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Mike Downey

Be Thankful They Didn't Shake on It

December 23, 1987|Mike Downey

For a fast moment or two there, it looked as though two of this vicinity's three--arguably--most talented baseball players were going to go bye-bye on us, Pedro Guerrero leaving Los Angeles via trade, and Mike Witt abandoning Anaheim by his own choice.

These two guys, along with Fernando Valenzuela, represent the very best in local baseball, and losing either one of them could lead to a lot more losing, come summer.

The big Guerrero deal, the one packing him off to the Detroit Tigers for Kirk Gibson, has been put aside for the time being, although we undoubtedly have not heard the last of it.

We can relax, though, about the Witt walkoff. Michael is still the arch-Angel. He has decided to stick around.

There were offers, fat ones, from the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees for California's most desired free agent. But Witt, who admitted Tuesday that he had been very tempted, weighed the pros and cons and finally agreed on a new two-year contract with the Angels, saying he hopes to play for them for all of his baseball life.

"I was very impressed with them," Witt said of the A's and Yankees. "I did get some offers, some very substantial offers. But things just fell in the Angels' favor."

Among those things was the old baseball attraction of being safe at home. Witt was raised in Fullerton. He went to Servite High. He met his wife, Lisa, at Anaheim Stadium, where she was working in group sales. This was not just some team that had drafted him.

Purely from a business standpoint, though, it was necessary for the pitcher and his agent to poke around. The market for a starting pitcher as distinguished as Witt is a hungry one. And, he had the Angels over a barrel because, after losing Kirk McCaskill to an arm problem and losing John Candelaria to a drinking problem, the club counted on Witt even more than usual.

Candelaria is gone, but Witt is back, and McCaskill is expected back, and General Manager Mike Port has picked up Dan Petry and Joe Johnson, and he is still out shopping for pitchers. The Angels could use at least one more, and probably two.

But, Witt liked what he saw in terms of the lineup Port and Gene Mauch will put on the field. A batting order with Chili Davis and Johnny Ray figures to have more punch than the one that opened the 1987 season. If Ray can play left field, Mark McLemore can go back to second base, giving the Angels as good a double-play combination, with Dick Schofield, as anybody's.

Witt was hoping for the best.

"I'm just hoping now to take the Angels into October and to bring back the excitement, to make it as excited around here as it was in 1986," he said.

Winning a pennant, appearing in a World Series, is something the Angels have never done, which is another reason Witt felt compelled to look around. The clubs that piqued his interest, the A's and Yankees, know what it is like to wear diamond rings on their fingers.

It was not lost on Witt that Oakland had gone out and gotten itself outfielder Dave Parker and pitchers Bob Welch and Matt Young for next season's pennant push. The addition of Witt to that roster would have made the A's the favorites in the American League West for sure.

And, although New York has its headaches, any team that has Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield in its lineup can be a pitcher's dream. With Witt, in fact, the Yankees, who already have hung onto Dave Righetti and acquired Richard Dotson from the White Sox, could finally be in position to give their goofball owner and itinerant manager what they crave: Another pennant.

The Angels, though, should not be in too bad a shape. Everything hinges on the arms of McCaskill, Petry and Donnie Moore. If they can go and throw, full speed ahead, from April to October without wincing, the Angels are going to win a lot of ballgames. But if Mauch is turning the ball over to Urbano Lugo by the end of March, look out.

So far, the Angels have done just about everything they set out to do this winter, for which Port deserves some credit. He traded Gary Pettis, who, after a 1-homer, 17-RBI season, desperately needed a change of scenery, and in effect replaced him with Chili Davis, who should get at least 17 RBIs a month.

If Port and Mauch can pull one more year out of Bob Boone behind the plate, and if they can convince Johnny Ray that moving to left field is not the end of the world as we know it, the Angels should be in pretty decent shape.

Signing Witt was the priority, without breaking the bank.

"I understand it was just the business side of baseball," Witt said about waiting for the Angels to come up with an offer to his satisfaction. "I'm sure they understand that, too. I feel some loyalty to the Angels, having spent my whole career here. I've always wanted to play for one team my whole life, and maybe now I can do that."

Guerrero and Valenzuela have probably had the exact same wish.

If Guerrero should leave us, it will shake up local baseball fans. There will be a rumbling in Los Angeles like you won't believe.

And if Valenzuela ever leaves, those KNBC news guys will be ducking under their desks again, screaming: "This is the Big One!"

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