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Spirit of ’79

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty years later, the chant still echoes in Rod Carew’s mind:

“Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we . . . “

That was the Anaheim Stadium sound track that magical summer of 1979, when the hits kept on coming for an Angel team that stole the fans’ hearts and gave the rest of the American League a shot to the solar plexus, bashing its way to the franchise’s first division championship.

“It would start in the late innings and never stop,” Carew, now the Angel batting instructor, said of the chant. “No matter how far behind we were, people would stay around in the eighth and ninth innings because we had this habit of coming back to win. Every day, someone different would start it and someone else would finish it.”

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Time has done nothing to dull the memories of 1979 for those who helped create them:

* Gutsy pitcher Frank Tanana, who missed three months of the season because of injury, leaping into the air to start the pennant-clinching celebration at home.

* Owner Gene Autry soaked with champagne in the Angel clubhouse.

* Former President Nixon inviting the entire team to his compound in San Clemente to celebrate the title.

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* A sizzling three-game sweep of the defending World Series-champion New York Yankees right before the All-Star break, a series many believe catapulted the Angels toward the division title.

* The Angels drawing 2.5 million fans to a stadium that was under construction all summer, expanding to accommodate the Los Angeles Rams.

* A potent lineup that hit .282, 23 points higher than the previous club record, and scored 866 runs, an average of 5.3 a game, to compensate for a rotation that dropped off considerably after Nolan Ryan, Tanana and Dave Frost.

“We just pummeled everyone,” said Don Baylor, the American League’s most valuable player that season. “Every day we went to the park, we had it in our minds that we were going to win.”

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That was the thing about 1979. The Angels, who lost to Baltimore in the league championship series, were as much about attitude as they were performance.

Sure, Baylor had a phenomenal year, hitting .296 with 36 homers and 139 runs batted in, and “Disco” Dan Ford had 21 homers and 101 RBIs, and Bobby Grich had 30 homers and 101 RBIs batting eighth, and Willie Mays Aikens came off the bench to hit .280 with 21 homers and 81 RBIs, and Brian Downing hit .326 and Carew .318, and young third baseman Carney Lansford had 19 homers, 79 RBIs and made only five errors.

But it all began in the clubhouse.

Players would not hesitate “getting in each other’s face if you didn’t execute,” Carew said, but at the same time, “everyone picked each other up.” Players would sit around for hours after games, talking about what went right, what went wrong, what they needed to do to improve.

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“You don’t see that as much anymore,” said Baylor, the former Colorado manager who is now Atlanta’s hitting coach. “That team was pretty tight. We did it in a special way, and it was a special group of guys. We’re still friends today because of that team.”

Carew said that camaraderie, that cohesiveness, began with one man, Baylor, who played in all 162 games despite a variety of injuries, among them an inflamed wrist tendon, a separated shoulder, a pulled hamstring and a jammed thumb.

“He was the enforcer,” Carew said. “He wasn’t a loudmouth or anything. He’d pick guys up in a professional way. . . . He had this sixth sense of when something needed to be done, and he did it.”

Whether it was hammering home a point in a team meeting or hammering a clutch hit in the late innings, the man they called “Groove” spent the entire summer in one. Especially with the bat.

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In fact, one of Baylor’s swings might have defined that entire season. The mighty Yankees were in Anaheim to close out the first half, and Ryan threw eight no-hit innings in a 6-1 victory in the opener.

The Angels fell behind the second game, 6-0, and were trailing, 7-4, with two out in the bottom of the ninth. New York had ace reliever Goose Gossage on the mound when Lansford and Ford singled and Baylor homered off the left-field foul pole, tying the score.

Merv Rettenmund then doubled in the winning run in the 12th.

The next day, Grich hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning--his fourth and fifth RBIs of the day--for a 5-4 win in the third game, the hysterical Anaheim crowd prompting Grich to return from the clubhouse for a curtain call.

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Baylor, who has been in five playoffs and three World Series, called those three games the most thrilling he’s ever played.

“After that series, the momentum was unbelievable,” Carew said. “People got into it, and at times it was scary. There was a constant buzz. The stadium was just alive.”

That Angel team came from behind to win 37 games, and Baylor had a hand in many of them.

“He wanted to be the guy up in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line,” Carew said. “Guys like that don’t even think about that extra pressure. That goes with being a leader. It comes naturally.”

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Sound familiar? Fast-forward 20 years, and you can project Mo Vaughn into the role Don Baylor played.

“I hope Mo can bring that magic--he’s the type of player and leader who can,” Baylor said. “Everyone talks about having team leaders. When they’re there, you take them for granted. When they’re gone, everyone’s wondering where the leadership went.”

Baylor had a keen understanding of leadership, and explained it in his autobiography, “Nothing But the Truth: A Baseball Life.” Baylor wrote that a leader “isn’t the kind of guy who goes around smiling when the team loses because he went four for four. He isn’t the kind to mope if he’s 0-for-4 and the team wins.

“Instead, he pats guys on the back for playing well or consoles the guy who just might have had an even worse day than he did. In my mind, you lead by running out ground balls, by breaking up double plays and by being out there every day.”

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But accompanying leadership--and the contracts such players command--are demands, pressures and expectations. In 1977, Baylor struggled “trying to prove my worth” after signing a $1.6-million deal with the Angels. He drove in only 37 runs in the first 89 games and finished with a .251 average, 25 homers and 75 RBIs.

He rebounded with 26 homers and 99 RBIs in 1978, the season in which he called a team meeting for the first time in his career, then had the monster year in ’79. If he has one piece of advice for Vaughn, who signed a six-year, $80-million deal, it’s to be himself.

“Don’t think you’ve got to be like Mark McGwire and hit 70 home runs because of the contract,” Baylor said. “A lot of guys put pressure on themselves because of the money.

“The fans get involved, the papers start writing about how much money you’re making per at-bat. Guys read those things, and they can get psyched out by them. Certain guys can handle it.”

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The demands don’t stop at the stadium.

“Everyone expects you to do things in the community--it’s a balancing act,” Baylor said. “Mo had a few scrapes [with the law] in Boston. Now he’ll be under the microscope even more because of his contract. Everyone expects you to be a model citizen, on and off the field.”

This is nothing new for Vaughn, the former Boston Red Sox slugger who has thrived despite bitter contract disputes, a deteriorating relationship with the Red Sox front office, and the intense scrutiny of baseball-crazed Boston--both media and fans--to become one of the game’s most productive players, averaging 39 homers and 120 RBIs the last four years.

That’s why, when asked if Vaughn can handle the pressure and expectations that will be put on him, Baylor answers in three simple words:

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“Yes he can.”


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