LOS ANGELES – It’s always like coming home when I cover a game at Dodger Stadium. I worked here for years, for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and Los Angeles Herald Examiner, newspapers no longer with us, and the memories are rich.
Stepping into the visitors’ clubhouse on Friday, I told a group of Angels about the time I tried to ask Cardinals legend Bob Gibson – in a corner of the clubhouse occupied at the moment by Joe Saunders – about his hometown of Omaha, Neb., which happened to be my own. I was doing something about a connection with Gale Sayers, who also called Omaha home, how two of the premier athletes ever hailed from the same place.
Gibson, not in a mood to chat, told me in no uncertain terms to take a hike. He wasn’t interested in discussing Omaha with me, now or ever. I also interviewed the late, great Roberto Clemente in this room, in the company of the late, great Jim Murray, who asked most of the questions. I remember Clemente talking about how terrible he felt, how his back was killing him and he didn’t know if he could even play that night.
He lashed three line drives, as I recall, and made one of his magnificent throws from right field. Clemente was the second most exciting player I’ve ever seen behind the one and only Willie Mays.
Near the press box, manned for years by a wonderful fellow named James Mims, I ran into an old buddy, Bobby Castillo. A right-hander pitcher for the Dodgers from East L.A., Castillo is the guy who taught Fernando Valenzuela the screwball.
Castillo, eyes alive as always, and I had a few laughs before Fernando, an announcer now with the princely Jaime Jarrin, showed up as if on cue. He was the same impish, smiling guy I met in 1980 and tried, without much success, to teach English in Dodgertown the following spring. Little did we know he was about to emerge as a national sensation.
My boyhood hero, the great Tommy Davis, walked by wearing No. 12, on his way to meet a group of fans. I shared a few words with Tommy D., who I covered briefly in his later years as a DH. Before breaking his ankle in a horrific slide – I was in the stands that night, high up in the left-field corner – Tommy D. was a Hall of Fame talent, I firmly believe. He was a great hitter and player, and he remains a gentleman of the highest order. He misses his old buddy Willie Davis, a dazzling presence who passed away much too soon.
Another familiar form arrived in Kenny Landreaux, another center fielder of superior quality for the Dodgers and other clubs. We reminisced, K.T. catching me up with some of the guys from those teams he enriched with his bat, glove and humor. Steve Brener, the Dodgers’ PR man from those days, surfaced, and in his company, of course, was Tommy Lasorda, the inimitable leader of teams I covered in the ’70s and early ’80s.
On Saturday night, Lou Johnson Al Downing — distinguished Dodgers of the ’60s and ’70s, respectively – strolled through the dining room, where Vin Scully was engaged in conversation.
There is no place like Dodger Stadium — the history it has preserved, its unsurpassed setting, the perfection of it all. I was here when it opened. I saw Sandy Koufax face Mays when giants ruled the game. I saw championships won and lost. Ownerships, managers and players come and go, but some things never change. This magnificent ballpark, thankfully, is one of those things. – Lyle Spencer
OAKLAND – Having spent three days drafting 55 amateur baseball players with dreams of playing in the Major Leagues, Angels scouting director Eddie Bane wasn’t quite ready to rest Wednesday evening. He was getting in his car, his work far from over.
“Now I’m going to go try to sign some guys – the fun part,” Bane said by phone.
For the second year in a row, the Angels stocked up heavily with premium prospects, armed with early bonus picks from free agency losses. They had five of the top 40 selections in the First-Year Player Draft, and there was excitement in his voice when Bane talked about the potential haul.
If he can be signed, third baseman Kaleb baseman Kaleb Cowart of Cook County High School in Adel, Ga., could be a Chipper Jones-type performer down the road. The upside is enormous for this big kid who also can go to the mound throw fastballs in the 91-94 mph range if his bat doesn’t make loud noises. It’s always nice to have options in life.
Pitcher Cameron Bedrosian of East Coweta High School in Sharpsburg and center fielder Chevez “Chevy” Clarke of Marrieta were the two other Georgians claimed in the opening round, and they also had Bane feeling absolutely peachy.
“Bedrosian reminds me of Phil Hughes,” Bane said. “You can tell he learned a lot from his father [former NL Cy Young Award winner and consistently superb closer Steve Bedrosian]. He throws hard with a clean delivery, and he has a tight breaking ball.
“Chevy Clarke will stay in center. He can really throw, and he’s a burner. You kind of like to dream about the outfield we could have down the road.”
The Angels have two potentially superb center fielders in their system in Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout, both of whom can fly. Bourjos is close to Major League-ready at Triple-A Salt Lake, while Trout has star qualities already in evidence at Class A Cedar Rapids.
Randal Grichuk, taken in the first round with Trout last season, is his teammate at Cedar Rapids and has a chance to be a power-hitting corner outfielder in the big time.
