Gene Mauch did a real stupid thing in spring training.
Maybe stupid isn't the right word, although it could have turned out to look that way. Maybe risky would be a better word. Or illogical.
Mauch, back in the saddle as the Angel manager, named Reggie Jackson his right fielder.
Reggie is old, 39, no whippet, somewhat fragile (he once pulled a muscle trotting out a home run), and he has made a couple of plays in recent history on which he looked as if he had his fielder's glove on backward.
Reggie is a hitter, not a fielder. C'mon, Gene.
Now we jump ahead four months. The Angels are in first place at the All-Star break, 17 games over .500, in the best shape in the team's 25-year history.
On paper, this team has so many deficiencies it looks as if it was put together by a government contractor. But it leads the West, and there are growing suspicions that Mauch might have something to do with that.
And in trying to figure out just what the heck it is Mauch does, let's examine the Reggie move.
When Mauch gave right field to Reggie last spring, Jackson told Mauch, "I'll tell you something in July."
Saturday night, after a dramatic Angel win, Reggie bumped into Mauch in the clubhouse and delivered the secret message.
"I'm gonna prove you right."
That's what Reggie wanted to tell Mauch in spring training, but didn't because talk is cheap. He had to show Mauch first. And Jackson has shown him.
You might say Reggie's offensive productivity this season, and his adequate-to-spectacular defense, is his way of thanking Mauch for having confidence in ol' No. 44.
Mauch is probably the only manager in baseball who would have put Reggie in the outfield, other than in an emergency. Reggie figures Earl Weaver might have done it, too, but nobody else. It was a crazy move.
"It was pretty damn insightful of Gene, looking into my personality and character like that," Jackson said Sunday morning. "I needed a little shot of confidence. What he was saying was, 'You can still play baseball.'
"It made me feel like a baseball player. It makes a big difference."
Saturday night, Reggie stretched a routine single into a double simply by being alert and hustling.
"In '83 and '84, I wouldn't have made that play," Jackson said. "You're not as loose when you're the DH; you're not into the game as much. I have to say that Mauch's gotten a lot out of me, by playing to my personality, my ego."
Not that Mauch is a back-slapper. If he plays to anyone's personality and ego, it's to win games, not make friends. Mauch has all the friends he needs out on the golf course.
At the ballpark, he can smile and joke, especially when his team is in first place, but nobody forgets for long that this is the guy nicknamed the Little General.
"He keeps people on edge," Jackson said. "I think he's made a difference. They've never had a good work ethic here. They were never mean enough, tough enough. Someone today was saying how the fans here are laid back. Hell, the team was, too.
"You gotta be mean to win. Mauch brings an intensity--he keeps you on the work ethic. Like last night, when I went into second, with two outs. When I got back to the dugout, he didn't say, 'Nice goin'.' He saw the opportunity (to stretch the single), he just expects you to see it, too, and go there. He expects you to play professional baseball, and that's good.
"You have to relax to play this game, but there are certain times you can't relax. You gotta have a certain edge."
A team never has fun losing with Mauch.
"To tell you the truth, when I decided to come back, I didn't remember how much the losses hurt," Mauch said. "You forget that part. Some of the losses have flattened me pretty good. Fortunately, there have been enough wins to help me get over the losses."
But not enough wins to make him relax, drop his guard. You gotta have that edge. Mauch gave Reggie the edge in spring training by giving him his glove back. Mauch had seen Reggie have one fine season with the Angels as a right fielder, and two not-so-fine ones as a DH.
"I was determined to find out if it would serve any kind of stimulant to Reggie to play defense," Mauch said Sunday.
But wasn't it a questionable baseball move?
"You don't generalize on Reggie Jackson," Mauch said. "People who do that are spinning their wheels."
In an effort to prove Mauch right, Jackson takes 50 ground balls and 50 fly balls in pregame drills every day. He went to Gary Pettis and asked the kid to give him lessons in outfield footwork.
Reggie is fielding his position, aggressively and effectively. More importantly, he is hitting.
But what about Mauch? After taking heat for 23 years for not winning a league championship, shouldn't he be accepting a little credit for this nifty half-season?
He's not, and he won't, until the Angels win a World Series. Probably not even then.
"Why should anyone be lauded, applauded, for knowing something about a game that kids play on the street?" Mauch said. "Isn't it just a simple game?"
Don't ask me, Gene. Ask Reggie.