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It's 3:30 on a weekday afternoon, fully four hours before game time, and already the mostly middle-aged—by baseball standards—members of the California Angels are filtering into their clubhouse. Soft rock is playing on a stereo, and in the center of the room a lively bridge game is in progress.
Pitcher Andy Hassler, 30, one of about half a dozen elegantly balding Angels, is explaining to a visitor why his team is prospering. "I don't know what you'd call it," he says. "Cohesiveness, I guess. We've got guys who are used to playing with...."
"Your deal," Shortstop Tim Foli breaks in. "Bridge comes before any interviews."
But not before baseball. Despite early-season losing streaks of seven and eight games, California was leading the American League's Western Division by two games at week's end. And in the process the Angels were justifying every hope and quashing every fear that had attended them during the preseason.
How, it was asked back then, could a team with four former Most Valuable Players—Rightfielder Reggie Jackson (Oakland, 1973), Centerfielder Fred Lynn (Boston, 1975), First Baseman Rod Carew (Minnesota, 1977) and DH Don Baylor (California, 1979)—possibly lose? Ah, but how could a club with a lineup averaging 33 years of age and a suspect pitching staff possibly win?
For the answer, consider what happened in Baltimore early last week. The Angels took two of three from the Orioles, baseball's hottest team since May 13. In the opener Jackson, 36, hit his third homer of the season off Scott McGregor—the same Scotty who once ate Reggie with his evening haggis. What's more, Jackson singled twice off tough McGregor pitches and made the key play of the game by alertly advancing from first to second on a fly ball. The move sparked a three-run, eighth-inning California rally and led to a 6-5 Angel victory. "He's got new life," McGregor said of Jackson, the Yankee discard.
The next night the rejuvenated righthander Dave Goltz, 33, worked into the sixth inning, and the unflappable Hassler pitched 3⅔ innings of superlative relief. The Angels won 7-4 as Jackson started the scoring with a sacrifice fly and every regular had either a hit, a run or a run batted in. Before losing the series finale 8-7, California rallied from a 5-2 deficit to lead 7-5.
Though the Angels dropped the opener of a series in New York 6-3 on Friday night, Jackson retained his share of the league lead with his 23rd homer, a tremendous blast off Shane Rawley, and received a standing ovation from the 50,314 fans at Yankee Stadium. "I try to be unique and different," said Reggie. Even when the Angels lose, as they did in two of their three outings in New York, they provide theater.
In Anaheim, where California was 31-19 before this week's home stand, the Angels had drawn 1,676,944 in 50 dates—a 33,539 average that projects to a league single-season record of 2,716,659. It's easy to see why they're such an attraction: The nine regulars entered the season with a .278 career average, and through Sunday they were cruising along at a productive .283. There's the 36-year-old Carew, who figures to hit better than .300 for the 14th straight season. There are two bat-control experts in Catcher Bob Boone (.271, 18 sacrifices, five successful squeeze bunts) and Foli (.279, 17 sacrifices, 71 singles). And there are six sluggers who could hit 20 or more homers this year: Jackson, Leftfielder Brian Downing (15), Baylor (14), Lynn (12), Third Baseman Doug DeCinces (12), and Second Baseman Bobby Grich (10). The last club to accomplish that feat was the 1965 Braves. As McGregor says, "You have to be very careful pitching to this team."
At first hearing, Hassler's comment about cohesiveness may seem strange. Only five players remain from the 1979 Angels, who won the American League West, thereby giving California its only championship in its 22-year history. Four starters—Boone, DeCinces, Foli and Jackson, who came from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New York, respectively—are new to the team. But closeness apparently develops quickly on a club when all nine regulars have played at least seven seasons and have been on one or more division winners. Jackson has been on nine.