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The Thought That Counts

Special to The Times

It was midsummer 1998, and I was updating my book on the history of the Angels

I had just spent several hours interviewing Gene Mauch on the patio of his fairway home in Rancho Mirage. We were in the driveway, as I was preparing to leave, and this man who had confronted so many demons in his long and frustrating managerial career asked the last question.

“Tell me,” he said, “am I supposed to feel tormented? Am I supposed to feel that all those years added up to only torment?”

I had my keys out and was halfway in the car as I fumbled for an answer.

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“Gene,” I said, “I think those years added up to much more than torment.”

Reflecting Monday, reacting to the news of Mauch’s death after his long struggle with lung cancer, I’m confident it was the right answer then, and I’m confident it’s the right answer now.

Those 26 years as a big league manager, those 3,938 games and 1,901 wins, all those summers of intently prodding and pushing seriously deficient teams to play better than their talent should have allowed, should count for more than the star-crossed memories.

Intelligent, innovative and cunning, the Little General is high on the list of the most fascinating and thoughtful personalities I’ve covered in almost 45 years on the baseball beat.

If he didn’t win the biggest games, if he was too easily subjected to the ghosts of 1964, when he managed the Philadelphia Phillies, and 1982 and ’86, when he managed the Angels, he is still a man worthy of Hall of Fame consideration rather than consignment to a scrap heap of failed opportunities.

“I’ve been disappointed, but I’ve never disappointed myself and never bored myself,” Mauch told me in that 1998 interview. “I don’t give myself a pep talk in this way, but in any of those years, you’d have to find me some SOB who could have gotten the ’64 team or the ’82 team or ... the ’86 team to the point I did, to a position where he could be disappointed. I knew I didn’t always make the right decision, but I knew I had the best chance of anyone I knew of being right.”

That view was heavily debated in the heat of those moments, as it will be even now.

Did Mauch overburden Chris Short and Jim Bunning by starting them 13 times in the final 20 games of 1962, when the Phillies lost a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 to play?

Should he have left the 1982 postseason rotation in place, rather than bringing back Tommy John and Bruce Kison on three days’ rest in Games 4 and 5 as the Milwaukee Brewers rallied to win three in a row from the Angels after losing the first two games?

Should he have let Mike Witt try to get the final out and finish off the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the 1986 championship series, rather than employ the percentages and bring in Gary Lucas to face Rich Gedman, triggering the developments that ultimately saw Donnie Moore yield that infamous home run to Dave Henderson?

Sparky Anderson once called Mauch the smartest manager ever. Some would argue that he was too smart, too intense, unable to separate the human element from the statistical.

In 1982, as the Angels closed in on a division championship that would be Mauch’s first managerial title, I asked him what he was feeling emotionally.

There was a pause, as there always was when Mauch contemplated an answer that almost never was draped in cliche, and then he said:

“I don’t see your shingle and I refuse to get on a couch for you. You and your colleagues aren’t smart enough to analyze me.”

Self-confident to the point of arrogance, Mauch was probably right about that, as he was right in regard to how far he had taken the pitching-short Angels of ’82 and ’86, if also wrong regarding his moves in the decisive emotional moments of those playoffs.

Of course, it is difficult to boil down any game to one moment, and there was certainly more to Gene Mauch than those moments.

He was a rule-book expert, among the first, if not the first, to employ a five-man infield. He excelled at games that required patience, such as bridge -- I received valuable instruction traveling with him -- and golf, but he was as impulsive as he was calculating.

He raged, seethed, carried losing games in the pit of his stomach, wanted his players to have that same intensity and had trouble understanding when they didn’t.

“He was the best baseball mind I met in 40 years in the game,” his former catcher with the Angels, Bob Boone, said Monday night.

“When I was traded to the Angels from Philadelphia, I had already played for 10 years in the big leagues and thought I knew everything there was to know. My education under Gene was just starting.”

The one certainty is that no one spent more hours on the bench or in his stadium office, no one cared more passionately about a game he’d learned on the Los Angeles sandlots, a gritty and gutty infielder who played in an era of sharpened spikes, hard slides, head-high fastballs and sign stealing.

My late colleague Jim Murray wrote that Mauch was as intense “as a light bulb, as explosive as six sticks of dynamite in a bouncing truck.” He threw fists and tipped over clubhouse buffet tables in his early managerial years, and that intensity was only slightly more restrained in his later years.

“If we win, it will be because we have quality players, but I also don’t argue when I hear someone say I’m the best manager around,” Mauch told me in 1982.

The best manager around? Arguable, perhaps.

More to all those years than torment? Definitely.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mauch’s numbers

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Gene Mauch ranks 11th on the managers list in wins (.483 winning percentage, ranking 83rd) and third in losses:

*--* ALL-TIME WINS

*--*

1. Connie Mack*...3,731

2. John McGraw*...2,763

3. Sparky Anderson*...2,194

4. x-Tony La Russa...2,184

5. Bucky Harris*...2,157

11. GENE MAUCH...1,901

*--* ALL-TIME LOSSES

*--*

1. Connie Mack*...3,948

2. Bucky Harris*...2,218

3. GENE MAUCH...2,037

4. John McGraw*...1,948

5. x-Tony La Russa...1,887

*-Hall of Fame; x-active

*--* AMONG ANGEL MANAGERS

*--*

*--* y-Winning Pct. 1st 533 Wins 3rd 379 Losses 3rd 332

*--*

y-Minimum 100 games


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