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Baseball ’89 : A Preview : Who’s On First? : Wally Joyner : With Hoops Over, He’s Hoping to Put Slam Back in His Game

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Air Joyner he isn’t. Nor The Hobbyist. That much we’ve learned this spring about Wally Joyner, the Angel first baseman who has sprung his last jump shot for a while.

“I used to be a pretty good basketball player,” Joyner says, a mournful tone to his voice. “I really enjoy playing it. You get a lot out of it, running up and down the court, and you know that you’ve played a game when you’re done.

“I don’t know, I guess I might stop enjoying it now.”

They’ve taken Joyner’s shooting shoes away from him. Wally, these hoops are made for watching. Keep your feet on the ground.

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The Angels, who already lost pitcher Joe Johnson to a pickup basketball injury, saw their season flash before their eyes when Joyner, “just messin’ around” on a court with some friends, sprained his left ankle in mid-March, in the middle of training camp.

Joyner would be out a minimum of 10 to 14 days, according to the original prognosis.

Privately, Angel Vice President Mike Port must have cursed the very name of Dr. James Naismith. Publicly, though, Port blasted Joyner, who gets paid to drive in runs, not drive the lane.

“I’m not amused, I’m not thrilled,” Port said. “My feeling is that once the bell goes off and people put on that uniform, there are certain obligations to ownership, teammates and fans. I find it difficult to be sympathetic to anyone who would run any shred of risk to that obligation.”

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It may have been the dumbest baseball injury since Lou Whitaker strained his knee while strutting his stuff at a Detroit disco. That little bump-and-grind might have cost the Tigers a playoff berth in 1988, with Whitaker missing the final four weeks of the regular season.

Joyner, who figures just as prominently in the Angels’ plans, was one wary Wally by the time he rejoined the club in Palm Springs. No doubt, there would be the wrath of Doug Rader, the new manager, to contend with. Maybe there would be a fine from Port. Would anyone in the Angel clubhouse bother to talk to him?

“I expected the worst,” Joyner said.

To his surprise, Joyner was welcomed back with a hoop and backboard hung on his locker stall, courtesy third baseman Jack Howell. Rader called him “Magic” Joyner and wondered how in the world Wally could’ve injured himself. “He couldn’t possibly get off the ground high enough to hurt himself,” Rader jabbed.

Rader also said he planned to enlist Joyner “in my 40-and-over league back home in Florida. There’s no running, no jumping. Us old guys can’t afford to get pitted out.”

Port and Joyner also spoke and the words were friendly. Nary a fine was mentioned.

Of course, by then, Joyner’s sprain had been upgraded to slight, and he would wind up missing only four games. This would be no Pedro Guerrero spring knee blowout.

“It didn’t turn out to be that serious a thing,” Port said. “And if it’s any indication, by the way he’s been swinging the bat since coming back, maybe this should be our proper conditioning route every spring.

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I might be inclined to play one-on-one with him.”

Joyner, however, remains properly penitent when discussing his transgression.

“I think I might have said something worse about it if I was Mike,” Joyner said. “I mean, here he is, trying to get a team together and we’re three weeks away from opening day and this happens.

“Nobody can react worse than I felt. I was letting my teammates down.”

Not only that, but Joyner got hurt about the worst way humanly possible--that is, if, like Joyner, a former all-county prep forward, you take your playground hoops seriously.

Joyner got hurt going into the popcorn machine.

“My guy was past me,” Joyner confessed. “He went up to shoot and I jumped up and he went around me. When I came down, I landed on the side of my left foot and rolled it over.

“My guy was already around me. I was all by myself.”

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Within the proud and loud realm of pickup basketball, sadder words have seldom been spoken.

OK. So Wally Joyner isn’t Michael Jordan.

The Angels would settle this season for Wally Joyner, the one who streaked so brightly across the American League sky in 1986 and 1987, the one who was missing for most of 1988.

Remember the Wally Joyner home run?

