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HOLLOWED GROUND

The trading of Randy Velarde and Omar Olivares failed to stir much passion in an Angel clubhouse drained of passion.

At 43-58 and 17 1/2 games behind the Texas Rangers, the Angels were aware the season was over long before management delivered the official statement with that Thursday night trade--and the likely departure today of Chuck Finley will simply be one more exclamation mark.

Besides, the Angels are out of emotional ammo, having fired so many bullets at each other and the front office over the last month that the period ranks among their most convulsive ever--a considerable statement considering this is a team that, among other tumultuous moments, employed seven managers during an eight-year span in the 1970s and two general managers (Whitey Herzog and Dan O’Brien) at the same time in the ‘90s.

If that was what former club president Richard Brown would later describe as “an experiment in hell,” what about a period in which the Angels have seemed bent on imploding--to the extent that the opposition seemed secondary and an 11-game losing streak the inevitable extension?

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“The players have been so busy criticizing each other and worrying about things not in their control that they’ve had little energy left for the game,” a source connected with the team said.

In their own version of “The Haunting,” there was: the mutinous response to management’s plan to extend Manager Terry Collins’ contract; Darin Erstad’s description of the Angels as soft and not fully committed to winning; Mo Vaughn’s suggestion that he was boycotting General Manager Bill Bavasi because Bavasi had asked Vaughn and others to meet with him during the Collins crises and then told reporters it took him only 15 minutes to dismiss the players’ concerns; batting coach Rod Carew, disgusted with what he was seeing in the batter’s box, saying that a housecleaning might be in order; and Gary DiSarcina accusing the entire organization of unprofessional behavior, saying he was embarrassed by the public bickering.

Is it any wonder that the spent Angels responded to the trading of Velarde, their best player this year, and Olivares, their steadiest starting pitcher, by saying little more than it was the front office’s business?

And time, Vaughn suggested, for the players to keep their minds on business?

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“I’m not getting into this,” he said, when asked about the trade. “My opinion doesn’t matter. I’m not getting into a situation here like I did [in Boston]. Everybody just needs to shut up and do their jobs, play the game first, that’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter what we like or dislike. We all know it’s been a tough season. What we have to do now is work toward the first day of spring training. Do your job. Stop blaming other people.”

Maybe that is a message Vaughn needed to deliver sooner, but he has been feeling his way in his first season with the Angels, particularly after the sprained ankle on opening night put him on the disabled list out of the chute and at less than 100% during most of the first half.

His, of course, was one of several costly and oft-chronicled injuries that played into where the Angels are now and what they are up to, which is not a fire sale but a seemingly tempered and realistic reaction to 1) the final two months of a season devoid of hope and 2) a need, Bavasi said, to “retool for the future and replenish the farm system.”

Toward that end, he acquired one legitimate prospect--fleet outfielder Nathan Haynes--and two possibilities in the trade with Oakland for Velarde and Olivares and is hopeful of landing a major league player and prospect in a Finley deal with the Cleveland Indians or New York Yankees.

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Bavasi has no long-term successor to Velarde at second base unless Justin Baughman recovers from the two leg operations that cost him the 1999 season or Enrique Wilson is obtained from Cleveland in a Finley deal. But the reality is that the Angels were unlikely to re-sign either Velarde, who is 36 with a history of back and elbow injuries, or Olivares, 8-9 for all of his consistency, as a free agent--while Finley, at 36, is also eligible for free agency at the end of the year and in position to dictate his direction given his senior status. He is scheduled to start against the Minnesota Twins tonight, but it would be a surprise if he is not on his way to Cleveland or New York.

A year ago at the trade deadline, with his team in the race, Bavasi apologized to the fans and his team for failing to acquire help while the Texas Rangers were landing Todd Stottlemyre, Royce Clayton and Todd Zeile--all influential in their winning of the West.

Amid the wreckage of 1999, Bavasi does not need to apologize for his current attempt to salvage what he can, but he will need to do more in the off-season, particularly to rebuild his rotation, and he can’t afford to “retool” too far into the future.

The core group of Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon, DiSarcina, Jim Edmonds, Erstad, Ken Hill and Troy Percival will be in the option years of their contracts either next season or the season after and may be prepared by then to look for a winning atmosphere if they sense it isn’t going to happen in Anaheim.

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Velarde, on his way to Oakland, said the current Anaheim atmosphere isn’t good and that he is looking forward to joining a young and hungry team where the Indians outnumber the chiefs--as opposed to the way it is with the Angels.

The Angels have 60 games in which to build something positive.

Would you believe a miracle?

“What I’d like to do now is win 60 in a row,” said Percival. “Of course, even if we do win 60, I’m not sure Texas will lose [17]. That’s as big a whirlwind of a change in two weeks as you could ever see.”

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He referred to the dramatic change in the standings as the Angels were losing those 11 straight games. Losing, it might be said in this season of internal combustion, to the enemy within.


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