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The Perseverance of Drew Rucinski

March 25th, 2015
deception + movement = drew rucinski

His deception + movement + control guided Drew Rucinski‘s improbable rise from the obscurity of the independent leagues to the major leagues in just under a year.

If you were watching the Angel game last Tuesday and saw this guy subbing for CJ Wilson at the last minute who then proceeded to no-hit the Colorado Rockies regulars for four straight innings like they were a bunch of defenseless blades of grass stretching up for the sun only to be cut down by an arsenal of 94 mph four-seam fastballs with zigzag movement, change-ups that nibbled on the corners, and splitters that appeared to be thigh high fastballs but dove to the ground just as the batters committed to their swings, you might have asked yourself, “Who is that guy?”

Well, I’ll tell you.  That, was Drew Rucinski.

If you’ve never heard of him, I wouldn’t blame you.  The major league scouting cadre that watched him pitch from 2008 to 2011 for Ohio State University were so unimpressed that Drew went undrafted at the conclusion of his four-year collegiate career.  He didn’t have a bad season his senior year — he went 5-3 with a 2.95 ERA, but he had a disastrous junior year posting a 5.45 ERA as he spent the season fighting a horribly split nail on the middle finger of his throwing hand.  Before that, he spent his first two seasons as a Buckeye as a reliever, although he did lead the Big Ten in wins his sophomore year with 12, all of which came in relief.

Anyway, since the invitation to pitch in low minors for a major league team never showed up in the mail, the 22-year-old Rucinski believed in himself enough to commit to plan B — join the Rockford (Illinois) Riverhawks, one of the 12-teams that comprise the independent Frontier League.  His mantra was to just play as hard as he could and wait for an opportunity to show up.  In June, his first one did, sort of, as the Cleveland Indians signed him as a free agent, but looking at it now, it seems like the Indians just wanted him to be an organizational guy, someone clubs hire to fill up roster space so there would be enough guys for the actual prospects to have a team to play on.  Drew spent the remainder of that season bouncing around the bottom of the Indians’ minor league system, playing short stints for three different clubs as the year played out.

In March of 2012 Drew was invited to Cleveland’s minor league camp, but he was quickly released.  So as the new baseball season was about to begin, Rucinski found himself back to square one, as he hooked up once again with the Rockford Riverhawks, refusing to let his baseball dream die.  His belief in his ability was not unfounded, however, as he started 15 games that season and had a nice 3.13 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, and a 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings to show for it.  Unfortunately, the opportunity to climb back on with a major league franchise never came knocking, so when the calendar reset in 2013, Drew decided to play once more for Rockford, this time as a 24-year-old independent league player hoping that some scout would finally see something in him, before he became too old to be a noticeable commodity.

The Sad Case of the Angels’ Only Batting Champion, Part 2

March 5th, 2015
The July 25, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story about Alex Johnson.

The July 5, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story about Alex Johnson.

Part I

“Last year, when I won the batting championship on the last day,” Alex Johnson explained to a reporter, “the guys shook my hand, but some guys didn’t want me to win, and they gave me the weakest handshakes I have ever felt.”

A feeling of stinging discontent had lingered with Johnson that winter, and although the Angels made two exciting acquisitions during the off-season — the excellent defensive center fielder Ken Berry from the White Sox and right fielder Tony Conigliaro, who had 36 home runs and 116 RBI for the Red Sox in 1970 — Alex was just not enthusiastic about the coming season.

During a spring training game in 1971, Johnson frustrated his coaches by refusing to position himself where they instructed him to be.  Alex didn’t want to be exposed to the full brunt of the March sunlight and instead disregarded his coaches and stood in the shade provided by one of the outfield light poles that fell onto the field.

When the season began, Johnson frequently became angry with the reporters and would scream profanities at them in the clubhouse and even in the hotels they shared.  It grated on his teammates’ nerves, but there was nothing they could do to stop him.  The writers finally got so fed up with it that they petitioned the president of the American League to intervene on their behalf.

