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SECOND THOUGHTS : Angels: Controversy surrounding Phillips is beginning of the end for team that finished six games short in AL West.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The beginning of the end for the 1997 Angels did not come when pitcher Chuck Finley fell and broke a bone in his left wrist on Aug. 19, or when a foul tip broke a bone in catcher Todd Greene’s right wrist on Aug. 20.

No, it all began to unravel in the wee hours of Aug. 10, down the road from Anaheim Stadium, in Room 52 of the Ivanhoe Motel.

The Angels, who closed the season Sunday with a 4-0 loss to Texas, were in first place in the American League West with a 66-50 record when leadoff batter Tony Phillips was arrested on charges of felony possession of cocaine.

But they were never the same after that fateful night, when Phillips let down the very teammates, coaches and front-office executives who had built him up as a team leader.

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Certainly, the season-ending injuries to Finley and Greene were a staggering blow to Angel pennant hopes--Finley had won 10 consecutive games and was one of baseball’s hottest pitchers, and Greene had six homers and 16 RBIs in 18 games after taking over as the starting catcher July 30.

But just as the picture of Mark Langston on his back at home plate, staring at the Kingdome roof, is what Angel fans remember about 1995, the lasting image of 1997 will be of Anaheim police officers arresting Phillips, according to police reports, “with a loaded pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other.”

Phillips, 38, and pennant races have not been a good mix in Anaheim. He hit a career-high 27 homers in 1995, but hit only .198 in the final two months of the season, when the Angels suffered one of baseball’s worst collapses.

This year, Phillips’ alleged transgression had nothing to do with hits and walks and runs, but his 10-day absence--and the whirlwind of controversy in the wake of his arrest--had a profound negative effect on the Angels.

“Our guys tried to handle it as best they could,” Manager Terry Collins said. “But the fact that it was the focus for so long took away from what they were doing on the field. They couldn’t keep their minds on the positive things.”

Phillips was eventually cleared by baseball doctors to play, but the Angels suspended him Aug. 18, asking him to enter a drug counseling clinic.

The union filed a grievance on Phillips’ behalf Aug. 19, and the next day an arbitrator overturned the suspension and ordered the Angels to reinstate Phillips.

On Aug. 21, 11 days after being arrested, Phillips issued his first public apology, and that night he was back in the lineup.

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But by then, the Angels had lost eight of 11 games to fall 1 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners, and found themselves embroiled in a morality tug-of-war between baseball and the Walt Disney Co., which operates the team.

Disney felt baseball’s drug policy was too lenient. A union official ripped Disney for being more concerned with its reputation as a promoter of wholesome family values than with Phillips. And Phillips blasted both, saying he didn’t want to be used as a pawn in a feud over baseball’s drug policy.

The Angels had only 24 players during Phillips’ absence, and with several suffering from nagging injuries, Collins’ bench was extremely thin. But even after Phillips’ return, the losses continued to mount.

The Angels lost 21 of 30 games after Phillips’ arrest, falling 5 1/2 games behind the Mariners and virtually out of the race by Sept. 11.

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“Everyone was pulling for him to be OK, but when he came back, all of a sudden if we lost, it wasn’t because someone beat us, it was because we were impacted by the Tony Phillips situation,” Collins said.

“As much as you try to forget it, it was the story. Every radio show talked about Phillips. There were endless questions from reporters. That was tough for a lot of guys.”

Phillips, who said club officials already have told him he would not be invited back next season, doesn’t think he cost the Angels the division title, but he also won’t argue with those who do.

“I left myself open for that,” Phillips said. “I’ll take the responsibility. . . .

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“If a person wants to write that, he can write that. I don’t believe that. I’ll take responsibility for the situation I put these other guys into, but good teams overcome controversy. The only things that lose games are when you don’t hit, you don’t pitch and you don’t play good defense.”

Had the Phillips situation been the Angels’ only problem in August, perhaps they would have pulled out of their slump and made a serious run at the division title.

But riding piggyback on the arrest were the Finley and Greene injuries, and that trio combined for a one-two-three punch that knocked the Angels out of contention.

Allen Watson and Jason Dickson, feeling pressured to fill Finley’s stopper role, struggled in late August and early September, and knuckleballer Dennis Springer’s surprising run of success finally expired.

