California rookie Wally Joyner captivates playoff viewers
Rookie first baseman Wally Joyner of the California Angels has a Sunday school face and a Saturday night swing, but he hasn't been any holiday for opposing American league pitchers this season. Even though Joyner missed a part of the current championship series with Boston because of a leg injury, fans who take their baseball via television couldn't seem to get enough of his shy grin and little-boy personality.
Most of them have mentally adopted him as though he were a stray animal that wandered onto the front porch looking hungry. Wouldn't you know that this kid, who had a home run against Boston early in the playoffs and was batting .455 when he was sidelined, grew up in a folksie place called Stone Mountain.
Joyner may carry explosives in his bat, but his manners off the field are so impeccable that people figure manager Gene Mauch must have gotten him out of a military academy for teen-agers. And at 24 Wally is already a solid family man, with a wife and two little girls at home.
Not many times since Abner Doubleday converted a cow pasture to unnatural uses has baseball had to pause and reflect so quickly on a young hitter whose swing you can pour on French toast. Unlike most rookies who suddenly discover they have some power, the 6 ft. 2 in., 175-pound Joyner has been content simply to hit the ball where it's pitched. And yet when he connects he still frequently gives the ball a ride -- as his 22 regular-season home runs and 100 RBIs attest.
When the Angels released veteran first baseman Rod Carew at the end of 1985, most people assumed that the club had simply decided to hand the job to Wally. Not so, according to general manager Mike Port.
``While I can't recall anyone in our organization who didn't think Joyner was ready defensively, you can never really be sure how a kid will hit his first year in the majors,'' Port explained. ``The one guy in our organization who didn't have any doubts about Wally was Mauch. In fact, Gene told us after he'd worked with Joyner in spring training in 1985 that he'd be ready to play full time in 1986.
``But the rest of us felt that we had to move more carefully, which is why I kept some veterans around who could handle first base if he couldn't,'' Mike continued. ``It's something any general manager would do to protect his club. We weren't doubting Wally's ability, just wondering about the timetable part of it.''
What surprised even Mauch, though, was when Joyner collected 15 home runs in his first two months on the job, twice hitting two in the same game, to take over the major league lead.
``It was unexpected, because here was a line-drive hitter, a kid who reminded us of Keith Hern'andez and Rusty Staub, suddenly hitting homers without changing his swing,'' Port said. ``Actually he's still a line-drive hitter who takes advantage of the pitcher's mistakes, only now that they know him he's not getting as many chances.''
Mauch, of course, remains high on his young prot'eg'e.
``I'll tell you something about Wally, he's got four swings -- A, B, C, and D,'' Gene said. ``His A swing, where he meets the ball just in front of the plate, is a thing of beauty; one of the best in the majors.
``When Joyner gives it his A swing, he's going to get a base hit almost every time. But his B, C, and D swings aren't bad, either. Those are the ones where he kind of reaches out and uses the whole field in which to hit safely.''
Although Wally's numbers were more realistic for a rookie during the second half of the 1986 season, Port puts it down to two things -- a shoulder injury plus the 54 extra games he played in winter ball between the 1985 and '86 seasons.
``While Wally's shoulder wasn't bad enough to keep him on the bench, it did restrict some of the things he could do as a hitter,'' Mike said. ``I also think he reached a point where he had played so many games in the last 24 months that he got tired. The important thing, though, is how he was able to bounce back with just a little rest and still drive in 100 runs.''
Cleveland manager Pat Corrales, who had a fine rookie himself in Cory Snyder, is also high on the young Angels' slugger. ``If you know anything about baseball, you know that Joyner has to be the American League's Rookie of the Year,'' Corrales said. ``While the kid in Oakland [Jos'e Canseco] is good he's all offense, still a one-dimensional player.
``Besides, Wally's hitting carried the Angels early in the season -- really got them going.''
Former Boston third baseman Frank Malzone, who did the preliminary scouting report on the Angels for the Red Sox, couldn't believe Wally had hit all those home runs until he saw him swing the bat.
``Usually you can tell by a guy's body if he has the power to take a pitcher deep,'' Malzone said. ``Well, this kid doesn't appear to have that kind of body, so he's probably getting his power from a combination of quick bat and tremendous wrists. The other thing I've noticed is that if a pitcher starts to work him differently, he'll adjust. What more can I tell you? The good ones like him adjust and the others keep on making the same mistakes.''