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Angels Get Ready for Housecleaning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Angels reduced their tragic number to zero Sunday: There are no games left in this miserable, stinking, wretch of a season, so they can finally get on with the business of hiring a general manager and a manager, shaking up one of baseball’s most disappointing teams and putting the ugliest year in franchise history behind them.

It wasn’t only the losses that made this season so unsightly, though there were plenty--with a 70-92 record after Sunday’s season-ending, 1-0 victory over Texas in Edison Field, the Angels, picked by many to win the American League West, narrowly avoided the worst record in franchise history.

No, the true legacy of this team was its uncanny ability to reach new depths of dysfunction. The lasting image will be the way the Angels nose-dived out of the division race with players bickering and finger-pointing along the way, airing many of their beefs in public.

“I’ve been pretty annoyed and embarrassed by the things coming out of the locker room this year,” Angel President Tony Tavares said. ". . . Maybe we have to look at how we’re training guys, and I’m not talking about fielding ground balls or pitching, but whether or not players have the traits that are necessary to win on a consistent basis.”

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Tavares has strong views on how the Angels should be reshaped--a few strategically placed sticks of dynamite in the clubhouse are probably his idea of a good start--and his vision didn’t mesh with that of General Manager Bill Bavasi, who wanted to retain more of the Angels’ core.

That cost Bavasi his job--he resigned Friday under duress, and a search for a replacement/demolition expert has begun.

Whoever is in charge this winter will face the daunting task of retooling a team that had serious deficiencies in both talent and chemistry, a group that didn’t play well together and got along together so poorly that Tavares referred to the clubhouse as “a day-care center.”

The bitterness began in April when players lashed out at center fielder Jim Edmonds for undergoing a shoulder surgery that many believed he should have had last October.

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In June, players staged a mutiny of sorts against manager Terry Collins, going to Bavasi with complaints about Collins when word of an imminent contract extension for the manager became public.

When they began their free-fall out of the division race in July, Darin Erstad called the Angels “soft” and questioned whether winning was the team’s No. 1 priority, Mo Vaughn said the Angels were “lackadaisical,” and Gary DiSarcina ripped his teammates for being “unprofessional.”

Then came the Aug. 31 brawl in Cleveland, which actually drove a deeper wedge between factions in the Angel clubhouse than between the Indians and Angels. After the Angels blew an eight-run, eighth-inning lead, Angel closer Troy Percival hit David Justice with a pitch, Justice charged the mound, and a fight ensued.

But the most devastating blows were delivered after that game, when Percival accused some teammates of not backing him in the brawl, and the next day, when Vaughn, believing he was the target of Percival’s criticism, tore into his teammates with two expletive-laced tirades to reporters.

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Several players were so upset that Vaughn didn’t join the brawl--Vaughn, the designated hitter that night, claimed he was in the clubhouse and couldn’t get to the field in time--that they marched into Collins’ office the next afternoon with a “Who’s it gonna be, us or him?” ultimatum.

Collins pulled Vaughn from the lineup, the rest of the regulars started, and two days later, Collins, sick of spending so much energy dousing clubhouse fires, resigned.

“We’re all embarrassed,” Erstad said. “You either learn from it or not.”

What have the Angels learned from this season? That the so-called core of this team--Tim Salmon, Edmonds, Garret Anderson, Erstad, DiSarcina, Vaughn, Troy Glaus and Chuck Finley--is not good enough to win the division.

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That there are gaping holes in the rotation and several leaks in a once-trusty bullpen that can’t count on Percival the way it once did, and that it’s difficult to generate runs with almost no speed.

That these players are either not mentally tough enough or not mature enough to handle the kind of adversity they faced this season, that bad chemistry can tear a losing clubhouse apart, and that Vaughn is not the cure-all leader they thought he would be.

“The problems with this organization go back way before Bill Bavasi,” Tavares said. “There’s always been a situation here where they felt all they needed to do was pick up a player here and there and they’d win. That hasn’t worked.”

Unlike past winters, when Bavasi listened to offers for outfielders as opposed to shopping them, the Angels will enter this off-season actively seeking deals. Virtually no one, with the possible exception of Glaus and pitcher Ramon Ortiz, will be considered untouchable.

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With the free-agent market looking much thinner than last winter, especially for starting pitchers, trades may be the only way to bolster the Angels.

Topping the Angels’ wish list is starting pitching, a front-line second baseman, preferably one with speed and leadoff capabilities, a designated hitter who can bat for power and average, and a left-handed reliever. Character, a single-minded devotion to winning, and unselfish attitudes will be high on Tavares’ priority list.

One problem the Angels will probably face: With so many of their players coming off injury marred and/or career-worst seasons, their trade values are at an all-time low. How drastic their moves are will depend on how willing their trading partners are to cooperate.

After hiring a general manager and a manager--Phil Garner has been interviewed, and Don Baylor and Chris Chambliss are believed to be the other leading managerial candidates--the Angels’ first priority will be to sign Finley, who becomes a free agent in November, to a two-year contract.

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Although the Angels would love to trade underachieving pitcher Ken Hill, his 2000 contract ($5.6 million) makes that impossible. So they’re resigned to Hill returning, arthritic elbow and all, and hoping the incentive of $6 million in 2001 if he pitches well next season is enough to keep Hill interested.

Tim Belcher, stung by injuries and inconsistency this season, will probably be back, and Ortiz and either Jarrod Washburn or Brian Cooper are expected to fill out the Angels’ tentative rotation for 2000. It’s doubtful knuckleballer Steve Sparks will be offered a contract.

The Angels will exercise 2000 options on Edmonds ($4.65 million) and Anderson ($3.25 million), but there’s no guarantee both will return next season.

And it’s very possible the Angels will trade players they wouldn’t have considered dealing in the past--guys such as Salmon, Erstad, DiSarcina, Percival and Vaughn, if he waives his no-trade clause--especially if one of their top players nets two or more players who could fill more than one hole.

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The Angels want to change the makeup of this team, and to do so they need to change the faces. If they are unable to swing many deals, they can only hope these players return in 2000 with a better attitude and a more unified approach.

“There’s definitely a feeling of wanting to re-prove ourselves,” DiSarcina said. “As disappointing as this year was, we can learn from it. As in any venture in life, when you fail, you can do one of two things, quit or come back stronger. I think we’ll come back stronger.”


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