They used to go to Palm Springs hoping for a March sunburn and a close-up look at some bigger-than-life baseball players with names such as Reggie and Rod.
This spring, they went hoping for the sunburn and a chance to look into the future.
The rookies stole the show in Angels Stadium the last two weeks and Angel fans got a good dose of rookies and rays.
Newcomers Devon White and Mark McLemore were impressive in the field and at the plate. So was almost-a-rookie Jack Howell. And the consensus--from the manager to the coaches to the players--was that even if these kids don't contend for the batting title, the Angels will be much improved defensively.
The only problem is there doesn't seem to be all that much room for improvement. Last year's team set a club record for fewest errors (100) and allowed only 63 unearned runs.
"Most people think of speed as running the bases and stealing bases," Manager Gene Mauch said. "But that's no more important than defensive speed. Defensive speed can turn triples into singles, doubles into outs and ground-ball singles into outs."
Sometimes, it's a two-way street, however.
"They ought to have a statistic for dumb speed," one reporter said after White tried to make a shoestring catch and turned a single into a triple.
Right fielder White is sure to make a lot of appearances in highlight films, and second baseman McLemore will run down some ground balls that used to end up in the outfield. But aren't rookies apt to make rookie mistakes?
Mauch shrugged. "Guys with this kind of speed can outrun most of their mistakes."
Wally Joyner, last year's kid on the spot, proved as handy with a glove as a bat. He's proof that a player can be poised and a rookie too.
"We've been a sound defensive team because Gene is a stickler for fundamentals," Joyner said. "We spend a lot of time working on defense.
"White and McLemore, and to some extent Jack Howell, give us a little more speed. Our fielding percentage might be down, but so will the other teams' batting average because we're going to get to some balls--and maybe sometimes make an error--that no one ever got to before."
Not counting veteran third baseman Doug DeCinces, the Angels will have a total of 4 years and 59 days of major league experience at the other three infield positions. They'll have two new faces in the outfield. Maybe a new catcher.
Mauch remains steadfastly optimistic.
"Yes, the defense last year was adequate," he said, "but with White, McLemore and Howell out there the potential goes beyond adequate.
"I think we'll have a far better defense then we've ever had."
Here's a breakdown of how the Angels stack up defensively:
There's no questioning the defensive skills of Bob Boone. The incredibly durable 39-year-old strapped on the gear for 144 games last year. He didn't just squat there either. He threw out 41 of 80 runners who tried to steal and won another Gold Glove.
Boone would be an asset even if he wasn't a master strategist when it comes to setting up hitters, a "pitch framer" who can get balls called strikes, a molder of young pitchers and a team leader.
There's a good chance that Boone will be back with the Angels this season, but Mauch seems satisfied that Butch Wynegar, an 11-year veteran at only 31, can handle the job.
"You want to know what I'm going to get from Butch Wynegar? I'm going to get everything he's got," Mauch said.
"Butch is a solid major league catcher. He's got a good pair of hands, a soft pair of hands. He's a good thrower and he knows a little more about this game than some people have given him credit for."
If Boone isn't back, backups Jerry Narron and Darrell Miller, who has had some defensive problems this spring, will get more playing time. If Boone does come back, one will probably have to go.
Joyner, the first rookie to start in an All-Star game since fans regained the vote in 1970, got his votes because he had 20 homers and 72 RBIs at the All-Star break. A lot of people never noticed that he's also an above-average fielder.
Joyner is sort of a reverse Steve Garvey at first: Good range and great arm, but his weakness is digging throws out of the dirt.
"I made 15 errors last year and I bet 10 of them were on balls no one expected me to get to," Joyner said.
And he's confident too.
McLemore may come under closer scrutiny than White because of the outstanding defense that Bobby Grich and Rob Wilfong have provided.
"Mark has great range, quick hands and the ability to turn the double play," DeCinces said, "but it's not fair to compare him with Bobby Grich. Bobby was always in the right place at the right time. It was automatic."
Said shortstop Dick Schofield: "I've never seen anyone with better hands than Bobby Grich, but Mark has great range and he's working out fine."
Angel scout Cookie Rojas spent almost every day this past winter with McLemore. They started with the basics and worked on every facet of his game during winter ball in Puerto Rico.