“Grinders: Baseball’s Intrepid Infantry”
The publishing info:
Stoney Creek Publishing
Released July 18, 2022
The review in 90 feet or less
Brian Downing may have gone by the nickname “The Incredible Hulk,” looked far more like Christopher Reeve, and was the most likely Angels in the Outfield candidate to bust through a left-field wall like the Kool-Aid Man in routine pursuit of a fly ball.
(Downing shoulda been in this commercial, not Pete Rose, but then again …)
He rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle to the ballpark. He is the Los Angeles-California-Anaheim franchise leader in hit by pitch — more than 100 in the pre-body-armor days.
Call him a Grinder – as this new book does, and we heartily applaud – but he was also a Gamer.
Downing played in 1,661 of them for the franchise. It covered 13 seasons, most in its history when he was incredibly let go by Angels GM Mike Port because, well, the guy was 39 and, by all accounts, kind of expensive to keep around despite … well … we’ll get to that.
When he arrived via trade in 1978 at age 27, Downing compiled as many grass stains and elbow gashes as he did career stats that would put him pretty much in the club lead in every category, and all these years later, still remaining in the top five in many of them.
From playing catcher (and handling Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana), then reluctantly moved to left field and then to a dependable DH who could do it from the leadoff spot, Downing was beyond a fan-favorite as the Angels won their first AL West Division title in 1979 (he was an AL All Star and hit .326 with 75 RBIs and 81 runs scored), and added two more titles in ’82 (.281, 28 homers, 84 RBIs, 109 runs) and ’86 (career-high 95 RBIs, 29 HRs, 110 runs). Six times he topped 20 homers in a season.
Also consider: That converted catcher broke Al Kaline’s AL record by playing 244 straight error-less games in the outfield from May of 1981 through July of ’83. And he didn’t complain about the scorekeeping call that ended it.
In the middle of the streak, this play even happened – 40 years ago this season, Sept. 21, 1982:
Born in L.A. and trying to make it onto the teams at Magnolia High in Anaheim and Cypress College, he couldn’t get anyone’s attention until a former American Legion coach of his pointed him to a tryout camp with the Chicago White Sox, where he was a part-time scout. Downing acknowledged it was tough to get players his age as the Vietnam War was going on.
Inserted as a third baseman, he lasted one pitch in his his MLB debut on May 31, ’73, coming in as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning. He banged up his knee catching a foul popup and had to sit more than two months.
His trade to the Angels in ’73 in a six-player deal meant Downing could come home.
He created a new batting stance and added in weight training to his 5-foot-10 and solid 194 pound frame.
Yet by the time the Angels kicked him to the curb at the end of the ’90 season — he wasn’t allowed to start the final home game of the season on Fan Appreciation Day, and a month earlier, he was named AL Player of the Week on Aug. 12 — he was making $1.25 million that season, sixth-highest on the team, and already sharing the DH role with Chili Davis.
Because of the way the Angels let him go, Downing remained understandably bitter. Ten years later, in 2000, in an interview with the L.A. Times, Downing said the wounds were still fresh.
“I was pushed out two years too soon,” he said, according to his wife, acknowledging that Downing played two more seasons in Texas as a DH. The Angels decided he could be replaced in that role in ’91 and ’92 with a rotation of Dave Parker, Dave Winfield, Hubie Brooks and other less expensive veteran spare parts.
Still, Downing got in the RV and returned to Anaheim to be part of the team’s 40th Season Anniversary celebration – voted by the fans to be included with in the outfield with Jim Edmonds and Reggie Jackson, honored with manager and shortstop Jim Fregosi, catcher Bob Boone, first baseman Rod Carew, second baseman Bobby Grich, third baseman Doug DeCinces, designated hitter Don Baylor, right-handed starters Nolan Ryan and Mike Witt, left-handed starters Frank Tanana and Chuck Finley and reliever Troy Percival.
Downing’s baseball card of numbers may not have had the Cooperstown-worthy data on it, but it didn’t matter – he finally conceded in 2009 to be added to the Angels’ Hall of Fame. (And on the April night the ceremony was supposed to happen, the Angels lost young pitcher Nick Adenhardt in a car accident, so the game and event was postponed to August).
At that time, he told the Orange County Register: “I’m very conflicted about a lot of things. I know a lot of this night is going to be about the fans, and I appreciate all of them, and all of that. I was always glad to be part of a team, with a bunch of players, but I never wanted to be THE player.”
The story also quotes former teammate Bert Blyleven:
“Brian was what other players called a ‘GAMER.’ … He was the type of player and teammate that came to the ballpark everyday to PLAY.”
Downing move to Texas also meant settling into ranch life with his wife in Celina, Tex., just outside of Dallas.
His last career hit was on the last day of the ’92 season – Sunday, Oct. 4 – described as a line drive single to deep shortstop-third base hole, off the Angels’ Blyleven at Angels Stadium in the first inning. Downing then came out for a pinch runner. They had him in the lineup hitting second and playing second base – a defensive position he wasn’t going to go out and play that day regardless (as he was the Rangers’ DH the previous two games against the Angels in the series).
In the pre-Albert Pujols Anaheim days, Downing was No. 5 – and both are tied for fourth on the franchise’s all-time home run list with 222.
And, on at least this list, he’s No. 6 of the team’s all-time players (behind Mike Trout, Tim Salmon, Chuck Finley, Jim Fregosi and Jered Weaver – and ahead of Nolan Ryan? How about we take another straw poll?). On the NotInHallofFame.com countdown of 50 all-time Angels, it’s Trout, Ryan, Finley, Frank Tanana, Weaver and … Downing is No. 11.
