Anaheim, Calif. — Just before the June 12 baseball strike the talent-rich California Angels (at least on paper) were starting to do some of the things that win pennants -- things that had been predicted for them by the press in spring training.
The pitching was starting to come around, and the team had won nine of its first 14 games under new manager Gene Mauch, who replaced Jim Fregosi when the latter was fired by owner Gene Autry in late May. But more than that, there was this tangible feeling among the players that they had suddenly jelled as a team.
"We had a big surge in our confidence because so many things that were going right for us were of our own making," Mauch explained. "If we can get back quickly to what we were doing as a team before the strike, then I think we have as good a chance as anyone to win our division in the second half of the season?
"We've got the hitting [the Angels led the American League in total bases before the strike with 784]; I feel we have enough pitching the way we are; and with Bobby Grich off the injured list we're sound again defensively. Certainly one of the keys for us will be our second road trip when we play four games in Baltimore, three in Boston, four in Cleveland and four in Kansas City."
Mauch, who previously managed relatively young teams in Philadelphia, Montreal, and Minnesota, now has mostly veteran players on the Angels -- established stars like Grich, Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, Ken Forsch, etc.
"With kids you often change things, either because what they're doing isn't right for them or there is a better way," Gene said. "But with veteran players you go along with what they have already decided is best for them.
"For example, I'm not going to tell Rod Carew how to hit, Grich how to field, or Forsch how to pitch," he continued. "But I might move them around in my lineup or pitching rotation to take advantage of a certain situation.Or I might rest them occasionally if they were having trouble and I thought a day off might help them."
While Mauch says he plays the percentages, it might not look that way from the stands, he explains, because they are his percentages and not necessarily those of the paying customer.
"Often, in a ball game, a manager will be faced with what a fan feels is a routine situation calling for routine strategy," Gene said. "He's sure the only choice a manager has is to hit behind the runner or change pitchers.
"What the fan in the stands forgets is that the manager, with the help of his coaching staff, knows what his players can and can't do. If you've got a player who can't bunt, then you've got to try something else. That's what I mean when I say my percentages, not yours."
Even though Mauch, as California's director of player personnel, saw the Angels continually in spring training and during the regular season while Fregosi had them, he refused to offer an explanation for the team's slow start this year.
One of California's top players, Rod Carew, wouldn't talk much either at first, then said: "I'm not into things like that because I'm a player, not a manager. But sometimes when you're a good ball club and you lose a few in a row and don't come out of it right away you start to press.I think we all knew a lot was expected of us this year and when we tried too hard to win and didn't, we got into a rut that just made things worse.
"I was concerned," Rod admitted."I thought we should be winning. We did have quite a few new players and often when you bring in new people, it takes time for them to adjust to each other. I kept thinking we'd come out of our slump because we had too many good players to stay the way we were. To me we finally became a team just before the strike and we'll win our division if we continue to play that way."
The three starting pitchers who are going to have to give the Angels more in the second half of the season than they did in the first (other than Forsch who has been magnificent) are Geoff Zahn, Dave Frost, and rookie Mike Witt. The bullpen also looks a little suspect after Don Aase and Andy Hassler.
California's other major concern is winning at Anaheim Stadium, where the Angels were an unexplained 14-19 during the first half of the season, as opposed to a 17- 10 record on the road.
If Mauch can solve that problem and the pitching holds, ex-cowboy star Autry may have something other than his horse that he can call Champion!