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SECOND THOUGHTS : Angels: Controversy surrounding Phillips is beginning of the end for team that finished six games short in AL West.

September 29, 1997|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The beginning of the end for the 1997 Angels did not come when pitcher Chuck Finley fell and broke a bone in his left wrist on Aug. 19, or when a foul tip broke a bone in catcher Todd Greene's right wrist on Aug. 20.

No, it all began to unravel in the wee hours of Aug. 10, down the road from Anaheim Stadium, in Room 52 of the Ivanhoe Motel.

The Angels, who closed the season Sunday with a 4-0 loss to Texas, were in first place in the American League West with a 66-50 record when leadoff batter Tony Phillips was arrested on charges of felony possession of cocaine.

But they were never the same after that fateful night, when Phillips let down the very teammates, coaches and front-office executives who had built him up as a team leader.

Certainly, the season-ending injuries to Finley and Greene were a staggering blow to Angel pennant hopes--Finley had won 10 consecutive games and was one of baseball's hottest pitchers, and Greene had six homers and 16 RBIs in 18 games after taking over as the starting catcher July 30.

But just as the picture of Mark Langston on his back at home plate, staring at the Kingdome roof, is what Angel fans remember about 1995, the lasting image of 1997 will be of Anaheim police officers arresting Phillips, according to police reports, "with a loaded pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other."

Phillips, 38, and pennant races have not been a good mix in Anaheim. He hit a career-high 27 homers in 1995, but hit only .198 in the final two months of the season, when the Angels suffered one of baseball's worst collapses.

This year, Phillips' alleged transgression had nothing to do with hits and walks and runs, but his 10-day absence--and the whirlwind of controversy in the wake of his arrest--had a profound negative effect on the Angels.

"Our guys tried to handle it as best they could," Manager Terry Collins said. "But the fact that it was the focus for so long took away from what they were doing on the field. They couldn't keep their minds on the positive things."

Phillips was eventually cleared by baseball doctors to play, but the Angels suspended him Aug. 18, asking him to enter a drug counseling clinic.

The union filed a grievance on Phillips' behalf Aug. 19, and the next day an arbitrator overturned the suspension and ordered the Angels to reinstate Phillips.

On Aug. 21, 11 days after being arrested, Phillips issued his first public apology, and that night he was back in the lineup.

But by then, the Angels had lost eight of 11 games to fall 1 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners, and found themselves embroiled in a morality tug-of-war between baseball and the Walt Disney Co., which operates the team.

Disney felt baseball's drug policy was too lenient. A union official ripped Disney for being more concerned with its reputation as a promoter of wholesome family values than with Phillips. And Phillips blasted both, saying he didn't want to be used as a pawn in a feud over baseball's drug policy.

The Angels had only 24 players during Phillips' absence, and with several suffering from nagging injuries, Collins' bench was extremely thin. But even after Phillips' return, the losses continued to mount.

The Angels lost 21 of 30 games after Phillips' arrest, falling 5 1/2 games behind the Mariners and virtually out of the race by Sept. 11.

"Everyone was pulling for him to be OK, but when he came back, all of a sudden if we lost, it wasn't because someone beat us, it was because we were impacted by the Tony Phillips situation," Collins said.

"As much as you try to forget it, it was the story. Every radio show talked about Phillips. There were endless questions from reporters. That was tough for a lot of guys."

Phillips, who said club officials already have told him he would not be invited back next season, doesn't think he cost the Angels the division title, but he also won't argue with those who do.

"I left myself open for that," Phillips said. "I'll take the responsibility. . . .

"If a person wants to write that, he can write that. I don't believe that. I'll take responsibility for the situation I put these other guys into, but good teams overcome controversy. The only things that lose games are when you don't hit, you don't pitch and you don't play good defense."

Had the Phillips situation been the Angels' only problem in August, perhaps they would have pulled out of their slump and made a serious run at the division title.

But riding piggyback on the arrest were the Finley and Greene injuries, and that trio combined for a one-two-three punch that knocked the Angels out of contention.

Allen Watson and Jason Dickson, feeling pressured to fill Finley's stopper role, struggled in late August and early September, and knuckleballer Dennis Springer's surprising run of success finally expired.

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