Although It Doesn't Matter Now for Angels, Downing Says It Does

September 23, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

So now that the Angels' season is on the brink--one more loss or Minnesota win and they will be eliminated from the American League West--what's left to motivate the great underachievers of Anaheim during their final 10 games of 1987?

Well, no Angel team has ever finished in last place, not even the inaugural Angels of 1961, who placed 9th in a 10-team league. And no team, in either league, has dropped from first place one season to last the next since the 1914-15 Philadelphia Athletics. That was 72 years ago.

These Angels remain 2 1/2 games ahead of last-place Chicago after Tuesday night's 5-3 victory over the White Sox. If pride means anything to this club, staying there is some incentive.

And if not, Brian Downing offers another suggestion, a more tangible, and perhaps, more meaningful objective.

It's called employment in 1988.

"This is decision-making time upstairs," said Downing, who delivered his 26th home run. "If you don't play now, it shows a lot about your character and that's going to make the decisions upstairs easier in the off season.

"That's why you don't roll over and die. When we're this far out (of first place), you can't say who is going to be back next year. There's a damn good chance a lot of people won't be back. I don't assume that I'm going to be back. I can't. You never know what changes they're going to make in the off season."

On Oct. 9, Downing will be a 37-year-old left fielder-designated hitter. Make that a reluctant, sore-armed left fielder . . . and much-happier designated hitter. Downing has a year remaining on his current contract, and he would prefer to spend it as a DH, but with Bill Buckner also on the roster, Downing realizes he could become expendable over the winter.

And, he expects this to be a winter of much activity for the Angels.

"If you're in double figures in games behind in the standings (the Angels trail Minnesota by 10 1/2 games), you can't say, 'Yeah, we've got enough,' " Downing said. "It'd be stupid for me to stand here and say that. Otherwise, what's the problem?

"Before the season, we felt we had enough to win. But we didn't. Now, we have to sit down and figure out why."

Yet, for at least one reason, Downing figures to return for 1988. He is a power hitter, a rare species on the current Angel roster that ranks 10th in the American League in run production and 14th (.249) in batting average.

Prominent atop Angel General Manager Mike Port's off season agenda: Add some punch to the offense.

Said Downing: "This is kind of a sore spot with me, but during the last half-dozen years, this team loaded up on power-hitters. Then, after last season, all we heard was, 'Let's go with youth, let's go with speed, let's go with enthusiasm, da da da . . . '

"So we go in that direction--and now, they're clamoring to go back in the other direction. Now, they say there's no enthusiasm, there's no offense."

Downing shakes his head.

Concluding his 10th year as an Angel, Downing has been a member of all three of the franchise's division champions. Thus, he remains a leading authority on the club's self-destructive habit of following each AL West title with a season of despair.

In 1979, the Angels won their first championship . . . and in 1980, they finished sixth, 32 games out.

In 1982, the Angels won their second championship . . . and in 1983, they finished tied for fifth, 29 games out.

And now, 1987 is following the playoff year of 1986 in similar fashion.

Downing, however, considers the latest encore one of a kind.

"All the other years, right from the get-go, we were bad," he said. "Looking back on '80 and '83, we're talking about losing integral players for one-half to three-quarters of the season.

"In 1980, we lost Dan Ford for four months, Don Baylor for three months, myself for five months. We had nine guys at one time on the disabled list. What can you do?

"As for 1983, I don't recall it too well. I think I broke my wrist (He did) and we were never in it. The White Sox put on a September flurry and blew away everyone.

"This year, we did very well at the start. Then we were decent, then we were treading water. I fully expected us to take over the last five, six weeks of the season.

"This is just plain falling apart. There are no excuses."

This is why Downing recommends pulling together for the final 10 games. It could be the last time the current collection of Angels is seen together.

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