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Second Thoughts

Angels: Phillips controversy marked the beginning of the end as team came up six games short in AL West.

September 29, 1997|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 Aug. 19, or when a foul tip broke a bone in catcher Todd Greene's right wrist 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, where Angel leadoff batter Tony Phillips was allegedly looking for a spark of another kind.

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

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 dealt a staggering blow to Angel pennant hopes. 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 "with a loaded pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other."

Phillips' 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."

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 ordered the Angels to reinstate Phillips.

But by then, the Angels had lost eight of 11 games to fall 1 1/2 games behind Seattle, and they found themselves in the middle of 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.

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

"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 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. . . .

"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, perhaps they would have pulled out of their slump. But riding piggyback on the arrest were the Finley and Greene injuries, and those 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, began to struggle, and knuckleballer Dennis Springer's surprising run of success finally ended.

Ken Hill, acquired in a July 29 deal from Texas, emerged as the staff ace in late August, but the Angels couldn't score any runs for him. The clutch hits, so bountiful most of the year, began to disappear.

To compound matters, leadoff batter Rickey Henderson, acquired in an Aug. 13 deal, hit only .183 and Phillips, despite hitting successfully in 25 of 30 games after his return, had very little impact--his average actually decreased, from .279 to .275.

With Chad Kreuter and Gary DiSarcina providing little offense at the bottom of the order, there weren't many RBI opportunities for Tim Salmon and the heart of the lineup. And without Finley, there was no pitcher who could be counted on to break a losing streak.

"In my time, I've never seen anything like [his win streak], where a pitcher dominated 10 straight opponents like that," Collins said. "But you have to have your pitching staff intact, you need consistency from your starters, and let's face it, in the last month we didn't get that."

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