Beyond Brotherhood : Tim and Mike Salmon Share a Special Bond

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Salmon screamed as his car started to veer off the road, yanked on the steering wheel, and kept driving at frantic speeds on the desolate highway to Palm Springs.

It was the fourth, maybe fifth time that Salmon had nearly lost control of his car that 1990 summer night. His mind kept telling him to drive slower, more carefully, but his body refused to cooperate.

His older brother, Angel right fielder Tim Salmon, had been hit by a pitch, was in the hospital, and nothing else in the world mattered--not even his own safety.

Mike Salmon drove all night from his Tempe apartment, pulling into the hospital parking lot at 5:30 in the morning.

He sprinted through the hospital corridor, ran up the steps to the room where his brother lay, looked at the mutilated face, and started bawling.

"I saw that tube up his nose, and that vacuum sucking blood out of his mouth and I couldn't take it," Salmon said. "He looked like he swallowed a grenade that blew up in his mouth.

"He looked so gruesome, I thought his career was over. I started thinking about how much I loved him, how much we've always meant to each other, and I started crying.

"I sat down and must have cried for an hour."

Tim might be only two years older than Mike, but he has always been more like a father than a brother.

The Salmons' parents divorced when Tim was 4, and the brothers were shuttled back and forth between households in Arizona and Texas for nearly 10 years. They hated being uprooted every couple of years and couldn't understand why they couldn't settle down in one place, like all their friends' families.

They wound up trusting only one another. It wasn't until Tim reached the eighth grade that they had a permanent home with their father in Phoenix, joining a stepmother and two stepsisters. A few years later, they felt abandoned again when their father divorced their stepmother.

"We became so close because all we had was each other," Tim said. "Mike's the only person I've known and been with all my life. I thank God we never were split up."

Said Mike: "I know Tim was only two years older, but he was the dad I never had. He did everything for me, and stayed on me the way a father would. Really, he made me the person I am today.

"I know there are families that are close, but I can't see how any two brothers can be as close and love each other as much as we do."

Mike reminisced about those childhood days while visiting Tim in the hospital, but all Tim could do was nod, his mouth wired shut for eight weeks.

Mike never shared his fear, but he was terrified about Tim's psyche. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so devastating if this were the first time Tim had been beaned at the plate, but he had also been hit the previous season when an errant pitch splattered his nose.

In his first two seasons of professional baseball: One broken jaw, one broken nose, and sincere reservations about continuing in this game.

"Maybe if it had just happened once, you'd say, 'OK, I can handle it,' "said Angel teammate Damion Easley, who toured the minor leagues with Salmon. "But the second time, uh-uh. That's when you say, 'See you later. Someone's telling me to get out of this game.'

"When you think about it, it's almost like a miracle that he's here today."

Said Mike Salmon: "No matter what he does in his baseball career, even if he makes the Hall of Fame, to me the most amazing thing I've ever seen is Tim coming back from that."

It's this special bond, the brothers say, that has provoked them to excel in sports.

If not for Mike, Tim doubts that he would be the finest prospect in baseball, selected last season by the Sporting News and Baseball America as the minor league player of the year. His credentials have prompted the Angels to proclaim him as their starting right fielder.

If not for Tim, Mike says he's certain he wouldn't have pro scouts arguing whether he will have a career in the NFL or in major league baseball. He is a three-year letter winner at USC, starting at safety and linebacker for the football team, and playing the outfield for the baseball team.

"I know I've really pushed him," Tim said. "I used to have this genuine-leather NFL football, and I'd throw it to him all day long on the street. Whenever he dropped a pass, I'd scream at him because I didn't want him scuffing up the ball."

Said Mike: "He's such a perfectionist, it's unreal. He's a fanatic in everything he does. He'd clean his room, and he wouldn't have a speck of dirt.

"And you talk about football. I'd play catch with him for two hours, and I'd drop one pass, and he wouldn't talk to me the rest of the day."

That perseverance helped Mike become one of the finest all-around football players in Arizona. He was a wingback, kicker, punter, kick returner and defensive back at Greenway High School, leading his team in virtually every statistical category.

He was swarmed by college football recruiters but nearly abandoned football when the Philadelphia Phillies offered him an $80,000 signing bonus.