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Ken Hill, acquired in a July 29 deal with Texas, emerged as the staff ace in late August, but the Angels couldn’t score any runs for him. The clutch hits, so bountiful most of the year, began to dry up, and the Angel team batting average fell from .280 on Aug. 7 to .271 on Sept. 7.

To compound matters, leadoff batter Rickey Henderson, acquired Aug. 13 from the San Diego Padres, hit only .183 and Phillips, despite hitting in 25 of 30 games after his return, had very little impact--his average decreasing from .279 to .275.

With Gary DiSarcina and Chad Kreuter providing little offense at the bottom of the order, there weren’t many RBI opportunities for Tim Salmon and the heart of the Angel lineup. And without Finley, there was no pitcher who could be counted on to snap a losing streak.

“That was the most difficult injury to absorb,” Collins said. “In my time, I’ve never seen anything like [his streak], where a pitcher dominated 10 straight opponents like that. But you have to have your pitching staff intact, you need consistency from your starters, and let’s face it, in the last month we didn’t get that.”

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The pitching staff Collins thought he’d have going into spring training--Finley, Mark Langston, Watson, Mark Gubicza and Jim Abbott--never materialized.

The ineffective Abbott was released before the season, and injuries to Langston (elbow) and Gubicza (shoulder) limited them to 11 starts combined. Finley also spent the first two weeks of the season on the disabled list because of a fractured facial bone, and closer Troy Percival missed five weeks in April and May because of a nerve problem in his shoulder.

Setup man Mike James missed almost all of July because of an inflamed elbow, Edmonds was limited to 133 games because of an assortment of injuries, and first baseman Darin Erstad sat out the final two weeks because of a shoulder injury.

“When you evaluate the season on a whole, I think we had a good year,” Salmon said. “Most people picked us to finish third or last, so we went beyond everyone’s expectations, especially considering the adversity we encountered. There’s a silver lining somewhere.”

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Indeed, though the Angels fell six games short, there is plenty to build on for 1998. Salmon had a phenomenal year, hitting .296 with 33 homers and 129 RBIs and batting .346 with runners in scoring position. And Greene proved he’s ready to be an everyday big league catcher.

Garret Anderson was Mr. Consistent, hitting .303 with 36 doubles and 92 RBIs, Edmonds hit .291 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs and Erstad hit .299 with 16 homers, 77 RBIs and 99 runs. Dave Hollins hit .288 with 16 homers, 85 RBIs, 101 runs and was a model of true grit, playing despite diabetes and numerous injuries.

The pitching staff’s earned-run average, a horrendous 5.30 in 1996, improved to 4.52, fifth-best in the league. The Angels took Collins’ aggressive style and literally ran with it, stealing more than twice as many bases in 1997 (126) as they did in 1996 (53).

Yes, they were thrown out trying to go from first to third on hits a few times, and many were cut down on stolen-base attempts because the batter failed to make contact on hit-and-run plays, but their aggressive baserunning brought them many more runs than it cost them.

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“We played exciting baseball and we stayed in contention,” Collins said. “Now, we’ll have some expectations next spring. I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anyone next year.”

There will be changes in 1998. If realignment moves the Angels to the National League, it’s doubtful Henderson will return. Erstad probably will return to the leadoff spot, and if Randy Velarde recovers fully from elbow surgery, he could be back at second base.

As it is every off-season, acquiring a starting pitcher will be a top priority, but the free-agent market is extremely thin. Houston’s Darryl Kile is the marquee name, but he’s leaning toward re-signing with the Astros.

With Montreal right-hander Pedro Martinez eligible for a hefty raise in arbitration and the Expos looking to trim their payroll, the Angels, along with most teams, probably will explore trade possibilities for Martinez.

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Minnesota Twins’ second baseman and leadoff batter Chuck Knoblauch, who has said he wants to be traded to a contender, is another trade possibility.

Collins, though, is more concerned about the players he does have. Hollins, (knee), DiSarcina (elbow) and Edmonds (both knees) will undergo surgery after the season, and it will be a busy winter of rehabilitating for Finley, Greene, Velarde, Erstad, Langston and Gubicza, the latter two free agents who hope to re-sign with the Angels.

“Our priority going into the off-season is the health of our players,” Collins said. “Once we know what we have to work with, we can determine what we want to do.”

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Times Staff Writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this story.


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