He has all the makings of a celluloid gunslinger. A
lightning-quick right hand. Nerves of steel. Even a name that
seems lifted from the Wild West: Troy Percival.
This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue
What's more, when he stands on the mound, the Angels reliever
has taken to narrowing his eyes in a manner reminiscent of Clint
Eastwood. And when Percival swaggers out to the bullpen before
games, he carries a canvas bag against his thigh like a holster.
But here in the land of make-believe, appearances can be
deceiving. "People think I squint out there to intimidate the
hitters," says Percival. "Truthfully, though, I do it because I
can't see the catcher's signs. Jeez, I can barely read the names
above our team lockers."
And that canvas bag he lugs with him to warmups? The majors' top
middle reliever (chart, page 114) is toting a sack filled with
goodies. Percival is one of the newest members of California's
pitching staff, so it's his job to fill the bag with choice
items from the locker room buffet table: bubble gum, candy bars
and the staff's recent favorite, Rice Krispies treats.
Last summer it was Percival who proved to be the sweetest find
in the Angels pen. In one short season--last year was his first
in the majors--he earned a reputation as the best setup man in
baseball as California went 46-16 in games in which he pitched.
"On this team we have a stopper and a closer," says the
26-year-old Percival. "I'm the stopper, and Lee Smith is the
closer." (Actually, while Smith recuperates from a ruptured
right patellar tendon, Percival will be coming in as the closer
for California to start off the season.) Says Smith, who holds
the major league record for career saves with 471, "Of all the
guys who've set me up in my [16-year] career, he's the one with
the best stuff."
Oddly, it took a while for Percival to realize he had the right
stuff. He spent most of his early playing days crouched behind
home plate, catching. But during one practice in his junior year
at UC Riverside in 1990, Percival walked to the mound draped in
his catcher's gear and fired some balls back to the plate,
pretending to be Nolan Ryan. It was an impressive enough
impersonation to persuade a visiting scout to unpack his radar
"I'm not a great athlete," says Percival. "But I'm blessed with
one thing: I can throw."
Tales of his arm strength abound. As a catcher in the Moreno
Valley (Calif.) Pony League, he once made a throw to second that
nailed his slow-moving pitcher in the elbow, leaving seam
imprints so deep they resembled stitches. Two years ago at
Triple A Vancouver, Percival threw his glove through the locker
room wall after turning in a particularly poor outing (his
fastball has been clocked at 101 miles per hour). Last June in
New York he uncorked some serious smoke against Yankees
shortstop Derek Jeter; after a series of foul balls California
catcher Andy Allanson told Jeter that the next pitch would be a
fastball, but despite the tip, Jeter hit nothing but air.
"Against Troy, you see guys starting their swings earlier," says
former Angels catcher Greg Myers (now with the Twins), whose
left hand swelled up every time he caught Percival. "You see
them gearing up. They'd just say, 'Wow,' after he struck them
"I feel like I'm the closer of the seventh and eighth innings,"
says Percival, who in '95 struck out 94 batters in 74 innings
and led the Angels with a 1.95 ERA. "I throw every pitch like
it's going to be the last. My job is to stay aggressive."
Percival stays aggressive for his brief game appearances by
remaining loose while he awaits his call in the bullpen. Early
and often, he and his fellow relievers dip into the candy bag.
Other time killers include pumpkin-seed-flicking contests and
the "pain game," in which Percival and righthander Mike James
see who can withstand the hardest blows to their kneecaps with
lollipops. Says Percival, "I've had some really big ones
splinter apart against my leg."
Despite the remedial efforts of his wife, Michelle Close,
Percival's penchant for junk food has gone unabated. According
to clubhouse rules, any California player caught eating fast
food on the road must pay a fine in golf balls. Last year
Percival was down seven dozen Titleists by the second month of
If his dietary regimen leaves something to be desired, his work
ethic does not. Three years ago in Vancouver, even though he had
no feeling in his pinkie or his ring finger, he continued to
pitch through 18 appearances. It wasn't until his father,
Richard, informed him that he had lost 20 miles per hour off his
fastball that Percival agreed to undergo surgery on his right
elbow. He spent most of the 1994 season recovering from the
Percival's perseverance and his passion for the game have long
been evident. When Troy was seven years old, he and Little
League pal Darrell Goedhart, now a pitcher in the Angels farm
system, would play home run derby long after the sun went down,
using Wiffle balls and the miniature bats they'd received as
giveaways at nearby Anaheim Stadium. These days, more often than
not, Percival is the first to arrive at the ballpark and among
the last to leave. Teammates joke, "Don't you like your wife?"
He does, of course, but playing for the hometown team is every
kid's fantasy. Says his friend Goedhart, "My first day visiting
Troy in the Angels locker room, I had a huge smile on my face. I
told him, 'This isn't real life, man. It's like something out of