These Angels Just Seem to Keep Getting Worse

Times Staff Writer

If the Angels' crash-and-burn in the 1986 American League playoffs was a choke, a collapse for the ages, what, then, are we to make of 1988?

And if the Angels' September slide of 1987, that 9-21 finish that dragged the defending AL West champions into a tie for last place, was an out-and-out tank job, what, then, does that make 1988?

Twelve straight defeats. No, more than that--12 straight defeats in the last 12 games of the season. From 75-75 and respectability to 75-87 and Angel disgrace.

The mind boggles.

Before 1988, no Angel team in history had ever lost 12 games in a row. Not the expansion Angels of the early 1960s. Not the dreadful Rudy Meoli-Winston Llenas-Art Kusnyer Angels of the early 1970s. Not even the injury-ravaged, 32-games-out-of-first Angels of 1980.

But the Wally Joyner-Devon White-Mike Witt Angels did it. The same Angels who reeled off a midseason run of 31-11. The same Angels whom General Manager Mike Port described in April as "a first-place caliber club." The same Angels who set a franchise record with 10 straight road victories in July and August.

Today, they own another franchise record:

Most Consecutive Games Lost, Club.

With Sunday's climactic 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, the Angels have taken the concept of playing out the string to new heights, raised going-through-the-motions to an art form. On Sept. 9, the Angels were 4 games above .500 at 73-69, still jostling for third place with 20 games to play.

They went 2-18 in those 20 games.

On Sept. 18, the Angels beat the Texas Rangers, 6-5, at Anaheim Stadium, one day after the opening ceremony in Seoul.

During the next 2 weeks, the United States Olympic team won 36 gold medals.

The Angels won zero games.

They did, however, lose one manager, Cookie Rojas, who was in charge for the first 4 losses of the streak. Moose Stubing replaced Rojas on Sept. 23. Stubing finished 0-8.

But the Angels' problem looms larger than any manager named Cookie or Moose--or Whitey or Sparky, for that matter. This team has folded its tents not once, not twice, but three times in three seasons--each year managing to out-undo itself.

Is there any character in the house? Gut-check time has come and gone, again, and how many Angels have acquitted themselves? Once you get past Brian Downing, the gritty designated hitter; Bob Boone, the venerable catcher, and Johnny Ray, the .300-hitting second baseman, heart can hardly be found in any corner of the Angel clubhouse.

During the September dive of 1987, Port said as much when he publicly criticized his team for "a lack of heart." This year, Port spoke louder with his actions--he fired a manager--but the message continued unheeded.

The only step left for Port is to reassemble the roster.

"There is that possibility," Port said. "If we can do better than the people we have now, we are certainly going to listen and investigate."

Port calls the current condition of the Angels "distressing." And he discounts the two most popular reasons for the Angels' sleep-walk through the final month--injuries and post-elimination malaise.

"Because we fell out of the pennant race is a common rationalization," Port said of the slump. "But other clubs fall out of contention and they still win a game here or there.

"Was it injuries? Well, everybody has injuries. It's what you do in spite of the injuries that makes or breaks a club."

Asked about Angel character, or the apparent lack thereof, Port measures his words with care.

"There are elements of heart," is how Port puts it. "Some of our players are sick at the way we've played as a club."

Still, Port was concerned enough to accompany the team on its final five-game march through Milwaukee and Minnesota, where he talked with players about the state of the team, assessing the damage before this winter's trouble-shooting.

On paper, Port lists the Angels' primary needs as starting pitching, backup catching and left field. But below the surface, there is a need for leadership, whether it be provided by a new manager or a new player, something the Angels have lacked since the housecleaning of '86.

Consider, for example, the clubhouse leaders of the teams that play their baseball in the L.A. basin.

The Dodgers have Kirk Gibson.

The Angels have George Hendrick.

Yes, the role model for the young and impressionable players that dominate the Angel roster is one Joggin' George, the 38-year-old reserve outfielder who doesn't talk to the press and played out his entire Angel career at half-speed, punching the clock and taking much pride in his "pro glide."

But, then, he sure was funny as judge of the kangaroo court.

When the Angels staggered out of the gate in April and May, who was there to offer some guidance, if not deliverance? Downing was on the disabled list. Joyner, the supposed heart of the batting order, had 6 RBIs through April and 2 home runs through May. Witt, the supposed ace of the pitching staff, was 2-7 with a 5.38 earned-run average in early June.

By June 15, the Angels were 24-40, their season essentially over after barely 2 months. Sure, they would eventually recover--from June 16 to Sept. 5, the Angels were 46-26--but winning becomes so much easier once the mind is free from the stress of possible playoff contention.

By early September, however, some actual challenges began to crop up in Anaheim. Rojas, the man who loosened the reins that had allegedly constricted the team under Gene Mauch, was bidding for another year on his contract. A winning season was at hand. So was third place and the pocket change that goes with it.

On Sept. 13, third place met fourth place when the Kansas City Royals visited Anaheim Stadium. As far as important series go, this was about as big as they got for the Angels in 1988.

