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JIM MURRAY

Salmon Is Angels' Catch of the Day

August 27, 1995|Jim Murray

You closed your eyes and listened to them discussing the young man down on the field in the Angel uniform and you thought to yourself, "Who in the world are they talking about? A young Mantle? The second coming of DiMaggio? Willie Mays? The new Aaron? Cobb, for heaven's sake? Hornsby? Gehrig? Even Ruth?"

All of the above?

There are lots of great young ballplayers out there. Junior Griffey. Jeff Bagwell. Bonds the younger.

But when you talk of "prospects," the conversation in the grand old game gets quickly around to No. 15 on the California Angels.

"What can you say about No. 15?" says his manager, Marcel Lachemann. "Anything good you can think of. Pour it on."

It's been a long time since a player only three years in the league has attracted the kind of extravagance of language Timothy James Salmon does. You overhear and you wonder why he doesn't just go directly to Cooperstown. Skip the middle years.

What will he have by the 21st Century, 500 home runs? Six hundred? Two thousand runs batted in? Look at it this way: Ruth, after a little more than four seasons in the big leagues, had a 20 home runs. Tim Salmon, in just about three years, has 85.

OK, so Ruth was a pitcher. Well, Henry Aaron in his first three years had 66 home runs. Willie Mays had 65. Lou Gehrig had 37. So, Tim Salmon is beginning to leave some pretty long shadows.

Measuring greatness is a risky procedure. Too many prospects who come up with the "Can't miss" label turn out to be "Can't hit." The pitchers' union finds the pitch you can't hit. You trip over a bag and there goes your balance at the plate.

Or, the bright lights call. They have ruined more careers than curveballs. You make too much too soon. The price of success, like liberty, is eternal vigilance, too. Some guys don't want to pay it.

But, for Tim Salmon, so far, it's been more a parade than a career. He makes it look easy. All-state in high school. Minor league player of the year. Pacific Coast League MVP.

Then, he was American League rookie of the year, the first Angel ever to be so honored.

Which way to Cooperstown, right?

Oh, he struck out a lot. Hey! So did Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Reggie Jackson. Mickey Mantle. They lived with it. No one, thank God, ever told them to cut down on their swings.

Tim Salmon's numbers are in neon already: 85 home runs, 255 runs batted in, 256 runs scored. That's a career for many people. That's just for openers for Tim Salmon.

Lots of casual fans are surprised to see the California Angels leading their division and looming as a World Series team. But not anyone who can read a box score. Any lineup that has Jim Edmonds, Tim Salmon and Chili Davis coming up in that order has to put a lump in any pitcher's throat.

They used to call this kind of firepower "Murderers' Row." This trio has 75 home runs, 257 runs batted in and 254 runs scored among them. For a pitcher, that's like a walk through Central Park at 2 in the morning. With your Rolex showing.

The best part about being Tim Salmon, though, is that he has the work ethic of a monk.

"He's a good player on both sides of the ball because he works at it," Lachemann says. "If he makes a poor play in the outfield, he doesn't shrug it off. He doesn't just say, 'Well, I got two hits.' He comes out and works on it. He's become a good defensive player."

Even the hitting, Salmon doesn't concede.

"I have been gifted," he says. "I can see the ball well. I can run well. But hitting requires work, too. You can't get complacent because pitchers aren't complacent. You need to be prepared in order to do well, to have an idea of how a guy is going to pitch to you."

Hitting a curveball, like cutting a diamond, requires concentration.

If there's a speck on the Salmon future, it is the Salmon past. Where has he been? What took baseball so long?

Tim was 27 Thursday. He didn't sign with the Angels till he had played at Grand Canyon College in Arizona for three years. He was 21 years old.

Baseball used to beat colleges to the pen, signing prospects like that. Willie Mays was only 20 when he took up center field in the Polo Grounds. Mickey Mantle was in Yankee pin stripes when he was only 20. Stan Musial was a Cardinal at 20 and Ruth was on a big league mound when he was only 19.

Salmon's numbers at Grand Canyon made your scalp prickle, made you wonder where baseball's scouts were--51 home runs, 192 runs batted in, 225 runs scored even in those short collegiate seasons. His teams always made the NAIA World Series.

He'd like to make the real World Series, too. By rights, he should have 130 home runs by now and 354 ribbies.

Tim shakes his head. "Stats are nice when the season is over or the career is over. But I'd rather get the hit--or the catch--that wins the game or the series."

It's been a terrific first act. And, of course, none of us, fan or player, is guaranteed a full season anymore to put up comparative statistics when even World Series don't make the drawing boards anymore.

Will the pressures build up and the expectations become overwhelming?

"I don't think so," Salmon says. "Because I don't think anyone or anything can put more pressure on me than I have always put on myself. I don't think any pressure externally can be harder to cope with than the pressure internally."

That may be the worst news the league wants to hear. Because if Salmon gets any better, so do the Angels. And if the Angels get any better, well, as the Yankees would say, there goes the neighborhood.

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