BASEBALL PREVIEW : HALO HIGH JINKS : From Belinsky to Polonia, Angel History Has Had Its Lighter Side, Too


It hasn't all been pennant-losing home runs, September swoons, free-agent flops, career-ending injuries, broken promises, tears, fears and the morbid trail of tragedy that has guided the team since its inception.

Believe it or not, the Angels have been good for some laughs, too.

Born 30 years ago, one year before the New York Mets, the Angels were never going to become amazing or lovable, but they took a stab at it at the outset. Realizing they weren't going to be good for some time, the expansion Angels hoped to settle for fun and tried to lure Casey Stengel, the Old Perfessor, out of retirement to become their first manager.

Angel owner Gene Autry made Stengel an offer, but Casey said he couldn't consider it. Stengel had just signed a contract to serialize his story in the Saturday Evening Post and a clause in the contract prohibited him from taking another job in baseball until the story was published.

So the Mets got Stengel in 1962 and the Angels hired Bill Rigney for 1961. As second choices go, Rigney wasn't bad, but while Stengel had 'em rolling in the aisles as the inaugural Mets bumbled their way through 120 glorious losses, Rigney squirmed on the Angel bench with a newly ignited stomach ulcer.

Which leads us to a story . . .

On doctor's orders, Rigney used to keep a piece of spongecake and a glass of milk near the dugout so he could quench his fires during the middle innings. A month went by and suddenly, the cake and milk disappeared. Rigney began asking around and finally discovered that catcher Earl Averill had been stealing and scarfing.

"Hell, Rig," Averill innocently explained, "I thought it was there as a treat for the players."

Averill was a real treat for Rigney. Once, during a tense late-inning moment in the Angel dugout, Averill leaned over and tapped Rigney on the shoulder. "I just counted, skipper, and there's 80 lights out in this stadium." Another time, Averill was called on to pinch-hit and he walked to the plate wearing a football jersey.

Pinch-hitting can be tedious work; Averill was just trying to stay awake. Another time, Rigney called for a pinch-hitter and found his man, Fabulous Faye Throneberry, brother of the Mets' Marvelous Marv, sawing logs on the bench.

The '61 Angels lost 91 games, often by creative means. Shortstop Fritz Brickell turned one routine double-play grounder into three quick errors. Error No. 1: Brickell throws wildly past second base. Error No. 2: Right fielder Albie Pearson fields the ball and throws wildly back to the infield. Error No. 3: Pitcher Ron Kline fielded the ball and threw wildly past third.

There would be no fourth error because the ball bounded all the way to the Angel dugout, where Rigney snatched it and shoved it in his hip pocket. Finally, safe keeping.

Rigney lasted 8 1/2 years as Angel manager, remarkable in itself but even more so when one considers that none of his successors lasted four.

Impressive, too, that Rigney never walked away after watching catcher Hank Foiles lunge for a pitch in the dirt, race to the backstop, look here, there and everywhere for the ball and still come up empty while three Minnesota Twins come around to score.

The last place Foiles looked?

His mitt. The ball had been there all along.

BO-DEAN Rigney showed great imagination whenever drawing up rooming lists for his players. The first year, he had 5-foot-7, 140-pound Albie Pearson room with 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ted Kluszewski. Kluszewski promptly told Pearson, "I get the bed, you get the drawer."

The next year, Rigney made pitchers Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance roommates because, the manager explained, he didn't want to ruin two rooms.

Belinsky and Chance were the Angels' first two stars--Belinsky pitched the franchise's first no-hitter, Chance won the franchise's only Cy Young Award--and remain their most memorable characters. "He's got a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head," one scout said of Belinsky. "The dumbest I ever caught," Bob Rodgers said of Chance. Belinsky and Chance couldn't care less. Their motto: "What we don't know won't hurt us . . . will it?"

Belinsky dated actresses Ann-Margret and Tina Louise, was engaged to Mamie Van Doren and bragged that he spent the night before his no-hitter at a woman's apartment, finally returning home at 5 a.m. "Sex always relaxed me," Belinsky said with a shrug. "Nobody ever died from it."

Chance tried to keep up the best he could. "I never enjoyed his secret," Chance once said of Belinsky, "but I enjoyed trying." Chance spent five years with the Angels, finished his career with Detroit in 1971 and took his plunge into the business world as a carnival operator, which makes enough sense.

