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Jim Murray

The Throw-In Who Really Muscled Up

August 27, 1985|Jim Murray

Slick promoter David Harum would have loved the California Angels. So would have P. T. Barnum, W. C. Fields, Nick the Greek. Any guy with his own deck.

This was not a franchise, it was a philanthropy. The Angels were a hustler's dream. They spent money faster on more dubious merchandise than a sailor just off a whaler with a year's pay.

They were baseball's wax museum. Yesterday's stars. What they got looked good in the team picture but they played the game in slow motion.

The Angels were the baseball equivalent of guys who would buy the Brooklyn Bridge or underwater lots in Florida. They never seemed to get the shell with the pea under it. Every agent in the country kept their number next to his heart. They bought reputations, not performances. As a friend, Chuck Champlin, once wrote, the team rallying cry should have been, "Wait till last year!"

But, on Dec. 5, 1977, the Angels momentarily reversed that trend when they dealt off a superstar and a bonus pick to the Chicago White Sox for a package of nobodies. The idea when they let Bobby Bonds and Thad Bosley and a minor league pitcher named Rich Dotson go to Chicago was to get pitchers Dave Frost and Chris Knapp. The White Sox threw in a sore-armed catcher with a lifetime average of .243 because General Manager Buzzie Bavasi saw something in Brian Downing that reminded him of Gil Hodges.

The fans were irate. Bonds was a guy who used to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same seasons. Bonds was a star. Who in the world was Brian Jay Downing?

Well, Brian Jay Downing may just have been the biggest bargain the California Angels ever got.

Downing was not born to play baseball. He did not roll out of bed one morning with the ability to hit the curveball. But he was born with a strong streak of stubbornness and determination that can often substitute for raw talent. Downing's family motto should be the Latin for "I'll show you!" The coat of arms should be a mule chasing lions.

Nature gave Brian Downing some help, and he took it from there. He was not exactly a 98-pound weakling but nature stopped short of making him Babe Ruth.

You get a pretty good fix on Brian Downing when you know that his first big league hit was an inside-the-park homer. Downing is a guy who keeps going.

His catching career with the Angels didn't last long. Just till he shattered an ankle trying to tag out Rickey Henderson at home plate in 1980. He was not Gabby Hartnett, either, but those who thought the incident would end his career, and that was a lot of people, didn't know him, also a lot of people.

Downing was never a guy to say: "Well, that's it," and he soon was working out on a Nautilus machine so indefatigably that he bulked up almost 20 pounds and looked like a taxicab playing left field.

He installed a pitching machine and batting cage in his backyard, relieving his wife of the chore of teeing up baseballs for him. He consulted a nutritionist.

He needed all that to make himself a major leaguer. Lots of people squander what nature gave them. Downing improved on it.

He was in a long tradition of players who outdid themselves, who outstripped their natural gifts by sheer effort of the will. Lou Gehrig, for example, as clumsy a rookie as ever was, ended up alongside Babe Ruth, no less, as a legend in his time.

Downing never played off the income of his talent. He put the whole poke out there on every pitch. Downing swings at every pitch as if it were a rattlesnake he found in his bed. He plays as hard as anyone in the game--not your dirty-uniform, head-first-slide show-business brand, but the determined, gritted-teeth hard.

Downing could not turn it on and off. He was not a guy who could sleep for two years and get up and hit a ball hard someplace as was, say, Roberto Clemente. Downing had to play himself into top form, had to get all the parts moving right. If April or May could be removed from some of his seasons--he hit .176 in May of '83, .200 in May of last year and .194 this year--Downing would be crowding Rogers Hornsby.

This year, Downing slammed into August hitting .447 with 13 home runs and 44 runs batted in since June 21.

The other night, the Angels found themselves backed into a corner in their division fight. With a bare 1 1/2-game lead, they were down, 6-0, to the Detroit Tigers and seemed to be going gently into that good night when, in the sixth inning, with Rod Carew on base, Downing slammed a fastball into the left-field seats.

Those two runs were important because, in the ninth inning, the Angels unaccountably came back on a series of walks and Tiger errors. The score was suddenly tied, and Downing was at bat with the bases loaded.

Typically, he hit the ball hard. The third baseman had to make a diving stop and, in getting to his feet and seeing Downing flying down the line, he threw wildly and the Angels had won a "lost" game. Very good for morale.

In the locker room later, Downing spoke evenly. "We don't like it when people say we're too old, or too slow, or too jaded," he said. "What we are is too proud to quit."

Across the locker room, his superstar teammate, Reggie Jackson, was dressing. "I'll tell you one thing about Brian Downing," he said. "If you took his heart and put it in a lion, that lion would be tougher. I'm proud to be on the same team with him."

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