 28. "For three or four weeks after that accident." says Herzog, "the players didn't even think about baseball. They were just happy to be alive."
"You don't have to tell me what a bad year it was," says Rodgers, who had extensive surgery to repair a shattered knee and elbow. The challenges of managing a team that doomsayers are calling "nothing but a Triple A club" seem trivial now to a man who 10 months ago was pinned in a demolished bus and was thinking he would never live to see another game. Always pleasant in the past, the reprieved Rodgers is positively jolly this spring and as optimistic as a manager in his unenviable position can be.
"The lifeblood of baseball is the minor leagues." he says, squinting across a diamond aswarm with downy-cheeked Jugend. "It'll be fun watching these kids mature." He laughs. "Of course, it's fine being a teacher, but my goal is to get to the World Series. I know I've never managed so many young players at this level, but I can tell you we'll have fun out there, and we'll stir up some trouble."
Rodgers has a lineup as fixed, if not nearly so distinguished, as the Atlanta Braves'. The infield will have Snow at first; slick-fielding second-year player Damion Easley, who has 21 major league at bats too many for rookiehood, at second; Gary DiSarcina, a second-year starter, at short; and, until (if ever) Gruber returns, veteran Rene Gonzales at third. The outfield will have Salmon in right; second-year man Chad Curtis, a teammate of Salmon's at Grand Canyon, in center; and veteran Luis Polonia in left. John Orton, who has appeared in all of 119 games over parts of four seasons, is favored to do the bulk of the catching. Chili Davis, a free-agent signee with the Angels for the second time in his career, is the DH.
The pitching—"Let us hope it doesn't go south," says Herzog—is anchored by lefthanded starters Chuck Finley (7-12 in 1992) and Mark Langston (13-14). Second-year man Julio Valera (8-11) is third in the rotation, with Springer and free-agent acquisition Scott Sanderson (12-11 with the Yankees) following. Joe Grahe, the closer, succeeded in 21 of 24 save opportunities in his first full major league season last year, and he will replace Harvey now that the onetime luminary has gone irrevocably south. "Hell," says Rodgers, "we're even young on the mound."
Another handful of blue-chip prospects will be a phone call away at Triple A Vancouver, including centerfielder Kevin Flora and pitchers Troy Percival, Paul Swingle, Hilly Hathaway and Darryl Scott, most of whom could use another year of seasoning in the minor leagues.
All these tyros romp through workouts at the lavish Tempe facilities on a March afternoon before the watchful eye of owner Gene Autry, who will turn 86 in September, and his wife, Jackie, the team's executive vice-president and a principal architect of the Angel youth movement. Paradoxically, the Angels look both younger and more traditional.
"We changed the logo and the uniforms," says Jackie. The red socks are gone in favor of navy blue, and, mercifully, the red shoes that not even Moira Shearer could look good in have been replaced by aristocratic black. "We're going to keep changing things until we get them right," says Jackie.
One thing hasn't changed, though: There in the outfield is Jimmie Reese, a 76-year veteran who once roomed with Babe Ruth, lofting fungoes to youngsters who could be his great-grandchildren. Reese was listed in last season's media guide as being 87 years old. This year, he is listed at his true age, which is 91. "He finally fessed up," says Larry Babcock, California's manager of baseball information. "It seems he started his career a little late, so he always lied about his age. When he passed 90, he finally said, 'To hell with it.' "
You might say he picked a fine time to do it.