Belinsky's Angel career ended shortly after he allegedly punched out a sportswriter with a can of shaving cream. The Angels responded by first demoting Belinsky to their triple-A club--"I'm their best pitcher. How can they ship me out?" Belinsky asked--and then trading him to Philadelphia after the season.

"You make your rules, you play by them," Belinsky said after a career that resulted in 28 victories and 51 defeats. "I knew the bills would come eventually and I knew I wouldn't be able to cover them.

DADDY WAGS As a business entrepreneur, Leon Wagner was a great outfielder. The Angels' leading home run hitter during the early years, Wagner opened a clothing store in Los Angeles with the sales pitch: "Get Your Rags From Daddy Wags."

Too many didn't. Soon Wagner was faced with foreclosure, and the Angels were faced with a financial bailout. Deduct the debt from my salary, Wagner told the club.

The arrangement lasted only as long as Wagner did. When the Angels announced Wagner had been traded to Cleveland after the 1963 season, Wagner blasted Angel General Manager Fred Haney, calling him "a Khrushchev," and declared that he had "nothing against Cleveland--but I'd rather have been traded somewhere in the United States."

The Angels retaliated--that's the only word for it--by calling a press conference to outline the ballclub's unique financial relationship with Wagner. Wagner immediately apologized to Haney, claiming temporary insanity. If you were traded to Cleveland, Wagner wanted to know, could you think straight?

AND HUMOR GOES DEEP "Fear Strikes Out" was the title given to the story of Jimmy Piersall's life. It was first a book, then a movie, with the hook being a twist on an age-old theme: Athlete Overcomes Debilitating Setback--mental illness, in Piersall's case.

If society couldn't understand Piersall's affliction, what could be expected of major league baseball? Even Casey Stengel threw up his hands and released Piersall midway through the 1963 season, shortly after Piersall celebrated a home run by running counterclockwise around the bases.

From the Mets, Piersall went to the Angels--an unbelievable opportunity, Piersall said, because next to Belinsky, Chance and Lee (Mad Dog) Thomas, "I'd look sane."

In 1964, Piersall went to bat in Kansas City wearing a Beatles wig after reading about Athletics' owner Charles Finley's plan to book the group for a stadium concert there. "He can get me a lot cheaper than the $150,000 he's giving those bums from Liverpool," Piersall said.

Umpire Frank Ulmont was only slightly amused.

"OK," Ulmont told Piersall, "I'll give you two minutes to do your act."

"Relax, Frank," Piersall replied. "We're on national TV. I'll get you more camera time than you've ever had."

Piersall was also on the field the night Angel pitcher Paul Foytack surrendered four home runs in the same inning against the Cleveland Indians. After each home run, fireworks exploded above center field at a cost of $350 per shot, prompting Nate Wallick, the Indians' public relations director, to exclaim after home run No. 3, "No more! We can't afford it!"

By the time Foytack finally staggered off the mound, Piersall greeted him with a couple of parting gifts.

A stretcher. And a pair of earplugs.

WHY ARE THE ANGELS LIKE A BOX OF KLEENEX? Because they pop up one at a time.

(Popular baseball joke, once upon a time.)

During those lean offensive years of the early 1970s, when Nolan Ryan and the 2-1 defeat became surgically attached, Boston pitcher Bill Lee issued a challenge.

The Angels, Lee needled, could take batting practice in a hotel lobby and not break the chandelier.

Angel Manager Dick Williams had a sense of adventure, not to mention a sense of humor, so he bought a few plastic bats and balls and turned his lineup loose inside the Boston Sheraton one afternoon.

The chandelier survived.

Worse still, the Angels went out that night, picked up real bats and swung them against Lee. Lee won, 6-0.

"He popped off and backed it up," Williams lamented afterward. "He embarrassed the hell out of us."

FRANK, AS ALWAYS During his eight-year incarnation as an Angel, long before the long mellow of the 1980s, Frank Tanana fired quotes that registered in the high 90s on the radar gun.

"My idol as a kid was myself."

"My ambition is to become the best pitcher in baseball. I may have already achieved it."

"We have everybody back this year. That's the problem."

"I went to an all-boys high school. Now I'm making up for it."