Another outfielder with skills was added to the mix with the selection of Ryan Bolden in the supplemental first round. Bane can envision Bolden, from Madison (Miss.) Central High School, moving to right. Not everyone can play center.
“People don’t realize how young Mike Trout is,” Bane said, referring to the mutli-talented 18-year-old New Jersey product who showed no fear in competition with big leaguers this spring in Arizona. “He’s younger than some of the high school kids taken in this year’s Draft.”
Trout, who bangs the gaps and runs like an anchor leg on a sprint relay team, will be 19 on Aug. 7.
The Angels love to draft shortstops and move them around, knowing that you’ll find the best athletes there and in center field.
Supplemental-round pick Taylor Lindsey of Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a hitter likely to be moved to third or second. But third-round pick Wendell Soto from Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., a superlative athlete at 5-foot-9, is destined to remain at shortstop.
The Angels added power arms in the Draft to go with their three compensation-round gems from 2009, restocking the system with pitching to go with all these athletes.
“I’m sure somebody will say we didn’t have a good draft, like they did last year,” Bane said. “But I really like our guys. Our staff worked hard and found a lot of talent. We’ll see what happens down the road, but I’m excited with what we got.”
Now comes the, um, fun part – signing these impressive athletes and arms. – Lyle Spencer
OAKLAND — The Internet was not the force it is today. Phones certainly didn’t provide immediate access to the world’s events, including results of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
So it was that Scot Shields, at home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., discovered from a total stranger that he’d been taken by the Angels in round 38 in 1997 out of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.
“I found out in the mail the next day,” Shields said. “I was home, about two weeks after school had ended. My doorbell rang at about 9 a.m., and I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and went to see who it was.
“It was UPS or FedEx. The package said `Anaheim Angels’ on it, and I could barely open it, I was so excited.
“I called my parents and told them I’d been drafted. Tom Kotchman [an Angels’ area scout who managed the rookie team in Boise] called a few hours later, and we talked.”
Shields was amazed the Angels had taken him. He’d started and closed in college, once throwing an estimated 260 pitches in a 16-inning game. But he felt he’d blown an opportunity during an audition for Kotchman.
“A week before [the Draft] I drove up to Tampa and threw a bullpen for him, and I didn’t think it went that well,” Shields said. “I figured that was it.’
The day he received the package from the Angels containing a contract, Shields called his college coach and asked for some advice. He was told, basically, to “take whatever they offered.” That’s what he did.
“I drove to my dad’s work and signed with my mom there, for $2,000,” Shields said. “I was kind of pumped. I went to see my girlfriend in Michigan [Jaimie McGovern would become his wife three years later], and then about a week later I went to Boise and got started pitching for Kotchman.”
Shields was 7-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 30 games that summer, launching a career that would bring him to Anaheim in 2001 and again during the magical 2002 season — eventually landing him a role as one of the game’s premier setup men.
Only in baseball, to paraphrase Don King.
Maybe another story like Shields’ will emerge from round 38 in Wednesday’s final afternoon of bringing dreams alive for kids around the country. – Lyle Spencer
OAKLAND — Kendry Morales’ surgery for a fracture in his lower left leg will take place on Thursday, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said before Tuesday night’s game against the A’s.
“I think he’s scheduled for surgery Thursday,” Scioscia said. “I think he’s over the shock of it. I think he’s disappointed but has come to grips with understanding the process, the surgery. He’s got to listen to the doctors. It’s going to take time. Right now he’s anxious to get the surgery and rehab aspect [started]. He’s obviously disappointed.”
Morales suffered the fracture landing on home plate in the celebration following his game-winning grand slam against Seattle on May 29 at Angel Stadium. The initial diagnosis indicated that he could be back in September, but Scioscia said that’s all up in the air.
“I’m sure after the surgery we’ll get word from Dr. [Lewis] Yocum, whoever is in there, on the extent of what they had to do and the prognosis,” Scioscia said. Dr. Yocum is the team orthopedist.
The Angels, using three first basemen to replace Morales, are 8-1 since his injury and have moved to the top of the American League West with six consecutive wins in Kansas City, Seattle and Oakland. — Lyle Spencer
Before tonight’s game at Safeco Field, Torii Hunter and I were talking about Ken Griffey Jr., his greatness and unique style.
“When I was a young guy, I used to watch everything he did,” Hunter said. “I loved his swing so much I even tried to copy it — left-handed. He’s got to be one of the greatest players ever, and one of the most exciting.”
I started watching the game before Torii was born. I told him I had Junior in my all-time top five for pure entertainment value.
Here they go:
1. Willie Mays
2. Roberto Clemente
3. Mickey Mantle
4. Nolan Ryan
5. Ken Griffey Jr.
Four outfielders and the fastest gun in history.
