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SCOTT OSTLER

Angel Leader Becomes an Average Joyner

July 25, 1988|SCOTT OSTLER

Where's Wally?

Wally Joyner, remember him? The Joyner who plays sports completely dressed?

He wasn't at first base Sunday at Anaheim Stadium, where the Angels were getting clobbered by the Cleveland Indians, 9-2.

He didn't pop out of the Angels' dugout as a pinch-hitter, sparking a gallant comeback.

For sun-numbed Angel fans, there was no comeback, no win, no Wally, and about as little sheer excitement as you're likely to see--or not see--at a big-league ballpark.

Maybe a Wally in the lineup would have made a difference, maybe not, but matters have come to a strange pass in Anaheim when Wally Joyner can disappear for a day, or a month, and nobody notices.

Remember when Wally was the show?

Two years ago he was the greatest Angel rookie ever, a wonderful hitter and an exciting new presence in a lineup that was badly in need of all that.

Even Angel fans, who sometimes impersonate an outdoor wax museum, got excited about Wally. The right-field bleachers became Wally World, decorated with bed-sheet banners. It was Joyner's personal rooting section. The stadium, the whole Southland, became Wally World.

The kid had what you might call box-office appeal. Nice looking fellow, clean-cut, religious, hard-working, modest yet confident and poised. Best of all, he could hit the baseball--22 homers and 100 runs batted in, with a .290 average.

Last season was even more impressive--34 homers and 117 RBIs, and more bed-sheet banners and bedlam out in Wally World.

This guy was on his way to becoming the greatest Angel of them all. A genuine attraction, the rock you could build a franchise around for the next decade.

This season, somebody stopped the world and Wally got off. It hasn't exactly been what you'd call a collapse, since he's hitting .283 and he has 48 RBIs, tied for second on the ballclub.

But he only has five homers, and in the recent Angel surge, Wally has not been one of the shakers. He has just sort of been there.

The last three Sundays, Wally hasn't even been there. Manager Cookie Rojas has been giving Wally Sundays off, except for the odd pinch-hitting assignment. Joyner spent Sunday afternoon in the Angels' clubhouse, riding a stationary bike and hitting baseballs off a rubber tee into a net.

"It's just a day off," Rojas explained. "I've gotta get George (Hendrick) in there sometimes, give my bench a chance to play, keep 'em sharp."

Why? Hendrick was hitting .217 before going 0 for 4 Sunday. He's right-handed, and Cleveland started a left-handed pitcher, but that wasn't why Wally sat. Joyner is an equal-opportunity hitter, he hits lefties just about as well as he hits righties.

"He's playing almost every game," Rojas said of Joyner. "You gotta give him a little rest here and there, keep him strong."

I'd buy that, except Joyner is 26 years old and doesn't drink or smoke. Probably doesn't even dance much. He should be able to play three or four games a day. Besides, Joyner always has been a great Sunday hitter.

It's a legitimate managerial strategy, getting everyone on the roster involved. But would the New York Yankees have given Mickey Mantle Sundays off? Did the Boston Red Sox give Ted Williams a weekly break so Fred Fungoe could stay sharp?

What's surprising is not that Cookie is giving Wally days off, but that the concept is even thinkable. It is, because Joyner has been downgraded from legend to human, at least temporarily.

Wally wasn't complaining after the game.

"I'm ready and able," he said nonchalantly. "It's not my decision. My job is, if I'm not playing, to be ready to play."

Joyner didn't stick around to discuss his season or his thoughts on the fickle nature of fame, but there are theories on why his star is shining less brightly this season.

One is that he is surrounded by a weaker batting order than in the previous two seasons.

"He doesn't have four or five guys behind him who can hit the ball out of the park," Rojas pointed out."

A slight lapse of concentration is another theory.

"He wasn't too disciplined at the beginning of the year," Rojas said. "He would swing at a lot of bad pitches. He's starting to hit the ball now, drive in some runs. If he keeps hitting, he'll drive in 85, 90 runs. That's a hell of a season."

By Joyner's standards, that would be only a heck of a season, but he would take it.

Another theory is that the cold realities of big-league life have disillusioned Joyner, taken the edge off his youthful enthusiasm.

He did not react graciously when he was beaten out for Rookie of the Year by Jose Canseco. And he has had heated salary battles with Angel General Manager Mike Port the last two off-seasons.

After this season's impasse, Port renewed Joyner's contract for $340,000, at least double his previous salary but at least $60,000 below what Joyner felt entitled to.

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