On that note, Tanana once agreed to a reporter's request to provide a scouting report on the quality of extracurricular life in each American League city. Call it the Frank Tanana Guide to Bed and Breakfast, Minus Breakfast.

Cleveland, Tanana suggested, was underrated.

Daddy Wags never knew.

THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER DOUGHNUT Dick Schofield was hitting .167 late into the month of April, 1986, so maybe the weighted metal doughnut on the end of his bat was trying to tell him something.

It wouldn't come off.

Schofield tried and tried, pounding the nob of the bat against the ground, but the doughnut wouldn't budge. Bob Boone came out of the dugout to lend a hand, but help comes hard when you're doubled over in laughter. The rest of the Angel bench broke up, too, with Manager Gene Mauch finally dispatching Reggie Jackson up the steps with two sheets of paper.

"Give him this," Mauch said. "These are instructions on how those work."

At last, Reggie rendered the bat weightless. He handed it to a thoroughly embarrassed Schofield, who dragged it with him to home plate, sheepishly dug in against Oakland pitcher Rick Langford . . . and sent the third pitch he saw over the right-field fence.

Take that, ye of little faith.

"He got it off," Mauch mused, "and he got it out."

FIRST, THE ROOF CAVED IN; THEN, THE TWINS For a few nervous minutes on the night of April 26, 1986, the Angels feared they were going to die with their boots on.

Outside the Hubert H. Humphery Metrodome, a raging rainstorm sent winds of up to 80 m.p.h whipping through downtown Minneapolis, ripping holes in the stadium's inflatable fiberglass roof. Inside, players watched as the roof billowed and rippled. Huge water leaks doused fans in the upper deck, and 1,000-pound speakers yo-yoed precariously on the ends of thin cables.

Play in the eighth inning was halted for nine minutes as umpires ordered players off the field for their own safety. When the roof finally stopped moving, the game resumed, and the Twins took a 6-1 lead into the top of the ninth.

Two-run home runs by George Hendrick, Ruppert Jones and Wally Joyner followed, and the Angels won, 7-6.

Joyner's game-winner was his fifth home run of April, prompting Mauch to observe: "If one of those speakers fell on Joyner, he would've hit it in the outfield seats."

A day later, Jackson, then a 40-year designated hitter, received a rare start in right field. "Maybe that's why they put me out there," Jackson said. "They didn't want to take a chance on getting anybody hurt who counts."

NEXT STOP, THE BULLPEN AKA, the loony bin.

A quick roll call through the years:

Bob Lee. He once drew a fine when General Manager Fred Haney caught him making out with a female fan in the bullpen golf cart.

Dave LaRoche. In the days when the Big A scoreboard stood inside Anaheim Stadium, adjacent to the home bullpen, LaRoche decided to hit it with a baseball, just to see what would happen. So LaRoche kicked and dealed and fired a fastball that pegged the scoreboard dead-on. Instant hieroglyphics. When LaRoche got into a game, he widened his repertoire, which included an eephus pitch that had its own nickname. The LaLob, of course.

Terry Forster. Forster's locker was among Gene Mauch's foremost managerial moves during the 1986 season. A very funny man, Forster was initially situated next to Mauch's office, but Mauch couldn't stand the laugh track Forster induced, particularly after defeats. So Forster was moved to another stall across the clubhouse, where he could continue to make his trenchant observations on life in peace. Was Forster impressed by Wally Joyner's rookie home run spree? "Let's see him hit a couple with five guys on base." Or Don Sutton's bid for 300 victories? "I've never seen anybody win his 300th game. Oh yeah--Cy Young. I forgot about that one."

DeWayne Buice. The king of impressions, he could out-Smart Maxwell, serenade the troops as the Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz" and was able to elicit true respect for his Rodney Dangerfield. He also used to walk around the clubhouse with baseballs stuffed into his sleeves and pant legs, calling himself Old Baseball Man. Mauch never understood it; he simply thanked Buice for his 17 saves in 1987.

Bob McClure. Or, to his friends, Dr. Rot. Rotting, according to McClure, is the advanced state of being all couch potatoes aspire to--and McClure should know. He's a professional rotter. McClure ranks rots--a "major league rot," for instance, is an all-weekend blowout--and says he plans to one day market a clothing line for rotters: Bob McClure's Non-Active Wear.

