MESA, Ariz. — The dawning of new era in the baseball career of Johnny Ray took place Wednesday, just before noon, when an Angel clubhouse attendant approached Ray and presented him with a gift of leather.
"What's this?" Ray asked.
"An outfielder's glove," he was told.
Yes, the great--and for Ray, grating--experiment of the spring has begun. In order to make room for the promise of Mark McLemore, the Angels are asking Ray, a six-year veteran, to vacate the familiar neighborhood of second base and relocate in a potentially hostile territory known as left field.
Wednesday, Ray made it clear to reporters that if he is to move to left field in 1988, he will do so reluctantly.
--"They want me to play somewhere I haven't played, ever, in my career. I can't think positively about that position."
--"I'm an infielder. That's what I am. I don't think of myself as being over the hill, of needing to prolong my career by moving to another position."
--"I do have the ability to play second base. I just hate the situation that we're in right now."
These sentiments, of course, were first espoused during Ray's winter of discontent by his agent, Tom Selakovich. Selakovich made headlines by balking at the proposed position switch and demanding Ray be compensated, via a contract extension, for the inconvenience.
Angel Manager Gene Mauch, however, wanted to hear it from Ray in person, which is why the two held a short meeting before the opening session of full-squad workouts.
Mauch called the sit-down "a general discussion" and claimed all went well. "He sounded perfectly willing to go out there," Mauch said. "He seemed to have no reservations about his ability to do it. He kept saying, over and over, 'I want to win.' "
Is that right, Johnny?
At first, Ray tried to steer clear of the matter. "Right now," he said shortly after the meeting, "I'm not going to cause any friction and go from there. That's all that needs to be said right now."
But, by the end of practice, Ray decided more needed to be said.
"We've ironed out a tentative agreement, and I'm satisfied with that for the time being," he said.
Ray also said: "They're asking me to make an adjustment and that's always going to be difficult--if it happens."
Tentative? For the time being? If it happens?
Ray said he remains insistent on the contract extension. "Basically, from what I heard, (the Angels) have got an idea of how I feel and how my representative feels about it," he said. "I have to think about myself and my family.
"If I'm here and they want me to play the outfield, hopefully all this can be ironed out."
Ray sounded like a man hankering for a trade, which raises a curious point: Ray has a trade-demand clause in his contract, which can be exercised during a limited period during the off-season, yet he and Selakovich chose not to invoke it last winter.
"At the time, we felt like this was a good situation for me, that I'd be playing the infield," Ray said. "Then, we find out management has other plans."
Selakovich contends that Ray, who turns 31 next week, will have diminished value on the free-agent market next winter as an outfielder, noting that singles-hitting left fielders with limited speed are not in great demand.
Mauch argues otherwise.
"I think playing outfield is to his advantage," Mauch said. "Do you have any idea how much it meant for Brian Downing to move (from catcher) to the outfield? Only about $4-5 million, that's all. . . . This is going to prolong the career of a truly outstanding major league hitter."
It's also a way to get McLemore, a superior fielder with greater range than Ray, back at second base. "Mark McLemore," Mauch says, "has the ability to make plays nobody else in baseball can make except Mark McLemore."