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On Hot Streak, These Angels Try to Play It Cool : In Palm Springs, the Biggest Feat Is to Beat the Summer Heat

SIX DAYS IN SINGLE A: Today Palm Springs


PALM SPRINGS — Welcome to the home of the Palm Springs Angels, surely one of the hottest teams in professional baseball.

The Angels are out on the field right now, taking batting practice. In shorts.

It is 5 p.m., two hours before game time.

It is 100 degrees. In the shade.

It is only the third week in June.

Kevin Haughian approaches. He is conspicuous in his long pants.

Haughian used to be in politics. Now he is general manager of a Class-A minor league baseball team in the California League with a home field that could double as a dry sauna.

Should he succeed, he will be considered a marketing genius.

Palm Springs has never been a hotbed for minor league baseball, but Haughian enjoys a challenge almost as much as he fancies a proven promotion.

Last season, his first in charge of the club's daily operations, Haughian tried to spark fan interest by hiring the Famous Chicken and Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball, to make appearances.

A woman who called herself Dynamite Lady was brought in too. She detonated, then walked away. A nifty trick.

Haughian also hired dots. Live dots. Humans dressed as cough drops.

Asked why he would do such a thing, he replied, "Because they were cheaper than a new scoreboard."

He realizes that his explanation requires an explanation.

Fans like dot races, Haughian says. Races held across electronic scoreboards make popular diversions during breaks between innings.

Palm Springs doesn't have such a scoreboard, so the Angels held their races on the outfield grass. Big races, like the Indy Dot 500 and the Kentucky Dot Derby.

The more traditional Angel fans did not like the dots. They probably did not enjoy Morton Downey singing the national anthem earlier this season, either.

This season, the Angels have a new mascot: Zola, or Super Fan.

Zola wears a hat and an oversized baseball jersey. She cheers and claps a lot. She keeps things simple. Between innings, she helps organize the club's many promotional gimmicks.

During one break, she starts two young boys on a race. Their task is to break five water balloons spread out in a row on the grass along the third base line.

The only allowable method is to use their bottoms.

The boys hop from balloon to balloon, landing with a splat. Then they race back to Zola, who hustles them off the field, dripping.

An inning later, Zola is at the top row of the bleachers adjacent to the press box. Seated near her are three fans who hope to win a new car.

A local dealership will give the car away if an Angel player hits a home run during the inning.

Zola introduces the contestants. The first, a man who says he stopped by the stadium on his way from Mexico to Colton, is assigned the first, fourth and seventh batters of the inning. The second fan, a woman, has the second, fifth and eighth batters; the third, another man, has the third, sixth and ninth batters.

Mark Sweeney, a left-handed-hitting outfielder, is the fourth batter of the inning. He launches a drive high and long to right field. It is heading east, in a hurry toward the Coachella Valley desert.

I could be. . . . It might be. . . . It is. . . .

Off the top of the wall.

Sweeney has a double and a run batted in. The man from Mexico has nothing. No half a car. Not even the down payment. He buries his head in his hands.

The Angels have executed a perfect promotion--lots of excitement and no cost.

Zola isn't the club's only personality. Mario Mendoza, the Angels' manager, is quite a character himself.

Mendoza, 42, is a knowledgeable baseball man with a quick wit, an easy smile and a major league batting average that inspired the phrase "the Mendoza line."

If a player's average isn't above the Mendoza line, he is probably not hitting his weight.

Mentioning the line to Mendoza is crossing the line. Mendoza's easy smile quickly disappears.

"I like to talk about just about everything," he said. "Except that."

Mendoza is in his second season with Palm Springs. Last year he won a magazine survey as the league's best major league managing prospect. The Angels made the playoffs for the first time in four years.

This season, Palm Springs is in the middle of the pack. Sweeney, the right fielder, is the only Angel everyday who played in the California League all-star game.

The team consists mostly of free agents, players who were not drafted.

Still, Mendoza says he had high hopes until late in May when he watched a combination of hot weather and long commutes wear down his players.

Palm Springs is the southern and easternmost city in the 10-team league, which is split into divisions.

In the south are Palm Springs, Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino and High Desert, which is located in Adelanto, just outside Victorville. The Angels' longest commute, to High Desert, is a two-hour bus ride.

No other league in professional baseball has five teams in one league within such proximity, but many players and coaches would rather stay in a hotel overnight than commute back and forth.

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