Clutch hitter Doug DeCinces adds power, solid defense to Angel lineup

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There are probably at least a half dozen players on the roster of the California Angels with more star credits to their name than third baseman Doug DeCinces, who never did quite escape from Brooks Robinson's shadow in Baltimore.

Even if DeCinces were to play in a World Series this fall, chances are the people who direct the television cameras would turn it into the Reggie Jackson show. I'm not saying that Doug isn't colorful; just not colorful enough. He's like a show that opens in New Haven, or a World's Fair that plays Peoria.

DeCinces, who is 32, got traded from Baltimore to California this winter mostly because the Orioles have a hot young infield prospect they want to play in Cal Ripken Jr. and partly because they also wanted Angels' outfielder Dan Ford. It's what any baseball executive would call strictly business.

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Yet DeCinces is still the kind of hitter that pitchers hate to see come up with men on base. Whenever they can in a situation like that, they pitch around him. In the past two seasons, one of which was strike abbreviated, Doug produced 19 game winning hits. And you don't do that just swinging at fastballs; you also have to be able to hit a pitcher's best breaking stuff.

''Even though we like the way DeCinces plays third base, the main reason we got him was to drive in runs,'' explained California Manager Gene Mauch. ''With Doug batting either fifth, sixth or seventh, we're able to maintain power even near the tail end of our batting order. There aren't many pitchers in this league with the ability to get Doug out the same way twice in a row.''

Yet few players have ever had a tougher break-in period in the big leagues than DeCinces, who was asked to replace a legend (Brooks Robinson) by the Orioles. And probably the only people in years to come who can name Robinson's successor will be the same ones that can tell you who succeeded Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Ty Cobb.

''The whole situation in Baltimore was impossible at first because no matter what I did, it always got compared with what Robinson might have done,'' DeCinces said. ''Finally I stopped worrying about it; went back to being myself; and got so I handled the pressure pretty well.''

The result was a DeCinces who matured rapidly, improved his hitting, and had a super year in 1978 when he crashed 28 home runs, many at Baltimore's Municipal Stadium, where the wind that blows in from the outfield is cruel to right-handed hitters. He also drove in 80 runs and hit 37 doubles while just missing a .300 batting average.

The next year, although his regular season average tailed off quite a bit, he came through with a .308 mark and three RBI's in the playoffs, then hit a home run in his first World Series at bat. And he has continued to be a tough out in the clutch ever since, as shown by the fact that he leads the power-packed Angels in RBIs so far this season.

''The thing about a guy hitting .300 is that often that figure doesn't mean very much unless he also drives in a lot of runs,'' DeCinces said. ''Just getting on base isn't nearly enough unless you end up scoring yourself or advancing the runner ahead of you.

''I've known a lot of guys who hit .300 or close to it and didn't help their clubs much at all,'' he continued. ''I've also known other players who only hit .260, yet were so tough in the clutch that they were the difference between their team winning or losing 10 or 12 games a year.''

DeCinces says that when he first started playing regularly with Baltimore, he made a bad tactical mistake by trying to pull every pitch to left field.

''I'd gotten away with this in the minors, so I figured I could get away with it up here, only the pitchers aren't quite the same,'' Doug told me. ''Pitchers I should have been hitting were getting me out by simply keeping the ball away from my strength. It took me a while to catch on, but eventually I realized if I was ever going to be a good hitter, I'd have to adjust.

''The way to do that is to change your stance as often as the pitcher changes his; learn to spray the ball to all fields; and not get disappointed if something you've been successful at for a long time suddenly doesn't work anymore,'' he continued. ''Chances are if you come back to it later, you'll be just as successful. It also helps if you play for a team that can sandwich good hitters around you, because it forces the pitcher to stay in the strike zone.''

While most players already with a winning club don't like to have their emotional roots disturbed by a trade, the move from Baltimore to California for DeCinces was like coming home.

Here is a guy who grew up across the street from one of Hollywood's major studios; had an aunt who played the part of Penny on Sky King; and was used to taking his Christmases in 80 degree temperatures. He also likes the way the ball , for him anyway, jumps out of Anaheim Stadium.

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