The Angels were swept, 3 straight, managing just 6 runs in the process.

The Great Apathy quickly took root.

By October, Rojas and all hopes of a .500 season were long gone. The Angels wound up buried in fourth place, 29 games behind the Oakland Athletics, the team's largest deficit in the standings since 1983, when the Angels placed 29 games behind the Chicago White Sox.

Two years removed from an AL West championship, this is what the Angels had to show for 162 games:

--One starting pitcher with a winning record, Kirk McCaskill (8-6), who sat out the last 2 months because of a nerve problem in his right arm.

--No pitcher with more than 13 victories. Witt (13-16) and Willie Fraser (12-13) were the only Angels to win at least 10 games.

--A rookie-of-the-year candidate, relief pitcher Bryan Harvey, wrapping up a 17-save season on the disabled list after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery.

--Co-MVPs in Boone and Ray, one a 40-year-old catcher, the other a slow-footed second baseman who committed 15 errors at that position, after committing 5 in left field in April.

--A right fielder, Chili Davis, who drove in 90-plus runs, but nearly negated the contribution with a club-record 19 outfield errors. "A season-long defensive slump" was Port's assessment.

--Perhaps the quietest 85 RBIs in Angel history from Joyner, whose home run total slipped from 34 in 1987 to 13 in 1988. He batted .295, but where were the clutch hits in April, May and September? "I hope nobody blames me for only hitting 13 home runs," said Joyner on the day of Rojas' firing. Sorry, Wally.

--Another power slump by Jack Howell, who hit 23 home runs as a part-time player in 1987 and only 16 as a full-time third baseman in 1988.

--Arrested development in the progress of second baseman Mark McLemore (injury, benching, minor league demotion) and one step backward for Devon White, who never regained his power stroke after undergoing knee surgery in May.

Port, too, must shoulder some of the responsibility. As injuries mounted and the season got out of hand almost as soon as it began, Port made no roster additions other than promoting a weak class of triple-A players from Edmonton. Before the All-Star break, such luminaries as Junior Noboa, Chico Walker, Joe Redfield and Doug Davis spent time on the Angel roster--a collection one beat writer christened "Junior, Walker and the No Stars."

After his firing, Rojas complained about the lack of assistance he received from the Angel front office, claiming he got the most out of what was given him.

Said Port: "I realize that what Cookie said may have been born out of frustration, but factually, Cookie's right. We did not make any deals this year. But that is why this ballclub still has Dick Schofield, Devon White, Bryan Harvey, Wally Joyner, et cetera, et cetera.

"That's what it would have taken us, at that point in time, to make a trade. . . . With our situation, it was a seller's market and (other teams) were asking too much. As far as us getting 3 mediocre players for 1 player who could be a fixture for us for years, I didn't see the point."

Now that the season has ended, especially how it ended, Port can scarcely afford to preach patience and prudence anymore.

"During the off-season, injuries heal," Port said. "The buyer's no longer over the barrel. You're not necessarily looking for a player you need to fill a hole tomorrow. You can deal from more of a position of strength."

Already, the Angels are negotiating with the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher Lance Parrish, with the intention of having him split time with Boone behind the plate in 1989. The Angels would like to fill their left-field void with someone who can bat leadoff. They are said to have an interest in San Francisco's Brett Butler and Philadelphia's Phil Bradley or a power-hitter, "a run producer," as Port puts it.

Dave Winfield would fill that bill, but Port will have to offer George Steinbrenner more than Ray and Gus Polidor, the proposal the Yankees quickly swept off the table in April.

Another, intriguing possibility is Nolan Ryan, who will become a free agent if he doesn't re-up with the Houston Astros. The Angels reportedly have an avid interest in a Ryan reunion. The PR value is obvious--the Angels were down by more than 350,000 in attendance this year--and even at age 42, Ryan would rank as the No. 1 starter on this Angel staff.

Says Port: "I will only say that pitching is an area where we'd like to help ourselves. Of course, right now, Nolan Ryan is still under obligation to the Houston club."

Of course. But tampering season ends soon.

Downing has heard the Ryan rumors and as a former Angel teammate to the Express, he expresses mixed emotions.

"Turn back the clock 10 years, why don't you?" Downing says, alluding to Ryan's free-agent departure in 1979. "I'd have a few (championship) rings on these hands, I know that."

But a big-name acquisition, be it Ryan or someone else, is Downing's recommendation for righting the Angels' ills of 1988.

"Look at what happened to Oakland," Downing said. "They took some chances, made some big deals and it paid off for them."

There will also be a new manager. Port says he will take his time before naming a replacement for Rojas, saying, "I hope to have a manager in place by the winter meetings." In between, of course, such candidates as Jim Fregosi and Lou Piniella could become available, pending their probable departure from the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees, respectively.

Whoever eventually gets the job will not have an easy assignment. Motivating these Angels, through the entire course of a 162-game schedule, may be the managerial equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest.

Tough-guy Gene Mauch couldn't do it in 1987.

Nice-guy Cookie Rojas couldn't do it in 1988.

Can anyone?

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