The Old Troy Network

Percival returns to Angel Stadium with the Tigers but still has the gratitude and respect of his former teammates

May 06, 2005|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Darin Erstad played through the emotional trauma of a painful divorce in 2001, fought major hamstring injuries the last two years and has endured constant criticism for not generating enough power for a corner infielder making $8 million a season.

But nothing the Angel first baseman has experienced has prepared him for the possibility of peering out at the Angel Stadium mound this weekend and seeing longtime friend and teammate Troy Percival, a former Angel closer whose Detroit Tigers begin a three-game series tonight in Anaheim.

"I would have to say it will be one of the most difficult situations I've been through in my entire career," said Erstad, who spent nine seasons with Percival and is cut from the same competitive cloth as the reliever who had 316 saves with the Angels from 1995 to 2004.

"In past experiences, when I've faced former teammates, competitiveness takes over, and you do it. But it's going to be weird, especially because if he comes in, the game will be on the line. He represents what we stood for here for so many years. To see him in another uniform will be an eye opener, proof that it's real."

The camaraderie and respect Erstad feels toward Percival was reflected in the way Erstad gleefully slammed the baseball into the closer's glove and hugged his teammate after Percival recorded the final out of his 300th save against Texas last July 28 in Anaheim.

But that was only a snapshot of a nine-year friendship that germinated during the late 1990s, survived the near-trade of Erstad in 2002 and hit a high point with the World Series championship in 2002, a title won with Percival on the mound and Erstad catching the final out in center field.

In the cliques that compose a major league clubhouse, it's unusual for a pitcher, especially a reliever, to form a close bond with a position player. The Angel bullpen, in fact, was like a separate fiefdom for a decade, with Percival serving as president and chief executive officer.

But in Erstad, Percival found a kindred soul, and in Percival, who came to the big leagues a year before the first baseman, Erstad found a mentor.

"He always laid it on the line," Erstad said. "He was here for one reason, and one reason only: to win. He's always been about the team, that's it. That rubs off on guys like myself.

"He kind of defined our team for a long time."

It was Percival whose voice was often heard in team meetings, who instilled a bulldog mentality in so many Angel relievers, who provided teammates with a kick in the pants or a word of encouragement, whichever was necessary.

The closer protected his relievers like a shepherd does his flock; when the bullpen struggled, Percival wanted the heat. When he blew a save, Percival was at his locker waiting for reporters.

"He was a great teammate," setup man Scot Shields said. "We've plugged a lot of people into the bullpen over the years, and it's still good. A lot of that had to do with him."

It still does. When setup man Brendan Donnelly struggled in his first four games this season, giving up five earned runs and two home runs, Percival called the right-hander with some advice. In his next seven games, Donnelly threw 8 2/3 scoreless innings, lowering his earned-run average from 7.94 to 3.14.

"He saw something I wasn't doing on the mound, and I went back to doing it, and it helped," said Donnelly, who still speaks with Percival several times a week.

"We're still friends, and I know he roots for us to do well, just as we root for him to do well. Except when we're playing against each other."

When Shields gave up a homer in his first game April 5 and blew a save while filling in for closer Francisco Rodriguez against Texas on April 7, Percival passed some advice to Shields through Donnelly.

"He said even though I'm throwing the seventh and eighth innings, and sometimes the ninth, just pitch like you have your whole career, don't change anything," Shields said.

"When you're a teammate, you've got to say that, but he doesn't have to call across the country and do that. That's the type of person and player he is."

To Percival, such leadership came as naturally as the 95-mph fastballs he threw during his prime.

"He was just being himself, and by being himself, he was an incredible beacon to anyone who touched our bullpen or our clubhouse," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said.

"He was happy to pass on any information. He took an incredible amount of pride in the bullpen's accomplishments, not just his own.

"We had one of the best bullpens in baseball for four or five years, and Percival was a huge reason for that."

The Angels still have one of baseball's best bullpens without Percival, who signed a two-year, $12-million deal with the Tigers in November after the Angels did not offer him a contract.

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