Cursed by an Angel

Justin Baughman was on his way to a big-league career. Then he was drafted by the Angels

There is a tendency to attribute just about anything that goes wrong with the Angels —which is to say just about anything that goes on with the Angels —as evidence that some pernicious fallen spirit has adopted the team as a pet project to earn extra credit in hell, thus dooming everyone associated with the organization to eternal, miserable calamity. Apparently, some people have a problem accepting pain and failure at face value.

But Justin Baughman isn't into hoodoo. He's just a regular guy from Oregon, soft-spoken and friendly and exuding athletic usefulness, who grew up dreaming of becoming a big-league baseball player. In fact, Baughman is such a grounded person—so realistic, so focused—that it doesn't seem likely his preparation for a profession as a ballplayer included very much "dreaming" at all.

So all the nightmarish stuff that has happened to Baughman since May of 1998, when at 23 years of age he suddenly became the starting second baseman for the Angels . . . well . . . all those things could have happened to anybody, right?

Baughman has obviously considered this issue before. He smiles weakly through lips still scarred from the baseball that a Colorado Rockies batter drilled straight into his face a few weeks after the Angels called him up from the minors. He uneasily shifts his weight back and forth, from his perfectly fine right leg to his left leg—which, he insists, is healed in each of the five places below the knee where it was shattered in a collision with a right fielder a few months later. But Baughman doesn't reply right away. Clearly, he would like to go with the it-could-happen-to-anybody flow of the question. He would love to let it carry him to an answer that would escape the freaky force field that seems to have surrounded his young career.

But he can't—quite.

It's been another frustrating day on the practice field in Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels' training complex just off Interstate 10 outside Phoenix, where Baughman has spent the spring trying to revive his major-league skills. He missed the entire 1999 season while his broken-to-bits leg melded back into one piece, and he is discovering that the fallout from the smashed face, slight concussion and multiple leg fractures that accompanied his Angels debut almost two years ago have left lots of little zigzaggy cracks in his confidence. Baughman can run almost as fast as he did when he was the speediest guy in the Angels organization. But he's not hitting the same, he's not fielding as well, and he's not a big-league second baseman anymore. The Angels have cut him from their roster, sent him back to the minor leagues and traded for another promising young player at the position.

Yeah, Baughman knows all of that stuff could have happened to any player with any team at any time. "But, you know, I did have to ask myself," he says, finally, releasing an exasperated sigh and then allowing a set of perplexed laments to spill over his stiff—and slightly disfigured—upper lip. "Why me? And why now?"

If the people in Disney marketing are listening —if they're even interested anymore, now that Eisner's got the team up for sale—Baughman's questions could work as the perfect slogan for this, the Angels' 40th anniversary season. Not only because the team's latest meticulous rebuilding program has pathetically disintegrated, setting up long-suffering players and fans for another intolerably uncompetitive summer. But also because "Why me? And why now?" is such an apt and personal summary of the persecution complex that the Angels' relentlessly bad luck has engendered during most of the 39 years that have come before.

Angels history puts the kind of spin on the national pastime that could only come from an organizational heritage that includes a singing cowboy and Walt's frozen head. It's a dark and quirky litany of slapstick comedy and tear-jerking tragedy that has produced athletic fiasco out of such far-flung plot elements as murder, suicide, paralysis, partial blindness, blood disorders, concealed weapons, bean balls, a pitcher breaking his hand while celebrating a division-clinching win, a staph infection, a bus crash, a crack bust, and a severely sprained ankle by a just-signed, big-money, superstar first baseman in the first inning of his very first game. Or have you forgotten Lyman Bostock, Donnie Moore, Minnie Rojas, Tony Conigliaro, Rick Reichardt, Chico Ruiz, Paul Schaal, Jim Barr, Wally Joyner, Buck Rodgers, Tony Phillips and Mo Vaughn? Oh, and never, not ever, making it to the World Series?

By now, much of this legacy has become awfully familiar. Mentioning the boys of any Angels summer is bound to evoke the memory of one eerie episode or another, all of them retold like favorite ghost stories around a campfire. Aficionados of this macabre genre are always looking for even weirder accounts of new and more innocent victims for the latest edition of Cursed by an Angel.

And now that Baughman has heard himself suggest that the twists in his own situation might be a part of this full-moon tradition, he immediately begins expressing some second thoughts. "Through all of this, I've never considered myself cursed," he maintains. "What has happened to me is just unfortunate." On the other hand, Baughman can understand why somebody might consider his story another chapter in the ongoing horror serial that is the Angels. "When you start putting together all the injuries that this team had last year, you'd think I'd start wondering," he says, allowing himself to do exactly that, for just a second. "I mean, guys on this team were getting hurt, one after the other, all through last season. I guess maybe you could say I started the ball rolling. But no. No, I never considered myself cursed or anything."

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