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Edmonds Proves He’s Certainly No Slouch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The evaluations of center fielder Jim Edmonds came in from Bend, Ore., the Quad Cities of Illinois-Iowa, Palm Springs and Midland, Texas, and they weren’t all glowing.

Edmonds was tabbed a can’t-miss prospect when he was drafted out of Diamond Bar High in 1988 and progressed steadily through the Angel farm system.

But there always seemed to be some disturbing comment from the minor league outposts--won’t play hurt . . . carefree attitude . . . lackadaisical approach . . .

Bill Bavasi, now the general manager but then the team’s farm director, decided to see for himself, traveling to Midland in 1992 to check out Edmonds.

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Bavasi quickly diagnosed the problem.

“His body language will drive you nuts,” Bavasi said of Edmonds, who emerged as one of baseball’s rising stars last season when he hit .290 with 33 home runs, 107 runs batted in and a team-record 120 runs scored.

“It’s hard to describe, but he’s sort of non-aggressive. Sometimes he mopes around. Sometimes when he’s at the plate he looks like he’s in pain and is about to come out of the game.”

Bavasi tried a little experiment. Whether Edmonds was in the field or at bat, he watched him only during the action. Between pitches, he looked away. Suddenly, Bavasi could find little wrong with the outfielder.

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“If you don’t look at him between pitches, he plays hard and has great instincts,” Bavasi said. “I told all my scouts not to watch him between pitches, because that body language will only frustrate you.”

Edmonds, who made the American League All-Star team in 1995 after an unspectacular 1994 season--.273, five homers, 37 RBIs--is aware of the signals he sends.

“But a lot of that is fooling around,” he said. “I don’t always have that mean face, because I’m having too much fun. I think I’ve done a decent job improving [my body language] but you can’t change a person.”

You can change what a person thinks about you, though, and Edmonds spent 1995 shattering perceptions.

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Won’t play hurt? In June, Edmonds’ sore left foot made it difficult for him to walk. He hobbled around the clubhouse with an ice pack on his foot but wouldn’t come out of the lineup. He hit .366 that month.

Carefree attitude? There was nothing carefree about the way he played center field, smashing into walls and diving into gaps to make highlight-reel catches.

Lackadaisical approach? Edmonds spent much of the strike-torn winter of 1994-95 in the batting cage, modifying his stroke so he could hit with power to all fields, and in the weight room, adding muscle.

“I would hope I’ve changed how some people in the organization perceive me,” Edmonds said. “But I’m done worrying about people I played for in the past.”

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Edmonds attributes his breakthrough ’95 season to the adjustments in his swing and added strength, but he didn’t seem like a contented player over the winter. He added another 15 pounds in the weight room and reported to camp a muscular 6 feet 1, 215 pounds.

He also sought advice from teammate Tim Salmon, who knows a thing or two about maintaining high levels of production--Salmon followed his 1993 rookie-of-the-year season with an equally impressive 1994 and an even better ’95.

“I just have to stay positive and not worry about numbers,” Edmonds said. “Sometimes if you start slow, you push to try to catch up all at once, but you just have to let it happen. I don’t expect to hit 33 homers every year, but I do expect to drive the ball hard.”

Angel Manager Marcel Lachemann said it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect 30 homers from Edmonds. “But realistically you can expect 20,” he added.

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Lachemann would rather see a reduction in another statistic. Edmonds ranked fourth in the American League with 130 strikeouts last season.

Edmonds, who has surprising power to the opposite field, usually gets in trouble when he tries to pull the ball, or when he tries to lift it, instead of hitting line drives.

“I need to be a little more patient,” he said. “Sometimes teams would try to pitch around me and I didn’t even realize it. I’ve got to do a better job of knowing the situations and the pitchers, but that will come with experience.”

Edmonds knows expectations will be much higher this season, but he relishes the pressure. When the Angels traded center fielder Chad Curtis to Detroit in spring training last year, clearing the way for Edmonds to move from left to center, he loved the added responsibilities that came with being “the main guy” in the outfield.

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He doesn’t have the speed of Kenny Lofton, but Edmonds gets good, quick reads on balls and knows where they are going. And his arm is as good as any center fielder’s in the league.

Just ask former Cleveland Indian first baseman Paul Sorrento, who lined an apparent double up the left-center gap with two out in the ninth inning of a game the Angels were leading, 6-5, last July 25.

As Sorrento headed to second, Edmonds fielded the ball near the warning track, turned and fired a perfect throw to second baseman Damion Easley, who applied the tag for the game’s final out.

“That was pure athletic ability and instincts,” said Bavasi, who thought Edmonds deserved a Gold Glove in 1995 over Seattle center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who sat out about half the season but still won the award. “I’m not saying Jim is a better defensive center fielder than Griffey, but Griffey is not better than Jim.”

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Before last season, Edmonds wasn’t even sure he would make the team. But now that Edmonds has established himself, he’s a lot more relaxed, concentrating on preparing for the season instead of winning a job.

“In the past, I always worried about too much stuff,” Edmonds said. “How do I look? How am I acting? I was trying to impress people instead of just playing the game. It’s hard trying to look perfect seven hours a day, wondering if someone is watching you out of the corner of his eye.”

Edmonds is about to experience another new feeling--financial security. His agent is negotiating a multiyear deal with the Angels that is expected to be worth at least $7 million over four years.

“My family is going to be taken care of, and that’s something I’ve always played for,” said Edmonds, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter. “But I still want to be the best player, not the richest player.”

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