Starless Angels whistle in wind during an unproductive winter

January 12, 1992|By Steve Bisheff | Steve Bisheff,Orange County Register

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In the winter of their discontent, the California Angels squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, knowing that the truth is bearing down on them like a Roger Clemens fastball.

Buck Rodgers, their new manager, talks enthusiastically about better execution on the field. That's nice, but what about the way they've executed away from the field?

These guys have played the off-season as if it were one big bad-bounce grounder.

They've bungled it. They've botched their master plan. They've booted their blueprint.

The Big A should be exchanged for a Big E, as in error.

Even with Whitey Herzog, who is supposed to be the resident savior in the front office, this franchise has given new meaning to the word miscalculation.

Just how have they screwed up? Let us count the ways:

* They allowed Dave Winfield, his 28 homers and 86 RBI, to walk away, thinking they could easily replace him. They haven't.

* They went smugly about their business, assuming they would re-sign their best and most popular every-day player, Wally Joyner. They didn't.

* Herzog winked and smiled confidently whenever the name Bobby Bonilla came up, hinting he could land baseball's most sought-after free agent. He couldn't.

* As Otis Nixon's former manager, Rodgers was sure his influence would help the swift center fielder to sign with the Angels. He re-signed with Atlanta.

* Confident their four-man rotation was among the finest in baseball, the Angels gambled, trading their No. 1 pitching prospect, Kyle Abbott, which seemed OK. Until No. 4 starter Kirk McCaskill bolted to the White Sox.

* When Danny Tartabull, the big power hitter it desperately needed, wasn't gobbled up early, the club felt it had an excellent chance to sign him this past week. It was wrong. Tartabull opted for the Yankees.

So now here are the Angels, who have been many things in the past. But rarely, if ever, have they been this kind of team in the first few days of January.

A team without an identity. A club with no marquee names in the lineup, no established fourth and fifth starting pitchers, no legitimate, big-time hitters, no every-day players the public is eager to see.

Von Hayes and Hubie Brooks? Come on. Give me a break.

Season ticket sales were down fewer than 1,000 at last count, but they are hardly anticipating a late rush to the Anaheim Stadium windows.

In his well-appointed office upstairs, president Richard Brown is kidded about a 6-foot-tall replica of a Louisville Slugger that rests awkwardly in one corner.

"You could use a few more of those," he is told.

"I could sure use someone capable of swinging it," he answers, trying to force a smile.

Brown is the team's well-meaning CEO, the man who hired Herzog and Rodgers. And he seems committed to allowing time for these respected baseball people to weave their accustomed magic.

But coming off a last-place finish, there is no immediate cushion for him, no armor to deflect the slings and arrows emanating from all those angry and frustrated Angels fans.

So this established lawyer, this one-time attorney for the Xerox Corp. and former legal adviser for the Federal Trade Commission, does his best to offer a viable defense.

"Obviously, we're several players away from where we want to be," Brown says. "But to say I'm disappointed, no. That would not be correct.

"This is not the way I want the team to appear when we start the season. But I think people are looking at this the wrong way.

"I think we'll have a team made up of a lot of players who get down and dirty and love to play the game. I think you're going to see a fun team to watch."

Players who "can get down and dirty" is usually a euphemism for players who cannot hit or run.

Great, huh? If they can't lead the league in homers, maybe the Angels can lead it in smudgy uniforms.

After the way they were buried under a wave of post-winter meetings criticism, many thought Brown, Herzog and their bosses, Jackie and Gene -- and yes, that's the proper order now -- Autry, would rush out and spend whatever it took to sign Tartabull, whose offensive numbers actually were better than Bonilla's in 1991.

Wrong, again. Tartabull wanted a five-year contract. The Angels were only willing to go three, with an option year.

"Tartabull didn't bail on us," Brown explains. "We pulled out on him. I pulled out on midnight Saturday, when I was told they would only talk five years."

The result is the Angels' payroll, which was $33 million-plus a year ago, is projected to settle in slightly above $30 million for 1992. And if you don't think that's a factor, then you haven't noticed the dollar signs that always seem to dance in the background whenever Jackie Autry speaks.

Maybe that's why a trade or two might still be imminent. Why players such as Lance Parrish, who earns $3 million-plus, and Dick Schofield, who will go to arbitration seeking $2 million or more, could be shopped between now and opening night against Chicago on April 7.

Meanwhile, the Angels suddenly are talking up Chad Curtis, a prospect they never seemed too thrilled with before, as a potential candidate in center field. And Brown continues to chirp about "chemistry" and "guys who will bust their butts."

It is as if the good counselor is back pacing the floor, rubbing his chin and staring up at a stone-faced jury that will not be easy to convince. He would like to call more witnesses for the defense, but none can be found. So he waits and hedges and stalls.

And fervently hopes it isn't yet time to begin his final summation.

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