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Finishing Touch : Finally, the Time Has Come for the Angels to Put an End to the Pain and Suffering of '96


ARLINGTON, Texas — The 1996 season comes to a merciful end today, giving the Angels a rare reason to . . . celebrate?

You bet.

They've wanted to put this dreadful season behind them for weeks, but there was this persistent little problem, something to do with having to play the September portion of the schedule.

The meaningless games--and numerous losses--of the past month served as reminders of just how much the Angels have underachieved, and being trapped in the daily grind of playing out a lost season has made it all the more difficult to put the pain and suffering of '96 behind them.

And when we say pain and suffering, we're not talking about the pitching elbows of Steve Ontiveros and Brian Harvey.

The Angel clubhouse was a trauma center this year, with more tumult than a season's worth of "ER" episodes.

There was the tragic April 17 death of Michelle Carew, the 18-year-old daughter of batting instructor Rod Carew, after a lengthy battle against leukemia, a struggle that tore at the heartstrings of the entire Angel organization.

There was Manager Marcel Lachemann's Aug. 6 resignation and the dismissal of coaches Rick Burleson, Chuck Hernandez and Bobby Knoop, which caused upheaval in the clubhouse.

There was John McNamara being diagnosed with potentially life-threatening blood clots just two weeks into his term as interim manager, a condition that sidelined him for more than three weeks.

Shortstop Gary DiSarcina left the team a week before the season to be with his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, who had a kidney removed, and reliever Mike Holtz left the team twice during the summer to attend funerals for his grandmother and grandfather, who died within a month of each other.

A deal to sell the team to the Walt Disney Co. fell through in January but was revived in May, resulting in the firing of several long-time Angel employees.

Ontiveros and Harvey, who were expected to make significant contributions, combined to throw zero pitches this season, and Jim Abbott, one of baseball's most consistent starters for seven seasons, suddenly forgot how to pitch.

Two of the team's best players, center fielder Jim Edmonds and pitcher Mark Langston, combined for five stints on the disabled list, totaling 141 days. There was an early season closer controversy--Troy Percival or Lee Smith?--and a mid-season outfield controversy--is there room for four?

Players sniped at Lachemann behind his back, griped among themselves, and they even complained about Anaheim Stadium's infield so much the team hired a new groundskeeper.

Oh, and one other thing: The Angels stank, finishing last in a division many predicted they would win and entering today's season finale with a 70-90, second worst in the league.

"It'll be nice when we can finish this year," right fielder Tim Salmon said. "It's been so long since we've been in contention, it's like, let's just start over."

A do-over. Yeah, that's what the Angels need. Forget about that 5.30 team earned-run average, second-worst in the American League, that combined 46-71 record and 5.59 ERA for Angel starters, and Abbott's horrendous season (2-18, 7.48 ERA).

And forget about that .258 team batting average with runners in scoring position, second-worst in the league, and all those ignominious team records the Angels set, for wild pitches, hit batsmen, home runs given up, runs given up, pitchers and players used.

"Yes," pitcher Shawn Boskie said, "a lot of guys will be relieved when this season is over."

What happened?

Angel starting pitching was horrendous, middle relief was spotty, hitters too often failed to produce in the clutch--or at all--and team defense, an expected strength, was inconsistent.

But beyond the statistics was a general lack of confidence, character and chemistry, three intangibles that almost all winners need.

"We have a lot of guys who play for themselves a lot, but we need to be more of a group, with more of a definition," Troy Percival said.

"We shouldn't just look at ourselves as big leaguers, we should look at ourselves as the California Angels, a team that doesn't want to lose. During the national anthem, I look at the dugouts and see team vs. team. I don't think we have enough of that."

DiSarcina said confidence was "the biggest and most obvious missing ingredient" on the Angels, surprising because they were filled with bravado for much of 1995.

"The guys, as a whole, didn't have the ability to know they can come back and win if we were down a few runs," DiSarcina said. "Why? I don't know. How do we rectify it? By winning. But that becomes a chicken-and-egg thing. What comes first, confidence or winning?"

General Manager Bill Bavasi has always believed personnel decisions should be dictated by on-field results, not clubhouse chemistry. But even he admitted that along with a need for pitching and more production from certain spots, the Angels need to "increase the character on the club, or add more character to the guys who have it."

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