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The World According to Wally

Jim Murray

August 22, 1986|Jim Murray | DETROIT

One of the wrenches of covering a baseball team like the Angels is seeing what time has done to a once glittering star.

You take the infielder on the club, No. 21.

It's hard to believe that at one time he was one of the most celebrated players ever to break into the game. His picture on bubble-gum cards was the most sought-after in the game. Every place he went, he was surrounded by hordes of guys toting cameras or pointing microphones under his chin.

You could hardly turn on the TV without seeing him. You couldn't pick up a magazine on the newsstand that didn't have his picture on it. He couldn't go to a restaurant without an adoring public lining up for autographs. Hollywood was dickering for the rights to his life story. It was a great part for Robert Redford.

It was seriously suggested that he skip the preliminaries and report directly to Cooperstown. It took five men on the Yankees to make up Murderers' Row. He was a one-man Murderers' Row.

Like all great players he got garlanded with nicknames. The fans hung banners, broke out bumper stickers. He was the wonder player, all-world.

Well, look at it this way: in his first 49 games, he hit 17 home runs, drove in 42 runs and was batting variously .324 to .326. That wasn't a season for some players, that was a career. There was some fear that he might make a travesty out of the game. It came too easy.

The signs hung down from the upper deck: "Wally World," "Wally Wonder," "Wally Wonderful." It was not a question of whether he was going to be Rookie of the Year but whether he would be player of the century.

And, then, he came into Detroit's Tiger Stadium the other night and a fan in the front row pointed and frowned, asking, "Who's that playing first base for the Angels?"

Who it was was Mr. Wonderful. The ex-Mr. Wonderful?

Had Wallace Keith Joyner turned into a pumpkin? Just another first baseman? Would he be platooned next?

Hardly. In the game that followed, Wally World came to bat in the ninth inning of a game in which the Angels had launched a ferocious nine-pop fly, three-strikeout, seven-ground ball attack on the Detroit pitcher. Time and again they had backed him into a corner by drawing a two-out walk.

What they had neglected to do was make a fair hit. Detroit pitcher Walt Terrell was pitching the 20th complete game of his career, and it was a no-hitter with two out in the ninth inning.

Facing him was the 24-year-old ex-wonder boy with the face right out of the school Christmas pageant, all-world Wally.

Now, baseball prides itself on its in-depth integrity. No one grooves fastballs for aging superstars, and no one strikes out deliberately for pitchers working on no-hitters with one out to get. Every true baseball fan feels a surge of pride when a batter, however reluctantly, protects the hard-won image of the game and breaks up history with a last-ditch hit.

That's what Wally Wonderful did for the second time this season. Pitcher Terrell went into his motion and decided to start the young man off with a slider inside. He had a 3-0 lead, so the game wasn't in jeopardy. Just his no-hitter was.

You don't slip-slop sliders past young Master Joyner. With that swing so smooth you could pour it on pancakes, he drilled a vicious line drive to right field. It was not only a hit, it was a two-base hit.

Wally Joyner was not only back in the headlines, he was back on the 11 o'clock news and maybe the Sporting News and magazine covers.

But had he ever really been away?

The stats don't show that he had. The young man who had 17 home runs in 49 games has 22 in 117, but Joyner told the press in April: "I'm not a home-run hitter, I'm a hitter."

His average as of the close of business Thursday night was a wholesome .305. His RBIs had more than doubled since that early spring start from 42 to 87. There were 13 game-winners in there--and two no-hitters broken up.

The media attention had slackened, the autograph hounds tended to sneak a look to see whose signature it was they had gotten, he was able to eat his lunch in peace, but Wally Joyner is still a highly viable candidate for Rookie of the Year. His main competition is Jose Canseco of Oakland. Canseco has 4 more home runs and 7 more runs batted in, but he also has almost 100 more strikeouts and his average is 60 points lower.

"I don't think about it (Rookie of the Year) too much," the arch-Angel said Wednesday as he stood along a box-seat railing in Tiger Stadium. "I do know this--there's two or three guys this year who would be walkaway rookies of the year in any other year, but somebody's going to lose out this one."

Actually, the most remarkable thing about Wally World is the way he has handled the media pressure of his miracle start. History tells us that veteran players have caved in under this attention. The late Roger Maris began to find his hair falling out from the constant barrage of attention he got from the pen-and-pencil and electronic knights of the press box.

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