A LEADING MAN : Angels Signed Washington for More Than His Playing Ability

Times Staff Writer

Seventeen years ago, a scout for the Oakland Athletics talked A’s owner Charlie Finley into taking a chance on a 19-year-old outfielder he had been watching play on the sandlots of Berkeley.

Seven uniforms--and a tumultuous ride through the big leagues--later, Claudell Washington is in the Angels’ spring training complex.

“The man’s got a great body for a guy who’s 35,” Chili Davis says, smiling.

“Thirty-four, man, 34,” Washington says. “Don’t age me.”

Indeed, the man has a physique that a lot of the 1980s spa generation would envy, but the hint of gray in his mustache is an indication that Washington has seen a lot, and been through a lot, in almost two decades of professional baseball.

He never played on the high school level, but his major league career started on a high as the fightin’ and feudin’ A’s beat the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series. Rookie Washington had four hits in seven at-bats during the series.


Three years later, he was traded to the Texas Rangers, then the Chicago White Sox and then the New York Mets until another infamous owner, Atlanta’s Ted Turner, made free-agent Washington one of the game’s wealthiest players with a $3.5-million, five-year contract in 1980.

Washington hit an all-time low after the 1983 season, and it had nothing to do with his batting average. He admitted himself to a Northern California drug rehabilitation center for 28 days because of a cocaine dependency.

Two years later, Washington was arrested in Walnut Creek, Calif., after about a quarter-gram of what was alleged to be cocaine and about five grams of what was alleged to be marijuana were discovered in his car when he was stopped for a traffic violation.

Washington maintains that the drugs were left by someone who had borrowed his car. The cocaine charge eventually was dropped, and Washington entered a drug-diversion program to have the marijuana charge dropped from his record. But Commissioner Peter Ueberroth still issued a conditional 60-day suspension that included a fine, community service work and random drug tests.

The next year, Atlanta traded Washington to the Yankees in mid-season.

Last year, Washington had his best season with the Yankees, batting .308 with 11 homers and 64 runs batted in while batting just 455 times, but the free agent’s contract negotiations with New York broke down during the off-season.

Finley still takes credit for “discovering” Washington, but you can thank George Steinbrenner for allowing him to end up in the Angels’ outfield.

“I thought the thing with the Yankees would have been resolved,” Washington said. “But every time we went to negotiate, something new would come up. George was doing this and that.

“We asked for three years, but the Yankees wouldn’t do it. George said, ‘If you can get three years somewhere else, then you have my blessing.’ So, boom! Twenty four hours later I was an Angel.

“George was playing a cat-and-mouse game with us and this time, the mouse caught the cat.”

The mouse also got a $2.625-million, three-year contract from the Angels.

During the off-season, Davis--whose agent, Tom Reich, also represents Washington--went to Angel General Manager Mike Port with a suggestion.

“I’d played against Claudell in the National League when he was with Atlanta and I always liked the way he stays in shape and plays hard,” Davis said. “He really seems to enjoy the game and I thought he would fit right in on this team.

“He’s got good speed, he’s a good clutch hitter and he battles at the plate. I think New York’s going to miss him. He wasn’t asking for the house, he just wanted a piece of furniture so he could feel comfortable in the house. Mike Port gave him some security with the three-year deal and made him feel wanted.”

It has been suggested that the Angels parted with a lot of money and locked themselves into a lot of years with a 34-year-old outfielder, but the Angels were looking for more than a player. They wanted an inspirational leader.

Washington’s track record--not to mention his police record--may not make him a prime candidate, but the Angel brass sounds as if they’re about to nominate him for man of the year, anyway.

“First, Claudell did hit .300 in the American League last year and he played center field in (spacious) Yankee Stadium,” Port said. “But we wanted him for his less tangible skills as well.

“It’s been pointed out on numerous occasions that this team has been lacking in leadership. Well, Washington is a veteran and an excellent man. I see a great many similarities between Claudell Washington and (Manager) Doug Rader. Here are two guys who have been smart enough to make course corrections in their lives.

“As I have come to know Claudell in a short time, I’d be hard-pressed to point to anyone more solid as a player and an individual.”

Rader, who has spent much of the spring telling reporters how his first stint as a manager with Texas was a nightmare of his own doing, was quick to offer his testimony on Washington’s worth, on the field and in the clubhouse.

“I was real, real happy initially because of Claudell’s reputation as a player,” Rader said. “But the greatest joy for me has been Claudell as a person.

“Sure, he’s had his problems and that’s what makes it even more special. He’s a good man. He’s something special. Whatever it cost us, it was money well spent.”

Washington has already been an exemplary leader for the Angels. He has been working hard this spring, taking extra batting practice and working with special running instructor Kevin McNair. Rader insists that Washington is trying to improve, not just impress his younger teammates with his work ethic.

“It’s been spontaneous, not premeditated,” Rader said. “It’s all legit. He’s doing it because he wants to get better. That’s why he’s such a solid guy.”

Washington won’t talk about his past problems or his abilities as a leader. After three seasons of Yankee turmoil, he’s just enjoying the tranquility of a spring at Mesa.

“There’s definitely less pressure here,” he said. “It’s so much more low key. You can go about your work and get done what you need to get done. With the Yankees, there’s always something going on in the papers and in the clubhouse.

“Even if you don’t read the papers, there’s always a reporter coming up and telling you what’s been in the papers. In the last two years, there was a lot of distractions that really wear a team down.”

Washington didn’t expect to escape the madness in New York and admits he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave. He liked the idea of playing in a lineup that includes “five or six potential Hall of Famers.” But he’s glad to be on the West Coast, closer to his family and Bay Area home.

And he says he thinks the Angels have just as good a chance of getting him another World Series ring as the Yankees.

“There’s no question about the talent on this team,” Washington said. “It’s just a question of getting the ship sailing in the right direction.”

That, of course, is one of the main reasons Port and Co. wanted Washington on board.

Angel Notes

Bert Blyleven got off to a shaky start Monday at Hi Corbett Field at Tucson, allowing three runs and four hits in the first inning. But he settled down and yielded one run and four hits over the next three innings as Cleveland beat the Angels, 5-3. “Bert was so-so but every inning he pitched, he had better command,” Manager Doug Rader said. “At least he was getting better instead of going downhill.” . . . The Angels, who had 14 hits in Sunday’s 10-8 victory over Seattle, had nine Monday. “We have a number of guys who are right on the money with the bat,” Rader said. “I’m very pleased with the way we’ve been hitting and catching the ball. And overall, the pitching has been pretty good.”