Leader in Angel Clubhouse Is Above Par


Maybe Mo Vaughn will regain his Boston Red Sox leadership persona now that he has returned to his beloved East Coast with the New York Mets. The generally cynical and skeptical New York media have been salivating at the prospect, ignoring Vaughn’s abdication of his anticipated leadership role with the Angels.

Like Vaughn, the Angels have moved on.

Preparing to open the season next Sunday, they are excited about the leadership Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele have provided their younger pitchers and are convinced that Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson and/or Tim Salmon--all of whom have grown up in the uniform--can augment Manager Mike Scioscia’s larger leadership, filling the void Vaughn failed to fill during three injury-marred seasons in Anaheim.

Given the intensity with which he plays, his revitalized outlook after an emotional divorce and the fact that he has slowly but surely shed his North Dakota stoicism, Erstad is seen as the logical leader among the players--even though his future is a bit uncertain.


It will be recalled that the club’s baseball executives traded him to the Chicago White Sox in December but that Disney executives in Burbank nullified the trade because they believed Erstad to be one of the Angels’ few recognizable players. He is unsigned beyond the 2002 season, however, and could be a free agent this fall, leaving the possibility that General Manager Bill Stoneman might try to trade him again before the July deadline if the Angels are not in the race and it appears there is no possibility of negotiating a multiyear contract.

None of that is on his mind, Erstad says.

Nor do his teammates seem concerned that his status could be tenuous.

As Troy Percival put it, “We may miss Mo’s bat, but we won’t miss his leadership. Darin Erstad is our leader.”

No problem.

“Whatever tag people put on you is fine,” Erstad said. “I don’t sit there and say I’m the leader, but I’m not afraid to say anything. If something needs to be said, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut. You can’t force it because you have to be yourself, but you do what you do and hope it’s right.”

Too many Angel seasons have dissolved in lethargy and apathy. Scioscia has the respect of the clubhouse, but Erstad believes there’s need for leadership among the players.

“You have to police each other,” he said. “You need everybody to keep check on everybody else. You need to take care of your own business, but nobody’s perfect. Everybody needs a kick in the butt from time to time. The nice thing about our team is that not just one guy does that. We pick each other up from top to bottom. I mean, with guys like Garret and myself it’s just a natural progression. You keep your mouth shut and go play when you’re younger. The longer you play, the more you see and the more comfortable you are speaking your mind.”

Coming off a fabulous 2000 season--.355 average, 240 hits, 100 runs batted in, 25 homers--Erstad was unable to find any comfort last season, when he batted .258 with 163 hits, nine homers and 63 RBIs.

An arthritic knee marred his mechanics. The dissolution of his marriage to his high school sweetheart shattered his focus, his life. Erstad is a former Nebraska football player who had always been the first to arrive and the last to leave the clubhouse, but now baseball was no longer important to him. He felt he was letting the team down, knew he was, but couldn’t do anything about it.

“The most miserable year of my life,” Erstad said, leaning against a wall in a corridor near the Angels’ spring-training clubhouse. “Nothing close. I was brought up to believe that marriage is a lifetime commitment, so it hurt to learn that isn’t always true, and I didn’t handle it well. I mean, everybody deals with problems and issues, so I’m not making excuses. I simply let baseball slip from my radar. I wasn’t there mentally. I just didn’t handle it well.”

Some people knew, some didn’t. Erstad didn’t talk about it. At some point, with the support of his family, resiliency took hold, along with a new outlook. He went home to Fargo, relaxed with friends, came west to see his Cornhuskers play in the Rose Bowl, and now says he has regained his physical and mental health.

“I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about a season and team,” he said. “I like the change in attitude and personnel. I really think we can be as good as anybody in baseball.”

Those personnel changes included the additions of Appier, Sele and Brad Fullmer. Vaughn is gone, and Erstad said he thought it unfair to cast aspersions on a player who missed so many games because of injuries that he couldn’t fulfill expectations on or off the field.

Vaughn sprained an ankle in his first game with the Angels, diluting his 1999 availability and production. He missed the 2001 season recovering from biceps surgery. Some players wondered why he couldn’t have rehabilitated in Anaheim rather than absentia, why he couldn’t have made an occasional clubhouse visit to offer moral support. Some never forgave him for dallying in the clubhouse while teammates had a field fight with the Cleveland Indians late in 2000.

And there are historians--in and out of the organization--who say he exerted his only real leadership in 1999, when he spearheaded a misguided mutiny against the club’s plan to extend then-Manager Terry Collins’ contract, triggering a tumultuous season that led to the departures of Collins and General Manager Bill Bavasi.