While behind the scenes Johnson was spending a lot of animated, angry energy, his play on the field was lackluster, to say the least.  Singles hit to him in left field would frequently turn into doubles as the league’s batters soon discovered how easy it was to run on him.  It got so bad that runners already on first base were easily making it to third on singles hit to Alex in left.

Angel pitcher Clyde Wright admitted that Alex “always played hard when I pitched, but he didn’t for some of the other guys.  If a ball was hit to left field, they better go get it because Alex wasn’t going to.”

Alex’s despondency was even apparent in the batter’s box, a place that had been something of a sanctuary for him over the years, a place where he used to delight others with his magnificent displays in the art of hitting.  But now, with his average hovering around the .250 mark, when Alex hit a ball to a fielder, as Jim Fregosi explained to a reporter, “he wouldn’t even run to first base.  He would take two steps out of the box and that was it.”

Johnson’s frustrated manager, Lefty Phillips, started slapping him with fines in order to get him out of his funk, and when that failed to work, he began benching him.  Alex was now perceived by his teammates as having committed over and again one of the cardinal sins of baseball — purposefully not trying his best.  “He did things differently last year,” Phillips complained.  “He gave about 65 percent.  Now it’s down to about 40 percent.”

Instead of improving his play on the field, the fines and benchings just resulted in Alex yelling and arguing with his teammates more than ever, except, of course, for when he chose to sit alone on the bench during games and wordlessly dress and leave immediately after them.

One particularly heated argument in Kansas City almost came to an exchange of blows when laid-back country boy Clyde Wright raised a stool at Johnson and had to be held back by his teammates.  Alex then raised his own stool, broke it by hitting himself on the head with it, and declared, “That stool isn’t going to help you.”

And then there was the incident in Washington on June 13th when Johnson and Chico Ruiz were alone in the clubhouse while the game with the Senators was still in progress.  The two men had been used as pinch hitters, and after their duties were completed, they left the game and hit the showers.  Alex and Chico used to be good friends when they had been teammates on the Cincinnati Reds.  Chico was even the godfather of Alex’s adopted daughter.  Now, during the 1971 season with the Angels, they were constantly bickering with each other.

On this day, the bickering got especially nasty, to the point that Johnson claimed Ruiz took a gun out of his locker and started brandishing it about, threatening him with it.

“It did not happen,” Ruiz declared when the fight was over.  “I can swear to it on a Bible with both hands.”

Then on June 24th, after failing to run out yet another ground ball, Lefty Phillips benched him one last time.  The next day, after 29 fines and five benchings, the Angels finally suspended Alex Johnson from the team, putting him on the restricted list without pay, for “failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games.”

Many on the team felt the suspension was long overdue and felt relieved to have Alex removed from the team.  Tony Conigliaro had a much different reaction, though, telling a reporter, “He’s got a problem deep inside him that he won’t talk about.  He’s so hurt inside, it’s terrifying.  He’s a great guy off the field.  On the field, there’s something eating away at him.”

Feeling that he had been treated unfairly, Johnson went to the player’s union to see what could be done.  After a lengthy meeting with Johnson, the head of the union, Marvin Miller, personally took up Alex’s cause and worked on his behalf.  He had a psychiatrist meet with Alex, and the doctor diagnosed Alex with reactive depression.  Miller then went to the commissioner of baseball and demanded Johnson be reinstated with full pay and be put on the disabled list so he could undergo treatment that would help him with the mental and emotional injuries he was suffering from.  The commissioner rejected Miller’s demands, believing that Johnson was merely a troublemaker who deserved his suspension.

Since Johnson’s grievance was at an impasse, the case then went to an independent, impartial arbitrator to determine its outcome.  The commissioner’s office requested it have the opportunity to have its own hand-picked psychiatrist examine Johnson.  The arbitrator granted the request, but this psychiatrist agreed with the first one that Alex was indeed suffering from depression and was therefore not able to give the Angels his best effort.