It’s hard to leave out Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Fernando Valenzuela, Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis . . . and on and on. But those are my fab five.
Junior had it all, and he loved every minute he was on the field. A player for the ages, and the best of his time. Barry Bonds might have been a better hitter, but he wasn’t the total player Griffey was in their primes. — Lyle Spencer
Before putting the Kendry Morales ordeal to bed, a few words of quiet reflection might be in order.
As Jered Weaver so aptly put it, this was a “freak accident.” It could have happened to anybody, but it happened to Morales, at the strangest of times. A moment of spontaenous celebration by the Angels turned into something unfathomable.
Moments after delivering one of the great efforts of his career, Morales was being carried off the field, wondering how severely his left leg was injured.
It turns out it was a fracture of the lower leg, and he’ll be undergoing surgery on Sunday. Morales will be out for a long time. The Angels and their fans will miss him a great deal. But he will be back.
This is something we need to keep in mind. Morales will be back. Angels fans understand the distinction after what we all went through last season.
It’s possible Morales, given the advanced nature of modern medicine and training methods, will be as good as ever when he returns to the Angels’ lineup. He is young and strong and resilient. We know how tough he is. The fact he is here is testimony enough. You don’t make the boat trip over from Cuba without being tough, physically and mentally.
In any case, he will be back. The Angels might not win a fourth straight AL West title, and that will make a lot of people angry. But they’ll rebound, rebuild, add pieces and touches if that’s the case. They’ll be just fine. They’ll continue to sell tickets and play exciting baseball, and Morales will be part of it.
I wish I could tell you exactly what happened, what I saw, but I was staring into this laptop when Morales slipped and went down on home plate in that crowd of teammates. I was writing my fourth or fifth sublede for my game story, hitting the send button right about the time he lost his balance and fell, damaging that left leg.
I’ve been told by those closer that it was a “crazy scene,” something nobody could have imagined. This just doesn’t happen, but it happened, and it’s a shame.
But this is not a tragedy.
This is misfortune.
What happened last season was a tragedy.
We need to keep this in mind as we move forward.
The Angels will have a new hitter behind Torii Hunter, when his injured hand allows him to return to the lineup. They’ll have a new first baseman – maybe three or four, who knows? The game will go on, and so will the Angels.
I feel for Kendry. I happen to have a great deal of respect for him, as an athlete and a person. He has done amazing things in his young life, and he will do many more amazing things.
This will pass. – Lyle Spencer
The Angels have activated infielder Maicer Izturis from the 15-day disabled list (right shoulder inflammation) and placed third baseman Brandon Wood on the 15-day DL retroactive to May 24 with a hip flexor strain.
The team also optioned reliever Bobby Cassevah to Triple-A Salt Lake and recalled from the same team right-handed reliever Francisco Rodriguez.
Izturis is batting .256 in 14 games and leads the team with a .500 average (6-for-12) with runners in scoring position. He is in Tuesday night’s lineup against the Blue Jays, batting eighth, with Reggie Willits in center field batting ninth, giving Torii Hunter a day off.
Wood is batting .156 in 122 at-bats with two homers and seven RBIs. — Lyle Spencer
Angels manager Mike Scioscia is going with a new look starting tonight against the A’s and Mr. Perfect, Dallas Braden.
Here’s the lineup Scioscia plans to go with for now, with Maicer Izturis due to come off the disabled list (right shoulder tightness) next week and assume a larger role in the 1 or 2 spots:
1. Erick Aybar, SS
2. Howard Kendrick, 2B
3. Bobby Abreu, RF
4. Torii Hunter, CF
5. Kendry Morales, 1B
6. Hideki Matsui, DH
7. Juan Rivera, LF
8. Mike Napoli, C
9. Brandon Wood, 3B
The Angels were 60-35 last season with Abreu batting third and 27-19 when Hunter hit cleanup. These were their best records with those hitters in those roles. Only Vladimir Guerrero (43-39) batted fourth more often than Hunter. — Lyle Spencer
This has been a distressing week, and I’m not talking about the Angels’ struggles to score runs and stop clubs from abusing their pitching staff.
Two giants of the game, Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts, have passed away in the past two days. They lived a combined 175 years and made wonderful use of their time on the planet, enriching countless lives in countless ways. They were among the very best the sport had to offer.
Stunning news arrived earlier in the week in the form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma having invaded the body of Dave Roberts, who also has enriched the game in ways both small and large. Roberts, smart, intuitive, irrepressibly upbeat, is meeting this challenge head-on, committed to overcoming this obstacle and living a long, rich life, just as Harwell and Roberts did.
If there is any justice, Roberts will be alive into his 80s, making people laugh and feel good about themselves, like those two gentlemen.
