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An Early Riser : Angel Rookie Garret Anderson Has Statistics That Would Translate to a 30-Homer, 135-RBI Season, so It’s a Good Thing He Decided to Play Baseball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A gaggle of reporters were crowded around Garret Anderson’s cubicle, scribbling away as he described his first major league home run.

Nearby, veteran reliever Lee Smith ate his postgame meal, a toothy grin splitting his face. “Go ahead,” he yelled through a mouthful of chicken, “tell them you really want to play right.”

Everyone, Anderson included, laughed.

No, Anderson doesn’t covet Tim Salmon’s job. But six weeks after that first homer, Smith’s rookie-hazing joke takes on a new edge. Anderson is relentlessly pounding his way into contention for rookie of the year honors, despite the fact he only had 12 at-bats before June 12. He’s not yet in a position to ask for Salmon’s, but if he continues to shoot baseballs into the gaps and the seats at his current pace, in a couple of years he’ll be able to demand a salary that will make Salmon’s four-year, $7.5-million deal look puny.

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Anderson, who has played exactly one third of a regular season, homered off former Minnesota pitcher Kevin Tapani in his first start after being called up from the minors on June 7. He had two hits in the game to raise his average to .176. He now has 10 home runs, 45 runs batted in and leads the team with a .352 average through Friday’s game.

“He’s been swinging the bat incredibly well and there hasn’t been anything cheap about it,” Manager Marcel Lachemann said. “He’s hit right-handers and left-handers. He’s hit fastballs and breaking balls. He’s hit the ball to left, to center and to right. And he’s fought off a lot of very tough pitches to get to pitches he could handle.”

Anderson was on the Angels’ strike-inflated, 28-man opening-day roster, but three weeks later, he was back in triple-A Vancouver with a “Needs to Play Everyday” sign around his neck. The Angels in the outfield were set: leadoff hitter extraordinaire Tony Phillips in left, second-year sensation Jim Edmonds in center and Salmon in right.

But when Eduardo Perez continued to struggle at third, Phillips moved there and Anderson got his chance.

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And he seized the opportunity with such force he nearly squeezed the life out of two franchises.

After the All-Star break, the Angels played Detroit seven times in 10 days. They won six of those games, largely because of Anderson, who sent the baseball--and the Tigers’ team earned-run average--soaring. He hit four home runs, drove in 14 runs, scored nine times and had 17 hits in 30 at-bats.

Then, during a four-game series at Milwaukee, he hit .611 with a home run, two doubles and nine RBIs.

Anderson, 23, became the first Angel rookie to win American League player of the month honors for a July that would have made Stan Musial blush. In 25 games, he hit .410, scored 22 runs and drove in 31.

All the while, however, he has maintained a modicum of perspective.

“You can’t get a hit every day for the rest of your life and you have to know that,” he says. “I know I can’t keep hitting like this for the rest of my life.”

Now there’s a concession to reality.

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He says there is an overpowering “calmness” that envelopes him at the plate these days and he’s hardly the excitable kid in the clubhouse.

Anderson occasionally allows himself to smile, but most of the time, it’s business as usual. Just another day as the hottest hitter in baseball. Yawn.

Two lockers down, Rex Hudler is proclaiming everybody who puts on those funny-looking stirrups for a living to be one of the luckiest humans on earth. Anderson will admit it beats folding jeans at Miller’s Outpost, a position he held last winter.

Maybe it’s that Anderson isn’t living a lifelong dream like so many of his teammates.

“When I was little, we played baseball on my grandmother’s block all the time and then I moved on to Little League,” he said. “But growing up, I could never relate to being a professional athlete. Sports were just fun to me. I played baseball and basketball at [Granada Hills Kennedy] High School because I loved the games. Before I got a scholarship to Fresno State, I thought I would have to go to junior college.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to get an education to be any kind of success in life. Nobody is going to accept you without a degree. The scholarship came as a total surprise, but I had every intention of taking advantage of it. Then all that stuff about being drafted came up and I knew nothing about that whatsoever.”

The Angels selected Anderson in the fourth round of the 1990 June draft. He decided the degree could wait while he gave baseball a shot. He spent two unspectacular seasons adjusting to life as a pro and then started to leapfrog through the minor league system.

In 1992, he hit .323 at Class-A Palm Springs and .274 during a brief stint at double-A Midland. In ’93, he spent the season with Vancouver and led the team in hits and doubles and was second in RBIs. Last year with the Canadians, he had a club-record 27-game hitting streak, batted .321 and was fourth in the Pacific Coast League in hits and RBIs.

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After teammates started comparing him to Ken Griffey Jr. this spring, Anderson thought he had made the final jump to the big leagues. Still, when he was optioned back to Vancouver on May 15, there wasn’t even a hint of bitterness.

“I don’t think I was sent down because I wasn’t ready; I think they weren’t ready for me yet,” he said. “And I didn’t have any problems with that. A lot of people in that position voice their opinions and end up eating their words. I wasn’t going to go in there and say, ‘I want to play. I want to play.’ They know that.

