Phillips, who had
been the man in the middle throughout the long ordeal, is now at least
temporarily relieved of his burden. But for how long? Five times during the
season Phillips benched Johnson, only to be overruled, apparently from on high.
And throughout his travail, Phillips found it hard to believe that anyone of
Johnson's exceptional skills would willingly play so far beneath himself.
Lefty Phillips is
a near-perfect victim. He has the face for it—a long, sad-eyed countenance on
which the skin hangs in loose folds like a hound's. He has the disconcerting
habit of speaking with his mouth full of either tobacco or an unlit cigar, both
of which he chews forcefully. These are the mannerisms that have made him
vulnerable to all sorts of clubhouse mimics.
Phillips was never
a major league player. He turned to scouting after a sore arm cut short his
career while he was still in the low minors. But for all of his down-home
personality, he is an apt student of baseball. He was an excellent pitching
coach for the Dodgers, and three years ago he was made the Angels' director of
player personnel. In May of 1969 he succeeded Bill Rigney as the team's
manager. The next year he piloted the Angels to an 86-76 won-loss record,
equaling their best season. Now in 1971 he seems cruelly destined to lead them
to one of their worst—just when they looked like pennant contenders.
The Angels have
not been hitting. Some of their stars—notably Fregosi and Conigliaro—have been
playing with injuries, and lesser lights have fallen prey to some unusual
accidents. Pitcher Rudy May hurt his arm after he tripped over his dog, and
Pitcher Andy Messersmith survived a 90-mile-an-hour auto collision. But
Phillips is convinced that Johnson is the villain of the piece.
"I came up in
this game the hard way," he said recently from behind his cigar. "I can
understand if a man plays bad when he has no ability, but this fellow has great
ability, super ability. There's always been players who couldn't get along with
their teammates. Cobb was one, and Tinker and Evers almost never talked to each
other. The difference was, they played good. This fellow won't even try. And
that's not just bad for us, it's bad for baseball."
This last is a
recurring theme: by refusing to play as well as he is capable, Johnson was not
only hurting his team, but attacking the game's basic ethic.
take a kid of mine to see Johnson play," said Fisher, echoing sentiment
popular among the Angels. "A kid seeing him play might say, 'So that's how
they do it in the major leagues.' Well, that's not how they do it in the major
leagues. I've never been on a team where the players didn't give 100%. This
thing just leaves you disgusted. Finally you end by compromising the things you
really believe in. That's the hard part. This man is the most unusual
ballplayer I've run into in 14 years in the game. Every man on the team has
tried to reach him. None of it has worked."
"What do you
see when you see a person walking down the street like this?" said
Conigliaro, hunching his shoulders in a poor imitation of a Lon Chaney
creation. "You know that person is sick, right? That's how I feel about
Alex. He's got a problem deep inside him that he won't talk about. He's so hurt
inside, it's terrifying. He's a great guy off the field. On the field, there's
something eating away at him."
convinced "there are those who want to see me break down. I'm not close to
breaking down. Probably 99% of human beings would be. Not me. And that
frustrates them even more."
He is playing his
own game now, but it isn't baseball. Despite his protests to the contrary,
there is a possibility that Johnson simply has lost his taste for the sport. He
hinted as much the other day in what amounted to a parable. "When I was
about 13 or 14," he said, "I kept hearing about pizza. I didn't know
what it was. I thought they were saying, 'piece of,' like 'piece of pie.' One
day I went into a place and ordered the biggest pizza there. I ate and ate and
then left and got sick. It wasn't what I had expected. I had expected a sweet