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MIKE PENNER

Chili Thinks Angels Finally Have Found the Right Recipe

March 28, 1993|MIKE PENNER

TEMPE — Maybe it was all that time spent inside Candlestick Park, impressionable years when he had to strain against the wind just to keep his cap on his head, his bead on the ball and his feet on terra firma.

Do it often enough and going against the current eventually becomes second nature.

How else to explain the last three years in the life of Chili Davis, the first and only man to leave the Angels, win a World Series someplace else and then, voluntarily, without coercion or handgun to the temple, agree to come back?

You get out of prison, you don't ring up the warden and apply for an in-residence fellowship.

You get out of Anaheim Stadium, a great place to visit if you're looking for a three-game sweep, you don't inquire about a second hitch.

Not after you've seen the other side--champagne for everyone--and the Angels have committed themselves to a root-beer budget.

In 1991, Chili showed other Angels the way: Fly now, get measured for ring later. Chili won it all with the Minnesota Twins in 1991, followed by Dave Winfield, Devon White and Mark Eichhorn with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992, followed by . . .

Kirk McCaskill with the Chicago White Sox in 1993?

Jim Abbott with the New York Yankees in 1994?

Bryan Harvey with the Florida Marlins in 1998?

When you're an Angel, the way to success is the way out of town. Chili soaked in the full experience, his 29 home runs and 93 RBIs powering the Twins into the postseason, his two World Series home runs helping the Twins overcome the Atlanta Braves.

But when the Twins missed the playoffs in 1992 and Chili's home-run output dipped to 12, priorities changed. The Twins wanted to cut Chili's salary by nearly two-thirds. A free agent for the third time in his career, Chili wanted "a legitimate offer--not $3 million or the most money possible, but a legitimate offer." He also noticed that "there weren't a bunch of teams knocking down my door."

Chili made $2.8 million in 1992. When the Angels scrounged together $1.75 million, plus a $600,000 bonus for 500 or more at-bats, Chili figured he had to listen, if it meant trading 90 victories for 90 (100?) defeats.

"I thought about that," Chili says. "I thought about the fact that they just lost Jim Abbott. They just lost Bryan Harvey. Guys like Wally Joyner were gone."

Re-enlisting with Team Listing didn't make sense, but "a lot of things in life don't seem to make sense," Chili has observed. Money was talking, loudly and clearly, but so, Chili maintains, was his personal history.

"All these critics--I call them 'geniuses'--they don't know anything," he says. "Because I went to Minnesota in 1991 and the Twins finished last in 1990 and were picked to finish last again. Where did they finish? As No. 1 as you can finish.

"And not only the Twins that year, but also the Braves. Both teams in the World Series had finished last the year before and were picked to finish last again. All the ratings, all the picking--it's all done on what's been done before and who has the name players."

Chili scans an Angel locker room bustling with new names and no-names.

"Every name player was a young player at one time," he says. "I feel there are a lot of good young players here who want to prove they can be name players, too."

The second time around, Chili has undergone a most intriguing metamorphosis. In 1988, his crimes against traditional outfield defense haunted Cookie Rojas' sleep and in 1990, his back problems gave Doug Rader headaches. He was a Run Producer with an asterisk attached, an Angel with a dented halo, owner of a calling card that read, "Have Bat, Will Travel to the Beat of My Own Drum."

Now, Chili, at 33, is The Veteran Presence, distributor of advice and wisdom on a team that will feature six regulars with two years' big-league experience or less, the one dangerous reputation in a lineup of potential maybes.

Chili, a pragmatist then, now and forever, cautions against too many expectations.

"I've got a bad back; I can't carry anybody," he deadpans.

And: "I'm not a power hitter. I am (adopting the methodical cadence of a librarian) 'a line drive hitter with occasional power.' A power hitter is someone who hits 30 home runs every year. I've never hit 30 home runs in my life."

And: "They say people will just pitch around me, but that has to be seen. If that's the case, I'll have 400 walks this year, right? I don't think so."

Chili promises no fire and brimstone in the clubhouse, no bat-breaking rants to scare the kids out of a six-game losing streak. You'd have a better chance catching Jimmie Reese rocking out to Nirvana on the headphones. Chili's leadership style is to "try to fit in and if something needs to be said or done, to step forward and pull that player aside."

In Chili's eyes, leadership also entails saying the right thing whenever questioned about the state of the franchise.

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