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Sleeping like Angels
Tim Kurkjian
August 19, 1996
California needs more than just a new manager to end its yearlong doldrums, The Astros' rising relief star
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August 19, 1996

Sleeping Like Angels

California needs more than just a new manager to end its yearlong doldrums, The Astros' rising relief star

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The Angels players said the right things when manager Marcel Lachemann resigned on Aug. 6. They acknowledged what a shame it was that they hadn't performed up to expectations and noted that Lachemann deserved better. Then they went out and dropped their first five games under interim skipper John McNamara, including an embarrassing 18-3 loss to the Royals last Saturday night. It's shocking to consider how far California has fallen in such a short time.

Last Aug. 15 the Angels had a 64-38 record and led the American League West by 10½ games. Since then, through Sunday, they had gone 67-93. At week's end they were 12½ games out of first and seemed sure to finish last in a division many prognosticators figured they would win. Utility-man Rex Hudler says that when California started losing again this year, following its late-season collapse in 1995, "there was a panic, and Lach didn't know how to handle it. We felt we had to win in May or June. There was pressure, pressure, pressure. It's hard to play with your hands around your throat."

"We lost our confidence last year, and a lot of guys are still doubting themselves," says centerfielder Jim Edmonds. "You can't play that way."

The Angels will take the rest of the season to search for a new manager. They need a fiery, turn-over-the-postgame-spread kind of guy; no other team needs a kick in the pants more. And while the front office is searching, it should also try to find a few players who hustle, cajole and inspire. "We need three or four starting guys who are leaders, who have that intensity, because we don't have that here," says Hudler. "We don't have the fire here because we don't have the matches."

Even new Angels president Tony Tavares ripped into his team last week, saying, "We have too many players who look like they came from Newport Beach, where their daddies and mommies gave them everything they wanted." Indeed, too many of the Angels seem not to be overly bothered by losing. That's evidence that California hasn't recovered from the loss of spark plug outfielder Tony Phillips, who signed with the White Sox as a free agent last winter. The Angels let him go because they wanted to have second-year player Garret Anderson join young stars Edmonds and Tim Salmon in the outfield.

Only Edmonds and closer Troy Percival seem to have the potential to become team leaders. They can't make up for the horrible pitching of Jim Abbott (1-15 through Sunday) and others on the California staff, but they must ignite their laid-back brethren—or the front office will have to bring in somebody who can.

Billy Hits the Big Time

You're on the mound. Your team is leading by a run with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but the bases are loaded and Giants sluggers Barry Bonds and Matt Williams are due up. Tough spot, huh? For Astros rookie Billy Wagner, being in that situation on Aug. 4 was no big deal—not after what he has faced. With the calm of a seasoned closer, Wagner threw three fastballs by Bonds, then three more by Williams. The Astros won 7-6, and a star was born.

Billy Wagner, 25, is equal parts Ron Guidry and Jethro Bodine. He's a smallish (5'11", 180-pound) lefthander with a Southern twang and a fastball in the mid-90s. He was born in the southwest Virginia town of Tannersville (pop. 271). "You can't really call it a town—it has one store, the general store, that's where you get your mail, groceries, everything," he says. "It's easy to know everyone. There's nothing there but mountains. You hunt or fish or go stir crazy."

To get to school every day, kids in his town—all 10 or 15 of them—had to take an hour-long bus ride over the mountains to Tazewell. With so few children around, Wagner learned to throw by playing catch with himself. "I'd go out to a field, rear back and see how far I could throw," he says. "I only had a few balls. I'd throw them, go pick 'em up and throw 'em back." On an aunt and uncle's farm, "there was a strike zone etched into the cement wall of the dairy," Wagner says. "They've owned that place forever, and they have no idea how that thing got there. I'd throw against it for two hours a day. I'd throw 100 pitches, and my cousin would count the balls and strikes. I had no idea that any of that would ever lead to anything."

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