Your Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim begin spring training this week, and I say “your” Angels because they’ll never be mine. It’s not that I’m a rabid Dodger fan—even though my dear, departed mother heard every word Vin Scully spoke over the airwaves from the time the team moved to L.A. in 1958 until she passed—it’s a result of all those years I spent covering the Angels for the Los Angeles Times.
If ever there’s been a group of people you don’t mind having an adversarial relationship with, it’s pro baseball players. Surely, the Angels are no worse than any other team, they’re just my case study after basking in their, uh, glow for so long.
Clearly, the stadium scoreboard wasn’t the only “Big A” in the park.
So spring doesn’t well up a wave of happy nostalgic memories for me. I don’t close my eyes, channel Bob Costas and envision crisp white uniforms against azure Arizona skies, or catch whiffs of freshly mowed grass, or hear the crack of baseball against bat. It mostly reminds me of how achingly slow the game has become and how boring the hours before the game are. And, not to forget, how chaotic the minutes after a game are while trying to write something coherent by deadline.
And the players, well, simply put, a lot of them are jerks … but at least they’re sometimes amusing jerks. And the media covering them can be just as moronic. Fact is, bozos abound in baseball … and it breaks up the monotony:
A Sunday game in Anaheim, and All-Star outfielder Fred Lynn is out of action because of some injury or ailment. So he whiles away the innings with his pant legs rolled up past his knees and shirtsleeves up to his armpits, positioning himself on the dugout steps to stay in the sunshine.
I mention in my notes that he “may not be getting much playing time but is probably getting a good tan.”
The next day, Lynn confronts me in the clubhouse, screaming inches from my face, spewing expletives and asking why I would write such a thing.
“Fred,” I say, “There were 40,000 people here, and they all could see you.”
Lynn: “Well, yeah … but they told me the Times has almost a million readers!”
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was one of the best quotes in baseball—articulate, on point and he managed to avoid most of the clichés that fall like confetti in baseball. He always made sure that a covered trash can was near his locker and would use it as a lectern when he met with reporters after the game … which he almost always did wearing nothing but flip-flops.
One afternoon, when deadline was hours away and time wasn’t a mortal enemy, I ask a clubhouse attendant for a clean towel, which I later hand to Jackson.
He looks at it, looks at me, smiles, tosses it on the floor and continues to reveal his thoughts about the day’s events ... and, of course, himself.
An out-of-breath reporter runs into the manager’s office and sticks his tape recorder under Angel Manager Gene Mauch’s nose. “Just the highlights, Skip,” he says, “I’m on deadline.”
Mauch sighs, pauses a second and replies: “You know, son, there are two things in this world I don’t give a %$@#! about: [Breasts] on a man and your deadline.”
Outfielder Luis Polonia, who had been convicted of having sex with a 15-year-old in a Milwaukee hotel room, has just learned the girl is filing a civil suit and he’s in the clubhouse pleading his case. He met her in a club that required females to be at least 18 years old, he says. And she certainly had the figure of a grown woman!
Well, sure, he was the injured party.
His indignation reaches a peak, but before stomping off, he turns back and says, “I guess I’ll just have to start wearing a sign that says: ‘If you want to be with me, bring your ID!’ ”
Shortly after Polonia, a speedy leadoff hitter with questionable defensive abilities, was traded to the Angels, former Oakland teammate Terry Steinbach comes up with one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard an athlete utter:
“We call Luis Catch-22,” he says.
“If you hit him 100 fly balls, that’s what he’ll do.”
Pitcher Chuck Finley is starting to wind up and deliver the first pitch of the game when third baseman Doug DeCinces comes running toward him waving his arms and pointing to center field, where … there is no one.
Moments later, Devon White, the player who is supposed to be standing in that general vicinity when the game starts, comes sprinting up the steps leading from the clubhouse and out to his position.
After the game, he tells reporters that he was on the phone, which, well, calls into question his level of professionalism. Hello? Can’t it at least wait until your team’s in the dugout?
A club spokesman later says White was answering nature’s call, not the phone, and was simply embarrassed to say so.
(My No. 1 instinct is to disbelieve any “club spokesman,” so I don’t buy the No. 2 excuse.)
Orlando Mercado, a catcher for the Texas Rangers, sits in the visitors clubhouse with his head in his hands, staring at the floor. Knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough had just seen his no-hitter disappear in the ninth inning on a Wally Joyner single and then victory slip from his grasp moments later when Joyner scored on Mercado’s error after a pitch went between the catcher’s legs.
A group of reporters stands silently, waiting for Mercado to look up and take questions.
When he does, one reporter holds his tape recorder up to his own mouth and says, “The catcher who blew the game,” before reaching out to hold it front of Mercado’s already downcast face.
Every once in a while, it’s the sportswriter who gets the last laugh.
Hall of Famer Rod Carew, whose batting average was in a usually lofty spot among the league leaders but had barely managed to drive in a dozen runs halfway through the season, spots a reporter on the other side of the clubhouse who had put on a few extra pounds. (Heck, there’s not much to do on the road except eat and drink and watch baseball games.)
“Hey,” he yells. “Mix in a salad.”
Without missing a beat, the reporter yells back: “Mix in an RBI.”
A summer afternoon on the field during batting practice, and a couple of reporters are chatting with Angel centerfielder Gary Pettis, a light-hitting defensive whiz. I’m leaning on one of those skinny fungo bats the coaches use to hit grounders and fly balls while warming up the fielders.
All-Star second baseman Bobby Grich wanders over, takes the bat from me and points to the bold lettering on the barrel: “DO NOT HIT PITCHED BALL.”
“Hmmm,” Grich says. “Must be a Gary Pettis model.”
About this column: John Weyler has lived in Orange County for almost 50 years. His weekly regional columns will offer his unique, and often irreverent, take on life in the O.C.