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Evans hit only .232 with 16 homers in just 401 at bats that season, but the World Series championship made it all worthwhile. It had taken him 16 years to make it to the top, and he was grateful. He was a memorable sight in the victorious clubhouse after the fifth and final game, the eye of the hurricane, standing apart, quietly sipping champagne, with tears in his eyes. "I don't know whether you become a family before an experience like that or afterward," he says now, "but I do know these men are my family and I'll never forget them. The memories will go on forever."
Still, he got no respect. In an interview last year for an airline magazine, his team's owner, pizza mogul Thomas Monaghan, complained about the high price of free agents, singling out Evans as the quintessential overpaid geezer keeping worthier young players on the sidelines. The young player he specifically had in mind was 25-year-old Mike Laga, who, shades of O'Malley, was brought up from Nashville on May 14, 1985 to take Evans's first base job away from him. On May 15 Evans, who had been hitting. 167 with just two homers and four RBIs, hit a home run. He hit another the next day and another the day after that and another the day after that. Laga was returned to Nashville on June 2. "I tell Mike he's the best hitting coach I know," says Evans. "Every time I see him I get inspired."
Laga came back to haunt Evans again this year. In spring training, Anderson announced that Laga would be on first and that Evans, who played 113 of his 151 games there last year, would henceforth be merely the designated hitter against righthanded pitching. Evans was thunderstruck. "Why?" he cried. "How can you hit 40 home runs and then be taken out of the lineup?" Good question. And Anderson, indignant that anyone should dare inquire, answered: "Mike Laga is 26 years old [in June]. We have to find out whether he can play. If he can, we've got a guy who'll be around for 10 years. Now here you've got a 26-year-old person and a 39-year-old person. Who do you think will have the longer career? And it would be silly on my part to make a DH out of a 26-year-old. My goal is to stay in Detroit as long as I can, and I'm going to pick the people who'll keep me here."
As it turns out, Sparky has not been as good as his word. In the Tigers' first 40 games, Evans started in 38, 18 as a first baseman and 11 against lefthanders. Laga, who is now on the 21-day disabled list with a fractured right wrist, was again a source of inspiration for Evans. On Tuesday, April 29, Laga's seventh-inning homer won the game for Detroit against the righthanded Dennis Leonard of Kansas City. The next night, Evans, playing in Laga's stead at first against the left-handed Charlie Leibrandt, hit what should have been a game-winning homer in the eighth, but the Tiger bullpen couldn't protect the lead in the ninth, and Detroit lost 7-3. Since then, Evans has hit four home runs and driven in 12 runs, so he now has nine homers, 20 runs batted in and a .235 average. It's just a coincidence, but there has been a spate of UFO sightings recently.
So Darrell Evans, as usual, holds the fort against ever-increasing odds. He is on the last year of his contract and has no idea what the future offers. Next season, he will turn 40. But he doesn't mind being an underdog.
He first signed with the then Kansas City A's in 1967, fresh from the campus of Pasadena City College. Sal Bando was a step ahead of him on Charlie Finley's ladder, and to complicate matters, Evans hurt his right arm in his first full season, 1968, trying to come back too soon after six months in the Marine Corps reserve. The Braves drafted him off the A's roster the following year. The third baseman ahead of him in Atlanta at the time was Clete Boyer, generally regarded as one of the finest fielders ever to play the position. Evans didn't make it to the big club for good until late in the '69 season, then sat on the bench as the Mets eliminated his team in the playoffs. It was about this time that he acquired the nickname he retains into early middle age—Doody. Indeed, Evans yet bears an unsettling resemblance to Buffalo Bob Smith's lemonwood companion, Howdy Doody.
By '71 Evans had taken the job from Boyer, and soon he showed his power. In '73, he hit 41 homers, thereby joining a historic trio. He and Davey Johnson (43 homers) and Hank Aaron (40) became the only three teammates in major league history to hit 40 or more home runs in a single season. Aaron thought Evans should hit 35 every year, but Darrell has done it only one other time. In '76, he was batting only .173 when the Braves traded him in June to San Francisco and the ignominy of back-in-the-standings finishes. But Evans gave it his best shot, and he was the team captain until spoilsport manager Frank Robinson took the job away from him in '81, growling that he didn't believe in team captains. Evans can take it. "He's a pro," says Dave Bergman, his teammate both in San Francisco and in Detroit. "On a scale of one to 10, Darrell is a 10, both as a player and a person."
Evans could scarcely escape being an athlete while growing up in Altadena, a town that, as its name suggests, looks down on Pasadena. His father, Richard, had been an AAU basketball player and his mother, Eleanor, a professional softball player. His uncle Bob played minor league baseball, and so did his maternal grandfather, Dave Salazar. "He was a pitcher, and from what I hear, a good one," says Evans of his grandfather, "but he was also a Mexican, and I guess the color line was drawn for him, too, because he never got to the big leagues." Evans's father gloried in the technical side of baseball. "His favorite book must have been So You Think You Know Baseball, and he went over every conceivable situation in that book with me. He never wanted me to be surprised by anything that ever happened on the field."
His dad also helped him to become a wonderer. "My dad loved to read, and so do I. I'd read the encyclopedia by the hour. I used to wonder what it must've been like for Columbus and Magellan sailing across a world they were told was flat. Can you imagine what courage that took? The human spirit is absolutely amazing. Now the only frontiers left are the oceans and space. And so I wonder about them."
He was drawn to space not by watching Star Trek, but by his father, whose occupation it was. "He taught by arguing," says Evans of his dad. "He'd take a side just to show that everything has two sides, that there are no absolutes, no pure black and whites. When you asked him a question, you had to be prepared, because he'd want to know why you were asking the question. He never treated me as a kid at all. The other thing my father did was listen to other people. I could see that when people walked away after a conversation with him they were always happier than they'd been before."