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A Little Bit Off-Center

The Abandon With Which Edmonds Plays Speaks Volumes, but His Body Language Doesn't Always Translate Well

March 18, 1998|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — It seems Angel center fielder Jim Edmonds' only problem is that he is not Dave Hollins or Darin Erstad.

Edmonds has tried walking around the clubhouse with a scowl and acting all serious during batting practice. He has tried being quieter, more reserved.

"Every time I do something like that, people say, 'What's wrong with you?' " Edmonds said. "So I've made up my mind I'm not going to change my personality."

Oh, well, it looks as if the Angels are just going to have to live with Edmonds and his spectacular diving catches, his superb throwing arm, his ability to hit for both average and power, and, yes, his knack for driving some coaches bananas.

Edmonds has what Manager Terry Collins calls "a gait of confidence," which some might construe more negatively as a pro glide. He has so much natural ability and such a carefree, almost happy-go-lucky, approach to the game that everything seems easy for him.

He will laugh at himself after looking silly waving at two curveballs in the dirt, then drill a fastball over the wall. He will hobble off the field with a pained expression after a hard slide, then race 40 yards into the gap, chasing down a long fly ball.

"Some guys have to grind it out every day," Collins said. "Others are so skilled they sometimes give the impression they're not trying, even though they are."

Anyone who has seen Edmonds crash into a wall, dive onto the warning track or run from first to third on a single knows that Edmonds exerts himself every day.

But between those plays will be an occasional at-bat where it appears Edmonds didn't have much of a plan, or a night when, perhaps because of injury or fatigue, he will mope around for a few innings as if he didn't really want to be out there.

"I don't think in the 2,200 games I played I could count on two hands the number of nights I felt great," said Angel third base coach Larry Bowa, a former Philadelphia Phillie shortstop. "But that's what separates the good players from the superstars; they're able to grind it out.

"Jimmy has the chance to be a superstar with the way he hits and plays defense. But there are games when it looks like he's not mentally where he should be. . . . Sometimes because of his mannerisms--he'll drop his head or something--you get the perception that maybe he doesn't feel like playing."

General Manager Bill Bavasi noticed that as early as 1992, when Edmonds was playing at double-A Midland, Texas. The team's farm director at the time, Bavasi evaluated Edmonds for a few days and concluded, "His body language will drive you nuts."

Bavasi tried a little experiment, watching Edmonds only during the action. Between pitches he looked away. He was so impressed with the outfielder that he instructed scouts not to look at Edmonds between pitches.

Edmonds progressed rapidly through the Angel farm system, reached the big leagues in 1993 and had a breakthrough season in 1995, hitting .290 with 33 homers and 107 RBIs, scoring a franchise-record 120 runs, and making the All-Star team.

Injuries limited Edmonds to 114 games in 1996 but he hit .304 with 27 homers and 66 RBIs. And he played through pain often in 1997, hitting .291 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs and winning his first Gold Glove award.

But with a fiery new manager in Collins, an ultra-intense coach in Bowa and a team that puts a heavy emphasis on machismo and grit, Edmonds' body language did not seem to translate well at times in 1997.

Edmonds sensed it last September, and one day in Texas he broached the subject with Bowa.

"He said, 'I understand you don't like the way I play,' " Bowa said. "I said, 'I love the way you play. It's the way you approach the game that I don't like.' Sometimes he has the tendency to let his instincts and natural ability take over."

Edmonds sat out the first two weeks of August because of a strained lower back and played the last six weeks on knees so sore that both required surgery last October.

Unlike some in the Angel clubhouse, who refuse to acknowledge injuries, Edmonds has always been candid with reporters when he wasn't feeling well. That, too, seemed to rub some the wrong way.

"No one's saying he has to hit 50 home runs, but give the opposition the look that you're going to play every day--then the guy in front of him [in the lineup] will see better pitches, and it changes the way other teams approach us," Bowa said.

"He has to understand it's impossible to be 100% all the time. You should be banged up in August. You should have scabs and bone bruises and be in pain. If you don't, you're not busting it. . . . If we expect to win our division and Jim plays only 90 games, we're in trouble."

Edmonds says he "understands where [Bowa] is coming from," and whatever differences the two might have had have been ironed out.

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