Needless to say, the arbitrator, Lewis Gill, sided with Alex Johnson.  He ruled that Alex be reinstated and put on the disabled list, and that he was owed all of the back pay that was withheld from him while he had been suspended.  In an odd sort of compromise with MLB, Gill also decided that Alex would, however, have to pay all of his outstanding fines, a total of $3,750.

In the meantime, baseball games were still being played, and the Angels had called up Mickey Rivers from their farm team in Salt Lake City to replace

The Sad Case of the Angels’ Only Batting Champion, Part I

March 4th, 2015
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Alex Johnson’s 202 hits in 1970 remained an Angel single-season record until Darin Erstad broke it in 2000.

After finalizing a deal in November of 1969 for Cincinnati Reds left fielder Alex Johnson, Angels general manager Dick Walsh announced he was “elated to get a hitter of Johnson’s caliber.”  The Halos had a good young pitching staff to work with, but the team had settled for a disappointing third place finish in 1969 thanks to a dead-last-in-American-League .230 batting average.  Meanwhile, Johnson hit .315 with 17 home runs and 88 RBI for the Reds in 1969, so the hope was that he would come to the Angels and get their offensive engine revved up enough to make a serious run at the AL West title.

When the 1970 season began, the Angels’ offense jumped off of the starting line and blazed its way down the drag strip.  With speedster Sandy Alomar leading off, Jim Fregosi hitting third, Alex Johnson batting fourth, and slugging first baseman Jim Spencer providing Johnson some protection in the five hole,  the club outscored their opponents in the month of April 91 runs to 67.  On the last day of April, the Angels were 13-7 and found themselves tied with the Minnesota Twins for the division lead.

Alex had proven to be a shot of nitrous oxide for the offense, raking .338 that April as the team’s clean-up hitter.  His showcase game that month came on April 11th against the Kansas City Royals when he hit two home runs and tallied six RBI.

All through the month of May, Alex kept on hitting and the Angels kept on winning.  By the end of the month, Johnson had increased his batting average to a prodigious .366, and the Angels were around the top of the division, just two and a half games behind the Twins.  With roughly one-third of the season over, the red-hot Johnson found himself behind only Rod Carew, who was hitting .394 for the Twins, in the race for the league’s batting title.

Besides Alex Johnson’s blistering speed from the batter’s box to first base (his Reds manager Dave Bristol said Johnson was one of the fastest runners he’d ever seen), his batting practice routine was one of the keys to his hitting success.   Alex favored practicing off of a machine that consistently hurled strikes at game-speed much more than live batting practice, so at any point in the season, he could be found working with a pitching machine, firing off ferocious line drives, one after another.  But once he was satisfied with his performance, he would then do something peculiarly impressive — he would creep up a few feet and fire off more blazing line drives, and then creep up a few feet more, all the while displaying the amazing bat speed that made him such a prolific hitter.

While things were going exceedingly well for Alex during the games, around the edges, things were a little off.  In a Sports Illustrated article that year, shortstop Jim Fregosi explained, “He does have some peculiar traits. Like he won’t let anybody shake hands with him when he hits a home run. He says nobody wants to shake his hand when he strikes out so why the hell should he shake hands with them when he hits? And he calls everybody ‘bleephead’ or ‘bleep-bleeper.’ Just about everybody is a bleephead. But if you’re decent with him he’ll be decent with you.”

