Few things beat a good mystery. And, as usual, the most mystifying team in baseball is the California Angels.
Is the Anaheim Alumni Association--with Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Fred Lynn, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich--one of the best lineups ever?
Or is it just a bunch of famous codgers who make up the oldest lineup in baseball and whose best is behind them? Why are they hitting .252 (12th in the AL) and averaging four runs a game?
Is the Angel pitching staff composed of castoffs and retreads, as Oakland Manager Billy Martin says? Or is it the gang that had the second best ERA in baseball, 2.86, going into the weekend?
Who are those come-from-nowhere pitchers, Angel Moreno and Mike Witt, at 5 feet 6 and 6 feet 7 the game's shortest and tallest starters?
Is Gene Mauch the smartest manager in baseball? Or just the smartest who ever finished fourth or lower 20 times in 22 seasons? Will this team confirm his brilliance? Or conclusively demonstrate he overmanages?
Is Gene Autry the most fiscally foolish of owners, since his $25 million in player purchases have bought no pennants and two winning seasons in the last 11? Or, is the 74-year-old a charming galoot who deserves a winner after 20 years of enduring the Angel Jinx?
And what about that jinx? We must acknowledge that the bedeviled Angels have had numerous career-ending player injuries and uniquely ill-fated free-agent purchases. Season-ending injuries this spring to Rick Burleson and Ed Ott fit right into the Angels' bitter pattern. The club's tradition of misfortune and bad judgment has created an irksome image: If the Angels do it, it can't possibly work.
Angel free-agent pitchers get hurt or lose. Even all-star regulars play worse or get hurt more after the Angels buy them at auction. Ask Jackson, coming back from a leg injury and hitting .220.
Naturally, the bizarre Angels find themselves among the leaders in the AL West for backwards reasons. Because they have famous hitters and infamous pitchers, their current good-pitch, no-hit success is perplexing.
"How you pitch is how you look," says Mauch. "We don't know yet that it's good enough. If what I've seen is it, we have enough. They've all done it a few times; now, do it over and over and over."
What Mauch has seen are two 35-year-old pitchers with humble records--Geoff Zahn (69-78) and Ken Forsch (89-88)--who had great Aprils, but now have begun to return to modest form. Said Mauch after watching Forsch stretch with nobody on base: "He's still got time to learn . . . He's only 35."
Tiny Moreno and towering Witt are the keys to this staff.
"Witt was not too bad last year (8-9), but he couldn't get his breaking pitches over; now, he is," said Grich. "Moreno can be sneaky fast. He pitches a little like Baltimore's Tippy Martinez. Tippy wishes he had Angel's fast ball and Angel probably wishes he had Tippy's curve. Angel has a screwball and a change, too."
In their last starts, Witt (2-0, 3.86) and Moreno (2-4, 3.74) were knocked out. Now their true test--coming back over and over--begins. "Witt throws hard and has a remarkable breaking ball for a man that tall," says Mauch. "He pitched best late in '81 as the mystique of the major leagues wore off. I'm not saying it's all gone, yet."
By a particularly Angelic irony, most of the best California pitchers so far--Witt, Moreno and solid relievers Don Aase, Andy Hassler and Luis Sanchez--were obtained through trades and purchases that traditionalists would call honest baseball dealings. The pitchers who were grabbed greedily with Autry's dollars have mostly fizzled, with Zahn (4-1) the exception.
An edge may be new catcher Bob Boone. "There's no better handler of pitchers," says Mauch, "because none of them cares as much as Bob Boone."
The team's lack of hitting has been as mysterious as its pitching. With only 18 homers in 28 games, the Angels terrorized nobody.
The glamor Angels like each other. Carew, a secret clubhouse comic, has made Jackson feel accepted, even getting on his knees to crawl through a mob and present Reggie with flowers after he'd homered in his return to Yankee Stadium.
Mauch has been a cheerleader for hypersensitive Doug DeCinces, who always felt unappreciated by Manager Earl Weaver in Baltimore.
Clubhouse chemistry is one thing; lineup chemistry is another. As yet, the Angels have none. As has happened with Mauch's teams in the past, the lineup changes with chilling caprice and often seems to lack coherence.
Brian Downing--a .264 career hitter with no speed and only a fair walk total--has been the leadoff man. Also, Carew, always a terrible RBI man, sometimes bats No. 3, behind Lynn, a good run producer. More overthinking?
Finally, against lefties, Mauch has sometimes benched Reggie Jackson, Carew and Lynn, replacing them with Juan Beniquez, Ron Jackson and Bobby Clark. On two of those occasions, the Angels lost by two runs. That's the Mauch whom cynics love to ridicule as a man who simply can't keep himself from tinkering with the gears of the machine.
Years ago, Mauch thought of putting transistor radio inserts in his players' caps. "They'd only need to be one way," Mauch says. "I don't want any answers. Just salute."
Will the rich Angels salute, or just go AWOL come pennant race time? Will Zahn and Forsch revert to .500 form? Will Moreno and Witt be young stars? Can an all-over-30 lineup of regulars stay fresh for 162 games? Will the Angel offense, with Reggie Jackson added, be immortal, or will Orange County fans just think it's immoral that players who are paid so much score so seldom? Will the intelligent and decent Mauch, one of the game's most likable yet most confusing men, be vindicated, or just vilified again?
For the next five months, Autry's Angels will be a Southern California whodunit whose plot can only thicken.