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FOUR KEY GAMES IN ANGEL DRIVE TO AL WEST TITLE : Winning a Fearsome Foursome Helped Angels Fly High

September 27, 1986|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

One game does not a baseball season make, but a few of them say all one needs to know about the 1986 Angels, American League West champions for the third time in their history.

April 26, at Minnesota: Winds howl, rains crash, the Metrodome roof billows and tears, leaks sprout, 1,000-pound speakers dangle by thin cables--and the Twins lead after eight innings, 6-1. Angel Armageddon. But in the top of the ninth, George Hendrick hits a two-run homer. So does pinch-hitter Ruppert Jones. So does rookie Wally Joyner.

Angels win, 7-6.

May 26, at New York: The Angels have been mugged in the Bronx three straight days and take a five-game losing streak into Sunday afternoon. Mike Witt gives up three runs in the first inning and is down, 7-6, after eight. The Yankees send in Dave Righetti, baseball's premier left-handed relief pitcher. The Angels send up Joyner, their left-handed kid first baseman. Joyner hits an 0-and-1 pitch by Righetti into the right-field seats with a man on base.

Angels win, 8-7.

June 16, Texas at Anaheim: Charlie Hough's fickle knuckleball has the Angels swinging from their heels and falling on their faces. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Hough still has a no-hitter.

Then, Jack Howell hits a fly ball that left fielder George Wright misplays into a three-base error. Joyner singles home Howell and moves to second base when a knuckler gets by catcher Orlando Mercado. Then, another knuckler and another passed ball. Hough forgets to cover home, and Joyner scores from second without a throw.

Angels win, 2-1.

Aug. 29, Detroit at Anaheim: The Angels come up for their final turn at bat behind, 12-5. They load the bases, and Howell doubles home two runs. Singles by Bobby Grich and Hendrick make it 12-9. Down to their final out, the Angels load the bases again.

Willie Hernandez, the Tigers' Cy Young Award winner of 1984, is on the mound. Dick Schofield, the Angels' light-hitting shortstop, is at the plate. For one split-second, however, credentials are forgotten. Hernandez hangs one, and Schofield hits a grand slam.

Angels win 13-12.

Those four games did more than highlight a season. They represented a trend that defined a season. Something strange, something totally beyond reason, was going on here.

Consider California Angel history. This was a team that couldn't buy an ounce of good luck--although it often tried.

This was a team that spent millions on free agents in the winter, only to watch them suddenly turn 40 by summer.

This was a team that lost such young stars as Lyman Bostock, Minnie Rojas and Bobby Valentine to tragedy or injury in their athletic primes.

This was a team that blew a 2-0 series lead in the 1982 playoffs and a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League West in 1985.

For 25 years, the Angels seemed to be playing out a schedule stuck on Friday the 13th. The Big-A Hex, it was called.

But breaks, they say, even out in the end. Even for the Angels, who finally got some in 1986.

It was a weird year, but this franchise needed a dose of weirdness to squeeze 90 victories out of a season that began with little promise.

An old team had become a year older. Reggie Jackson was hitting 40 and Don Sutton was a year past it. At 35 and beyond were Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich, Brian Downing, Bob Boone, Rick Burleson and George Hendrick.

The team's top two hitters of the previous year, Rod Carew and Juan Beniquez, received handshakes and were shown the door.

The club's supposed strength, the pitching staff, began April with John Candelaria and Gary Lucas on the disabled list, Donnie Moore headed there, Stewart Cliburn in Edmonton and no fifth starter in sight.

The Angels were headed south. Some preseason polls had them finishing last. In the same division as the reigning Kansas City Royals and the rising Oakland A's, most figured the Angels somewhere around third or fourth.

Then, the unexpected happened.

Namely:

--Wally's World: A rookie who looked like Wally Cleaver, or at least the clubhouse boy, turned out to be Roy Hobbs in kids' clothing for six implausible weeks. Wally Joyner had not hit more than 12 home runs in any previous season in the minors, but in this season, his first in the majors, he had 16 by late May.

He hit home runs in the rain, home runs with the roof caving in, home runs in the ninth inning, home runs across America. He broke up no-hitters by Charlie Hough and Walt Terrell. He broke the Angel rookie record for most RBIs before the All-Star break.

In three months, Joyner went from the kid who replaced Carew to cult hero. Wally World T-shirts became baseball chic. There were appearances on the "Today Show" and "Dance Fever." More significantly, there was an appearance in the All-Star game, Joyner becoming the first rookie ever to be voted into the starting lineup by the fans.

Injuries and expectations eventually wore him down, and Joyner faded in the second half. But for four months, his were the shoulders that carried a pennant contender.

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