COOKIE BALL In retrospect, it wasn't Cookie Rojas' fault. He never lobbied for the job of Angel manager. He was happily scouting AL opponents for the Angels when Mauch abruptly retired in the spring of 1988 and the club fingered Rojas as a last-second replacement.

Cookie was very much the rookie, but a bad Angel team didn't help him much. These were the Junior Noboa-Chico Walker Angels--Junior, Walker and the No-Stars, as one writer dubbed them.

Cookie bravely began his first series in the Fenway Park fun house with Chili Davis in right field and Johnny Ray in left. Two balls were hit into that outfield in the first inning--one to Ray, one to Davis. Two errors.

Cookie let another game start with nobody in center field. Devon White was assigned there, but White was on the phone in the clubhouse while Mike Witt was delivering the first pitch. Luckily, the batter didn't swing. Incredibly--or then again, maybe not--third baseman Jack Howell was the only Angel who noticed White was missing. White's a fast runner, so he made it back by the second pitch.

Cookie also tried to rally his team with a fiery pregame talk but instead broke them up by railing, "You've hit bottom rock!"

And the final straw: Cookie losing track of visits to the mound within one inning and forcing the removal of Rich Monteleone when all Cookie wanted to do was remind Monteleone to hold the runner.

Hold the Cookie. The next day, the Angels fired Rojas, eight games before the end of the season.

CHILI Chili Davis used to punish his equipment. After a strikeout, he'd snap his bat in two by breaking it over his knee. After an error, he'd throw his glove into a vacant locker stall, far from his own. "It doesn't deserve to be in this one," Davis said.

In 1988, Davis' mitt was a lonesome glove. Davis committed a club-record 19 errors in the outfield--14 by the All-Star break--and the boggling pace caused him to ask a writer what the all-time major league record was.

"Thirty-six," the writer told him.

"Was his name 'Davis?' " Chili wanted to know.

Two errors came during one frightful game inside the Metrodome. After the second, Davis said he looked up into the right-field seats and saw a little boy tearing up a Chili Davis baseball card. "I'd have done the same thing," Davis said.

At Fenway Park, Davis lost his grip on another fly ball, but this time, no error. Davis gloved the ball as he fell over the short fence in right field but couldn't hold it once he landed on the other side.

Figuring the fence might have shielded him from the view of the umpires, Davis tracked down the loose ball and put it in the webbing of his glove, holding it aloft as he returned to the field.

No go, the umpires said. The home run stood.

Davis shrugged.

"If you ain't cheatin'," he told reporters after the game, "you ain't tryin'."

MOOOOOOOOSE That's eight 0s, as in 0 for 8, the major league managerial line that will be forever appended to the name of Lawrence (Moose) Stubing.

Stubing succeeded Rojas as interim Angel manager with eight games left in the season, four games into an Angel losing streak. Not much of a proving ground, Stubing had to admit, but "eight days on the job beats spending eight days in prison."

Oh, yeah?

Eight days on the job left Moose 0-8 and the '88 Angels in possession of a franchise record: Longest Losing Streak, 12 Games. That nearly matched Stubing's record as a major league hitter: 0 for 5, .000.

Stubing fared better with his regular job of Angel third base coach, although not during the sixth inning of Game 2 of the 1986 playoffs, heretofore remembered as the day Moose lost Bobby Grich in the sun.

Grich was running from second base on a single to left field, grinding hard into third, and saw no stop sign from Stubing. That doesn't mean Stubing wanted Grich to go for home, though. For reasons never fully explained, Stubing tried to deke Boston left fielder Jim Rice by keeping his hands at his side and verbally commanding Grich to stop.

Thirty-five thousand screaming Fenway Park fans drowned out Stubing's command, making Grich easy prey as he was hung up between third and home. Grich was so angry, he spiked his batting helmet into the turf--the indentation might still be there--and the Angels soon were out of a potentially big inning.

They lost Game 2, 9-2, after squandering 11 hits and committing three errors.

"The last time I saw a game like this," Angel pitcher Don Sutton said, "our coach wouldn't take us to Tastee-Freeze for a milkshake afterward."

LUIS, LUIS Luis Polonia, issuing a no-comment: "If I have something to say, I won't say anything."

Luis Polonia, on his trade from the Yankees to the Angels: "The Yankees are interested in only one thing--and I don't know what that is."

Luis Polonia, an Angel for the '90s.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World