They Said He’s No Angel, but James Has Last Word
Mike James has yet to find a way to do any surfing on the Mississippi, which is about the only drawback to pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.
James, the former Angel reliever and a key contributor to the division series sweep of the Atlanta Braves as a member of the rebuilt Cardinal bullpen, will have plenty of time to pursue his surfing passion while spending the off-season at his home in Newport Beach.
In the meantime, he is continuing to enhance his comeback from the elbow and shoulder surgeries that ultimately prompted the Angels to release their workhorse setup man during a 1999 rehabilitation at triple A.
The way James figures it, either they didn’t think he was going to be able to pitch effectively again or they didn’t think he fit Disney’s family image.
As best friend Jim Edmonds, his former Angel and now Cardinal teammate, put it: “The Angels don’t like anyone being an individual.”
There is simply more to James than fastball and slider. There are the tattoos, the body piercings, the long hair--now naturally brown but at times other hues.
“I’ve always believed in being myself,” he said. “It’s not so much being a character as having character. I think some of the people with the Angels were more concerned with that than what kind of job I did. If anyone had a complaint about my work, I don’t know why. But everything I’m doing with the Cardinals tastes that much sweeter and better because of what happened with the Angels. I hope they’re watching now.”
After never advancing past triple A during six seasons with the Dodgers, his first organization, James was traded to Anaheim for Reggie Williams in the winter of 1993 and ultimately emerged as Troy Percival’s setup man in 1996, making 69 appearances that year and 58 the next.
The elbow blew early in 1998, and James was still going through a difficult rehabilitation when he suffered front and back shoulder tears that a surgeon had to repair with tacks.
That was February 1999 and James, 32 at the time, wasn’t sure he wanted to start on a new rehab. Percival and others talked him into it.
“I seriously contemplated not going through it again,” James said. “I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the encouragement from Percy and others. There were plenty of times in the last two years I never thought I’d throw again. The road hasn’t been easy by any means.”
James was in his final day of a triple-A rehabilitation at Edmonton in the summer of ’99 when the Angels called and released him.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I understand it’s a business but I think that was personal and pretty cold.
“I always took the ball when I was healthy, and I never missed a day of rehab. I was ready to pitch again. I thought I’d be back on the roster the next day. Then they tell me over the phone I’m through.”
The release, James said, was followed by another shocker. There was virtually no interest.
“I have to think somebody from the Angels put a bad word out on me,” he said. “It’s one of the things I’m most bitter about. My agent had to organize an open workout at Cal State Fullerton with the idea of letting clubs see for themselves rather than listen to what some phony said about me.”
Ultimately, the Cardinals brought James to St. Louis to throw for Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. He was signed in October, won a job in the spring and appeared in 51 games this year (only closer Dave Veres appeared in more) with a 2-2 record, two saves and a 3.16 earned-run average.
In the playoffs, he restored sanity in the third inning of Game 1 when Rick Ankiel walked four and made five wild pitches, and he helped pick up for injured starter Garrett Stephenson in Game 3. He pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings against the Braves, allowing only one hit.
Said Duncan: “There was still a question about his health when we signed him, but we were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. In the second half of the season, as he’s gotten stronger, he’s been better than good. In fact, we’ve been guilty of borderline overuse, but he’s never refused to take the ball.”
After the uncertainty of the last two years, James said, it was a little unbelievable to be showering in champagne in the Cardinal clubhouse Saturday, washing away some of the anger at the Angels, the frustration of his injuries and his former club’s response to them.
He is healthy again--and being himself.
“Mike is a lot different in appearance, but he’s conscientious, considerate and coachable,” Duncan said. “Our only concern is with those piercings and the possibility he may spring a leak when he takes a drink.”