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."

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.

"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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