Said a person familiar with that scenario, “It wasn’t only that Mo pulled a knife on Terry, but he went through the backdoor, ignoring Billy to go directly to [then-club president] Tony Tavares. I suppose it’s unfair to have expected more leadership, given the amount of time Mo missed, but he wasn’t the person the Angels thought he would be [after investing $60 million], and his teammates didn’t care for him, no matter what they might say now.”

Well, what Anderson said after Vaughn had gone on Boston radio in the off-season, saying he wanted to leave Anaheim and return to the East Coast, was that Vaughn was out of line for going public, stoking problems for the Angels, and if that was the way he felt, it was best that he depart--good riddance, who needs him?

It was blunt talk from another potential Angel leader, or as Erstad might define it, a little more natural progression--and aggression.


The Big Wheelies

The Arizona spring began tragically with San Diego Padre outfielder Mike Darr, legally intoxicated and not wearing his seat beat, losing his life when he lost control of his SUV, but that doesn’t seem to have made any impact.

A few days later, teammate Phil Nevin required stitches in his elbow after spilling on his motorcycle. Nevin has a contract clause limiting his use of the cycle, but how was Manager Bruce Bochy in position to discipline him, considering that Bochy began last season in a leg cast after a similar spill on his cycle?

Now it has become evident that San Francisco Giant second baseman Jeff Kent didn’t break a wrist by falling off his truck while washing it.

Police reports and witness accounts indicate he broke it after losing control of his motorcycle while doing wheelies on Hayden Road, one of Scottsdale’s busiest streets.

Kent hasn’t confirmed or denied whether he was riding the motorcycle. He acknowledges that contracts are structured to limit players from doing dangerous things that could injure the player and hurt his team but said, “If you’re going to restrict a player from living, then I think that’s unfair too.”

Unfair? Get real.

How unfair is it, considering the Giants are paying Kent $6 million a year, to ask that he report to work healthy and productive?

As General Manager Brian Sabean noted, there’s a difference between simply riding a motorcycle and “popping wheelies,” but whether the Giants exercise their right to fine Kent $33,000 for every regular-season game he misses is doubtful.

Sabean said he is more concerned with ensuring his players not take unnecessary risks, adding, “This is a great lesson. There’s a difference between partaking in whatever your fun is and being careless.”

Wouldn’t a $33,000-per-game fine make it a more emphatic lesson?


Another Who Got Away

The Dodger farm and scouting system has been ridiculed over the last 20 years for bad draft selections and a lack of productivity. However, the list of players traded out of the system who became big league stars or enhanced their careers elsewhere is staggering.

It includes Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Paul Konerko, Dave Stewart, Henry Rodriguez, Rick Sutcliffe, Mariano Duncan, Jose Offerman and John Franco.

The home-grown Henry Blanco, a part-time catcher with the Dodgers in 1997, is another who had to leave before establishing his career.

Blanco left as a free agent with little fanfare in 1998, signed with Colorado, was traded to Milwaukee for the 2001 season and joined the Atlanta Braves in a trade Wednesday. He will replace Eddie Perez as Greg Maddux’s personal catcher and otherwise will back up Javier Lopez.

Blanco’s name is seldom mentioned, but he led the National League in throwing out 30 of 71 potential base stealers last year, and Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz said, “He’s the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. To add him to a guy with Javy Lopez’s production brings strength and protection at that position.”


And Howe?

The Oakland Athletics extended General Manager Billy Beane’s contract through the 2008 season Tuesday but did nothing about Manager Art Howe, who has led the A’s to the playoffs in each of the last two years but is signed only through the 2002 season. There is speculation that Beane refused to let bench coach Ken Macha interview for the Boston Red Sox managerial job to keep him available in case the Beane-Howe relationship, never close, deteriorates further.

Is Howe frustrated?

“Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that,” he said.


Long Season

All you need to know about the Cincinnati Reds is that Joey Hamilton, who was 6-10 with Toronto and Cincinnati last year and went to camp as a nonroster pitcher with a minor league contract, will be their opening-day pitcher.

“I’ve gone from no shot to longshot to big shot,” said Hamilton, who will make $500,000 as the ace of a bargain-basement rotation that will include 17-game loser Jimmy Haynes ($500,000), Chris Reitsma ($240,000), Jose Acevedo ($225,000) and Elmer Dessens ($1.825 million).

Virtually every other club has at least one starter making more than the $3.39 million the Reds are paying their entire rotation.