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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : Downing Reigns as Angels' Self-Made Survivor : Longevity: After 12 up-and-down seasons in Anaheim, he keeps playing and hoping for a chance to lessen the pain with a championship.

April 09, 1990|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While many of his teammates were sleep-walking through the first intrasquad game of the spring, Brian Downing was sliding into second and ripping a hole in his pants.

Like Tina Turner, Downing never, ever , does anything nice and easy. He has barreled headlong through 17 seasons in the major leagues, surviving with a combination of savvy and brawn, often staggering but refusing to fall.

And Downing is the embodiment of the Angel experience, a player who in many ways mirrors the franchise for which he has labored the past 12 seasons. He's a bare-knuckles brawler in a finesse game and, like the Angels, has achieved his greatest successes through brute offensive force.

At 39, he's the oldest player in the majors who has yet to make it to the World Series; there are scars on his psyche from the near misses of 1979, '82 and '86, which left the deepest wound. ("If I played 10 more years and we won it all every year, it still wouldn't wash away that pain," Downing says).

Indeed, he's often intense to the point of brooding. His glare--and on one occasion his bat--have chased away many a sportswriter. Even to some of his teammates, Downing remains an enigma.

"Brian, well, he's just Brian," said one Angel, shrugging, "but if I ever have a meaningful conversation with him, I'll let you know."

Still, you don't have to understand Downing to respect him.

"Certainly, there are people with more natural ability, but Brian Downing just will not let himself fail," General Manager Mike Port said. "He's an example to those with more capabilities that you have no excuse for not getting the best out of yourself. To be compared to Brian, that would be the ultimate compliment for a baseball player."

Downing's lunging swing might not be pretty and his stride on the basepaths won't remind anyone of Carl Lewis. But if you're management, you've got to love the guy's work ethic.

"Any time a player is pretty much self-made, you have to admire him greatly," Manager Doug Rader said. "Most of us cannot work at that level. Most of us are lazy by nature. But he's done some fantastic things with his career and you have to admire the work that goes into that.

"Brian is every inch a man."

Over the years, the man has been a barometer for the Angels. He has ridden this roller coaster to breathtaking heights that were invariably followed by nauseating nose dives. He has been with the Angels as they rose to the American League Championship Series three times. And he has endured each of the three following-season crashes, when they finished a total of 71 games out of first.

When he has been at his best, so have the Angels. In '79, when the franchise won its first AL West title, Downing hit .326. In '82, he hit 28 home runs. In '86, he drove in 95 runs.

Brian Downing is embarking on his 13th season with a halo on his hat. It's hard to believe that almost-shoulder-length locks fell out of his first Angel cap. Now, there's a trace of gray underneath.

Recently, the Angels' reigning patriarch reluctantly agreed to relive the past and ponder the future. What follows is a most introspective view of the past dozen years.

Buckle your seat belts, it's a bumpy ride.

THE HEADY '70s

Downing recently had completed his fifth less-than-spectacular season with the Chicago White Sox and was working out in a health club near his Yorba Linda home on Dec. 5, 1977 when he heard the news.

He had been traded with pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost to the Angels for outfielders Bobby Bonds and Thad Bosley and pitcher Rich Dotson.

"All I could think about was that I was coming home to Anaheim," he said. "I was working out when I heard about the deal and my strength went up enormously. I was on Cloud 9.

"But the television newscasts were pretty critical of the trade and my joy quickly turned when they started ripping me. After all, the Angels were giving up Bobby Bonds and I thought Thad Bosley was a great prospect at the time.

"The pitchers were the focus of the trade for the Angels, I was just along for the ride. But still, I was nervous. There was a lot of intimidation because of the high quality people they gave up . . . and I really wasn't much of a player."

Not everyone on the Angels welcomed Downing home with open arms. He began the season platooning behind the plate with Terry Humphrey because Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana prefered throwing to Humphrey.

"Terry was catching Ryan and Tanana and I was catching the other three starters," Downing said. "(Manager Jim) Fregosi (who replaced Dave Garcia after 46 games in '78) finally put me back there every day, but I could see where Nolan and Frank were coming from. They were superstar pitchers who wanted to throw to somebody they knew. And it was tough because it seemed like every time you looked up in those days, the Angels had a new catcher.

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