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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

Reporters 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 having had only 12 at-bats before June 12. And while he’s not yet in a position to ask for Salmon’s, if he continues to hit 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 homered against Kevin Tapani, then of Minnesota, in his first start after being called up from the minors June 7. He had two hits in the game to raise his average to .176. Through Friday, he had 10 home runs, 45 runs batted in and led the team with a .352 average.

He has played about one-third of the season, so you can probably do the projections on those homer and RBI numbers in your head.

“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 at triple-A Vancouver. The Angels in the outfield were set--leadoff-hitter Tony Phillips in left, second-year sensation Jim Edmonds in center and Salmon in right.

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But when Eduardo Perez continued to struggle at third base, Phillips moved to that infield spot and Anderson, 23, got his chance.

He seized the opportunity.

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

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

In 25 games in July, he batted .410, scored 22 runs and drove in 31.

Meanwhile, he has maintained his perspective.

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

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Anderson said there is an overpowering “calmness” that envelopes him at the plate these days, and he’s hardly an excitable guy in the clubhouse.

He will occasionally allow himself a smile, but most of the time, he conducts business as usual. It’s just another day as the hottest hitter in baseball. Yawn.

Two lockers down, Rex Hudler frequently says that everybody who puts on those funny-looking stirrups for a living is one of the luckiest humans on earth. Anderson acknowledges it beats folding jeans at Miller’s Outpost, a job he had last winter.

Maybe it’s that Anderson isn’t living a lifelong dream, as are 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] 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 June 1990 draft, and he decided the degree could wait while he tried baseball.

In 1992, he batted .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 to Vancouver on May 15, there was no 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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“He’s up here now and producing, so it doesn’t make any difference,” said Lachemann, declining to debate the issue of whether Anderson should have been on the big league roster all year.

“The kid’s got talent,” said Phillips, who came to the Angels in a spring trade. “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 liked Anderson’s fluid swing and a liquid mobility.

“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 [bad] at-bat, he’s angry with himself, no matter who’s pitching. To me, that’s a real player.”

Anderson hit safely in 20 of 22 games through Friday. He looked overmatched in a couple of at-bats against Seattle’s Randy Johnson, but then who hasn’t? Otherwise, he has been an absolute terror.

“I just, uh, it’s a real . . . How can I say it?” he says, searching for a description of 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.”

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 on making 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.”

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.”

Anderson is acutely aware of that.

“Let’s just say [Griffey] is a lot more advanced in his career than I am,” he said, managing a smile. “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,” he 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 0 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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