Sunday, June 17, 2012

By Eric Notti - Columnist

There is a scene near the end of the movie The Right Stuff where reporters are mobbing Gordon Cooper and they ask the question: Who is the best pilot you ever saw? Gordon, not known to be a humble guy, uncharacteristic of him becomes somber and tries to explain there were dozens of pilots he saw, mostly pictures on a wall of the deceased pioneers that flew before him but he isn't quite able to get the point across. Then he realizes they want to hear what they want to so he straightens up with a big grin and says, “Who is the best pilot I ever saw? Well, you're lookin' at him.”

Right now the best rookie most of us have seen is playing on the Angels right now but I remember one that stood out in the past, a long forgotten name of a kid with great promise that patrolled the outfield. In fact he was the first player I took notice of, in the first game I attended, in the newest stadium in the American League at the time. The year was 1966, the game was against the Baltimore Orioles and the player had my nickname. How could that go wrong?

In 1966  the Angels were a young team, seven of the eight starting fielders were 27 or younger. The outfield consisted of the youngest of them. 21 year old Ed Kirkpatrick, who had made his major league debut for the Angels at age 17 in 1962, never achieved any notoriety; a player of the dead ball era wielding a dead bat. Somehow he lasted 16 years bouncing from team to team, playing not much more than 120 games a season in his prime.

In center field was 22 year old Jose Cardenel. He had already played out his rookie season the year before and posted a .250 batting average and provided some speed on the base paths on the few occasions he made it to first safely. The Angels gave up on him in 1967, trading him to Cleveland for utility fielder Chuck Hinton, then the Angels traded him back to Cleveland before the season started for 34 year old Lou Johnson, who was part of the original 1961 team. All that aside, Jose Cardenel actually ended up have a pretty nice career after making it to Wrigley Stadium as a Cub.

Now we get to left field and it is patrolled by the Angels 1963 bidding war bonus baby. The highest paid amateur free agent at the time, Rick Reichardt received a $204,000 signing bonus. A staggering number at the time and ultimately led Major League baseball to institute an amatuer draft that started the following year.

Although Reichardt made his actual debut in 1964 and played again in 1965, he never used up his rookie status. So in 1966 the 23 year old Reichardt was ready to be the new left fielder in their new stadium in Anaheim and began his rookie season off with a bang, hitting the first home run for the Angels in their home ballpark. It was the start of what was going to be the best rookie season for any Angels player and possibly the best debut of any rookie in 1966.

It didn't start all that well for Rick, he didn't see playing time until April 12th in Chicago where rookie jitters had him go 0-5 with a walk. Then after a day off he went 1-3 and got beaned, possibly a pitchers welcome to the league pitch. The following game in Minnesota the Angels saw what they had paid all that bonus money for, Reichardt went 2-4 with a walk and home run. He only played 13 games in April and posted a .255 batting average but what put him in the lineup for good was his .364 on base percentage and .638 slugging percentage.

Here is where we draw a comparison to another Angels rookie, Tim Salmon. As almost every Angels fan knows, Tim Salmon was the first Rookie of the Year for the franchise back in 1993. So looking at the numbers, Reichardt and Salmon look a lot like the same player for the first two months, edge Reichardt. At the end of their rookie year Tim was a OPS+ 143 Reichardt an OPS+ 145.

Rick - April .255/.364/638/1.002 - 6 home runs
Tim - April .254/.392/.559/.951 - 5 home runs

Rick - May .313/.389/.518/.907 - 6 home runs
Tim - May .294/.388/.471/.859 - 4 home runs

Now where is it that I come in? Well, it was the summer of 1966, my father finally decided to take the boys to an Angels game and I found myself in the front row of the second deck, just overlooking the third base bag. At age 7 and not yet even had played my first little league game, I had no clue who was on the team  or even how the game was played other than over the line with friends. But when the lineup card was announced and posted on the scoreboard I heard Left Fielder Rick Reichardt, I instantly had a connection to the game; he had my name.

