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His Performance Is Giving the Angels a Ray of Hope

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Johnny Ray has been an angel from heaven. Or, Johnny Angel has been a ray from heaven. As you like it.

Either way, one of the best things to happen to the city of Anaheim since Disneyland built the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has been the arrival of John Cornelius Ray, the infielder turned outfielder who used to be one of the Pirates of the Monongahela.

For a guy learning a new position on the job, in his eighth year in the majors, Johnny Ray has done all right. No, more than all right. He may not resemble Gary Pettis when it comes to flagging down fly balls, but day by day the guy gets nothing but better, and in the meantime he has swung the sort of bat that could put him right smack into the All-Star game.

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When Johnny Ray played second base for Pittsburgh, he was the best-kept secret since--well, Pittsburgh. He could run. He could field. And, not only could he hit, but he was the kind of hitter who could make contact wearing a blindfold and swinging a Dove bar stick. Still is.

Somehow, the Angels spirited Ray away from the Pirates at bargain prices, swapping infielder Bill (Who?) Merrifield and pitcher Miguel (Double Who?) Garcia. They got a guy who goes out there night after night and gets wood on the ball, spraying singles and doubles all over the lot. The only thing Wade Boggs has on Johnny Ray is that he eats more chicken.

OK, so we exaggerate. Sue us. Before you do, though, please note that in his first 243 at-bats since reporting to Anaheim late last August, Johnny Angel delivered 86 hits. For all you Boggsophiles out there, that comes out to a batting average of .354. Which ain’t chicken feed.

You know how Boggs always bangs the ball someplace, how he rarely whiffs and never pops up? Well, Johnny Ray is not exactly Bo Jackson when it comes to swinging and missing. You need the hitter to hit one fair? Count on it. You need a hit and run? Johnny Ray can handle either end.

Take 1985, for instance. Baseballs were bopping and hopping all over Three Rivers Stadium that season. Johnny Ray stepped in and out of the batter’s box 652 times that season, counting walks and hit by pitches and sacrifices. How many times did he see strike three? Just 24 times.

Barry Bonds strikes out that often on certain home stands.

“I learned that at an early age, that you can’t make anything happen if you don’t put the ball in play,” said Ray. “Maybe the bigger guys can get away with taking a big swing and going for all or nothing, but most hitters have to concentrate on making contact.”

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The son of Ray Charles Ray learned a lot about hitting from his father, who was a pretty fair shortstop back in Chouteau, Okla., a little town outside Tulsa.

“He got a tryout with the Pirates the same year I was born,” said Johnny, 31. “It didn’t go down all that great, but remember that back then black players didn’t always get good breaks.”

Ray Ray was a switch-hitter, and today his son has become one of the best. “I probably started switching when I was 12 or 13,” said Johnny. “You know how kids like to do the things their fathers do.”

The thought of making it to the major leagues was always on Johnny Ray’s mind, even though the majors themselves were pretty far out of sight. When the family made an 8-hour drive to St. Louis when Johnny was in junior high school, it was the only time he ever saw a major league game until he turned pro himself.

By 1982, he was leading all National League second basemen in games, putouts, assists and total chances, on his way to becoming the league’s rookie of the year. Johnny Ray was hot stuff, and the Pirates thought a lot of him.

Just before they brought him up for the last month of 1981, he polished off a season at Tucson during which, in 525 at-bats, he checked out with some absolutely amazing numbers: 10 triples and 50 doubles. Fifty. That’s a double every 10 1/2 times up.

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When the Pirates were forced to clean house a few years later, Johnny Ray understood that it was only business, and did not object to a change of scenery. What he did object to, at first, was the experiment of transplanting one of baseball’s best second basemen into the unfamiliar turf of left field. Would you ask Tommy Herr to play center? Would you convert Juan Samuel into a catcher? Not likely.

So, Johnny Ray asked the Angels and himself, “Why me?” He had hit .346 over 30 games with the Angels, only to be rewarded by having his position taken away. The decision to put him in left field came right out of left field.

Must have been a shock, it was suggested to him Tuesday.

“At the least,” he replied.

But, the Angels were committed to Mark McLemore at second base. They definitely wanted Johnny Ray’s bat in the lineup, but you can’t play five men in the infield unless you’re playing softball. Somebody had to pick up and move.

Johnny Ray figured there was no use crying. “If you have the basic desire to play the game, and the mental attitude that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help your team, you can do just about anything,” he said. “So, I decided to make the best of it.”

Getting comfortable out there has not been easy, but one thing you can say for Johnny Ray, it has not affected his hitting. He has the longest consecutive-game streak in the majors this season, and after 32 games is among the American League’s leaders with a batting average of .363. How many strikeouts? Nine.

So far, the grade we give to the Angel left fielder is the same big letter that adorns the stadium, directly behind him. A big A.

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Oh, from time to time he still misses his old friend, second base. He still takes a few grounders there. “You don’t do something for seven years without having trouble getting it out of your system,” he said.

Luckily for the Angels, they were able to get Johnny Ray out of the Pirates’ system.

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