Twice in the last four years (1979 and 1982), the California Angels have won their division title, then been eliminated in the American League playoffs. The first time this happened, Angels' Owner Gene Autry was merely disappointed by the loss to Baltimore. But when California blew last year's playoffs to Milwaukee, after holding a two-game lead in the best-of-five series, Autry almost ordered his office to be done over in rubber wallpaper.
Even though manager Gene Mauch was not asked to resign, he got the message and quit. In fact, Mauch is so angry with the press for ripping his pitching selections in the playoffs that he still won't talk with members of the media who call.
Autry's reaction to Mauch's departure was to replace him with John McNamara, who had been fired part way through last season by Cincinnati. However, in his three previous years with the Reds, before the front office let several top players get away through trades or free agency, John had one of the best won-lost records in baseball.
In contrast to Mauch, whose temperament almost always seemed strung like a concert violin, McNamara is the kind who takes problems in stride. In baseball parlance John is a pitcher's manager, something the Angels have long needed.
Three pitchers who were not unhappy at the change were Bob Forsch, Bruce Kison, and Andy Hassler, all of whom objected to the way Mauch juggled their assignments. Each is being counted on heavily this year: Forsch and Kison as starters, Hassler as the first left-hander out of the bullpen.
McNamara, who prefers a five-man starting staff once the season shifts into high gear, will also have Geoff Zahn, Tommy John, and Mike Witt as part of his rotation. Zahn was the Angels' stopper last year with 18 victories; John is a crafty veteran who now pitches as much with his head as he does with his arm; while Witt, at age 22, is just beginning to reach his potential.
What has to concern McNamara most is the condition of his bullpen, which has already lost its best reliever, right-hander Don Aase, for the season after surgery.
That leaves Mac with Hassler plus right-hander Luis Sanchez, who often pitched well in spots last season while winning seven games and saving five more.
There is always the chance, of course, that a relief ace could emerge from among Dave Goltz, John Curtis, Doug Corbett, Angel Moreno, or one of the rookies. But any general manager who thinks his club has a chance isn't apt to be satisfied with the present makeup of the bullpen.
The way California GM Buzzie Bavasi plans to solve this problem is to trade with Minnesota for right-hander Ron Davis, the former Yankee who had 22 saves last season. Davis will be available to somebody after winning a $475,000 salary arbitration case from Twins' Owner Calvin Griffith, who prides himself on having the lowest payroll in the American League. The snag at the moment is believed to be Bavasi's reluctance to part with outfielder Bob Clark for Davis. But the trade, according to my Angel sources, will be made.
Otherwise McNamara has a set lineup with Rod Carew at first base; Bobby Grich at second; Doug DeCinces at third; and either Tim Foli or Rick Burleson at shortshop. Burleson, who played in only 11 games last season because of surgery, is still a question as a starter because of his throwing arm.
The outfield has Brian Downing in left; Fred Lynn in center; and Clark in right unless Bobby is traded or beaten out by Ellis Valentine, a free agent with tremendous talent who has worn out his welcome with the Montreal Expos and the New York Mets.
Reggie Jackson, who set a club record last year with 39 home runs, is still a key factor. But with Don Baylor now a member of the New York Yankees, Reggie will probably be reprieved from outfield duty and installed as the full-time designated hitter.
Although veteran Bob Boone caught 143 games in 1982 and is an excellent handler of pitchers, McNamara probably won't try to get that much mileage out of him. Actually the decision may hinge on how well Joe Ferguson does as the backup man.
With so many players in their mid-30s or beyond, the Angels, on paper, are an old ball club. But they should continue to score a lot of runs and also stand up well defensively.
While most baseball people think McNamara's starters are probably good enough to bring California a pennant, everybody questions the quality of the bullpen, which had only 27 saves last year. The only answer may be for Bavasi to give Clark to Minnesota for Davis and never look back.