In 1986, Joyner ushered in a brave new Wally World by hitting 16 during his first six weeks in the big leagues. In 1987, with an assist from that year’s rabbit ball, Joyner peppered the outfield seats a total of 34 times.

In 1988, Joyner hit 13 home runs, two during the first two months of the season.

Remember the Wally Joyner clutch hit?

In 1986, Joyner won a game against the Minnesota Twins with a ninth-inning home run as the Metrodome roof was caving in. Later that year, he brought the roof down on no-hit bids by Charlie Hough and Walt Terrell. And in 1987, his 117 RBIs almost single-handedly dragged a listless Angel team into playoff contention through early September.

In 1988, Joyner had six RBIs through April and 19 through May, the months where the Angels nearly self-destructed under rookie manager Cookie Rojas, falling out of the American League West race almost before it began.

Remember Wally Joyner the Wally Cleaver act-alike, whose baby face seemingly had a smile for every fan and words for every sportswriter during that charmed first half of 1986?

In 1988, Joyner groused through much of the season, upset over a frustrating round of contract negotiations, upset over the loss of his home-run swing, upset at reporters’ questions about the loss of his home-run swing, upset at an Angel collapse that was largely associated with his lack of early production.

The season began ominously, with Joyner staging a brief training-camp holdout to protest his logjammed contract talks. Coming off his impressive ’87 season, he felt was deserving of a raise from $165,000 to $400,000, but Joyner could reach no agreement with the Angels and wound up having his contract automatically renewed at $340,000.

That laid the groundwork for a season of frustration, with a miffed Joyner setting his sights on big numbers that would earn him bigger numbers in arbitration come February, 1989.

Anyway, that was the idea.

The reality, by season’s end was this: Joyner’s home run totals had fallen to 13--a 21-homer dropoff--and his RBI totals had skidded to 85. That represented a slippage of 32 RBIs, placing Joyner eight behind Angel leader Chili Davis and only two ahead of the team’s second baseman, Johnny Ray.

“I was trying to make things happen, rather than letting things happen,” Joyner said. “It’s kind of hard to let things happen when you’ve been successful in the past, knowing you’ve done it before and not being able to do it again.

“There’s a lot more frustration that way than there is wanting to do something you don’t know if you can do or not.”

In other words, Joyner pressed.

“I don’t think the reason I got off to a slow start was because of negotiations,” he said. “It was more of trying to do a little bit extra to get ready for this year, know what I mean?”

This year, meaning 1989, meant Joyner would finally be eligible for arbitration and the salary leverage that goes along with it, provided the statistics are there.

“I’m thinking, ‘I had two great first years and this (contract renewal) happens,’ ” Joyner said. “I’m thinking that, in order for something to happen, I’m going to have to do better than my first two years. Which is, as you saw, impossible.”

Compounding matters was the Angels’ atrocious start. They went 10-13 in April, 9-19 in May and were 19-35 on June 4, already 19 1/2 games behind front-running Oakland.

Joyner, batting either third or cleanup, hit .250 with one home run and six RBIs in April, added one more home run and 13 RBIs in May and had turned into somewhat of a Rod Carew clone when the Angels required Jose Canseco.

Rojas, feeling the pressure, pointed an accusing finger at Joyner when the first baseman reached the .300, saying Joyner “was hitting .300, but it’s not a productive .300.” Reporters kept asking questions: Where did all the homers go?

Joyner began to brood. He withdrew from his teammates and grew testy with writers. He drew criticism in several newspapers for brushing off an interview request from Phil Collier, the respected San Diego Union columnist who has covered baseball for more than three decades.

Soon the questioning changed in tone: Where did Wally Joyner go?

“When things bother Wally, he can get pretty quiet,” said Michael Watkins, Joyner’s friend and business adviser. “He was probably thinking about a lot of things in his head. When you’re pressing, you tend to withdraw and think about the things that got you where you are.

“Wally was never going to have a smile on his face the entire length of his career, without having some things bother him. He’s a human being.”