All things considered, too low …
We get to re-remember Downing’s career and impact because of the 15 pages featuring him opening up more about all this in a book pulled together by two grinders themselves.
Mike Capps, the only broadcaster in the Triple-A Round Rock Express’ 22-year existence, did TV and radio news reporting in his prior professional career — 22 years of that at age 24 as a police reporter. He also did the book, “The Scout: Searching for the Best in Baseball” with Red Murff. Earlier this season, Capps logged his 3,000th game at Round Rock, now the Texas Rangers’ top farm club and still owned by Nolan Ryan.
Chuck Hartenstein, who logged 15 years as a relief pitcher known as “Twiggy” for the Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Red Sox and Blue Jays between 1966 and ‘77, died last October at age 79. He was the inspiration for the book, and his story became the opening chapter.
More than 40 players are profiled — including former Dodgers pitcher Jerry Reuss, one-time Dodgers coach Lorenzo Bundy and the three generations of Hairston players that include Jerry Hairston Jr. There are notable names like Kevin Millar, Fred Patek, Ron Swoboda and Jackson Ryan (Nolan’s grandson), plus the great baseball names like Scipio Spinks, Joe Slusarski, Travis Driskill, Kelly Wunsch, Ross Ohlendort and Chase Lambin.
As for Downing ..
The authors reached out to Downing’s wife, Cheryl, who admitted she wasn’t optimistic he would cooperate. “Better than that, he put together on 12 pages of legal pad, filled out both sides, a handwritten account of his career,” the authors explain. “Downing purged his baseball soul … (he) provided one of the best, eloquent and honest responses we’ve ever seen.”
It reveals how Downing was a 7-year-old in L.A. when the Dodgers moved into his hometown, and the first game he saw was when his grandmother took him to Game 3 of the ’59 World Series at the Coliseum.
The White Sox, the Dodgers’ opponent in that series, became his first pro MLB team. And Don Drysdale, pitching in that game for the Dodgers, would call Downing’s career from the broadcast booth.
Downing recalls in the book his first MLB at-bat finally came in August and, on the first pitch he saw, he legged out an inside the park home run during an NBC national TV “Game of the Week” telecast, off Mickey Lolich. Downing was hitting fifth, starting in right field.
(For what it’s worth: Downing’s first MLB AB was the day before in Detroit as a pinch hitter, striking out. And in that next game, he filed out to right in the first inning, then, in third MLB at bat, his first hit is that homer in the fourth).
Downing doesn’t lament much, if at all, in the book about the Angels’ releasing him. But look, with a 20-season career, where he even got a cameo role on “The Jeffersons” when Louise snuck into the Angels’ locker-room looking for Reggie Jackson, to where he could address the Angels Stadium crowd for his delayed franchise Hall of Fame ceremony, things turned out pretty swell.
This book proves it.
If the Angels get around to another anniversary team — they just past 60 seasons, and their 60th season in Anaheim comes up in 2026 — Downing may not be remembered enough to be on it. Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Vlad Guerrero, and a collection of players from the 2002 World Series team might be considered more worthy.
“I just truly appreciate everybody that supported me all those years and the great support our team had,” Downing told the crowd at the Angels Hall of Fame ceremony.
Enough said. End gamer.
How it goes in the scorebook
It may show “1B-6” in the book, but it doesn’t show how it was a slow roller to short that took all sorts of determination out of the box to get down the line and beat out the throw. Those qualities aren’t easy to describe. This does a fine job of it.
Rewind back to Jerry Reuss, who pitched nine seasons for the Dodgers in his 22-year career (1979 to 1987, including his 1980 no-hitter at San Francisco.
Reuss tells a story (page 96) about when he pitched for the Cardinals in 1973, six of his games were at Dodger Stadium that year, and he came to enjoy hearing Vin Scully’s voice on transistor radios all around the park.
Reuss remembers looking in for a sign once, and hearing Scully tell a story, so: “As a courtesy to him, I stepped off the rubber, grabbed and threw down a rosin bag. He delivered the punch line, the crowd laughed, and Scully continued: ‘Reuss winds and the pitch on the way …'”
The story was retold by Rick Reilly in a Washington Post appreciation column.
Because of its nature, baseball is a sport that needs grinders almost more than it needs its marque talent that make things look so easy. If baseball only had five players to a side, the grinders fill in the other four spots, making sure the 162-game schedule is completed.
It’s a reflection on life, if you want to get metaphysical about all this. Those who grind stay in the game. Those who have the talent, face adversity and fall back, won’t survive.
Thank you, grinders, for the inspiration. You intrepid bastards.
You can look it up: More to ponder
== Maybe someday there’ll be a book, or a chapter, on the the Dodgers’ secret weapon to winning the 1988 World Series: Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey, Mike Davis, Franklin Stubbs, Danny Heep, Jeff Hamilton and Dave Anderson. Throw in Mike Sharperson, Mike Devereaux, Chris Gwynn and Tracy Woodson. All hatched off the scrap heap. Pinch hitters. Pinch runners. Defensive replacments. Fill-ins during injuries.
You say Grinders. We still say “Stunt Men.”
Hatcher gave the Dodgers’ bench crew that name during spring training, knowing that Tommy Lasorda had a roster at the time with the likes of Kirk Gibson, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, Pedro Guerrero, Mike Marshall, Alfredo Griffin and John Shelby.
“The thing about the Stunt Men is that we’re never happy,” Hatcher said. “We want to make that clear. You show me a guy happy to be on the bench, and I’ll show you a loser. … Our goal, as stunt men, is to push the (starters). Being a stunt man takes a certain kind of attitude and patience.”
Like being a grinder. Not in the spotlight. Asked to do all the heavy lifting.