Joyner is off to his best start, but not because of his status

May 29, 1991|By Dave Cunningham | Dave Cunningham,Knight-Ridder News Service

ANAHEIM, CALIF — ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Want to have some fun with Wally Joyner?

Go up to him and say, "Well, sure you're hitting .370 now. It's your last season before free agency."

Then duck.

"I really get upset," Joyner said, "when people say stuff like that. 'Of course he's doing good this year. It's his salary drive.'

"I mean, it's amazing how many people think you can just turn it on and off. Gary Gaetti was a free agent last year, but that wasn't one of his better years."

It's not that Joyner, the California Angels' most popular player (in terms of fan mail, merchandising and fan support), can't take a joke. Heck, he even tells them.

While waiting to do a radio promotion for KMPC earlier this month, Joyner was asked to say something so they could test the sound level in the booth.

Joyner said that "this tape is not for use after October." That's when he can file for free agency and, if he chooses, leave the Angels.

"It was a joke, but it wasn't reported that way in the newspapers," Joyner said. "Unfortunately, people believe what they read, and I got a lot of negative feedback. It made people think I couldn't wait to get out of here.

"Everybody knows I'm going to be a free agent at the end of the year. I didn't think that was news. The Angels have a right to talk to me about my services, as does everyone else."

The last laugh likely will be Joyner's, especially if he keeps hitting like this.

At 28, Joyner is enjoying perhaps the greatest start of his career, and that's saying a lot. In his rookie season of 1986, Joyner went into the All-Star break with 20 home runs, 72 runs batted in and a .313 average.

Wally World was born.

"Everyone saw it as a great story," Joyner said. "You put it all together -- the California Angels, Hollywood, Wally Joyner, the movie 'Vacation,' Wally World and Disneyland. The movie 'The Natural' had just come out, and I was an unknown, and it all just fell into place.

"It was very flattering to get all that attention, but it was a relief when it finally died down. I wouldn't wish that on anybody."

Joyner remembers those days in dream-like sequences now.

"It was like I was outside my body, watching somebody else do it," Joyner said. "It was fun, especially because the team was winning, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I was just playing."

Today, Joyner is older, wiser and, he firmly believes, better.

"I think I'm far more mature about handling my situation, and I'm enjoying it far more now," he said. "I know what I'm doing."

What he's doing is setting the American League on its ear.

Joyner ran off a career-best 16-game hitting streak and took over the league lead with an average that topped out at .391. He said he'd never been No. 1 before, "not even after my first at-bat of the season," and predicted he'd only be "king for a day."

Two weeks later, he was still king.

During a 20-game stretch, Joyner hit .429 with six home runs, and the glare of the camera returned.

"I'm as interested as anybody," said Joyner, "to see if Wally World comes back."

Angel hitting coach Deron Johnson said he's never seen a more consistent hitter.

"He's had the same swing all his life," Johnson said. "He's a glider -- he glides into the ball and lets his hands to the work. He's got good concentration, he's got the ability to stay behind the ball, and he uses the whole field. He's as steady as they come."

Manager Doug Rader thinks Joyner's glove work gets overlooked because of all those hits.

"He's a tremendous player. Last year when he was hurt [with a fractured kneecap], we missed his defense as much as, or more than, we missed his bat," Rader said. "He's got the complete package."

Joyner believes Rader's decision to move him up in the lineup, from No. 3 to No. 2, had a lot to do with his offensive explosion.

"Luis Polonia has been getting on base a lot," Joyner said, "anhe's always a threat to run, so I've been seeing more fastballs. I think it's helped a lot."

Rader refuses to take credit.

"Wally would hit anywhere you put him in the lineup, from first to TTC ninth," the manager said. "It's just that in the overall scheme of things, he sets up well as our No. 2 hitter."

In some circles, Joyner has been seen as a disappointment since his first two seasons. He hit .290 with 22 homers and 100 RBI as a rookie, then came back in '87 with a .285 average, 34 homers and 117 RBI.

His power numbers never approached those levels again, although his average remained consistently in the .285 range.

"I didn't plan my career very well so far," Joyner joked. "It probably would have been in my best interests if I could have done it backward -- start at one level, then build toward what I did my first two years. But as I said before, you can't control your destiny like that."

So, bottom line, will he be an Angel again in 1992?

"This is the only place I've played. My family's here, and it's the only place they've ever lived. We like it here," Joyner said. "If I do leave, I'm not moving.

"I've had some trying times [in contract negotiations] with the Angels, but I'm not the only player who's had trying times. Who's to say it will be a bed of roses somewhere else?"

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