And in 1988, Joyner was having a very human baseball season.

“My emotions went with how I was fighting myself,” he said. “If I was happy with my game, then my emotions were OK. If I was frustrated and unhappy with my swing and fighting myself. . . . It’s like in anything--if you’re not happy with yourself, you can’t be happy with anybody else.”

Perhaps seeking solace, Joyner relied heavily last season on his friendship with Bob Boone, the 40-year catcher who has seen more than one batting slump in his career. Boone had also been through more than one contract dispute with the Angels, having sat out the first month of the 1987 season before reaching terms with the club.

Finding common ground, Joyner and Boone were virtually inseparable during lag time on Angel trips. They went to movies together, played cards together (Joyner is said to play a mean hand of poker), ate dinner together.

Suffice to say, not many glasses were raised for the purpose of toasting Mr. Port.

“Halfway through the season last year,” Joyner said, “I caught myself not doing anything with anybody except Bob Boone. There were good parts to that and bad parts.

“The good part was that Bob and I became good friends. The bad part was, I didn’t get to know anybody else very well on the ballclub.”

The Joyner-Boone connection continued a curious trend for the 26-year-old first baseman. As a rookie in 1986, Joyner hung out with Reggie Jackson. In 1987, it was George Hendrick.

Around the Angel clubhouse, Joyner has always seemed a guest star on the set of fortysomething.

“I don’t know why it’s always been that I try to be good friends with 40-year-olds,” Joyner said with a laugh. “It wasn’t because I was trying to get experience or knowledge from them. It’s just what happened.”

Watkins thinks it may be more than just that.

“Some people have the kind of personality that attracts them to those who can help them both off and on the field,” Watkins said. “You can learn a lot from older people. I think Wally was attracted to their maturity and what he can learn from them.”

In truth, much of the Jackson attraction was Reggie-inspired. During his waning days as a player, as the home runs and curtain calls dwindled, Reggie’s modus operandi was Catch a Rising Star. Donnie Moore in 1985, Joyner in 1986, Canseco and Mark McGwire in 1987. If Reggie could no longer grab the spotlight on his own, he could always bask in the reflected glow of a younger other.

Some in the Angels’ organization wonder about the influence Jackson wielded with Joyner. Last spring, owner Gene Autry was quoted as suggesting the influence was not entirely positive.

Was it just a coincidence that Joyner became more concerned with salary figures after the 1986 season? Did Joyner simply stumble upon the Reggie-like art of self-promotion--evidenced by the glossy portfolio he had mailed to corporations in 1987, offering his services as a potential pitch man, or by the phone calls he placed to Angel beat writers during his 1988 contract dispute?

Joyner maintains that he’s not the first employee ever to seek a raise for a job well done.

“In any aspect of life or any career, no matter who you are or what you do, you always work hard to try and progress,” he says. “And when you progress in any business, money goes along with it.”

He does, however, concede one thing.

“I’m not saying everything (Jackson) did with me was good,” Joyner said. “It’s like the old saying: If you keep your mouth shut and your ears open, invariably, you’ll become smarter, right? It’s just a matter of how much you want to keep inside and remember.”

Last year, Joyner went so far as to follow Jackson’s lead onto the movie screen. Soon, in a video store near you, you’ll have the choice of watching Jackson as a zombie assassin in “The Naked Gun” or checking out Joyner in the bit part of a left-handed pitcher in “Stealing Home.”

Joyner drew the assignment through mutual connections with the film’s star, Mark Harmon. Both Joyner and Harmon are represented by attorney Barry Axelrod, who eventually arranged for both to be on location, for two days in San Bernardino, for the shooting of the climactic steal of home.

“I had two scenes,” Joyner said. “The first one, (Harmon) is supposed to get a hit off me. So I just lobbed it. Actually, I threw it as hard as I could--and he hit my first pitch.