“But I didn’t really get anything, besides a few more at-bats, out of being sent down. It didn’t do anything for me. To me it was just a matter of waiting my turn and making sure that my head was straight until then.”

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Anderson was convinced he could succeed in the big leagues, but he also had no intention of spending his whole life trying to prove it.

“Lots of guys just want to keep playing, even if they never make it, but that just isn’t me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to wait around forever. I had my own timetable, how long I would give myself in the minor leagues.

“I mean I gave myself a reasonable amount of time and I was willing to prove myself. I knew it was something I had to work for. I wasn’t expecting anybody to hand me anything.”

Phillips came to the Angels during a spring-training trade and within a week had told Lachemann “we got to get him up here.” Lachemann, who says “he’s up here now and producing so it doesn’t make any difference,” declines to debate the issue of whether Anderson should have been on the big league roster all year.

“The kid’s got talent,” Phillips said, “and he’s just learning to play the game. I mean I can’t say he’ll be any better than he is right this minute, but with his work ethic, there’s no reason he can’t do this with consistency.

“And he’s open for suggestions, open to constructive criticism and that’s so important. That’s the reason he’s going to continue to get better.”

Designated hitter Chili Davis, father-figure designate and team spiritual leader, saw a fluid swing and a liquid mobility, and proclaimed Anderson to be a “Little Dawg.”

As long as he’s in uniform, Davis will always be the “Big Dawg” on the Angel block.

“He should have been up here from the beginning of the year and the organization knew that,” Davis said. “He just needed the door to open for him and then he took full advantage of his opportunity.

“I like him because he’s one of those hitters who just doesn’t give a damn who’s pitching. This game is so computerized now, you know, this guy doesn’t hit that guy, left-handers can’t hit left-handers. But he just hits. And if he misses his pitch or has a [lousy] at-bat, he’s angry with himself, no matter who’s pitching. To me, that’s a real player.”

Early in July, Anderson’s name was mentioned in trade rumors involving Tapani, but Angel front-office officials insist there was no validity to those rumors.

What else could they say now?

“I heard the rumors, but I didn’t pay any attention to them,” Anderson said. “If they’re going to trade you they’re going to trade you. Anyway, everything is the same around the league, the conditions, the pay, so if they make that move, they make it.

“I don’t know why they didn’t. I don’t want to know. But it wasn’t like I went out there and got a bunch of hits to show them how valuable I was. I wasn’t playing for myself, I’m contributing to the team, we’re winning and that’s really important to me.”

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Anderson had hit safely in 20 of the 23 games through Friday. He looked overmatched in a couple of at-bats against Seattle’s Randy Johnson, but then who hasn’t? Otherwise, he’s been an absolute terror.

“I just, uh, it’s a real, how can I say it?,” he says, searching to describe his feeling at the plate. “Like I said, it’s just a calmness. Before some games, I’ve been nervous, kind of edgy. But then the game starts and I’m fine. It’s just a calmness I have.”

Anderson, a left-handed hitter, has quickly dispelled any notions Lachemann might have harbored about a platoon scenario in left field. Through Friday, he was hitting .375 against left-handed pitchers.

“When I get a chance to play against lefties, I do my best to prove that theory that lefties can’t hit lefties wrong,” he said. “I concentrate and really get focused.”

Hitting instructor Rod Carew, the guru of the Angels’ offensive resurgence, has worked diligently with Anderson. The emphasis has been on mental approach rather than technical changes in a clearly natural swing.

“He’s got a lot of confidence right now,” Carew said. “Lefties, righties, it doesn’t matter. He has shown a tendency to try and pull everything, but he’s learning to hit the ball where it’s pitched and with that, he’s becoming more and more consistent.”

Anderson also has been better than billed in the outfield.

“To be honest, he’s played much better defense than I thought he would,” Lachemann said. “I thought he’d be a decent outfielder and he’s turned out to be a good outfielder. He’s made a lot of very good plays.”

The whole package? So far, there’s no question.

The next Ken Griffey Jr.? Possibly, but don’t say it too loud in the Angel clubhouse.

“He don’t need that, man,” Phillips said. “Just let the kid play. Let’s see what he does the rest of this year and next year and then make comparisons. You guys are going to make those comparisons, but he don’t need to think about that.”

The “kid” is acutely aware of that.

“Let’s just say [Griffey] is a lot more advanced in his career than I am,” Anderson said, smiling. “I think I have a lot of talent too, but let’s leave it at that.”

A comparison to Griffey will elicit a tired smile and a tactful response. Mention the rookie of the year award, however, and you’ll get a stern stare.

“I don’t even want to think about that,” Anderson said. “Any time anybody mentions that to me, I just shove it out of the way. I don’t think about that stuff and I don’t want to hear about it, either.

“There are two months left in the season and I could go oh for the rest of the summer and people would be like, ‘Garret Who?’ They only care how you finish. Nobody remembers how you start.”

Maybe, but for Anderson and the Angels, this has been a start worth remembering.


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