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Salmon, also like Snow, has the luxury of knowing that he's penciled into the Opening Day lineup. "You don't have to be so hard on yourself if you're not fighting for a job," he says. "But we're all competitors here, and you still have to prove yourself. We're all trying to be better ballplayers. None of us are flukes. Whitey watched us last year, and I think I proved I can play. But this is no Cakewalk."
Whatever it is, it'll be better than last season, when the Angels finished in a tie for fifth in the American League West, 24 games out of first, and experienced enough off-field calamities to enliven a gothic novel. Consider that in rapid succession, pitcher Matt Keough, attempting a comeback, was nearly killed by a batted ball while he sat in the dugout during spring training; popular coach Deron Johnson died of cancer at age 53; and then, early in the morning of May 21, a team bus en route from New York to Baltimore hurtled off the New Jersey Turnpike and crashed into a grove of trees, injuring manager Buck Rodgers so severely that he did not return to the job until Aug. 28. "For three or four weeks after that accident." says Herzog, "the players didn't even think about baseball. They were just happy to be alive."
"You don't have to tell me what a bad year it was," says Rodgers, who had extensive surgery to repair a shattered knee and elbow. The challenges of managing a team that doomsayers are calling "nothing but a Triple A club" seem trivial now to a man who 10 months ago was pinned in a demolished bus and was thinking he would never live to see another game. Always pleasant in the past, the reprieved Rodgers is positively jolly this spring and as optimistic as a manager in his unenviable position can be.
"The lifeblood of baseball is the minor leagues." he says, squinting across a diamond aswarm with downy-cheeked Jugend. "It'll be fun watching these kids mature." He laughs. "Of course, it's fine being a teacher, but my goal is to get to the World Series. I know I've never managed so many young players at this level, but I can tell you we'll have fun out there, and we'll stir up some trouble."
Rodgers has a lineup as fixed, if not nearly so distinguished, as the Atlanta Braves'. The infield will have Snow at first; slick-fielding second-year player Damion Easley, who has 21 major league at bats too many for rookiehood, at second; Gary DiSarcina, a second-year starter, at short; and, until (if ever) Gruber returns, veteran Rene Gonzales at third. The outfield will have Salmon in right; second-year man Chad Curtis, a teammate of Salmon's at Grand Canyon, in center; and veteran Luis Polonia in left. John Orton, who has appeared in all of 119 games over parts of four seasons, is favored to do the bulk of the catching. Chili Davis, a free-agent signee with the Angels for the second time in his career, is the DH.
The pitching—"Let us hope it doesn't go south," says Herzog—is anchored by lefthanded starters Chuck Finley (7-12 in 1992) and Mark Langston (13-14). Second-year man Julio Valera (8-11) is third in the rotation, with Springer and free-agent acquisition Scott Sanderson (12-11 with the Yankees) following. Joe Grahe, the closer, succeeded in 21 of 24 save opportunities in his first full major league season last year, and he will replace Harvey now that the onetime luminary has gone irrevocably south. "Hell," says Rodgers, "we're even young on the mound."
Another handful of blue-chip prospects will be a phone call away at Triple A Vancouver, including centerfielder Kevin Flora and pitchers Troy Percival, Paul Swingle, Hilly Hathaway and Darryl Scott, most of whom could use another year of seasoning in the minor leagues.
All these tyros romp through workouts at the lavish Tempe facilities on a March afternoon before the watchful eye of owner Gene Autry, who will turn 86 in September, and his wife, Jackie, the team's executive vice-president and a principal architect of the Angel youth movement. Paradoxically, the Angels look both younger and more traditional.
"We changed the logo and the uniforms," says Jackie. The red socks are gone in favor of navy blue, and, mercifully, the red shoes that not even Moira Shearer could look good in have been replaced by aristocratic black. "We're going to keep changing things until we get them right," says Jackie.
One thing hasn't changed, though: There in the outfield is Jimmie Reese, a 76-year veteran who once roomed with Babe Ruth, lofting fungoes to youngsters who could be his great-grandchildren. Reese was listed in last season's media guide as being 87 years old. This year, he is listed at his true age, which is 91. "He finally fessed up," says Larry Babcock, California's manager of baseball information. "It seems he started his career a little late, so he always lied about his age. When he passed 90, he finally said, 'To hell with it.' "