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Bill Plaschke

Memory of Old Cowboy Is Percival's Motivation

April 05, 2002|Bill Plaschke

If you need a reason to cheer for the Angels this season--and after all the heartache, who doesn't?--look no further than the framed jersey hanging in the middle of their clubhouse.

The number on the back is 26.

The name across the shoulders reads Autry.

The reason to cheer sits directly across from that jersey, staring, shaking his head, spitting tobacco juice into a cup, staring again.

"This year is our best chance to win something for him," says reliever Troy Percival, talking about another old cowboy named Gene Autry. "In the back of my mind, that's what it's still about."

Reflected in the glass of that framed jersey, Percival's face is unshaven, his hair is buzzed, his eyes are squinting.

Reflected in the young smiles around him, it is the countenance of an old glove.

The kind that thwacks so sweetly each spring.

"You want to know how lucky I am?" Percival asks. "I'd have given my left arm to play this game. That's how lucky I am."

It is our good fortune that for seven seasons he has played in Anaheim, longer than any current Angel but Tim Salmon, long enough to become baseball's best unheralded pitcher.

More important, long enough to become its most vocal link to the club's late, beloved founder.

"Mr. Autry used to come to the clubhouse after games and have a beer with the boys and tell stories," he recalls. "I was lucky enough to hear some of those stories."

Percival, 32, still keeps a small pocket knife given to him by an Autry friend.

"I was told the knife was a gift from Mr. Autry, because I was one of his favorite players," Percival recalled. "I'll never forget that."

He never forgets any of it. He moved his locker across the room last season simply because he wanted to dress where Chuck Finley once dressed.

"There are some legacies here, and I want to follow them," he said.

Yet there is one legacy he is trying to escape, that of being baseball's best reliever never to appear in a playoff game.

This season he will probably become the Angels' all-time leader in games pitched. Yet the only games he remembers are the ones the Angels did not play, the playoff games enjoyed by others, the empty Octobers.

"I can't stand to watch an entire playoff or World Series game," he says. "But I've never missed a Mariano Rivera appearance. I'll watch him and think, what would that be like?"

During the off-season, angry at the club for revealing contract negotiations, upset at six years of futility, he was preparing for a trade that would allow him to experience that playoff feeling elsewhere.

"I told my friends, well, OK, I've got to go do that," he recalls.

Then the Angels acquired two veteran starting pitchers, and a starting bat, and Percival started thinking.

"What if I could make the playoffs and never have to leave the team that I've always loved? Are you kidding me?" he recalls.

So, in a statement as bold as those Jolly Rancher red jerseys, he stayed.

He signed a two-year contract extension that provided fans with a closing argument.

This was not another annual Angel off-season mirage.

This was real. They are truly trying to make the playoffs. Even in baseball's toughest division, they absolutely have a chance.

"I have never seen it set up like this," Percival says. "Everything we needed, we got. It was like the organization was finally saying, 'It's time.'"

Because one of baseball's most underrated torches deserves a chance to light up an autumn night, you hope he's right.

Because loyalty in the face of frivolity deserves to be rewarded, you hope Troy Percival will be there.

He's the Angel who has always wanted to be an Angel, an All-Star who grew up in Riverside and never left home.

For fun last winter, he and best friend Darrell Goedhart would sit around on folding chairs in Percival's garage, shooting the breeze while 1980s music played on the radio.

Sometimes Percival would accompany Goedhart, a former minor leaguer turned iron worker, to a job site.

"I go out and see how he sweats and how hard he works and it just reminds me how fortunate I am," Percival says.

It is this sort of blunt attitude that made him mad at the Angels last fall, when he threatened to leave after word of contract negotiations leaked.

Unlike most other players, he wasn't angry about the money, he was angry about the leak.

"I'm the sort of guy who still thinks that stuff should be private," he said. "Nobody wants to feel sorry for anybody making a million bucks."

Percival wanted an apology. But when president Tony Tavares resigned, he decided that was good enough.

It was the same straight approach that caused the much-publicized tiff between Percival and former teammate Mo Vaughn during spring training.

Percival correctly said the Angels would not miss Vaughn's leadership because Darin Erstad was their leader.

Vaughn, now with the Mets, acted as if someone had just stolen his last doughnut, cursing and ripping Percival in the New York media for never appearing in the playoffs.

How did Percival respond?

"Well, if you take out all the expletives, the guy was right," he says with a shrug. "We haven't made the playoffs. It wasn't worth barking back at him over that."

He knows the howling can only occur on the field, which is where he was headed Wednesday afternoon after undergoing an MRI exam on a painful rib.

Doctors said that he will not be allowed to pitch until next week. Percival shows up at the clubhouse and begins putting on his uniform anyway.

"I'm live!" he shouts to Manager Mike Scioscia, indicated that he could pitch on this evening.

"We'll talk about it," says Scioscia.

"I'm live," he shouts again, in a voice that echoes from here to 1986.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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