Passion Play

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terry Collins was squinting into the glare of television lights in a conference room adjacent to the Angel clubhouse, quietly recounting his team's belly-flop in a season-maker-or-breaker game against the Rangers, but he really wanted to be grabbing those cameras and flinging them into the walls, smashing chairs onto the table, kicking in the computer monitors that line one wall . . .

In the clubhouse, pitcher Chuck Finley was venting his rage with an obscenity-sprinkled tirade directed at himself, his teammates and the baseball gods. But Collins really wanted him to be tossing chairs, tipping over the stereo rack, taking a bat to the big-screen television . . .

"This team has done more, overcome more obstacles, accomplished more than any team I've ever been around," Collins said. "I can't imagine any team could make me more proud of the way they've played. But you do not come out here every night, play your guts out, leave it all out on the field, and in the end lose and feel good about it.

"You can sit down in the winter and say there are a lot of positive things to look at and there are a lot of things to be proud of, but the one thing is, you didn't win. And that's all that matters.

"That's why I wouldn't care if Chuck tore up the clubhouse. When we can get 25 guys here who are all on that same page, guys who care that much, guys who play the game [angry] .. . .

Then maybe the Angel manager and the Angels can shake loose of their depressive bout with second-place syndrome.

After 11 years managing in the minors, Collins got his first big-league job in Houston in 1994. The Astros finished a half-game back in the National League's Central Division that year, were second again in '95--and only one game behind Colorado in the NL wild-card race--and No. 2 again in 1996.

He had a .532 winning percentage during three seasons in Houston, but that's not really winning when you keep finishing second, is it?

Then the Angels finished second, six games behind Seattle, last season, Collins' first with the club.

And that's why Collins wasn't ready to give up Wednesday after the Angels had lost the first two games of what would be a three-game sweep by the Rangers, because no matter how far the other guy is in front of you, you never stop sprinting until you cross the finish line, right?

And that's why his 30-second "pep talk" to his team before the crucial final game against Texas was: "If you feel like quitting, do yourself a favor and me a favor and pack up your [stuff], shake hands and have a nice winter."

And that's why he pulled Garret Anderson out of a Sept. 11 loss to the Orioles after Anderson failed to run out a bouncer back to pitcher Scott Erickson. Erickson's throw to first pulled Rafael Palmeiro off the bag, but Palmeiro was able to touch the base in time to end an Angel rally.

"That was absolutely hard to do and I hated it," Collins said, "but there comes the point where everybody has to know that there's just one way to play, one way to go about it. If you know that you left it all out here every night, then you have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to worry about.

"We've all got the same uniforms on and I ask the same of every guy."

So are the Angels buying into Collins' tunnel-vision intensity? Are they becoming a cult of his personality?

"I don't think he's superimposed his personality on anybody," veteran shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. "What he should be commended for is bringing in the kinds of players who come to work prepared to play, who keep battling and never give up. He wants to win at all costs and he's brought in guys who feel the same way."

Apparently, however, not everyone in navy and periwinkle is quite so gung-ho. Collins' blunt approach on the matter of work ethic sits differently with different players. A few Angels declined to talk about him.

Reaction to the Anderson incident, for instance, varied from the militant to the middle of the road to the semi-sympathetic.

DiSarcina: "It's his team, man, and if he sees guys who are ill-prepared, who are cheating him, their teammates and themselves, he's not going to just sit there and let it go. He's going to do something about it."

Randy Velarde: "He's so intense and he demands perfection, at least mentally. He can handle the physical errors, but he has no tolerance for mental errors."

Tim Salmon: "That was a tough call, a unique situation where you could see both sides. I know warnings had been made, but you would've liked to see that happen earlier in the year instead of when it did. But he's the manager and he has to live with those decisions."

Collins knows if the players were to vote, former-manager-current-pitching-coach Marcel Lachemann--always beloved in the clubhouse for his upbeat, soft-spoken, feel-good approach to managing--would probably win his job in a landslide. But Collins wants a World Series ring, not a most-popular award.

