Los Angeles Angels: Jim Fregosi

Angels Moment No. 21: Alex Johnson

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
3:21
PM PT
The Angels have been playing baseball for more than 50 years, but they've only had one batting champion.

Alex Johnson got two hits on the last day of the 1970 season to beat out Carl Yastrzemski by the slimmest of margins. Johnson batted .3289. Yaztremski hit .3286. If only that were the only thing Johnson was remembered for.

Even before he was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Angels, Johnson had a reputation as an awful outfielder and a clubhouse cancer. Nothing he did while playing in Anaheim would dispel those notions.

After improving by 15 games during Johnson's batting-title year, the Angels made a concerted push going into spring training of 1971. They traded for slugger Tony Conigliaro, center fielder Ken Berry and pitcher Jim Maloney.

Things unraveled, with Johnson often in the middle of the tumult. By late June, Johnson had been fined 29 times and benched five times for a lack of effort. Manager Lefty Phillips told reporters he could have fined Johnson every day, but started to look the other way.

"He did things differently last year. He gave about 65 percent. Now it's down to about 40 percent," Phillips said.

Things couldn't have gotten much uglier than on June 13, the day Johnson accused teammate Chico Ruiz of pulling a .38-caliber handgun on him in the clubhouse after both players had been lifted for pinch hitters. Ruiz, who later died in a car accident in San Diego, claimed he didn't own a gun. One anonymous Angel was quoted as saying, "If Chico did anything wrong, it was that he didn't pull the trigger."

The irony of the incident is that Ruiz was one of Johnson's few friends in the game. The two men had been friends since before they were traded to the Angels from Cincinnati. Ruiz was the godfather of Johnson's daughter. According to reports, Johnson had turned on Ruiz in the previous year, often screaming profanities at him.

Johnson was raised in Arkansas and grew up on the streets of Detroit. In a rare interview that summer, he explained some of his anger.

"Hell, yes, I'm bitter. I've been bitter ever since I learned I was black. The society into which I was born and in which I grew up and in which I play ball today is anti-black," Johnson said. Conigliaro appeared to be one of Johnson's few teammates sensitive to his demons when he said, "He's so hurt inside, it's terrifying."

On June 26, in an echo of a later incident involving outfielder Jose Guillen, the Angels suspended Johnson for the remainder of the season without pay. The players' association, under Marvin Miller, sought to overturn the suspension and fines, claiming Johnson should have been placed on the disabled list with emotional distress. An arbitrator ruled that the Angels had to pay Johnson, but upheld the fines, which totaled $3,750.

That October, the Angels traded Johnson to the Cleveland Indians. Ruiz died the following February.

Johnson would be traded three more times in the next five seasons. He would never again hit .300, but his baggage came with him.

This story is part of an occasional series of Angels Moments which, when it's complete, will -- we hope -- add up to 50. The Angels are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season. These are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but simply an assembly of scenes and anecdotes that are part of the team's colorful past.

Angels Moment No. 5: Sweep of '79

June, 9, 2011
6/09/11
1:02
PM PT
When the New York Yankees visited Angel Stadium last weekend, Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said it felt like there had been an "infestation" of Yankees fans.

Little does Hunter know how things were in the old days, when the Angels were an also-ran franchise and their stadium filled with East Coast fans every time the Yankees, Red Sox or Orioles came to town.

In July 1979, the Angels had been around for 18 years without reaching the postseason. They hosted the Yankees in a three-game series at their ballpark just before the All-Star break. When the series began, the Angels felt like visitors at their home stadium. By the time it was over, they had made it theirs and the "Yes We Can" Angels were on their way to breaking the playoff hex.

"The fans were like, 'We believe, but you've got to show us,' " Don Baylor recalled. "It was something a lot of Angels players had thought about for a long time."

It was a wildly dramatic series, the kind that can stir a tired team's emotions and carry them through the dog days. It featured clutch home runs from the eventual league MVP, Baylor, and from one of the greatest players in franchise history, second baseman Bobby Grich. The manager was Jim Fregosi, who had played shortstop for the Angels in their second year of existence.

"The franchise had never won anything," Fregosi said. "And until you win a division or get into the playoffs, you don't have any belief or tradition."

In the first game, Nolan Ryan carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning before Reggie Jackson broke it up with a one-out single.

Saturday's game was a battle. Baylor and Joe Rudi hit solo home runs off Goose Gossage to get within two runs in the eighth inning, but the Yankees got one back against Dave LaRoche in the ninth. Gossage, one of the most intimidating relievers of all time, was still on the mound with two outs and two on in the bottom of the ninth when Baylor got an inside pitch and sent it screaming down the left-field line. It clanged off the foul pole for a three-run homer to tie it. Seldom-used Merv Rettenmund won it for the Angels with an RBI single in the 12th.

Things didn't get any easier Sunday with Ron Guidry on the mound for the Yankees, but again they found a way. This time, Grich hit the three-run homer in the ninth that won over Angels fans and gave the team a feeling of confidence it would carry all the way to October.

"That was just wild," said Dave Frost, the starting pitcher for the Angels that day. "It wasn't like we won the World Series or anything, but it was just one of those home runs that's a cut above the rest. You knew what a big one that was by the sound of the crowd."

The Angels ran into a powerful Baltimore Orioles team in the ALCS and, despite leading in each of the first three games, they would lose the series three games to one. It was a start. The Angels wouldn't win their first playoff series until 2002. It all started with stamping out that infestation in their home stadium.

Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series of Angels Moments which, when it's complete, will -- we hope -- add up to 50. The Angels are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season. These are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but simply an assembly of scenes and anecdotes that are part of the team's colorful past.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Mike Trout
BA HR RBI R
.323 5 11 12
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Trout 5
RBIR. Ibanez 12
RM. Trout 12
OPSM. Trout 1.026
WC. Wilson 2
ERAG. Richards 2.84
SOC. Wilson 24