“The take where he’s stealing home, he only had two uniforms, so we only had two takes. I was supposed to throw it on the outside of the plate while coming close enough so there’s a play at the plate. Hey, no problem.

“So he takes off and I throw it--and it goes over everybody and breaks a camera. He looks up and he’s dusting himself off and he’s looking at me like, ‘All right, I’ve only got one uniform left.’

“Fortunately, the next pitch was right there and it turned out pretty good.”

Still, Joyner sees a dim future for himself in the world of cinema.

“I don’t think I’ll end one career to go into another,” he said.

Joyner would like to take this time to clear up a lingering public perception, or what he describes as “a misconception.”

Wally Joyner does not hate Mike Port, Wally Joyner says.

“The day I came back (after the ankle sprain), we’re all out on the field stretching and somebody came up to me and said, ‘So, the Joyner-Port squabble continues,’ ” Joyner said.

“I don’t know why they think that. I don’t think I ever came out and said anything bad about Mike Port. I don’t think Mike Port’s ever come out and said anything bad about me.

“I get along fine with Mike. (Contract disputes) happen to everybody. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my negotiations have been made more public. People have been more curious about my negotiations than others.

“I honestly have no problems with Mike. I think he’s funny, he’s got a good sense of humor. He’s a tough businessman, but you’ve got to have that.”

So tough, in fact, that a national business magazine did a profile on Port last year, characterizing Port as the man in charge of the Angels’ “squeeze play,” the salary-slasher who keeps the bottom line in the dugout in line.

For several weeks last summer, Joyner kept a copy of that article taped to his Anaheim Stadium locker stall.

Port’s view on the relationship?

“There is that perception (of a feud), but it’s an inaccurate perception, if I do say so,” Port said. “With the contract thing, you’ll find that it’s (a) a business matter; and (b) if you examine the facts, you’ll find that this organization--not Mike Port--has been very considerate of Wally Joyner in the financial sense.”

Port reaches into a desk drawer, pulls out a calculator, punches a few buttons and keeps talking.

“Case in point, last year,” he said. “The club had the capability to taking Wally Joyner, the Wally Joyner who hit 34 home runs and drove in 117 runs, and renewing his salary at a 20% cut from the $165,000 he made the previous year.”

Port shows a reporter the calculator’s liquid crystal display.

“We could have paid Wally Joyner $132,000 last year,” Port said. “The only thing in question was how much of a raise we were going to give him. But by public reaction, you’d have thought we’d enforced the $132,000.”

Port claims to have “an affinity for Wally Joyner” and chalks up the alleged rift as “good copy.”

And another thing. . . .

“In Mike Port’s defense,” Port said, “who was it that took upon the unenviable task of telling Rod Carew, ‘Thanks, but no thanks, we’ve have a young man named Wally Joyner we want to play first base for us.’

“Right now, Wally is making a very fine salary. I submit that anything beyond that, in reference to a squabble, is just rhetoric. There is just no fabric to it. Wally is too important to us and too appreciated by us.”

Joyner will make a base salary of $920,000 in 1989, plus incentives. He signed the contract three weeks before reporting to training camp.

This, he said, has made for a more jolly Wally.

“I think everybody’s happier this spring,” Joyner said. “I don’t think it’s just me. And one of the reasons why is that the business side of baseball was taken care of before we got to spring training.

“It was kind of hard to think about two things at once last spring. But there wasn’t anything else I could do. It wasn’t an option. I had to do both.

” . . . All I can say about this year is that it’s great to be able to come to spring training and have nothing but baseball to worry about.”

Except for, maybe, basketball.

And what kind of season can one rightly expect from Joyner in 1989, now that his mind is free and his wallet fuller?

“I would think somewhere between my first year and my last year, maybe,” he said.

Roughly, that would translate into a .290 batting average, 18 to 20 home runs and 90 to 95 RBIs.

The Angels would gladly take those numbers to the bank, right now. And they believe they can get those numbers, too, provided they just keep Joyner from taking it to the hoop.


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