For a while it looked as if even the California Angels, hidebound adherents of the set lineup, would succumb to that modern baseball affliction, platoonitis. Manager John McNamara, in an effort both to rest his aging superstars and to involve his bench more in the action, came up with some decidedly strange-looking batting orders. Ron Jackson, a career substitute, seemed to be playing almost as often as that other Jackson, Reggie, and Rob Wilfong, who got into only 65 games last year, had more at bats than the other second baseman, All-Star Bobby Grich. Even Rob Picciolo, who had accumulated a grand total of 97 at bats over the past two seasons, had appeared in 31 games, going to bat 46 times. Shortstop Dick Schofield and centerfielder Gary Pettis, two of the team's five rookies, were playing every day. Against lefthanded pitching, McNamara had been benching superstars Rod Carew, Fred Lynn and Reggie.
But four consecutive defeats last week convinced Johnny Mac that high-priced talent belonged on the field, not in the dugout. He had made his point: The Angels are a team, not merely an assemblage of Hall of Fame candidates. And the lineup juggling worked. Even with the losing streak, the Angels held fast to first place—they have been on top since May 15—in a division in which they were the only club winning more games than they were losing.
However, amid all the finagling, one constant remained. Doug DeCinces was the third baseman. "He is the key to this team," says Reggie Jackson, a remark as significant for its accuracy as for its unusual modesty. As of Sunday, DeCinces had 10 home runs and 36 RBIs, though he was batting a modest .263. His importance both offensively and defensively is unquestioned. The Angels were in contention a year ago, too, until DeCinces was sidelined with a bad back on July 19. At the time, California was in second place, only a half game out of first. When he returned a month later, the Angels were in fifth place, nine games back. California had 63 injuries in '83, but none hurt more than DeCinces's.
His back problem, degenerative spondylosis (arthritis of the spine), is congenital, and it can fell him at any time. "I had a great season going in '83 until I got hurt," DeCinces says. "But I was playing when I shouldn't have been. It was my option year, and I just didn't want to be out of the lineup. I was favoring a separated rib, and that aggravated the back problem. This year, when I feel the back start to tighten up, I take some time off. Better to miss a few games than half the season. I'll have the problem for the rest of my life. I've pushed off surgery several times. I've learned to deal with it mentally and physically. Before I go out on the field, I take my stretching exercises, and I have both heat and cold treatments every day."
DeCinces is an aggressive fielder whose diving catches and on-the-knees throws are reminiscent of the third baseman he replaced eight years ago in Baltimore, Brooks Robinson. DeCinces soon realized that there are easier ways to make a living than succeeding a living legend. "In a game with the Rangers not long ago, their catcher, Ned Yost, made a great effort on a pop foul," recalls DeCinces. "He ran as hard as he could and dove for the ball, just missing it. Bobby [Grich] was sitting next to me on the bench, and he said, joking, 'Sundberg [Jim Sundberg, the catcher Texas traded to get Yost] would've had it.' I laughed. How many times did I hear people in Baltimore say, 'Brooks would've had it.' But I think living with that made me a better ballplayer."
DeCinces had some good seasons in Baltimore—in '78 he batted .286 with 28 homers—but he hit his stride after the Orioles dealt him to the Angels in '82. A native Southern Californian, he had a .301 average his first year in Anaheim with 30 homers and 97 RBIs, and though he played in only 95 games last season, he hit 18 homers and drove in 65 runs. "I feel I'm at my peak," says DeCinces, who'll be 34 in August. "I've matured as a hitter, and I realize now that I'm not invincible. Defensively, I've always been aggressive, and I think I've helped our younger players get into that aggressive flow. With Dickie, a rookie, at shortstop, I've had to take charge of the infield. I call the defensive plays; I call the cutoffs; and Boonie [catcher Bob Boone] and I work together on the pickoffs. I do feel I'm the key to our offense. I hit fourth, and it's my job to create consistency."
Strangely enough, none of the California sluggers have hit with much consistency this season. The team has been winning with surprisingly good pitching, particularly from veteran Geoff Zahn and rookie Ron Romanick, and with speed and defense, attributes unfamiliar to Angel clubs of the recent past. Pettis, though batting only .230, has given California a new offensive dimension. At week's end he had stolen 28 bases and scored 38 runs. He has also made half a dozen game-saving catches. Schofield, batting a miserable .191, hasn't provided the offense the injured veteran Rick Burleson would have, but his play at shortstop has been little short of spectacular. McNamara is impressed that Schofield's hitting woes have had no effect on his defensive play, and Schofield, sounding more like an oldtimer than a 21-year-old rookie, has adopted the philosophy that "you can't take the bat out to the field with you."
Despite McNamara's program of rest and recuperation, California has had its customary rash of injuries. Juan Beniquez, the leading hitter (.351), went down last week with a pulled hamstring. Carew is troubled by a pinched nerve in his neck, and Lynn has had back muscle spasms. Moreover, DeCinces, normally a dependable hitter, has been in a mini-slump, the result, he thinks, of trying to pick up the slack for the non-hitting superstars. "If I don't hit I feel I'm hurting the ball club," he says. "Maybe I'm feeling the pressure."
At the same time, he's confident that he and his illustrious teammates will emerge in good time from their batting doldrums. The Angels have been winning without their sluggers. When they finally do return to form, says DeCinces, "We'll be playing some awfully long games." And, he needn't have added, winning them.
"I feel I'm at my peak," says DeCinces, who has 36 RBIs. "I've matured as a hitter."