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Rodgers Is Just Glad to Return to Angels : Baseball: Manager's first game since bus accident is a loss, but being back is enough.

August 29, 1992|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of all, Buck Rodgers savored the small pleasures Friday, upon his return to managing the Angels, the sounds and atmosphere he missed so keenly during his absence.

"I was walking in through left field, through Luis Polonia's position, and (trainer) Rick Smith came up to me and I knew I was back," Rodgers said. "Just getting here, saying hello to somebody, smelling the grass, the simple things. Those told me I was back."

But for every joy he experienced, he felt a painful reminder of the May 21 bus accident that robbed him of more than half a season and of the mobility in his right elbow. Threading his belt through the loops of his uniform pants, he grimaced when he reached his right arm behind his back. He quickly turned that into a smile, but his discomfort was obvious. "It's the little things that get you," he said softly.

The three steps from the dugout to the field, steps he had raced up so many times as a player and a manager, suddenly loomed as large as mountains. "They're higher than normal," he said, before slowly climbing up.

To Rodgers, who sustained a smashed right elbow, broken right wrist, fractured left kneecap and two broken ribs in the crash, no obstacle seems insurmountable. Returning this season was imperative, he says, as much for his psychological well-being as for the chance to evaluate the team's talent. He came back with a slight limp and a crooked elbow that forced him to give his left hand to well-wishers who extended their right hands in welcome, but to return at all was a triumph.

"If you were practically dead, you'd be upbeat too," said Rodgers, who received a standing ovation from the crowd of 29,872 at Anaheim Stadium when he took the lineup card to home plate before the game. "It's nice to be sick when your other option is not so good."

The ovation, Rodgers said, "makes you feel very humble."

"I just wanted to go back and do my job for people to recognize it was very nice. My knees buckled a little bit."

Four days after the accident, which occurred during a trip from New York to Baltimore, he underwent six hours of surgery at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. His pain was as bad as the nightmares that took him back to the hillside crash site and once again pinned him in a pile of twisted steel.

"Before this accident, trauma and shock were just words to me," Rodgers said. "I didn't know what they meant. But when you have flashbacks, and you're looking down at those trees (where the bus came to rest) with lights in your eyes and you wake up in a cold sweat and you almost scream, now I know what trauma is.

"I view this, like anybody does, coming back from a serious injury. You get your priorities straight. The job is a very important function of your life, but health, living, your family, those are most important and those jump up. That's what happened in my life, those priorities surfaced."

Returning to the dugout was also a priority, because it helped push the crash further back in the past. "It feels like years ago," he said.

It was three months and three weeks, but that was long enough for the team to change dramatically. He had to reintroduce himself to Tim Salmon and Damion Easley, who were called up from triple-A Edmonton since he last saw them in spring training, and he had to meet with the coaches to reacquaint himself with the habits of his own players and the opposition.

In that, at least, he had a good tutor in John Wathan, who was the team's third base coach until Rodgers asked him to be the interim manager. For the rest of the season, Wathan will sit next to Rodgers on the bench as an adviser. The re-education process began before Friday's game.

"He's been watching, so he's generally aware of what's going on," Wathan said. "I'm still going to feel like I'm involved and hopefully I can help him in the dugout. I can be part of it without actually pulling the trigger."

Rodgers said he was more excited than nervous about his return, a game in which he had little to do because Roger Clemens limited the Angels to eight hits in a 7-1 Red Sox victory. Simply being back in uniform would have to be enough Friday. "For the first time in a long time I got up this morning with a purpose . . . to get ready for tonight . . . "

"My goal, and I hope it's the same goal the players have, is to finish in fourth place and finish as close to .500 as we can. We want to salvage the season as far as the won-loss record goes. We've been successful in a lot of ways, with the young players coming up like Damion and Tim Salmon. The operation has been a success, the patient has not died, but is still in a sick-type situation."

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