As the season wound on and the calendar found its way to September 3rd, the Angels were still hot on the heels — i.e. three games back — of the Twins in the race for first place in the AL West.  The Halos were in such great shape due to the terrific play of Fregosi (who would finish the season with 22 home runs, 82 RBI, and 95 runs), Jim Spencer (who would win a Gold Glove for his work at first base for the Angels that year), second baseman Sandy Alomar (who would have 35 stolen bases and 82 runs), starting pitcher Clyde Wright (who would garner 22 wins and a 2.83 ERA), starting pitcher Andy Messersmith (who would have a 3.01 ERA and 1.14 WHIP), reliever Ken Tatum (who would end up with a 2.94 ERA and 17 saves), and, of course, Alex Johnson.  At this point in the season, Johnson was hitting .320, which was good for second best in the American League– behind Boston Red Sox outfielder Reggie Smith, who was batting .322.

But then, as Chinua Achebe would say, things fell apart.  The Angels lost nine games in a row and found themselves eleven games behind the first-place Twins by the time they won again.  Alex kept hitting though, batting .306 during this horrible stretch of games, which meant that for the last couple of weeks in the 1970 season, there would still be one race that would prove exciting for Angel fans — the one for the batting title.

In his last six games of the season, Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski went on a tear, going 12-for-20 which raised his average to .329 and moved him into the lead.  Yaz would have had the crown locked up if it weren’t for one thing: the Red Sox’s season ended on September 30th while the Angels’ final game was not until October 1st.  That meant that if Alex Johnson, who was hitting .327 for the season, had a good hitting performance on his last day, he could walk away with the batting title.

The Angels were slated to play the Chicago White Sox at home in Anaheim for the last, crucial game of the season.  The starting pitcher for the White Sox was the rookie Gerry Janeski, who was making his 35th start of the year and had a 4.87 ERA to show for it.  Manager Lefty Phillips penciled in Alex as the Angels’ lead-off hitter for this game, meaning there’d be tension right off the bat. Alex just missed hitting the ball on the sweet spot in his first at-bat, instead hitting a 4-3 ground out and shaving his average down to .326797.

In his next at bat, Alex hit a single into right field for his 201st hit of the season.  He then scored the first run of the game when Mickey Rivers hit a single three batters later.  Alex was now hitting .327895.

In his third and final time facing Janeski, the Angel outfielder hit a ball over to Bill Melton at third base, but Alex beat it out for a single.  When he walked back to first base, he was now .0004 points ahead of Yastrzemski for the batting title.  Jay Johnston came running out of the Angels’ dugout to relieve Alex and pinch run for him.  When the champ made it back to the bench, he said to his manager, who was shaking his hand in congratulations, “The people in Boston are going to be mad at both of us.”

At any rate, he had done it.  Alex Johnson had won the American League batting title, becoming the first, and so far only, Angel to have done so.

Where Are They Now?: Angels Edition

February 13th, 2015

 

So many players changed hands this winter, it’s going to take several weeks of spring training to remember who all ended up where. I’m not about to make a flow chart for the entire league, but what I can do is make a list of where Angels of years past have landed in 2015.

For my own sanity, I’ve included only the guys who actually played in Anaheim or were a top prospect when dealt. So no Miguel Gonzalez, for instance, even though the Angels were his original organization.

This year, every team but the Cubs has as least invited an ex-Angel to big-league camp as a non-roster invitee (NRI), and all but four clubs have former Halos on their 40-man rosters. At last count, the group includes 70 players, plus a handful more who are still free agents.

 

New Book Profiles One of the Greatest Angel Teams

February 5th, 2015

gimp cover

In the spring of 1962, Sports Illustrated claimed that the Angels would be lucky to repeat the eighth place finish they had earned in their inaugural season of 1961.  This sentiment was a common one shared by baseball prognosticators all across the country who felt that the previous season’s eighth place finish was something of a fluke that the Angels would be hard pressed to repeat.  What else could an expansion team full of “rejects and has-beens” be other than the doormat of the American League?  But instead of having the other teams scuff the bottom of their cleats on them, the ’62 Angels were full of fight to prove that they were much better than the so-called experts judged them to be.  The ’62 Angels proved to be so much better, that they blew everybody’s expectations away by shocking the baseball world by being in first place on the fourth of July and by chasing the Yankees for the pennant deep into September.

