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IT’S MIDLAND MADNESS : Texas League Batters Discover a Windfall at Angels Stadium

Times Staff Writer

The cigarette cowboy sits atop his billboard horse 30 feet above the Angels Stadium outfield and another 380 feet from home plate. In any other ballpark, a pitcher could rest easy knowing it would take Bo or a rocket launcher to reach the perched ranch hand.

Except that Angels Stadium isn’t any other ballpark, though you’d never know it from a casual look at the premises.

The stadium seats 3,500, which sounds about right for a minor league facility stuck in the middle of the Permian Basin--oil and natural gas country (and don’t you know it from the smells that waft through the air around here). The clubhouse is cramped and the press box is modest.

On this night, Midland General Manager Bill Davidson is busy promoting “Lady Dynamite,” a scantily dressed, helmet-wearing woman who earns a wage by climbing into a Styrofoam box and surviving a dynamite blast at home plate. An evening of Shakespeare, it isn’t.

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“Lady Dynamite,” who has her own “Lady Dynamite Coloring Book” (available at the stadium souvenir stand), shouldn’t be confused, of course, with “Captain Dynamite,” whom Davidson also hires for annual appearances. The acts are noisy, relatively cheap and have all the pyrotechnic drama of watching four cherry bombs explode. But they help fill seats, which means higher concession sales, which means profits for the double-A franchise.

Still, none of this separates Angels Stadium from your average ballpark. After all, schmaltz and vaudeville is a minor league staple. But lick your finger, hold it above your head, feel the 25-mile-an-hour gusts and then you understand why this place is so different, why it is the Wrigley Field of west Texas.

You always remember the wind--a nasty, dry, almost-ever present wind that sends baseballs toward the left-field wall with numbing regularity. This is a wind that has broken the spirit of many minor league pitchers. This is a wind that has swept them out of baseball and into their brother Murray’s life-insurance business.

“You find out real fast about pitchers there,” said Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ director of minor league operations. “A lot of pitching coaches tell you that you find out too fast. Sometimes the Midland experience can put a few too many years on you.”

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A flag never droops here. On most days, the Stars and Stripes stands straight out, as if someone had connected the flagpole to an electrical socket. Hitters arrive in Midland and begin drooling. They love the winds.

Popups become sacrifice flies. Sacrifice flies become home runs. Line drives become missiles bound for nearby Odessa. “You’ll see a pitcher give up (a homer) and he’ll take his hat off and look; he can’t believe it,” Midland starter Frank DiMichele said. “Guys who never hit home runs in their lives become power hitters.”

No leads are safe here. Earned-run averages are grotesque. Batting averages and runs batted in totals are bloated. And all because of winds that whip across the parking lot, past the concession stands, through the metal bleachers and box seats, over the nubby infield grass and out, way out, to left field and the wooden cowpoke.

“If you come here and start pitching with the wind on your mind,” said Midland Manager Max Oliveras, pointing toward the billboard, “then the next thing you know, the guy from Marlboro, he’s ducking.”

This is Oliveras’ third year in Midland. He has seen more half-swing fly balls sail over the fences than he can remember. He has watched pitchers trudge out to the mound as if it were punishment. “And look at this,” he said, walking out from behind the batting cage and onto the infield grass. “Look how short the grass is. Balls get through.”

So closely cropped is the grass that Bavasi and the Angels have requested that the Midland grounds crew let it grow out a bit. At least that way, infielders might have a chance to chase down a ground ball. “They used to have the grass cut shorter than a putting green,” Bavasi said. “It was faster than Astroturf.”

Still is, said Oliveras. In fact, there is nothing about Angels Stadium that doesn’t help an offense thrive.

“It’s a hitter’s park,” Oliveras said. “Everything is a base hit.”

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Said Midland pitching coach Gary Ruby: “If you can pitch here, you can pitch just about anywhere. Everything that could possibly work against you is here. The wind is blowing out here 99% of the time.”

An example: The El Paso Diablos, stuck on buses and planes all day, arrived at a recent game in Midland less than 30 minutes before the first pitch. They took no batting practice and still scored 11 runs and cranked out 16 hits. And all this on an evening when the winds expressed only a mild interest in blowing hard.

