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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Firing Merely a Continuation of 34 Years of Confusion

May 18, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN

This goes back to the beginning, to the first "Welcome Angels" banquet during their first spring training in Palm Springs.

It goes back to Gene Autry, the proud owner, rising unsteadily to deliver the first keynote address and launching into a rambling speech about how the Angels had wanted to hire Casey Stengel but felt very fortunate to have landed Phil Wrigley.

If Autry didn't know Bill Rigney from the then owner of the Chicago Cubs, not much has changed in 34 years.

Confusion rather than continuity has been the hallmark of an organization still looking for its first American League pennant while continuing to look like the Clippers of Orange County.

On Tuesday, the Angels fired Buck Rodgers and hired Marcel Lachemann as their 14th manager. If Autry didn't know Rigney from Wrigley, is anyone sure he knows Marcel Lachemann from his brother, Rene?

Gene and Jackie Autry didn't return phone calls Tuesday. What's new? The buck never seems to stop with the owner, and that's strange.

The cinematic Autry used to ride to the rescue, but with wife, Jackie, as a budget-minded accomplice over the last 13 of the 34 years, he has consistently abdicated that responsibility in the B-movie script enacted by the Angels.

The shocking and surprising firing of Rodgers--"the baseball world will have trouble understanding it," Rigney said from his Northern California home--was merely the latest shift in leadership and/or philosophy by this organization.

Said Rigney, who survived nine years as the first manager and is now senior adviser to the Oakland Athletics:

"Even when I was there you couldn't see the leadership or direction. There's always been confusion. They've always seemed to be groping for direction, the missing piece.

"I mean, a few years ago she (Jackie Autry) told me that she was going to get rid of all those $3-million players.

"Well, that's fine, but you better have an idea how you're going to attack the next four or five years if you dump the Polonias and Harveys and Joyners. But I'm just not sure they've ever had an idea, and I was there at the start."

Bill Bavasi, Autry's ninth general manager, shouldered responsibility for the decision to fire the popular and respected Rodgers but wouldn't say why he did it, insisting he didn't want to deal in negatives, that there was enough of that in the decision itself.

The decision, club president Richard Brown said, was presented to the Autrys on Monday night "but their style of management is to rely on their president and general manager."

"They listened," Brown said, "asked some pointed questions, then deferred to our judgment."

Some will portray it as a power struggle, with Rodgers wanting to make moves the front office rejected, but it was basically a matter of honesty not always being the best policy.

Rodgers consistently told it like it is, and Brown and Bavasi got tired of hearing it and reading it, as did some of his pitchers.

In particular, recent comments about dealing with a staff heavy in released pitchers is known to have irritated a front office that must think the fans are unaware of what they are paying to see.

With Lachemann, of course, many of the pitchers know what they are getting and are happy about it. He served as the Angels' highly respected pitching coach for nine years before spending the last two as pitching coach of the Florida Marlins.

Some of what he sees from the Angels' staff will remind him of the expansion club he is leaving. How Rodgers was expected to win consistently with it is a mystery.

Bavasi insisted that the won-loss record was not a primary factor in his decision, although he still believes the Angels are capable of winning baseball's worst division.

Did he consider how the firing would fuel the perception of a rudderless and directionless organization?

"Yes," he said, "but I can't let that guide our strategy. I can't worry about it.

"Our goal is not to take the safe route, but to put the best management team together that we can."

Historians might say that will only happen when Autry and his wife, management's bottom line, ride off into the sunset. The firing of Rodgers, who seemed to be the perfect fit for a developing team, suggests it's time.

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