The Angels, led by that old noncommunicatin' devil Alex Johnson, may not have proved themselves everlastingly superior to the Birds last weekend when the Baltimore Orioles visited Anaheim and got clipped in two out of three superbly entertaining games, but no one is denying the surprising California club a place close to the American League West throne. And now—at last—it is clear what kind of Angel Harold (Lefty) Phillips is. He is not a cherub, because a cherub would not have his mouth forever half full of either chewing tobacco or chewed cigar. He is not anyone's idea of Gabriel, because Gabriel would not wear such baggy pants and he would speak up more distinctly. No, Lefty Phillips' kind of angel, as the Scripture and recent California baseball history reveal with careful reading, is a seraph, one of the seraphim. For we read in Isaiah that each of the seraphim that appeared to the prophet "had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly." Considering the way the Angels' manager walks and sort of runs, that is about how, as opposed to some less awkward way, he would fly.
Furthermore, like the seraphim who laid a hot coal on Isaiah's "unclean lips" to purge his sin, Lefty Phillips more gently took care of the local sports-page prophets "who have come up to me and said that after knowing me, they wanted me to know they were sorry for what they wrote." To these penitents Phillips has observed, in his equable way, "It takes a big man to do that."
Alex Johnson does not look like Lefty Phillips. His younger brother is University of Michigan and New York Giant Running Back Ron Johnson, but it often seems as though Alex could be Ron, too, in the off season. He gets down to first base as fast as anyone in the game and he is currently hitting a hard .366. Alex, however, does resemble Phillips in that his reputation has not been baseball's brightest.
For one thing, he is a heart-stopping leftfielder in the tradition of Rico Carty. From time to time he drops a fly ball, and sometimes he just looks as though he might. That is doubtless one reason why he has played on four different teams in seven years while maintaining a lifetime average, through Sunday, of .301. The other reason is that he is not, in any conventional sense, a sociable man. He is known for dressing in silence, doing his job, undressing in silence and going home. "But I don't think he was unpopular on those other teams," says Jim Fregosi, in Johnson's defense. "I think he just didn't have anything the hell to do with anybody. Here, though, we kid him and he kids us back. He does have some peculiar traits. Like he won't let anybody shake hands with him when he hits a home run. He says nobody wants to shake his hand when he strikes out so why the hell should he shake hands with them when he hits? And he calls everybody 'bleephead' or 'bleep-bleeper.' Just about everybody is a bleephead. But if you're decent with him he'll be decent with you."
Chico Ruiz, who came over from the Reds this year with Johnson, says, "Eet's not true that the players din' like heem in Cincinnati. They did. He jus' like to keep to heemself. But there they had lots of hitters. Here they glad to see hees hitting, he take some of the pressure off Fregosi, Jeem Spencer. He feel more appreciated. And he playing a lot harder here, he charging the ball in left field like he never did in Cincinnati. He din' like Dave Bristol there. Now that Bristol managin' Milwaukee he play extra hard against Milwaukee."
Johnson, playing with a stiff left arm, got two hits against the Orioles Friday night, including a long ninth-inning triple that was wasted, along with Andy Messersmith's six-hit complete-game pitching, as Mike Cuellar stifled the rest of the Angels to win 2-0. Saturday night Johnson took matters almost entirely into his own hands. He walked to force in the first California run, stole second to get into position to score the second run and won the game 3-2 for Tom Murphy with a 400-foot home run in the eighth. After Saturday's game the ebullient Ruiz said, "When he cross the plate he let Spencer jus' touch hees hand a little. I know he don' want anybody shakin' hees hand in the dugout so I hang back an' theen I jomp out an' grab eet. An' he keek me. He keek me. See theese shoe polish on my leg? See it right here? He keek me. Oh, he's my hero."
Delighted, Ruiz spotted Johnson glowering in his direction from across the locker room and said, "There he ees. He talk to you. Go talk to heem." Yes, he will talk, replies Johnson when asked the direct question. So he is asked another question: how does he like playing for this team as compared to the other teams he's played for? "They all alike," he says, and that, for any writer who knows strength of character when he sees it, is interview enough.
But the Angels of 1970 are in fact not like the Angels of 1969. So it is that Lefty Phillips' public relations are suddenly booming, a fact that infuriates as much as pleases Don Drysdale, whom Phillips (as a scout) signed and helped develop, and later (as Dodger pitching coach) counseled. "I think he's a great baseball man," says Drysdale, "and I've said this all the time. I was just burned up at the way everybody was talking about him last year—and nobody coming to his defense. It was a disgrace."
One trouble is that Phillips looks like a man who might come out to check the oil in a bandwagon, rather than a man who would have one of his own. "Lefty doesn't care about his pants," says Angel General Manager Dick Walsh. "As long as they stay on around the waist he doesn't think about what they look like." This year his pot is somewhat reduced and his pants overall a bit trimmer, but he still looks as though he may be keeping a few infield balls in his knicker legs and an extra infielder under his belt.
Another trouble is that Phillips' message is not always easy to pick up. His syntax has been called Stengelian, though it is not as fully developed as that. Walsh says, "It is not continuous. It is here and there and here and there." A Phillipsian sentence is, "I'm planning my pitching rotation out through the All-Star break for the sake of the armed forces," which means not that he is trying to give the Defense Department some kind of break but that he is allowing for the days his pitchers will miss for military reserve duty.