As is the custom here, the 11 runs were no guarantee of victory. Down, 2-0, in the first, Midland cut the lead in half. Down, 4-1, in the second inning, Midland added another run. Down, 6-2, in the fourth, Midland scored once more. Down, 6-3, in the sixth, Midland tied the score. Down, 11-6, in the seventh, Midland scored twice. Down, 11-8, in the eighth, Midland scored a final run and ended up losing the game, probably out of exhaustion. Anyway, this sort of runs-galore stuff happens all the time.

Among those hitting home runs that night was infielder Bobby Rose, who was hitting .359 and had 73 RBIs when the Angels called him up Friday to replace Dick Schofield.

It was Rose’s 11th homer of the season and the fifth time he had returned to his locker stall at game’s end to find a wad of dollar bills stuffed in his street clothes by one of the clubhouse boys. Turns out they pass the hat at Angels Stadium when one of their own hits a home run. So while the Midland air might have an odd scent to it, the people sure are sweet.

“I hit one in my first game here,” Rose said. “and it helped me pay for the first month’s grocery bills.”

Rose did the unlikely in Midland’s blustery winds, that is hit for average rather than swing for home runs. While out-of-towners, especially those from the eastern half of the Texas League, come to Midland with the Marlboro Man on their minds, Rose concentrates on all fields, all gaps. He is the Anti-Wind, the guy who ignores the inviting call of left field.

“We’ve had hitters go there and they come out of their game,” Bavasi said. “Not Bobby Rose. If you start to play to a ballpark, you’re going to get beat in the long run in the minor leagues.”

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Angels Stadium certainly can tempt you. So can the thought of a pants pocket filled with a couple hundred bucks. “That can work against you,” Oliveras said. “Players start swinging from their butts. But a lot of these kids don’t make big money here.”

Rose works for United Parcel Service during the off-season and considers himself fortunate to have a second job. Already he is hoping that the Angels will send him to winter ball, where the teams furnish a salary, utilities and rent-free lodging. Such a deal, and to play baseball, too.

“But they haven’t really said anything to me,” he said.

This is Rose for you: slightly paranoid, hopeful but not overly confident. He probably thought that when the call came, it was a practical joke by his teammates.

Rose wears the same thumb guard every day. The gold chain around his neck holds his wedding ring, a game-day must. On the inside of his Midland cap are the hand-printed names of his wife and daughters. “It gives me energy,” he said.

You should see this cap. Sweat and salt rings crisscross the bill and the Angel emblem. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear Rose had worn it since 1980. “Hey, I like a hat that already has some sweat and smell,” he said.

A reporter from the local television station wants a few moments of Rose’s time for an interview. Rose agrees, but not without first making sure that his Midland teammates are safely in the clubhouse or already out on the field. That’s one of the other traditions at Angels Stadium: a pie in the face.

It works like this: Angel agrees to interview. Angel takes place in front of video camera. Angel begins to answer first question. Angel gets a shaving-cream pie in the kisser.

On this particular evening, Rose is spared the indignity, though a teammate wasn’t as lucky earlier in the night.

Double-A baseball doesn’t often lend itself to this sort of camaraderie. Players don’t stay long, either getting sent down (and presumably out of the game) or up to triple A and a chance at the big leagues.

“There are very few career guys in double A,” Bavasi said. “Double A is probably the most exciting level, guys are up and out.”

On occasion, Bavasi will recommend that the major league team reach down to Midland and pluck a player for its roster. Friday, it was Rose. Last week, it was catcher John Orton who received the unexpected call. Orton becomes the Angels’ third catcher.

Just last weekend, Orton was sitting in the Midland dugout talking about how difficult it was to watch a big league game on TV. “That’s the worst,” he said, “ ‘The Game of the Week.’ That’s why I keep telling myself that I’ve got to play hard every day.”

Orton was asked if a promotion might be coming soon. “Nah,” he said, “I’ll probably be here the rest of the year.”

Surprise.

Perhaps he should have listened to Ruby, the pitching coach who was with Orton and the Palm Springs Angels last season. “I think he’s very close,” Ruby said recently. “Orton has just been outstanding.”

Midland is where rookie pitcher Jim Abbott was supposed to make his season debut. There on page 18 of the Midland game program is a photo and brief biography of Abbott. On pages 35-36 is his life story. You don’t think Abbott would have sold a few tickets? “Dynamite Lady” and “Captain Dynamite” would have found themselves out of jobs faster than their fuses could burn.

