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Manager's grace and wit were hidden strengths

November 30, 2009|By Mike Penner

Contrary to the popular myth, there was a tomorrow for Gene Mauch after 1986.

After pulling Mike Witt in Game 5 of the 1986 American League championship series, after Donnie Moore-to-Dave Henderson, after the ultimate fizzle and collapse in Boston, Mauch did come back to manage one more season with the Angels, 1987, a year notable for a suspicious increase in home runs by people who ordinarily didn't hit many home runs.

Grumbling about a couple of dubious long balls in a loss to the Chicago White Sox, Mauch blamed the defeat on "some Haitian seamstress."

Yes, those were quaint times in 1987. Back then, they thought the baseballs were juiced, not the players.

Mauch could never prove it, but he suspected somewhere deep inside those baseballs, well beneath the rough horsehide, was an essence, tightly wrapped, that made all the difference, yet was hidden from the public.

The same could be said for Mauch, one of the most misunderstood figures in Southern California sports history.

Mauch managed the Angels during the 1980s, down the freeway from Tom Lasorda, who, according to the widely held cliche, was Mauch's polar opposite in everything from personality to managerial acumen.

According to the prevailing view, Mauch was the gruff, stern, unapproachable baseball genius, disliked by his players and a tough assignment for an inquisitive sportswriter. Lasorda, meanwhile, was the jovial Italian uncle every mother and nun loved, who supposedly couldn't manage his way out of a soggy Dodger Dog wrapper.

The stereotypes did both men a disservice. Lasorda had a coarse streak that made the celebrities in the photos on his office wall hold their ears when he ranted, yet he was deceptively shrewd as a tactician.

And Mauch was a deeply introspective and sensitive man, who could scan a vacant clubhouse after a tough Angel loss, see a pack of writers desperate for an angle, and would summon them back into his office for a saving anecdote that began, "I forgot to tell you what happened in the dugout during the third inning...."

I was assigned to cover the Angels for The Times in 1986. I'd been warned that Mauch could be tough on rookie beat writers, and at first, I felt the frost of the long, intimidating pause Mauch could throw into an interview, a conversational quirk that would bring all talk to an awkward halt and leave the questioner looking for the quickest, most unassuming exit available.

You would ask Mauch a question and there would be times when he wouldn't answer, wouldn't look at you, wouldn't even acknowledge your existence. Your mind began to race: Did he not hear the question? Did he deem it unworthy of his consideration? Was he waiting for you to say something intelligent, which meant the two of you could be sitting there in silence for quite a while?

Early on, I was hit with the legendary Mauch pause. Sitting next to him in the dugout, I asked my question. He set his jaw and stared into right field. I nervously cleared my throat. He continued to stare.

Finally, unable to take it anymore, I chased my question, following it up with what I thought might be helpful elaboration.

Abruptly, Mauch held up his right hand.

"Give me a second," he growled. "I'm trying to give you a good answer."

Handling interviews the same way he approached the game of baseball, Mauch needed some time to think. Once the wheels had turned, he provided an answer that was always thoughtful, often profound and usually the best quote you would get that afternoon at the ballpark.

In fact, Mauch was the best manager a rookie writer could have had. He was a rarity in that he understood the sportswriters' end of the game -- we needed angles, we needed quotes and we needed them quickly -- and knew how to help, and cared enough to help, provided you first showed him you were taking the assignment seriously enough.

He was articulate and witty, with a wide range of interests that would surprise those who knew only the caricature of Mauch the baseball obsessive. Back in the 1980s, writers covering the Angels used to joke that Mauch would have made a great sportswriter, except he was too smart.

Truth be told, he was probably too smart for something so trivial as managing a baseball team. His most memorable failures -- the Phillies' fade in 1964, the Angels' 0-3 swoon in the 1982 playoffs, Game 5 in 1986 -- were all products of a keen mind overworking the details, over-thinking a simple game that at times could be so illogical as to be confounding.

Mauch never believed he mishandled the ninth inning of Game 5. To him, it made perfect sense to take out Witt and bring on Gary Lucas to pitch to Rich Gedman -- even though Witt, at the peak of his powers, was one out away from delivering the Angels their first pennant, even with all of Anaheim Stadium rocking in anticipation of Witt's getting that out.

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