The Spectacular Case of the 1962 Los Angeles Angels is the story of this remarkable team as discovered through meticulous research and interviews with eight members of that squad:  Ted Bowsfield, Albie Pearson, Lee Thomas, Don Lee, Jack Spring, Earl Averill, Ken McBride, Gordie Windhorn, and Bob Botz.

In order to pull off such a stunning season, the ’62 Seraphs had to have been one of the best all-around teams the Angels franchise has ever produced, and by any measure, it certainly was.  It included rookie Buck Rodgers who led all Major League catchers in doubles (34), games (155), and runners thrown out (34);  first baseman Lee Thomas who had 26 home runs and 104 RBI;  second baseman Billy Moran who led all Major League second basemen with 17 home runs and challenged Bobby Doerr’s consecutive errorless games record;  Jim Fregosi who became the starting shortstop in the second half of the season and finished with a .291 batting average; outfielder Leon Wagner who had an MVP caliber season hitting 37 home runs and knocking in 107 RBI; and center fielder Albie Pearson who led the league in runs scored (115) and had six triples.

On the pitching side of things, the Angels’ staff, led by Ken McBride, Bo Belinsky, and Dean Chance, was second in the league with a 3.70 ERA.  Only the Baltimore Orioles’ 3.69 team ERA was better.  Can you imagine a second year expansion team, in the days before free agency, having the second best pitching staff in the league?  Besides the stellar ERA, the Angels’ staff led the American League that year in both shutouts (15) and in saves (47).

And then there’s how they did via game score, a value Bill James came up to determine the dominance of a starting pitcher’s particular outing.  In 1962, there were 1,616 games pitched by starting pitchers in the AL, and two of the top-five most dominant performances that season were by Angels pitchers.  An early season game pitched by Belinsky against the Baltimore Orioles received a game score of 92, as did Dean Chance’s pressure-packed late season game against the Minnesota Twins.

The red-hot Angels had four players on the All-Star team that year — two starters (Moran and Wagner), a pitcher (McBride), and a reserve (Thomas).  First Baseman Lee Thomas made the squad even though he got off to a slow start, slashing .156/.217/.266 in the month of April, but when May came, his season turned around and he became one of the best hitters in the league for the rest of the year, slashing .306/.371/.491 from May through September.

The following excerpt shows how Thomas dealt with his early season struggles after a 6-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians on April 25th:

After the game, Leon Wagner had this to say to the reporters:  “Rig told me to quit swinging at bad pitches and just try to hit the strikes. It has helped plenty. You notice I don’t swing at the first pitch all the time now. I sure hope that Leroy can get started. He’s having terrible luck.” The Leroy he was referring to was Lee Thomas. The slugger went hitless again today in five at bats. It was his second 0-for-5 of the season. While he had two strikeouts in this game, he did hit the ball hard in his other three at bats.  It’s just that he hit them right at defenders. With Leon hitting the ball as well as he was, the Angels would have a tremendous 1-2 punch if Thomas were able to, as Leon put it, get started.

After the reporters had left to go meet their deadline, Lee Thomas took his .130 batting average with him into a concrete supply room filled with racks of wooden baseball bats of all lengths and weights. He shut the door behind himself and a minute later startled the guys getting dressed in the clubhouse by letting out a sharp grunt from deep in his belly that coincided with with the crackling sound of splintering wood. These incredibly loud, paired sounds repeated themselves in rapid succession for about fifteen long minutes, and then all of a sudden they stopped. After waiting for about five minutes to hear the sounds again but hearing nothing, someone finally opened the door, and there Lee was, sitting all zen-quiet amidst his enormous pile of broken bat barrels and handles.

To read more about this phenomenal team, you can check out The Spectacular Case of the 1962 Los Angeles Angels, by Jeff Mays, at the iTunes Store, Amazon, or the Barnes and Noble Nook store.

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