Cursed by an Angel

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

"And everything had been going so well. I was doing everything right—I mean, going to Mexico to play, to stay sharp, to show the team I was serious about being the best I could be," he says. Baughman was nearly alone in Mexico, accompanied only by his girlfriend, who was a three-hour drive away in Los Mochis. "I still don't even know the name of the right fielder who collided with me," Baughman says. "I had only been in Mexico for three weeks. I didn't know the players yet, on top of the fact that I couldn't pronounce their names. It wasn't a great place to break a leg."

While Baughman's girlfriend was driven to Obregon by the general manager of the Los Mochis team, local doctors put Baughman's crumpled leg in a cast. The next morning, they flew to Southern California, where Baughman underwent emergency surgery from the Angels' team physician while Angels officials decided to re-sign the veteran Velarde to play second base.

Before the Angels opened the 2000 season on April 3, they paid tribute to the members of their all-time team in a pregame ceremony that, true to club tradition, was both heartwarming and mind-blowing—especially since watching from the opposing dugout were the New York Yankees, whose all-time team is a who's who of the Hall of Fame and who last season won their 25th World Series championship, one of every four in the 20th century. Among the uncomfortable and convoluted situations was that Reggie Jackson, the Angels' all-time right fielder, was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Yankees. At least Jackson remains on good terms with the Angels. Rod Carew, their all-time first baseman, didn't show up at all because of bad feelings over the way the Angels fired him as hitting instructor after last season. But Bobby Grich, the last great Angels second baseman, was there. So was his latest successor, Adam Kennedy, a rookie just acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals—as part of a trade for Jim Edmonds, the Angels' all-time center fielder.

Weird as it was, however, this was a night that Justin Baughman had been dreaming about for nearly one and a half years. He intended it to be the night he resumed his major-league career and retook his place as one of the Angels' rising stars. Instead, Baughman was toiling in the Angels' facility in Mesa, Arizona, getting ready to be shipped back up to Edmonton, Alberta —back to the minor leagues.

Baughman lasted only a few weeks at the Angels' big-league spring-training camp. Although competition for the second-base job wasn't very imposing—there were eight candidates, none of them with much of a résumé—Baughman was never a serious contender. It wasn't because of his leg. Baughman had spent a week at Cal State Fullerton in January performing running drills for the Angels coaches, and his speed was nearly as good as ever. It was something else.

Baughman struggles to explain it. "I try not to—well, I don't know how to put this, but I am 100 percent," he says. "I worked countless hours in rehab, to the point where I was sick to my stomach from going every day. I come out to the field every day as though I never had a day off. But I'm finding that it's more difficult than I thought it would be adjusting back to the game. I'm making a lot of mistakes that I haven't made in a long time."

Baughman made three fielding errors early in spring training, played without his characteristic dynamism in other areas and never really recovered. He concedes that a strange, sad condition had taken over his game. Although he shrugged off mention of an Angels hex, he seemed to suggest that it might be something worse. "I feel as though I'm starting at square one," he says. "My confidence needs to build, and that's the most difficult part. I haven't felt this way in a long time. It's almost as though I'm crawling—rather than being able to run through this game, sometimes I feel like I'm crawling."

Playing in the minors could give Baughman the jump-start he needs to recharge his game, his confidence, his career. Angels officials insist he still figures in their plans. He could step up and fill in for an injured player. He could be traded to another organization.

Or, mysteriously, this could be it.

He wouldn't be the first phenom to fall out of sight. "It's hard, realizing it's not my job anymore—realizing that I have to earn it all over again," Baughman says. "Especially after getting that little taste of the major leagues—and then you can't play? You always want to search for something good out of everything. And they say that everything happens for a reason. But I don't know what that reason is yet. You know, I have grown as a person. And I think I'm growing as a ballplayer, as far as my drive, as far as wanting it a little more. It has lit a little more of that fire in me."

Meanwhile, however, Baughman says he is struggling not to magnify everything that has happened. That has to be tough, not interpreting everything as a turning point, not seeing a bad day spiraling down forever, not seeing a good day stretching into some perfect revival. Isn't it?

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