Gene Autry had this terrific idea for his third baseman, Doug DeCinces. "Now Doug," said the old cowboy, sidling up to the ballplayer last Wednesday, "why don't you get that hot bat of yours working again and maybe hit about two, three out tonight." DeCinces, who had gone hitless the previous two games, laughed. "Would two be all right?" "Just fine," Autry said, apparently satisfied. So DeCinces hit two home runs that night in Anaheim Stadium as the California Angels beat the Kansas City Royals 8-5 and advanced three critical games ahead of them in the American League West.
It doesn't always work that way, of course. But if anybody has earned the right to have his homers served up on command, it's Autry. Only the Lord and the IRS know how much Autry has spent trying to bring a winner to Southern California since 1961, when the American League expanded to Los Angeles. His payroll—which includes former Most Valuable Players Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn, Rod Carew and Don Baylor—is probably one heckuva lot larger than Republic Pictures' was decades ago when he was riding the backlot range with Smiley Burnette and the gang from the Melody Ranch. And all he's had to show for his investment up to now is one measly division championship, in 1979.
But if Autry has waited a long time for his reward, his manager. Gene Mauch, has waited longer. For 23 years, man and boy manager, Mauch has been trying to win something in major league baseball. All he's gotten for his Jobian forbearance so far is a mop of white hair.
These two, the munificent owner and the long-suffering manager, are out to prove that they can be winners. In fact, with the exception of Jackson, who seems to have been in more World Series than NBC, all the Angels have something to prove in the postseason. And so, when the Royals came to Anaheim, the Angels were spoiling for action. The two teams started their three-game series tied for first place. When it was over, the Angels were three games ahead. At week's end, they were 3½ up and en route to Kansas City for three more games against the Royals.
The Angels won the first two games at Anaheim 3-2 and 2-1, on pitching and defense, supposed weaknesses. Then in the last game, with the obedient DeCinces in the forefront, they flashed some of their vaunted power—Brian Downing also homered—just to show they hadn't lost the touch. California could well finish the season with six players—Jackson, DeCinces, Downing, Baylor, Lynn and Bobby Grich—hitting 20 or more homers each.
The Angels, who aren't supposed to be able to pitch, lead the league with a 3.82 ERA. Ken Forsch, Geoff Zahn, Steve Renko and Bruce Kison have surpassed all but Mauch's expectations of them, and Tommy John, acquired from the Yankees on Aug. 31 for three minor league "players to be named later," has given the staff dimension and experience in the stretch. John Curtis, who says he "just moved up the road [from San Diego on Sept. 1] from one pennant race to another," provides a lefthanded arm in the bullpen, where the absence of Righthander Don Aase (he came down with a sore arm on July 18) has been grievously felt.
And, oh, the fielding! The Royals pride themselves, with considerable justification, on their defense, particularly up the middle, where Frank White at second, U.L. Washington at short and Amos Otis in center roam widely over turfs natural and ersatz. But it was the Angels who made the big plays last week. Even Jackson, who will never be mistaken for Tris Speaker in the field, contributed a nifty running catch of Don Slaught's blooper in the third inning of the second game. In the next inning, Carew snatched a hard bouncer to his right off George Brett and transformed a potential hit into a three-six-three double play. Pitcher Forsch pounced on the speedy White's bunt in the fifth inning and threw him out with a strike to first. And Fred Lynn took another hit away from White in the seventh.
The next night brought no surcease. In the second inning, with runners on second and third and only one out, Grich plucked consecutive line drives, the second on a spectacular diving catch off Ron Johnson. And in the seventh. Downing in left slid on his barrel chest to take a single away from Washington.
But these gems were mere baubles when compared with what Lynn did in the fourth inning of the second game. With two outs and no score, Otis slammed a Forsch fastball deep to left center. Downing in left and Lynn in center set off in fervent pursuit, but the ball seemed certain either to arrive at the fence before them or sail over it. In fact, Lynn and Downing got there when the ball did, but it also cleared the fence—if only for an instant. Lynn, who is lefthanded, leaped above and into the barrier to catch the ball before it dropped to the other side, while Downing ducked at the last second to avoid a ruinous collision. The top of the fence was pushed back by the combined force of the two flying Angels and had to be hastily bolstered after the play. When Lynn raised his glove hand with the ball appearing safely inside, the crowd of 52,415 fell momentarily into an unbelieving silence. Then the cheers began. It was one of the great catches of the year, any year. Asked afterward if he'd ever seen a better one, Mauch responded, "No, I don't think I've seen anyone else make a better catch, but I've seen Lynn make some better."
By playing that night at all, Lynn was, in a sense, proving something. For the past several weeks he has been nursing a cracked rib on his left side that makes it painful for him even to drive a car, let alone play the outfield and swing a bat. Although he hit the fence on his right side, the force of the collision caused him even greater discomfort and he was unable to start the next two games. He did, however, single in one late-inning at bat at Texas on Thursday, belying a reputation for malingering that he had somehow acquired in his seven years with the Boston Red Sox. Despite the injury, he was hitting .297, with 19 homers and 83 RBIs. And catches such as the one he made in Anaheim defy comprehension.