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The California Angels do not have a chance. Just look at them. The manager is a rookie. The third baseman is a rookie. The shortstop is a third baseman. The second baseman can't hit. The catcher is always hurt. The pitchers are too young. Anyway, you get the idea. For these Angels, Heaven can wait.
Or so it would seem to rational observers of the American League West. But at week's end, after they had swept a three-game series from the Baltimore Orioles in Anaheim, there were the Angels in virtually a tie for first place, just .001 behind Kansas City. Can this really be California, the team that has languished for years in the shadow of the Dodgers, Disneyland and most of the American League?
No American League team has ever won the pennant after making a midseason managerial change, but the Angels, who five times have changed managers during a season, might well do it under 36-year-old Jim Fregosi, who began his major league career as an Angel cherub in 1961, the year the team was formed. Archangel Gene Autry picked Fregosi to succeed Dave Garcia on June 1. At the time, Fregosi was playing neither well nor often for Pittsburgh. But when the Angels lost 17-2 to Chicago for their fifth straight defeat, Autry decided that Fregosi was just the medicine his slumping team needed.
" Garcia was a dandy guy, but he was too quiet," Autry says. "Jimmy is a scrapper, a go-getter. I felt he would be someone the players would respect."
Fregosi began making changes immediately. Among them, he moved Rick Miller from rightfield to center, shifted Lyman Bostock from center to right and installed Brian Downing as the full-time catcher. The latter move was particularly bold because the Angels' top pitchers, Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan, had been working almost exclusively with Terry Humphrey behind the plate. Says Fregosi, "When I first made the change, Tanana came into my office and said, 'Humphrey catches me,' and I told him, 'Not anymore.' "
Downing subsequently has emerged as "the MVP since I've been here," says Fregosi. Downing is true grit. He is forever putting an ice bag on a sore limb, but his injuries never seem to stop him from running full bore into the dugout after a foul pop or blocking the plate. "It makes you sick to the stomach to see a guy like Downing play in that kind of agony," says the Angels' executive vice-president, Buzzie Bavasi. Says Downing, "I always liked to be hurt, or at least I wasn't afraid to be. The only time I felt totally healthy this year, I went into a slump." Since becoming a regular, Downing's average has risen from .250 to .270. In July, when California spent almost half the month in first place, Downing hit .347.
Downing says he is happy to be in California where he can play every day and not worry about White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who harassed him mercilessly in Chicago last season. "He's the only person in the world I really hate," Downing says. "He basically ran me out of town. Every minor mistake I made became a World Series blunder, and the fans who listened to him stayed on me all the time. It really hurt me to be booed on a baseball field, because I try to play so hard. Even though I hit pretty well [.284], I worried what he might be saying about me when I was up at the plate. Thinking about how bad it was has made me want to do even better this season."
Bostock also has been motivated by criticism—the self-inflicted kind. A .318 hitter in three seasons with the Twins, Bostock joined the Angels through the reentry draft. However, he was unable to buy a hit, even with his $2.3 million contract. Bostock became so unhappy with himself, in fact, that he donated part of the salary to charity, saying he didn't deserve it. At the end of May, Bostock was still hitting under .210, but he welcomed his new manager with a 4-for-4 performance and was off on a tear that has lifted his average almost 100 points to .300.
"For a while I didn't think I'd break out of it," Bostock says. "I would have been very happy to hit .250."
The Angels have gotten mixed results from their 1977 free-agent class of DH Don Baylor, Leftfielder Joe Rudi and Second Baseman Bobby Grich. Rudi and Grich are able to play, which is an improvement over last year when they were injured most of the time, but they haven't been at their best. Baylor, who now takes an occasional whirl at first base, leads the team with 25 home runs, 68 RBIs, 84 runs and 18 stolen bases. After beating Baltimore with a two-out homer in the bottom of the ninth Friday night, Baylor declared, "As I go, so goes the team."