Monday, February 6, 2012

By Brian Waller - Feature Writer

If I were to tell you that the Angels once traded for a scrawny catcher who in his first four seasons in Major League Baseball averaged only 6 HR’s and 34 RBI’s while hitting only .251, you would think the Halos re-acquired Jeff Mathis wouldn’t you? As good of a guess as that would have been, you would have been wrong. The Angel player I am referring to is actually the great Brian Downing. During his playing days in an Angel’s uniform, Downing could best be described as a fearsome hitter whose powerful bat and determination to win endeared him not only to Angel fans but to Gene Autry himself. Believe it or not, Downing was never supposed to be as good as he actually was. As a matter of fact, while attending Magnolia High School in Anaheim, CA, Downing tried out for the school team. Downing successfully made the team but received practically no playing time and was actually cut. Downing would go on to graduate from high school and enroll at nearby Cypress College. While attending Cypress College, Downing decided again to try out for the baseball squad but this time he failed to even make the team. Despite his lack of success with baseball in high school and college, Downing stuck with the game and eventually participated in an "all comers" Chicago White Sox tryout in 1969. After an impressive showing, scout Bill Lentini signed him as an amateur free agent on August 19, 1969. Downing made his Major League debut in 1973 and the results were not very promising. On the first pitch of his first inning in his first Major League game, while playing third base, he severely damaged his knee making a diving catch, sliding down the dugout steps and landing on the 60 day DL (Downing made the “dugout tumble” cool long before Mo Vaughn was around). Downing would return the following year and hit a mundane .225 with 10 HR and 39 RBI’s. After returning from the injury Downing would play mostly catcher and would put up similar numbers in Chicago for the next three seasons before being traded December 5, 1977 to the California Angels as a part of a six player deal. The trade brought Downing home to Southern California and out from under the bright lights and high pressure atmosphere of Chicago. It gave Downing’s career new life and it was a trade that Downing would later say saved his career.

In a 2000 interview with the L.A. Times Downing stated he reported to Spring Training in 1978 feeling proud and eager, tongue-tied and excited, blessedly lucky and furiously ready to be an Angel. Although his numbers for his first season with the Halos were uninspiring (.255 batting average, 7 HR, 46 RBI) it did motivate Downing to make a drastic change in the offseason. Downing fully committed himself to serious weight training and also changed his batting stance for the upcoming 1979 season. It seemed as though the drastic changes paid off as Downing hit an impressive .326 (good for third in the American League) along with a career high 12 HR’s. He also made the AL All-Star team for the first and only time. It seemed as though Downing was on the verge of becoming a breakout star until he suffered a broken ankle which shortened his 1980 season. The Angels were determined to keep the newly found offensive force in the line-up however and once Downing returned from the injury he was moved from catcher to left field. Despite having very limited range Downing did have very good hands from his years as a catcher. In 1982 Downing played 158 games in leftfield without making one error. Downing’s extensive weight training also seemed to pay off as he slugged 28 HR’s and had 84 RBI’s. Downing would continue his power surge, hitting 20+ home runs in six of the seven seasons from 1982 to 1988. Downing would become the Angels full-time designated hitter in 1988 and would remain the everyday DH until he departed the team in 1990. Due to lingering injuries, Downing was limited to only 96 games in 1990 yet he still managed to hit 14 HR’s with 51 BRI’s and had a .273 average. It was after this disappointing season that then Angels General Manager Mike Port made a business decision, one that would take Downing over a decade to recover from. Brian Downing, the beloved Angel who had an intense desire to win, who left it all out on the field every inning of every game he played, who grew up in the shadow of the Big A and always had dreams of finishing his career with his hometown team, was allowed to walk away from the team he loved via free agency without any effort on the Angel’s part to re-sign him and without so much as a thank you. One of the reasons Downing took the split from the Angels especially hard was because he felt Port had not been upfront with him about his intentions to let Downing go. Downing also was not put in the starting line-up the last home game of the season, fan appreciation day. Downing, feeling betrayed and bitter, would go on to sign with the rival Texas Rangers where he would play two seasons before finally retiring. Even though Downing’s last hit did not come in an Angel’s uniform, it did happen at Angel Stadium. During the last game of the 1992 season, Downing got a pinch-hit single for the Rangers off former team mate Bert Blyleven. As Downing stood on first base, Angel fans in attendance rose to their feet to give Downing a standing ovation. In addition to the fans, players for both the Angels and the Rangers stood on the top step of the dugout to show their respect for the veteran. It may not have been what Downing envisioned his last game to be like, but it was something truly special for the hometown guy to experience before calling it a career.

Downing would not linger around the game of baseball; in fact he distanced himself from it as much as possible. Downing and his wife Cheryl moved to Celina, Texas, a town of approximately 1,700 people where few followed baseball. This was your “Friday Night Lights” type of town where everyone ate, slept and lived football 24/7. Downing appreciated the fact that nobody recognized him and he was able to fade into obscurity. Through the years the Angels attempted several times to contact Downing in an effort to honor his accomplishments and add him to the team’s hall of fame but Downing refused all attempts. Downing was still hurt over his bitter departure from the organization and was very content with his life that consisted of raising chicken, geese, ducks and pigs in Texas. It wasn’t until the 2000 season that Downing and the Angels organization were brought back together. By no means had Downing forgotten that he had simply been discarded by then GM Mike Port, this reconciliation was not necessarily for the front office, it was for the fans. A poll had taken place asking Angel fans to select the all-time Angels team to commemorate the Angels 40th anniversary. Downing, always a fan favorite, was selected to the all-time team. It was then, after nearly a decade of bitterness and heartache that Brian Downing agreed to return to the “Big A” (a.k.a Edison International Field of Anaheim). Each member of the all-time Angels addressed the sell-out crowd much to Downing’s surprise. His wife Cheryl, who had handled all of the arrangements for Brian to appear at the ceremony decided to not mention to him that he would be asked to speak for fear he would back out due to cold feet. When it was his turn, Brian took to the podium while a tribute video playing on the jumbo screen highlighting his time with the Halos. Downing, who had tears in his eyes only managed to utter a few words to the crowd in attendance, “I was pushed out two years too soon”. Downing would return to Celina, Texas where he continued to live his peaceful life until 9 years later he was informed the Angels wanted to again induct him into the team’s hall of fame. Unlike previous years, Downing gladly accepted the invitation and again returned to the Big A where on August 27, 2009 he, along with long-time friend and former teammate Chuck Finley, received the ultimate honor from the franchise. This time Downing, fully expecting to address the crowd, commented, “"I just truly appreciate everybody that supported me all those years and the great support our team had.”

Brian Downing never won a World Series championship, only made one all-star team and most likely will never make major league baseball’s hall of fame. Downing didn’t reach 300 home runs, he didn’t collect 3,000 hits, and he was only a career .267 hitter. Although Downing will never be mentioned as one of the greatest of all time, he will go down as a player that epitomized the Angels organization. The lanky kid with wire framed glasses that grew up in Southern California, practically in the shadow of the Big A, will always be regarded as one of the organization’s greats. Downing, always the underdog, left it all out on the field and it wasn’t for a big payday or fame, it was for each and every one of us fans.
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