Meet the new boss. Not at all the same as the old boss.

"There's no question the attitude is totally different," Salmon said. "Is it good? Well, for the most part, we've had success for the last two years, really without putting out our best team on very many nights. We've overcome a lot of adversity and I've got to believe that's where his temperament has helped. You've got a lot of young players and marginal guys who are overachieving and that's where his style seems to work pretty well.

"But every situation is different and you have to learn how to motivate a whole team. There have been a couple situations where he got a little carried away, but I think he's been pretty open to the idea that maybe he needed to tone it down in this area or on this guy.

"Any time you have a manager who is that emotional and that vocal, you walk a fine line because you're trying to motivate 25 different players to win and without a doubt, you're going to have players who will be offended by it or turned off by it. So it's a balancing act."

Collins doesn't mind walking the tightrope, but don't expect him to tiptoe through the clubhouse.

"It's nice to be well-liked, but that's not the issue," he said. "The players don't have to like you, they have to play for you. Maybe I like being around some guys more than other guys, but that's just human nature.

"I don't hold a lot of team meetings. I think they're overrated. What I do do is try to make sure that each individual knows exactly what I expect. They may not want to hear it, they may not like it, but they know how I feel.

"And there is one thing they all should realize. I like them and respect them. I watch them play, I watch them work and I haven't forgotten what it's like to be a player."

Most of the batboys are taller and thicker of frame than Collins, who hit six home runs in 2,009 minor-league at-bats. His playing career was built on a foundation of willpower and brainpower, having realized early in life that he had to have a better understanding of the game than his bigger, stronger peers.

After 30 years in professional baseball, the scrappy little player from Midland, Mich., found himself so close to the playoff promised land this season he could smell the popcorn. Then the Rangers swept away the aroma, leaving the Angels with only the usual stench of September, a month they always seem to stink up.

But nobody is blaming Collins for this collapse. He never booted a ground ball, watched a called third strike or failed to move over a runner with an out.

"The players are the ones who ultimately have to get it done, regardless of the manager," Salmon said. "It always comes down to the personnel you have in the clubhouse."

In August--not long after that glorious 22-6 June--the Angels picked up the 1999 option for Collins' contract. General Manager Bill Bavasi has no regrets.

"We're satisfied with everything he's done," Bavasi said. "He's real intense. That's a good thing. We had a lot of problems with our health but because of Terry, we performed better than expected."

If Collins remains in his office, he will be the first Angel manager to survive three consecutive seasons since Gene Mauch (1985-87).

He's confident his temper won't get in the way of his longevity with the Angels because what many of his players don't know--but the Astros could tell them--is this is an older, wiser, mellow Terry Collins who's brimming with understanding and perspective.

OK, he's trying, anyway.

"I manage now just like I did in the minor leagues and like I did at Houston," he said. "I take it seriously. But at Houston, I wanted everything to work so much and all the owner ever said was, 'You gotta win. You gotta win.' And I let it get to me.

"Then, after I lost the job in Houston, I realized it had become a job. I sat down and said, 'You forgot what you got into this for.' I spent a lot of years in the minor leagues, I wasn't making any money but I was having a ball. I loved it."

Now, he believes his job is basically threefold.

"I'm just trying to get the guys to play hard, trying to keep them up and having some fun," he said. "That's the way to do it."

Collins may be trying to channel his intensity into areas that are less offensive to some of his more sensitive players, but he still sets the example when it comes to work ethic. He's always the first one to arrive at the clubhouse and among the last to leave.

"I don't ever want a player to walk into this clubhouse when I'm not here," he said. "If there's something they need to talk to me about, they know they can come early before anyone's around.

"And anyway I love to be here, to work out, grab a sandwich, just relax. I loved to play. I still love to compete. I love being on the field.

"To be able to come out here every night, to be with the best players in the game and watch them compete is just the coolest thing."

Even if it makes him a little hot sometimes.

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