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Starting Over : Two Years Ago, Herzog Figured He Had a Mandate to Rebuild Angels for Gene Autry--and Then the Club Changed the Rules

August 10, 1993|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Whitey Herzog brushed his fingers through the bristles of his flat-top, then closed his eyes as if suddenly in pain.

It was a casual question really, the kind that usually warrants a flip response, leading to the next subject.

Instead, Herzog chose to answer seriously, treating the question as though he were President Clinton describing the merits of a new tax proposal, rather than responding to whether he's happy and comfortable with the Angels.

It obviously hasn't been a smooth ride for Herzog, who accepted the vice president/player personnel job on Sept. 16, 1991, to help his buddy, Gene Autry.

In St. Louis, he called all of the shots for the Cardinals' organization, winning three National League pennants and one World Series in six years. It was always simple there. He told owner August Busch what he needed each year to win, Busch obliged and Herzog was the most popular man in at least half of Missouri.

In '91, Herzog figured he would be handed the means to corral what was necessary to bring Anaheim its first World Series. The Angels had won at least 80 games in three consecutive seasons, and the sentiment was that Herzog would be allowed to sign a few more high-priced free agents.

Instead, the rules were changed.

Jackie Autry was in charge, not Herzog. He would answer to Richard Brown, president of the club. He would even be sharing the general manager's duties with Dan O'Brien.

Oh, and by the way, Whitey, we've decided to slash the payroll. We'll be building with youth from now on. Good luck, big guy.

It didn't take long for Herzog to become resentful. He told associates that he was thinking of resigning, and a day didn't go by that he didn't wonder what he had gotten himself into.

He was lured in the first place by his friendship with Autry and an $800,000 salary--more than the combined total paid to Brown and O'Brien--but was it worth all of this aggravation?

Now, nearly two years and dozens of confrontations later, Herzog was asked how he feels about the job.

"I'm not going to tell you this has been easy, because it hasn't," Herzog said. "But I can say I'm enjoying it more now, a whole hell of a lot more.

"It's tough, boy, when they want you to find ballplayers who make (the major league minimum of) $109,000, and want you to develop them into superstars. It's not like it used to be--just pick yourself a ballplayer, pay him want you want and let him go out and play.

"It's all about money these days. That's why we've had to tear this thing apart and start over. When I got here, all we had was a bunch of clunkers. If you didn't hit homers, you weren't going to win. You can't say that now.

"I'm not saying it's perfect, but it's a whole hell of a lot better than when I first got here."

The Angels (52-58) enter tonight's game against the Texas Rangers 8 1/2 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League West. It's only the second time since 1987 they have been within 10 games of the leaders on this date.

The players still tell anyone who will listen that they are in the race and need only a big winning streak to put them back in contention. They tell themselves that if it hadn't been for their 10-game losing streak after the All-Star break, they would have as strong a chance as anyone.

It's a sentiment not shared by management, as evidenced by recent roster moves, which indicate the Angels are shooting for 1994 and beyond.

"We're getting a whole lot closer, believe me," Herzog said. "We've had a lot of things go wrong for us this year, a lot of injuries that have hurt us. If we can just get another arm this winter, a guy who can step up and be our No. 3 starter next year, we might have something."

Key decisions are already being made, and in a few cases, Herzog is lobbying with Brown and Angel ownership to make the moves he believes are necessary if they hope to be contenders next season.

The biggest difference of opinion on player personnel centers around leadoff hitter Luis Polonia. He's having his worst offensive season, but Herzog and Manager Buck Rodgers desperately want him back. They are being told that they had better prepare to lose him to free agency, because management refuses to offer him a lucrative contract.

"Guys in their free-agent year act differently," Herzog said. "Some guys thrive on it. Some guys have trouble handling it. I think it's obvious Luis is letting it bother him."

Polonia is batting .260.

" . . .If we had given him a contract earlier on like we wanted," Herzog said, "he might be hitting .330 and we'd be only two games out. Besides, he's looking for a long-term contract, and if someone gives it to him, he's gone."

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