He Can’t Forgive Angels, but He Can’t Forget Them, Either
Brian Downing swallowed hard and dug the words up from somewhere deep inside. The greatest day of his baseball career did not involve hitting a game-winning home run or a gasping, lunging catch in left field. It was not when the Angels clinched their first playoff spot or when they won the AL West.
It was, Downing said, on the day in 1978 when he first went to spring training as a California Angel. It was the culmination of a life’s dream, of what he wanted as a boy growing up seven miles from Anaheim Stadium, as the hard-working star at Magnolia High.
A trade from the Chicago White Sox saved his career, Downing says now, and on that first day of spring training in 1978, he felt proud and eager, tongue-tied and excited, blessedly lucky and furiously ready to be an Angel.
“I felt very, very happy that day,” Downing said Monday. For the first time since he retired in 1992, the day he came back to Anaheim as a Texas Ranger, sad and tired and so stubbornly proud that he led off the game with a single, received a standing ovation from both teams and the crowd, waved and walked away forever, Downing returned, on Opening Day 2000, to Anaheim’s baseball field.
The Internet does many amazing things. But maybe nothing more amazing than bringing Downing back to the team he loved and then hated. The Angels conducted an Internet poll, asking fans to vote on an all-time Angel team to commemorate the start of the 40th year of Angel baseball.
This team, most of it, gathered at Edison Field to celebrate itself on a day when the defending World Series champion New York Yankees came to town. The Yankees have these kinds of historical minglings every weekend it seems, but for the Angels this was special.
Along with manager and shortstop Jim Fregosi, catcher Bob Boone, first baseman Rod Carew, second baseman Bobby Grich, third baseman Doug DeCinces, outfielders Jim Edmonds and Reggie Jackson, designated hitter Don Baylor, right-handed starters Nolan Ryan and Mike Witt, left-handed starters Frank Tanana and Chuck Finley and reliever Troy Percival, Downing was named to the team.
After refusing every attempt the Angels have made to honor him since he was released at the end of the 1990 season, Downing agreed to come to Edison Field.
Downing and his wife, Cheryl, drove in their motor home from Celina, Texas, to Anaheim. This was a 26-hour trip. It meant leaving the peace of Celina, where Brian and Cheryl raise chickens, geese, ducks and pigs and where Brian has tried to rid himself of the torment he still feels about the Angels. This was not a journey made on a lark.
When Downing was released in 1990, Angel General Manager Mike Port made a business decision. This decision did not take into account all the grass burns and lumps and bumps Downing got from diving for everything. It did not take into account how Downing had been taken into the hearts of Angel fans who appreciated Downing’s lack of ego and the massive amount of desire that made Downing a better player than his athletic ability might have allowed.
Because Downing felt he had not been told the truth--he was not allowed to start the final home game of the season, on Fan Appreciation Day, and he says he had asked not to be released until December and was released on Oct. 25--Downing felt betrayed. He is still bitter, Cheryl says.
Cheryl says she tells Brian, who soon will turn 50, how lucky he was to play major league baseball for his hometown team, no matter how things ended. His oldest son, Brad, is in the Angels’ minor league system. His middle son, Brandon, plays the game too.
That he was able to end his career with a hit off Bert Blyleven in Anaheim, that both teams lined up on the top step of their dugouts to applaud and honor Downing, that Anaheim fans stood and cheered . . . “Brian was lucky to have that moment,” Cheryl says.
The Angels have made efforts to bring Downing home, to honor him, to add him to their Hall of Fame, and Downing would have no part of it. Brian has been happy in Celina, a town of 1,700 where, Downing says, “It’s all about football and nobody knows who I am. I like it like that.” Downing also said, “I moved away just to get away. But I’ve always missed playing. I still do.”
Wearing a checked shirt and gray slacks, with his hair still longer than most men prefer, Downing seemed uncomfortable as he sat between Grich and Witt. Cheryl says she made sure no one told Brian there would be a press conference.
Downing rubbed his hands, wiped at his eyes, looked down at the table as the men answered questions about being an Angel. Downing said he wanted to “see how the night goes.” He said that in Celina, “It’s like in that movie ‘Varsity Blues.’ Nothing but football. I’m nothing there and it’s great.”
Only because the fans voted for him, Downing said, did he return finally. “The only reason,” he said. “Their opinion is the only one that counts.”
Highlights of Downing, of Downing diving and sliding across the grass, his long hair blowing under his cap, were shown on the big screen. Downing licked his lips twice and gave a small wave as he was introduced to the fans who answered with a loud ovation.
And all Downing would say was: “I was pushed out two years too soon.”
Cheryl says it is still too difficult for Brian to talk about the way his Angel career ended. “All he wanted,” Cheryl said just when Tim Salmon gave the Angels a 1-0 lead with a second-inning home run, “was that the Angels give him some warning and a chance to play a last game with the Angels. He loved playing for the Angels so much and he was hurt so badly. He needs to be able to forgive before he can get past this.”
Cheryl wasn’t sure how the evening went. On the 26-hour trip west Cheryl said Brian never mentioned the Angels. She’s eager to see how the 26-hour trip back to Texas turns out. Maybe, just maybe, the applause and the mingling with old teammates, the feel of a baseball in his hand and the happy optimism of opening day will help Downing to forgive and will help him accept how much he is loved by Angel fans everywhere. Still.
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.