"I was going to jump at it," Mike said. "Take the money and buy a new car. Tim talked me out of it. He wouldn't let me quit football.

"It was almost like I had to live out his dream.

"You know something, I think I still am."

Although baseball executives and scouts all are predicting stardom for Tim Salmon, and triple-A manager Max Oliveras calls him a "franchise player," Tim would give up baseball in a heartbeat for a career in the NFL.

"I'm sorry, but football still is my first love," Tim Salmon said. "I can't watch a baseball game without getting bored by the fourth or fifth inning. People talk about these great 1-0 games, and they get boring. Give me a football game any day.

"Really, I'd give anything to play football again."

Is this guy serious?

"I was sitting with him at home one day," said Marci, his wife, "when he said, 'You know, I think I've still got college eligibility left.'

"I said, 'Please, Tim, let's just try baseball first.' "

Said Mike: "You should see him when I get him sideline passes to the SC games. He's roaming up and down the sidelines, screaming and hollering more than we are."

"I guess I do get carried away sometimes," Tim said. "I know some of the high fives I give Mike are harder than he gets hit on the field. Sometimes, I've got to watch myself."

Tim never had his choice of sports to play in college. If he had, there is little doubt the Angels would be looking for another right fielder.

Although Tim also was the star of his football and baseball teams at Greenway High, few college recruiters and scouts bothered coming around. Tim was offered only a $15,000 signing bonus by the Atlanta Braves, and the only four-year school that offered him a baseball scholarship was Grand Canyon College, which has no football team.

"It's still painful, because I miss football so much," Salmon said. "I just wish I had the opportunity. I know I'm better than a lot of these (college) quarterbacks. I can run too, because I know I can get open on my brother.

"If I had the talent to still play both professionally, I'd play football, give it everything I've got, and drop baseball."

The Angels should have known that Salmon's love for football remained intense during his first tour of Anaheim Stadium. He looked at the goal posts, nudged club official Darrell Miller, and asked if they could throw a football around.

"I shouldn't even mention this because it drives him crazy, but he's actually good enough to play at USC," Mike said. "He's got a stronger arm than almost every quarterback since I've been here, and he runs just as well.

"There's no doubt in my mind he could play pro both sports. But I really hate telling him that, because then he goes crazy thinking about football again.

"When you think about it, we're both playing the wrong sports. I want to play in the outfield for the Angels, and he wants to play quarterback for the Rams."

It's this football mentality, Tim Salmon believes, that nurtures his baseball career. Maybe so, his teammates say, but they'll also tell you that it stimulates his temper as well.

"He's tremendously hard on himself, too hard if you ask me," Easley said. "He's such a perfectionist that when something doesn't go right, everyone in the dugout is bracing themselves for anything.

"Guys will move to one side of the dugout to give him room, and then keep their head up so you don't get clobbered by anything."

Marci, his wife of 3 1/2 years, says she has awakened at night with Salmon standing in the middle of the room, practicing his batting stroke in front of a mirror.

"He's such a perfectionist in everything he does," Marci said. "It doesn't matter whether it's cleaning the garage, mowing the yard or washing the car. I mean, do you know anyone else that washes their car for two hours?"

It's that kind of perseverance that helped Salmon, 24, tear apart the Pacific Coast League last season. He batted .347 with 29 homers and 105 RBIs at triple-A Edmonton, barely missing the triple crown.

"His mind frame was in a zone I've never seen before," Easley said. "His slumps consisted of like an 0 for 5, one day a week. I'm telling you, it was unreal."

Said Oliveras, who managed Salmon during the remarkable season, "This kid showed me he's capable of anything. I actually thought he'd struggle because he never played in triple-A before, but he made me look like I didn't know what I was talking about. The most amazing thing to me is that half of his homers came with two strikes.

"I just pray to the Lord he doesn't get hurt, because he's going to be an impact player in this league."

Salmon is not about to make any promises. He has no idea whether he will hit 30 homers, or three. The pitching, as he already has learned, is a bit different in the big leagues.

Salmon was educated in a hurry last season, facing Roger Clemens in his debut at Anaheim Stadium. He left 50 tickets and made 20 hotel reservations for friends and family, then struck out three times.

"You know something?" Salmon said. "Guys like that make you want to go play football."

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