It was June 2nd and the Angels were playing the Baltimore Orioles. Rick was batting 3rd and at the time was hitting .304. The Orioles scored first but in the bottom of the 1st Jose Cardenel walked and stole second. Fregosi struck out and then my guy, my new hero, the guy named Rick came to the plate and lashes a single to right field scoring Cardenel. I am screaming and jumping up and down, this baseball thing is the best and my guy is the best. Reichardt moved to 2nd on a walk, was sacrificed to 3rd and scored on a Bobby Knoop single. The Angels were ahead and as far as I was concerned Rick Reichardt had done  it all on his own.

As the game moved along the Orioles would score again, the Angels would tie again, Reichardt would get another hit and cross the plate again. It was everything a kid want to see in baseball, I even saw Reichardt catch a fly ball close to the foul line not far from our point of view.

The score was tied going into the 10th and the Angels reliever ran out of gas. There were fewer times that relievers took the mound back then. I remember them most often going long relief, no 7th, 8th or closer roles, just here is the ball now go get em. Bob Lee had done a pretty good job taking over for the starter in the 7th but by the 10th he was done, the only one that didn't know it was Rigney.

Baltimore scored 4 runs that inning. The only bright side was in the bottom of the 10th  with 2 outs the Angels mounted a comeback with back to back singles by Cardenel and Fregosi and my hero Reichardt scoring the lone run on a scorched infield hit that was ruled an error. From the second deck it was a clean single to me.

My first Angels game was a 10 inning loss but I had a new hero to follow and the rest of the season I did just that. Rick Reichardt was, without a doubt, the best rookie player in 1966 up to that point only because I had no idea who else was a rookie that season.

The rest of June was a struggle for Rick, he batted .250 but unlike in April he was not getting on base through walks or hitting for power. His OPS for the month was .634. He went 20 games without a home run. He had 12 home runs going into June and only 4 more the rest of the season. Something had to be wrong, and there was.

Reichardt played the game in a hard nosed style. He was a Fullback at the University of Wisconsin and played in the 1962 Rose Bowl for the national championship. He wasn't afraid of the wall and back then that walls were far from flexible or padded. I had seen him hit the wall a couple times that season and each time you could see the immovable object win. It was after one of these impacts that Rick seemed to be injured for real but in wasn't a bruise or tear or broken bone. He was sent for tests and they came back season over.

Reichardt had been playing his rookie season with a faulty kidney. The excessive wear and tear of playing professional ball put him on the operating table and the kidney in a specimen jar.

Reichardt's last true game was July 27th, he went 2-5 with an RBI. His rookie season had come to a crashing halt on the 119th game of the season. In his 89 games as a rookie he batted .288/.367/.480/.846 with 16 home runs and 69 RBI. He played well at home but was a road warrior posting a .300 batting average and .925 ops. The Angels brought him back to pinch hit on the last game of the season for a curtain call. He popped out to the shortstop.

In the 1966 Rookie of the Year ballot, Rick Reichardt is not listed. He only had 360 plate appearances and was not qualified. The winner that year was Tommy Agee of the Chicago White Sox. He finished the season batting .273 with a .773 ops and 22 home runs. He went to the All Star game and won a Gold Glove that season. At the time Reichardt went to the disabled list he was well ahead of Agee in all batting categories.

Had Reichardt not had a kidney fail and could have completed the season it would have been a good race to the finish for ROY. Rick had rebounded from that terrible June to bat .313 in July.

What could have been.

And that is the precautionary part of this tale. The best Angels rookie I ever saw? He was 23 years old, played left field for the Angels and seemed capable of beating the Orioles all by himself or kill himself trying. And he almost accomplished both.

Rick Reichardt back in 1966 was possibly the best young talent in the game and he wore a CA on his hat. We now have a kid on the team that is the best young talent in baseball and has been seen with a CA on his hat and looks a lot like Rick in many ways. Let's just pray he fares better.
Love to hear what you think!

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