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For Now, This Much Is Clear to Percival

It was scarier than the square jaw, more intimidating than the bulging lip, more unpredictable than that crabgrass on his cheeks.

To the weak of heart, it wasn’t just a look, it was a threat.

A hey-ump-I’m-calling-the-cops, this-guy-is-throwing-100-mph-and-cannot-see-home-plate threat.

And now, it is gone.

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Troy Percival will take the mound this season without the squint that made batters squirm, the weapon that worked so well against unsteady rookies and Minnesota Twins having been dismantled by two other words:

Laser surgery.

This winter the Angels’ Percival quietly, finally, fixed eyes that could never tolerate contact lenses or glasses.

“I know hitters weren’t that comfortable with my squinting,” Percival says. “But I finally had to do something about it.”

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He had to rid himself of constant headaches. He had to end the nagging back soreness. He wanted to strengthen himself for extra days, extra innings, extra thumps as the heartbeat of one of baseball’s best bullpens.

And, this being perhaps Percival’s last year here, a man has to see what a man has to see.

Behind this veteran who has become as much a part of the Angels as the halo -- if halos dipped snuff at 8 a.m. and only occasionally shaved -- is a background painted in a bright new coat of urgency.

There are kids in the bullpen who throw harder than he does now.

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There are other veterans who are requiring much of the owner’s money now.

There are questions -- silly as they may be -- about his recovery from a hip injury now.

Beginning his 10th season, the final of his contract, at age 34, Percival understands that his dream of spending his entire career in Anaheim could be ending.

As long as the Angels understand, his fastballs will be doing a lot of tossing and turning before then.

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“I’m good to go for as long as they’ll keep me here,” he says. “I would love nothing better than to get 400 saves as an Angel.”

Management has not talked to Percival about an extension and, ever the clubhouse cornerstone, he is not about to make a creak.

“They have been so good to me here, I’m not going to push the issue,” he says. “They have so much on their plate right now. I totally understand.”

Thankful, but stubborn. Appreciative, but aware.

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His appearance here at spring training, you see, has barked louder than any of those words.

Yo, Frankie Rodriguez and Derrick Turnbow, you wanna close?

Stick your fresh faces back in line behind a guy who lost 16 pounds this winter, who recovered from torn hip cartilage by playing racquetball until he dropped, who has even brought back the high leg kick.

“My body feels as good as it has ever felt,” Percival says. “The other day I threw a ball from center field to home plate for the first time in five years.”

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He tightens his lower lip as if he were on the mound. He stares at you without the squint.

“I don’t want them to keep me here for the wrong reasons; I want them to keep me here because I can do the job,” he says. “I’ve seen lots of guys throw 100 mph and couldn’t get through ninth innings. I can still get it done in the ninth inning.”

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Maybe some have been better, but nobody has been earlier.

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At spring training, Troy Percival is usually dressed and working out before 7 a.m.

During the regular season, he often arrives six hours before the game to lift weights and study film.

Where most closers don’t head to the bullpen until the seventh inning, he is there for the opening pitch.

“Other bullpens out there have better stuff than us, but we get the job done, and a big reason is the influence of Percy,” says Ben Weber. “He’s like, always there.”

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Percival says he understands that few people spend their entire careers with one team anymore, and he’s right.

But if the Angels think it would be easy to replace him with one of those young arms, they are wrong.

He is more than a pitcher, he is a pulse, something the Angel bosses seemingly understand.

“He typifies the toughness we have on this team,” said Bill Stoneman, general manager. “We have a very unusual group, we understand the team concept well, and a lot of that has to do with players like Troy.”

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This is, after all, the Angel unafraid to weep after several postseason games in 2002, and it has nothing to do with his 10 postseason strikeouts and only one walk.

“It was the look in my teammates’ faces that got me,” he says. “To see the joy on Bengie Molina’s face when he was running out to hug me after the last out of the World Series, the sheer happiness after all that work, that is something I’ll never forget.”

This is the Angel who was offered the final ball from that game by Darin Erstad.

This is the Angel who gave it back.

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“The other guys did a heck of a lot more than I did,” he says. “I don’t want the limelight. I just want the last three outs.”

Despite injuries, he has still managed to get those outs at a rate matched by only a handful of active closers.

Last season his sore hip led him to pitch his fewest innings with his worst record (0-5), but he still ranked among the top 10 in saves for the eighth consecutive season.

“He is a special Angel,” says Manager Mike Scioscia. “His presence goes further than just closing a game.”

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Take the start of a game. The reason he comes to the bullpen, even if only to stay for three innings, is to loosen up the guys who messed up the night before and mentor the ones who are preparing for this game.

“He’ll ride you about blowing a game, all in fun, to let you know that you’re not alone,” Weber says. “But then, if you want to know about a certain hitter, he’s right there to tell you.”

And then, after a ninth inning of crouching and scowling and squinting -- oops, no more squinting -- Percival is gone.

This is the Angel who doesn’t do Hollywood, who doesn’t do the beach, who barely even does Anaheim.

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He lives in Riverside, spends his spare time working on cars, and hangs out in a garage with his retired firefighter father, Richard -- yeah, a fireman who is the son of a fireman.

As much as he stands out on the mound, he blends in elsewhere, a jeans-wearing, beard-stubbled, takes-vacations-in-sand-dunes kind of guy.

“Before he went to spring training, he called me and said he needed a favor,” recalls friend Rick Pope, who, not coincidentally, runs an auto detailing company.

What, did he want somebody to drive over with some special gloves, maybe a different resin bag?

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“He needed a bottle of wax for his truck,” Pope says.

Some guys put their ERAs on gold chains.

Pope pleasantly surprised Percival a couple of years ago by putting his 1.92 ERA on floor mats.

Troy Percival has never, in his adult life, been to the beach. He has never gone to Hollywood for pleasure. He has never, ever, ever been to Staples Center for a Laker game.

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“But I’ve seen the Clippers,” he says, and doesn’t that figure.

Forever a regular guy. Forever the centerpiece of one of baseball’s most special clubhouses.

But who knows how long an Angel?

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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