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MIKE DOWNEY

There's a Lot of Little Boy in This Team

April 20, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

Every once in a while, some team comes along that needs to play only a few games before you know that these guys are going to be OK--and maybe even a lot better than OK.

In our midst we might have such a team.

The more you watch the 1993 California Angels play ball, the more fun they appear to be having. And the more fun they have playing, the more fun we might have watching.

They look like those eager-beaver kids from the movie "The Sandlot" who aren't afraid of anything except the large dog next door that is drooling on their baseball.

And the more the Angels keep standing up to all the big dogs they play with, the more fearless they become.

Not long ago, I was listening to Chad Curtis, a Williamsport-faced outfielder of 24 who has brought speed and enthusiasm to the Angels. After a game, Curtis was saying that he couldn't believe how eager and alive the guys on the Angel bench were; how "everybody was sort of sitting there with a bat in their hands, like, 'Me next! Me next!' "

And infielder Rene Gonzales said: "These guys act like baseball is a game, not a job."

These days, that's rare.

It may be a Price Club of a baseball team, full of discount veterans and generic rookies, but it's an outfit that might give everybody their money's worth.

The Angels hustle. They try harder. If I may speak like a manager for a moment, they really bust their humps out there.

When you watch these Angels play, you know you aren't watching the best team money can buy. The Autrys have cut so many costs, it's a wonder the team isn't using aluminum bats and passing one helmet back and forth.

But as long as they weren't getting anywhere with the higher-priced spread, why not put some players on the field who would like to become wealthier? Players who, like Wally Joyner and Jim Abbott, will touch you later for a huge raise, but for now can do no more than give you everything they've got.

Many of the Angels' fans, like many of their players, were definitely losing interest. When a team goes 31 years without playing one inning of a World Series, incompetence becomes an art form and indifference an occupational hazard.

For whatever reason, the Big A turned into a Big Kmart, with a revolving door through which skillful players came and went. But no matter how many All-Stars there were, no matter how many agents bragged about their clients' gaudy batting averages or ERAs, no championships ever were delivered, COD or any other way.

So, even if the owners' motives weren't pure, even if they simply chose to make the team more feasible to sell to any potential buyer (Disney?) that might be interested in going over their books, management did right in putting this bunch on the diamond.

Worst possible scenario: We eat a season or two, then make a pennant run in 1994.

In our hearts, we suspect that this '93 Angel team is not quite a pennant contender. But what of those hustling outfits of the past that ignored all the speculation, clubs such as the '88 Dodgers or '90 Braves that achieved well above their apparent talent?

As they return for a long home stand against the sort of teams--Cleveland, Boston, the Yankees--who likewise came into this season wondering if this was finally going to be their year, the Angels have more .300 hitters than you can shake a stick at, have twice as many stolen bases as their opponents and are feeling pretty frisky about their chances.

They have J.T. Snow, the fresh first baseman who may yet turn the right-field seats into Snow World.

They have Tim Salmon, who came within inches of a catch in Oriole Park at Camden Yards that would have buried Baltimore even deeper in last place.

They have pitchers such as Chuck Crim, Gene Nelson and John Farrell, who are determined to prove that others gave up on them prematurely.

They have Damion Easley, who does everything easily, and Gary DeSarcina, who could be the shortstop we spent all those endless years waiting for Dick Schofield to be.

They have Luis Polonia, who is too good a player to be ignored by Channel 5 in all those Snow 'n Salmon TV promotions.

And they have Sandlot Curtis, who hustles so much that he once got married at 1:30 p.m. in his baseball uniform, then went straight to the ballpark to take batting practice.

I like this team.

It tries.

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