Shaping Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time Patrick Lennon walked into the Angels' clubhouse this spring you could see the heads turn and the jaws drop.

Plenty of players are buffed up after winter weight programs, but Lennon is in a class by himself, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound mass of chiseled muscle, with biceps so huge he looks as if he should be competing for the Mr. Universe crown, not the Angels' reserve outfield spot.

"Hi, I'm Gene Richards," the Angels' roving hitting instructor said to Lennon, extending his hand. "If we ever get in a fight, I want to be near you."

Note to Richards: You may want to find a new sparring partner because Lennon is about as inclined to engage in a fistfight these days as Mahatma Gandhi was in his day.

The 29-year-old had his fill of fighting as a young man, and all that did was land him in a Pennsylvania county jail for two months after an attempted murder charge and derail a baseball career that was filled with much promise. "Now," Lennon said, "I just walk away."

Lennon was Seattle's first-round pick in 1986, eighth overall, a year before the Mariners drafted Ken Griffey Jr. The Whiteville, N.C., native was considered a can't-miss prospect, but his early minor league career seemed to produce more violence than offense.

He was young and fearless and, because of his size, seemed to attract challenges. Owner of a perpetual mean streak, Lennon took on all-comers.

"I had a lot of problems when I was young, things I didn't understand," Lennon said. "Some people try to commit suicide; some act out in a manner that is vindictive to others. I acted out to people around me."

His worst--and almost final--act came in 1989, when he was playing for the double-A Williamsport (Pa.) Bills. According to police reports, Lennon was drinking at a bar one July night when a fight broke out. The dispute carried into the parking lot, where Lennon pulled out a gun and fired.

No one was shot, but Lennon was charged with attempted murder, possession of a prohibited weapon, reckless endangerment of another person, terrorist threats, simple assault and disorderly conduct.

Though the most serious charge, attempted murder, was eventually dropped, Lennon was suspended from the baseball team and spent a good portion of that season in jail.

Lennon was hardly rehabilitated. The day he got out of jail, he put the gun back in his car and "started doing the same things over again," he said. "I was a bad guy, I guess."

He returned the next season and hit well enough (.329) at triple-A Calgary in 1991 to earn a promotion to the big leagues, but he got only 10 at-bats as a Mariner in '91 and '92 before being released.

Lennon went to spring training with Colorado in 1993 and impressed the Rockies with his long-distance home runs but was cut just as camp ended.

Lennon said he "went on a four-day drinking binge" before driving back to North Carolina, and at one point in the middle of the desert he burst into tears and cried for 200 to 300 miles.

"I realized I didn't have control of my life," Lennon said. "You think you're this big, bad guy who can take on anything, and you're not. I made a vow to myself and to God to make a change."

Raised in a strong Christian home, Lennon returned to his religious roots. He sold his handgun, stopped fighting and eventually got married.

But Lennon's professional growth did not parallel his personal gains. From 1993 to '97, Lennon was released or not re-signed by six teams, his brief big league time limited to 14 games with Kansas City in 1996 and 56 games with Oakland in '97.

"Baseball pushed me as a phenom, a franchise player, when I wasn't ready, when I had a lot of growing up to do," Lennon said. "Not until I was mature enough to handle things did I find myself going from place to place."

Lennon believes his checkered past scared some teams, but he is not bitter. He's happy to have another chance, this time with the Angels in Tempe. It's where he enjoyed one of his best days as a professional, mashing three home runs for the A's against the Angels in the 1997 Cactus League opener.

His chances of making the Angels are not great, but if he has another monster spring, like he's had for so many other teams, he could convince Manager Terry Collins to take a power-hitting reserve outfielder to Anaheim instead of defensive specialist Orlando Palmeiro.

If he doesn't make it, he's prepared to move on, either to triple-A Vancouver or to another team. He believes he has at least six good years left to play and is not ready to give up.

"Life is what's going to happen today and tomorrow, not what happened yesterday," Lennon said. "I've made amends, I have remorse. If people hold [my past] against me, that's the way it's going to be.

"I'm not going to say it wouldn't be great to be with one organization and have a four-year contract, but I'm not going to sit back and cry about it. I have a lovely wife and son. I'm going to enjoy life."

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