Friday, February 8, 2013

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By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer --
By 1977, Angels owner Gene Autry had committed to do whatever it took to produce a championship caliber club. In 1976 he had acquired Dan Baylor, Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich through free agency. Though weary of the process, Autry knew free agency was the fastest way to produce a winner and was prepared to take full advantage of it.
           
In the winter of 1977, the best free agent on the market was hard hitting outfielder from Minnesota, Lyman Bostock. As one of the best young talents in the game Autry ordered his general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, to look into it.

A fine defensive center fielder, Bostock could hit, run and produce in the clutch. He had finished fourth in the league with a .323 average in 1976. His .336 the following season was second only to Twins teammate Rod Carew. Gene Mauch, Bostock's Minnesota manager, called Bostock the second-best hitter in all of baseball behind Carew.

With Bavasi working out the logistics, Autry got his wish. Bostock signed a deal with the Angels that winter worth $2.3 million over five years, an astounding contract for the time. He had made just $20.000 with the Twins in 1977.

Don Baylor salivated at the thought of the talented Bostock hitting ahead of him in the line-up, but Bostock had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. He struggled so badly in April that he actually refused his paycheck.  Autry, who made it a point to make regular clubhouse rounds, almost went down like one of the bad hombres in his old movies when Bostock handed him back his check at the end of the month.

“I don’t deserve it,” Bostock told him. “I didn’t come over here to hit .150.  Don’t pay me until I get better.” 

Baylor says the check ended up being donated to charity, and Bostock started hitting .400 from that day forward. 

Meanwhile the Angels as a team were struggling. Midway through the season Bavasi had finally seen enough and fired manager Dave Garcia, replacing him with Autry’s handpicked successor, Jim Fregosi. With new blood at the helm, the Angels stayed hot all season and by September 1, were still in the hunt only a game behind the division leading Royals. Bostock, meanwhile was hitting around .300 and along with Baylor were the team’s major offensive threats. Three weeks later, the Angels –still holding on to the slimmest chance of making the playoffs despite trailing the Royals by 5 1/2 games –headed into Chicago for an important three game series with the White Sox. With the team understanding that a loss- any loss- might end their playoff hopes, a tragic event occurred that permanantly and significantly shifted their focus.  

On September 28, 1978, Bostock, riding a car with friends in Gary, Indiana, was shot to death.  Police identified the assailant as Leonard Smith, the estranged husband of a passenger in the car, Barbara Smith, who was a childhood friend of Bostock’s. Smith had been stalking her, and when Bostock’s uncle, who was driving the car, pulled up to a stoplight, Smith fired a shotgun point-blank into the back of the car. She was hit by one pellet, while Bostock, sitting next to her, caught the full force of the round in the face.  The likeable and gregarious athlete who was hitting almost .300 for the Angels was dead at 27. 

Earlier that day, the Angels had lost to the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Bostock had a lot of friends from Gary, his hometown, in the stands.  Baylor recalls that when his friend went up to bat in the ninth inning with the winning run on base and two outs, and then grounded out to end the game. “He was so pissed I’m not sure if he even took a shower,” says Baylor. The last time I saw him was after the game when he dashed by me wearing a sport coat and dripping wet from sweat or a shower. I asked him ‘Where you going?’ But he didn’t say a word. He just bolted by. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.

“After the game I joined Rudi, Ryan and Remy at Eli’s nightclub for some music and dinner, and when we got back to the hotel our phones were ringing off the hook. Turns out it was Buzzie calling, saying Lyman had been shot. The news spread like wildfire and within a few minutes everybody knew. We asked Buzzie where he was. We wanted to go see him. But Buzzie’s said we couldn’t go there because he had over a hundred (shotgun) pellets in his head and they didn’t expect him to live. 

“We were all stunned and sat out in the hallway just staring at the walls. Hotel guests walked around us, on us and over us, but we didn’t even notice. We just sat out in the hallway and cried.  We couldn’t believe it.  It was the worst night I ever had in baseball. 

“No one really slept that night, and the next morning my head was killing me so I walked down to Walgreen’s, to get some Excedrin.  We just lost a teammate but, dammit, we still had to play a ball game! So off we went. It was Sunday and I got to the park early and when I get there there’s some damn photographer and he was taking a picture of Lyman’s empty locker. I threw him the hell out. 

“Our clubhouse was just like a morgue. We had no batting practice, or anything. Max Patkin, the baseball clown, was supposed to perform that day. He came in and told me ‘My fee is $5,000, but I don’t want to go on.’ He refused to do it out of respect for Lyman.

“I felt I had to do something for him, so I homered my first time up.  No batting practice, no warm-ups, I just swung and it went out. To this day I still don’t know how I got around the bases, my legs just felt so heavy. When I got back to the bench our equipment man, Mickey Shishido, came up to me. ‘That was for Lyman, wasn’t it?’ he said. ‘You hit that one for Lyman.’

“Even after all these years, every time I go back to Chicago I think about him. It was the end of the season and we were [still in the race], but after that happened the guys just wanted to get the season over with. 

“Losing Lyman was a hard one. He was a great player. But losing a friend and a teammate, that was the worst it.  It was a brutal day, an absolutely brutal day.”

The Angels actually won four in a row after Bostock’s passing, and five of their next seven games, but the first place Royals, went 5-3, to finish the season and seal the divisional title. The Halos finished five games out, in a tie with the Rangers.


© 2006, 20013- Once They Were Angels by Rob Goldman
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