I came to know “Doc,” as we called him, during the two seasons he played for the Padres and I covered them on a daily basis for MLB.com. He was what we call in the business a “go-to guy,” much like Torii Hunter is with the Angels. In hard times, when players are disinclined to talk about their team’s troubles and their own, there hopefully are those who can be counted on to offer insights no matter how dire the straits.
Dave Roberts, with the Padres and the other teams he graced, was one of those athletes, just as Hunter is a magnet for Angels beat writers.
In 2005, Roberts was coming off his triumph in Boston, when he stole a base against the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series that triggered one of the greatest comebacks – and stories – in the game’s history. Roberts is a part of New England lore for his lore in exorcising those Bambino curses and ghost.
Coming home to San Diego, Roberts led off and played center field in 2005 for a club that made the postseason, getting swept by the Cardinals. He played the game with passion and intelligence. One thing nagged at him: his reputation for being fragile. We collaborated on several articles that knocked down this widely-held perception.
Athletes given to hurling themselves into the game, as Roberts did and Hunter does, put themselves in harm’s way. It has nothing to do with being injury-prone. It’s simply the by-product of playing full-tilt, with abandon.
In ’06, Roberts moved over to left to accommodate the arrival of Mike Cameron, a man Hunter considers one of the three premier defensive center fielders of the generation. In right was Brian Giles, completing a wonderfully productive outfield.
There was one horrific moment involving Roberts that season that seemed to characterize his career. Pursuing a fly ball at Angel Stadium, he rammed his right knee into the base of the fence in left field chasing what turned out to be an inside-the-park homer by Dallas McPherson.
“The only way for him to stop his momentum is to slide — and he smoked his knee good,” Giles said. “That’s the way Doc approaches it. Hopefully, it’s a bruised kneecap and he’ll be out a few days.”
Roberts — a star quarterback in high school who could have been a defensive back at UCLA but focused instead on baseball – soon was back in his leadoff role, creating havoc. He stole a career-high 49 bases in 55 attempts in ’06 and would have exceeded 50 if not for that incident in Anaheim. In 129 games, he scored 80 runs, another career best.
The Padres were a joy to cover. With Mike Piazza behind the plate, Adrian Gonzalez emerging at first base, Khalil Greene and Josh Barfield looking like future stars in the middle of the infield, and Jake Peavy, Chris Young and the great Trevor Hoffman anchoring the pitching staff, this was a good team, seemingly on the verge of even better things.
They won the NL West again, and the Cardinals took them out in four games in the NLDS on their way to a World Series triumph.
Doc moved on to San Francisco in 2007 and ended his career as a Giant – fittingly – in ’08. He did some broadcasting work for the Red Sox last year and was in Spring Training, getting in a uniform and teaching young Padres some tricks in his new role as a club executive, when Hodgkin’s surfaced. Treatments began, and he is telling people he’s optimistic he’ll beat it.
Not surprisingly, he kept working with those young Padres. Their totally unexpected start, bolting out of the gate this season under manager Bud Black, might not be a coincidence.
Good teams and things seem to follow Doc Roberts around. It could be all those good vibes he passes around, without even trying. They don’t make them any better than this guy. – Lyle Spencer
ANAHEIM – Kevin Kouzmanoff has been there, done that. The terrible start. The mental strain and drain. He knows what Brandon Wood has been going through in his search for quality at-bats and line drives that find open spaces, not gloves.
For Kouzmanoff, now the third baseman for the Athletics, it happened in 2007, after he was acquired by the Padres from the Indians in exchange for Josh Barfield. His start with San Diego was every bit as discouraging as what Wood is enduring, lugging a .102 batting average into Sunday’s series finale against the Yankees with five hits in 49 at-bats.
Kouzmanoff was batting .108 in 93 at-bats on May 7. The Padres were close to demoting him, but when third baseman Russell Branyan left the team after a relative died, Kouzmanoff was kept in the lineup by manager Bud Black, former pitching coach for Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
From May 8 to season’s end, he batted .309 with 17 home runs in 118 games.
“It was very frustrating,” Kouzmanoff said. “I was afraid to go out in public. It was embarrassing. I was lucky to have teammates who were pulling for me and to have a manager who believed in me. But I knew I could play the game. It was just a matter of bringing it out.
“I’ve watched [Wood] and he’s a good player. He’s here for a reason. He just needs to stick with it.”
Wood delivered in a big situation on Sunday against the Yankees. With his team down by a run and the bases loaded with one out in the fourth, Wood sent Javier Vazquez’s first pitch, a curveball, on a line to left. It fell in front of a tumbling Marcus Thames for a two-run double. Wood had been hitting in bad luck, having been robbed on a number of occasions of hits and RBIs on diving plays.
The kid was due for a break, and he finally got one to fall. — Lyle Spencer