Downing carries battle against long odds, injuries into 19th season

May 12, 1991|By Gerry Fraley | Gerry Fraley,Dallas Morning News

CLEVELAND -- Brian Downing bumps into a high school or junior college teammate and is asked the same question.

"They'll say, 'How did you ever make it?' " Downing said Wednesday. "They tell me, 'You were terrible. You couldn't play.'"

Those words have followed Downing for more than a generation. That Downing finds himself starting well with the Rangers at age 40 after a career full of injuries and a short spring training is remarkable. That Downing sneaked into professional baseball and exceeded his goal of lasting two weeks helps explain this new force within the Rangers.

Downing received one slender chance and still will run into any wall and play with any injury not to lose it. He is the self-made player who proves hustle can be a talent and fear can motivate.

"If you put Brian Downing's heart in a lion," former teammate Reggie Jackson said, "the lion would be tougher for it."

Hard times and rejection toughened the heart.

Downing did not make the varsity baseball team at Anaheim (Calif.) Magnolia High School until his senior year. He walked on at nearby Cypress Junior College and rode the bench for one season. Downing kept the score book and had three pinch-hit at-bats all season.

"I've stayed hungry because of things that have happened my whole life," Downing said. "It's been like this for me since my childhood. I never had anything to give me much confidence from about 12 years old on.

"I still go back to a lot of things that happened earlier to me. Being put down. Being overlooked. That's still part of it for me, and it always will be."

When Downing was 9, he attended the third game of the 1959 World Series at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It became "the day when it hit me," Downing said. "From that day on, I gave everything I had to making it."

Downing played in every league and in every pickup game he could find. If none could be found, Downing would play his own game at home in the backyard by hitting bottle caps with a plastic bat. Downing played that solitary game through high school.

Painfully shy, Downing would not talk in class in high school. He never attended a school function and walked to high school and junior college because his parents would not sign a consent form for driver's education. Downing did not learn to drive until he was 23, the year he had his first date.

Baseball was his life, but the passion was unrequited. Downing was small -- 5 feet, 8 inches and 160 pounds as a high school senior -- and lacked the talent to impress high school and junior college coaches.

One man saw Downing differently. Bill Lentini worked for the Chicago White Sox as a "bird dog," a part-time scout who haunted amateur games in Orange County searching for the hidden jewel. Lentini liked Downing for his grit and vowed to find him a professional contract.

It happened in 1969. Because the Vietnam War had thinned the talent pool, the White Sox needed players to fill Class A rosters. Lentini told of a player who had hit .333 in junior college -- Downing singled off future major leaguer Al Hrabosky -- and would sign for nothing. The first time the White Sox saw Downing, they thought Lentini had lost his mind.

"Brian was this scrawny guy back then," said Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond, then a White Sox executive. "I asked Bill what he saw in him, and he said, 'This kid is so aggressive. He loves to play.'

"Bill Lentini might have been the only person who believed in Brian. It's like he's been on a crusade his whole career to prove Bill Lentini was right. Brian's deserved everything that's come his way, because he's made it against all sorts of odds."

The background influenced Downing's reckless style of play. He gave himself up in every way, whether it was running into a wall or hitting behind a runner, to stay. Downing's greatest fear was if he stopped moving, someone would end the dream and send him home.

Consider the first play of Downing's major-league career in 1973. With the White Sox leading, 10-2, he went in the game in the eighth inning to play third base. The first pitch was popped foul near the dugout. Downing dived headfirst and hit so hard he injured his right knee. He missed the next six weeks.

"Brian always played so hard," Hemond said. "You don't like to restrain a player, but I was always afraid his career would be a short one because of what he did to his body."

The White Sox made Downing a catcher, and announcer Harry Caray made him a whipping boy for pitch selection. When the White Sox traded for Bobby Bonds after the 1977 season, they offered California its choice of two players to complete the deal, Jim Essian or a sore-elbowed Brian Downing.

The Angels selected Downing "because he reminded me of Gil Hodges," said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers general manager.

The deal launched 12 fulfilling years for Downing with his hometown team. He had returned to prove wrong those who overlooked him as a youth.

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