Cursed by an Angel

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

On the contrary, Baughman had always confronted the strange bounces and wild superstitions that permeate baseball with steady analysis and meticulous execution. He objectively emphasized his strengths (sure-handed defense and speedy legs) and accepted his limitations (conceding a lack of home-run power and concentrating on base hits). Consequently, he zipped nearly unimpeded through Little League, high school, college and minor-league ball, always in the starting lineup and almost always one of the stars.

"Baseball is a mental game, a game of confidence," Baughman says. "There's not one aspect of this game—base running, hitting, fielding, everything —that doesn't require as much training for your mind as it does for your body. You build that confidence through repetition and review, when you are practicing and when you are playing. I've been practicing and playing that way just about every day for my whole life."

Baughman was a shortstop when the Angels selected him in the fifth round of the June 1995 free-agent draft. The Angels already had a quality shortstop in Gary DiSarcina, but Baughman's rising batting average and 118 stolen bases in his first two full seasons in the minors caught their attention. Eager—even anxious—to make him a part of the team, early in 1998 they moved him from their Single-A team in Lake Elsinore to their Triple-A team in Edmonton and switched his position from shortstop to second base. The Angels projected Baughman's defense as a solution for a position that had lacked consistency since All-Star second baseman Bobby Grich retired in 1986. They also believed his quick bat, breathtaking speed and base-running skills answered their long, flummoxed search for a prototypical leadoff hitter.

"I was in the big leagues after only three years of minor-league play, and that was fast," Baughman says, a tinge of sad amazement creeping into his now-distanced perspective. "I was thinking, 'This is coming pretty easy. All right! I'm on my way!'"

Maybe there was extra topspin on the ball that Curtis Goodwin of the Colorado Rockies drilled on a low line drive toward right field in the seventh inning of an early summer, Sunday-evening game against the Angels in Anaheim. Or maybe Baughman took his eye off it for a moment—there were runners on first and second and only one out, so maybe he glanced away to see if DiSarcina was moving to cover second base in anticipation of a double play. Baughman had turned in a pair of spectacular plays on similar line drives during the preceding few days. Who knows what was different about this one? He still doesn't remember clearly how the speeding ball missed his glove and plowed straight into his face, colliding with hard bone, sharp teeth and soft tissue to turn the inside of his mouth into a shredded, bloody mess. When Baughman finally left the field, he was still seeping into a red-soaked towel.

Few people who saw it had ever seen anything like it before. Nobody who saw it will likely ever forget it.

"Yeah, people make a big deal about that," Baughman scoffs now. "I was out for a week, and it wasn't that big a deal at all."

Miraculously, a CAT scan and x-rays were negative. Baughman received lots of stitches, but he returned after several games and continued to play well for the rest of the 1998 season. Nearly two years later, however, the left side of Baughman's lip still features some puffy undulations from the blow. "I've got a scar," he says. "But I don't think about it at all. I don't even call what happened an injury. I call it 'I missed a couple of games.'"

Baughman, batting .290 through 18 games before the horsehide facial, finished the season with a .255 average with 20 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 63 games. Veteran Randy Velarde took over more of the workload during the Angels' fading pennant drive, but Baughman was still considered the club's rising star.

True to his work ethic, he set off for the Mexican Winter League for some additional polishing. This time, it was a pop fly to shallow right field, rising and then falling through the fading November light in the aging stadium at Ciudad Obregon. It was another Sunday afternoon, and another ball off another bat was traveling in Baughman's direction, destined to change his career. Baughman sprinted back on the ball. The outfielder raced in. Baughman planted his left leg to make the catch. But the outfielder went for the ball, too, sliding along the grass—and into Baughman's stationary leg.

"We were both going full speed," Baughman recalls, "so it was quite an impact."

Baughman collapsed, his leg in pieces beneath the skin, which was stretched grotesquely around it. The ball landed untouched. The right fielder hobbled over, picked it up, and threw it toward the infield.

As Baughman lay on the grass, unable to move, his mind was racing. "My legs are the reasons I'd made it as a ballplayer," he says, "and all the warnings I'd ever heard came back to me: keep your legs healthy. . . . Your legs are your ticket. . . . Your legs are going to make you your money. . . . Your legs are going to carry you to the major leagues.

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