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SCOTT OSTLER

This Angel Is Ready for Majors, but Are They Ready for Him?

April 07, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

According to the scouting reports I've assembled on this Wally Joyner fellow, he does not drink, smoke, snort, chew, choke, loaf, bobble, pout, hold out, pop off or strike out.

He doesn't even snarl at reporters, and he keeps his dressing cubicle tidy.

So I ask Angel Manager Gene Mauch what his slugging rookie first baseman needs to work on, besides his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Mauch, who seems to weigh every question for its philosophical ramifications, takes his time.

He's stuck. Sitting in the Angel dugout before Sunday's game, Mauch gazes out toward the green plastic-covered outfield walls. After a moment, a very slight smile plays across his face.

"What he needs is to get acquainted with the people he's competing against," Mauch offers.

"Of course," Mauch adds, after a pause, "it's gonna be equally difficult for them to get acquainted with him."

Mauch loves Joyner. He comes to spring training with a chance to earn the first-base job, if he hits. He hits .387.

"He hit .385 last spring, but that was easy," Mauch says. "He knew he was going out (to the minors) even if he hit .400. This spring he knows if he hits .350, he's gonna play in Anaheim."

The pressure is on. Mauch is watching closely. Let's see how tough this kid really is.

"The minute I saw him in '85, I knew it was there," Mauch says. "He can play. He can play. But I still had to see it. Last spring was easy. This spring, if he can't compete for a job, how the hell can he compete against American League pitching?"

Joyner competes. He hits the hide off the ball.

About halfway through spring training, Mauch tells Joyner he's got the job. Early one morning in Mesa, Ariz., Mauch calls Joyner aside outside the clubhouse and tells him he's doing fine, but not to expect Mauch to be his press agent.

"You got all you can handle without me ballyhooing you," Mauch says to Joyner. "Never mind what I say (to the press), because I'm not gonna say much.

"I've seen junk (glowing praise) heaped on guys and it doesn't do anything but make it tougher. Just go ahead and play."

Encouraged, Joyner plays. His hitting is the talk of spring training. A lefty with power, poise, a great eye. Strikes out four times all spring. Hits a home run Sunday off Dodger lefty Jerry Reuss.

After the game Sunday, I ask Joyner if he's got a weakness.

"Before today, I would've said it was hitting off left-handers," he says. "I don't know if Jerry wasn't on today, or if I was just seeing the ball better."

If he sees the ball any better, he'll X-ray it.

His teammates kid him, tell Wally that none of these spring hits will show up on the back of his bubble-gum card. But they like the kid.

How could they not like someone who comes to work and quietly, confidently, smoothly hits .387 to win a job?

And how could they not like a kid who smiles all the time, takes their good-natured abuse and has the innocent face of an 18-year-old, even though he's a grizzled 23?

The first time the other Angels saw Wally rubbing down his bats this spring, they didn't know if he was in camp to win a big league job or work on his woodcrafting merit badge.

They found out.

"People compare him to (Don) Mattingly," says Angel shortstop Rick Burleson. "He's got a super swing, almost effortless. He looks so comfortable up there at the plate.

"At first base, he's real smooth, quick, and as accurate (throwing) as anyone I've ever played with. He picks (fields) the ball as well as George (Boomer) Scott. He looks real clean."

Still, as Burleson points out, we need a little perspective here. Joyner is still 0 for 0 in the big leagues.

"Now he's gotta go out and do it," Burleson says.

Wally realizes there will be tough days. Last winter he blew through Puerto Rico like a hurricane, winning the league's triple crown and MVP trophy. His ballclub, Mayaguez, threw a Wally Joyner Day at the ballpark, gave out thousands of handsome photos of Wally.

Wally went 0 for 5, struck out three times, made two errors. The fans booed him and showered the field with confetti made from the handsome Wally Joyner photos.

Now he's the first baseman for the Angels.

"It hasn't hit me yet," Joyner says. "Someone asked me this morning if I was nervous. I told him the butterflies haven't hit me yet, but talk to me Tuesday (the Angels' opener, at Seattle), I'm sure they'll be floating around."

He shouldn't be nervous.

All that's expected of Wally Joyner, based on his hitting in two spring trainings, three minor league seasons and one spectacular winter league, is that he will be:

--The greatest Mormon ballplayer since Dale Murphy.

--The finest contact power hitter since George Brett.

--The smoothest first baseman since Wes Parker.

--The best batting eye since Ted Williams.

--The most poised and exciting rookie in the L.A. area since Fernando.

--The guy who will make the Angels forget their last first baseman, Rod What's-his-name.

And now, for goodness sake, they're even comparing Wally Joyner to Boomer Scott.

Even Gene Mauch, determined not to contribute to the wondrous Wally hype, says, "There are countless young players, you say, 'He's got a chance.' Countless. Not many you say, 'He's gonna do it.' "

So don't blame me if the kid doesn't live up to his big-time, superstar billing. I'm just reporting the news of his arrival.

But if he does become a superstar, remember: You read it here first.

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