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Easley Joins Kids in Infield : Ex-Outfielder Knows Angels Are Building for Future Success

March 26, 1993|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — Damion Easley, veteran of 47 major league games but none at the position he's going to play this season, knows what they're saying about the Angels back home. He also knows they're probably right.

Easley figures this will be a building year, a season to make a name for himself on a team filled with young, unproven players. Nowhere is the Angels' inexperience more glaring than in their kiddie corps infield.

At third base, there's Rene Gonzales, 30, the old man of the infield with six seasons of experience.

At shortstop, there's Gary DiSarcina, 25, who hit .247 in 1992, his rookie season.

At first, there's J.T. Snow, 25, who batted .313 with the New York Yankees' triple-A affiliate at Columbus, Ohio, last season.

And then there's Easley, 23, a former outfielder, shortstop and third baseman who rocketed through the Angels' minor league system to land a starting spot at second without a challenge.

Certainly, his credentials are impeccable. He has never spent more than one season at any one level in the minors and never batted lower than the .254 he hit at double-A Midland in 1991. In 47 games with the Angels late last year, he batted .258 with 12 runs batted in and a home run.

"I've got both feet in the door," Easley said. "But there's always something to prove."

The first order of business is showing that he's fully recovered from the shin splints that sidelined him until Thursday. (He was 0 for 3 in the Angels' 7-1 loss to Oakland). After all, it's difficult to make the nightly highlight reels when you're icing your legs in the training room.

It has been pure torture for Easley, young and eager to make his mark.

"It eats at you," he said after a lengthy rehabilitation session last week.

Outside, the Angels played the Seattle Mariners on a sun-splashed afternoon at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Inside, Easley sat with his ice packs.

"I'm here to take a job, but I can't take it in the training room," he said. "I'd love to be out there right now. It's affecting me because I didn't have a chance to prove myself (this spring)."

The Angels don't seem to be overly concerned, at least not yet.

"He's been super," Manager Buck Rodgers said. "He's waiting for someone to let him loose. I told him, 'Let's get it fixed right the first time, even if it takes a little longer.' "

So, Easley grins and bears it. Already he has learned that patience is the greatest virtue an Angel can have in 1993. It's all part of having the right attitude, Easley said.

"I'd like to think that (his success) was all due to hard work and dedication," he said. "But having the right frame of mind has allowed me to do it, too."

For example, when Gonzales broke his arm last August, the Angels asked Easley if he'd consider a move from shortstop to third base. The club had other options--moving Gary Gaetti from first to third, for instance--but decided to give Easley a chance.

"I came up as a shortstop," he said. "The wrong frame of mind would be to say, 'I'm a shortstop.' They wanted me to be a third baseman so I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot.'

"That's a break for me. It wasn't my natural position, but it's a break to play in the major leagues. Besides, I've never had a natural position."

Easley was an outfielder on Lakewood High's 1987 Southern Section 4-A championship team, then moved to shortstop at Long Beach City College. He settled into that position during minor league stops at Bend, Ore., Quad Cities, Iowa, Midland, Tex., and Edmonton, Canada.

"I haven't been at one spot long enough to know what my best position is," Easley said. "I was just getting the hang of shortstop when they asked me to move over."

Now, he's on the move again. When the Angels acquired Kelly Gruber from the Blue Jays in exchange for second baseman Luis Sojo, they thought they had a rock-solid third baseman. What they got were damaged goods. Gruber is on the emergency 60-day disabled list after undergoing rotator-cuff surgery. When he will return to the lineup is anybody's guess at this point.

So, with Sojo gone, the Angels decided they'd keep Easley at second base and move Gonzales to third.

"I'm just trying to progress as far as I can," Easley said. "You never stop learning in this game. Hopefully, I'll progress to the level that everybody dreams of."

Easley is prepared to wait as long as it takes. And it might take awhile.

He knows the Angels aren't likely to challenge in the American League West this year, and maybe not next season either. But he has benefited greatly from the Angels' youth movement, and doesn't particularly care if Bob from Buena Park and Vic from Ventura have flooded the talk shows with negative reactions to the club's off-season deals.

"We're not saying we're going to win the World Series," Easley said. "We're building a nucleus to win two or three years down the road. And once we're winning, we want to keep it that way."

Over the next few seasons, Easley's greatest contributions figure to be a lively bat and his fleet feet. In 108 games at Edmonton last season, he batted .289 with 44 RBIs and 26 stolen bases.

If he can come close to those numbers this season, and there are some who believe it's possible, the Angels still might not rise from the depths of the AL West. Surprises are bound to happen, though.

Veteran outfielder Stan Javier might as well have been looking at Easley when he said, "As soon as (the younger players) believe they can play at his level, I think they're going to surprise some people."

Easley figures he has a head start on the others.

"People know who I am," he said. "Not that I'm a star or anything. . . . For me, this year is going to be a little easier because at least I got to play every day last year. At least I got my foot in the door."

If there's a course of action Easley is determined to follow in '93, it's this:

"Don't panic," he said. "Stay in control and (success) will come."

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