DiMichele was once where Rose, Orton and Abbott find themselves today: in the big leagues and enjoying every moment of it. DiMichele spent 19 days with the Angels last season, time enough to appear in four games and allow five earned runs as a left-handed relief pitcher. He also became the answer to assorted trivia questions.

Who was sent down to triple A in 1988 to make room for a hard-throwing right-handed reliever named Bryan Harvey?

Who allowed Jose Canseco’s first home run of 1988?

Who thinks that if Gene Mauch had never resigned as Angel manager, a certain reliever might still be on the big league roster?

Who says he is this close to polishing the third pitch that will allow him to return to the big leagues?

“I’m going to show what Frank DiMichele is made of,” he said. “I had a taste (of the majors). Now I know what it takes.”

Unhappy with the quality of his relief work earlier this season, Oliveras and Ruby removed him from the bullpen and made him a starter. That way, they figured, DiMichele could get more innings.

It has helped. DiMichele’s ERA is a more manageable 3.29. His attitude, soured by a 1988 season that began in the majors and ended in double A, also is better.

“Last year I couldn’t live with myself,” he said. “I wanted to be a so-called big league pitcher and tried to do things I couldn’t.”

Calmer and wiser, DiMichele said he knows it will be only a matter of time before he returns to Anaheim. “I’m very close to being very polished,” he said.

Agreed, said Ruby. “I would have to rate this as a recovery year for Frank DiMichele,” he said. “He’s having fun again.”

Back in the front office, Davidson is sitting behind his desk answering a call about an upcoming concert at Angels Stadium featuring “The Fabulous Thunderbirds.”

“That’s right, ma’am, about five hours’ worth of music,” he said.

This is the first time Davidson has tried a well-known band to attract fans. But he’ll try anything once, he said. “I don’t tell California who to play at second base and they don’t tell me how to put people in the park,” he said.

The Permian Basin is a tough baseball sell. Phenoms Gregg Jefferies (Mets) and Andy Benes (Padres) have played on the Angels Stadium field and hardly anyone noticed. High school football is king here, even in late summer. One year, said Davidson, a National League championship game was preempted by a high school football game. “You’re dealing with a public here that’s not baseball educated,” he said.

So Davidson improvises. He invents promotions to draw fans. He dismisses no idea. Stuck with a collection of leftover baseball memorabilia, Davidson needed a way to unload the goods and draw fans at the same time. “You really don’t want to call it Leftover Night,” he said.

Instead, he called it Souvenir Night and packed the place.

His dream is to somehow persuade three players to jump onto the dugout roof and begin lip-syncing a song during, say, the seventh-inning stretch. So far, no such luck. Once, though, a pair of 5-10, 210-pound gentlemen entertained the crowd by performing the “Pee-wee Shuffle.” Alas, they never returned.

Maybe it was the wind that did it. As occasionally happens, the gusts sometimes become 40-m.p.h. dust storms, sweeping across the city and keeping everyone inside. “It’s miserable,” Davidson said. “Nobody comes out to the ballpark.”

The worst winds Davidson said he ever saw came blowing across the basin and into Angels Stadium three years ago on Memorial Day. A stiff breeze was blowing out of the south. To the north, you could see the black clouds of an onrushing dust storm. In no time at all, Davidson said, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees.

“Both teams stopped doing what they were doing and ran back to the dugouts,” he said. “Our crowd didn’t even wait for it, they were gone. Mudballs began coming down. People are running, screaming, trying to get to their cars.

“The game was postponed,” Davidson said sadly.

On this particular night, there is no dust storm, only the sound of baseballs banging against the outfield walls and the constant reminders of explosions to come.

“Don’t forget,” said the public address announcer, “that tonight will feature ‘Dynamite Lady,’ who will blow herself up after the ballgame. So . . . that will be fun.”

ON THE ROAD TO ANAHEIM Team: Midland Angels Class: Double A League: Texas League Manager: Max Oliveras 1988 record: First half, 28-40, fourth place; second half, 33-34, second This season: First half, 34-32, second; second half, 25-27, second. Stadium: Angels Stadium Capacity: 3,500 Average attendance: 2,017 Midland’s population: 70,525 Elevation: 2,839 feet


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