Downing carries battle against long odds, injuries into 19th season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- Brian Downing bumps into a high school or junior college teammate and is asked the same question.

"They'll say, 'How did you ever make it?' " Downing said Wednesday. "They tell me, 'You were terrible. You couldn't play.'"

Those words have followed Downing for more than a generation. That Downing finds himself starting well with the Rangers at age 40 after a career full of injuries and a short spring training is remarkable. That Downing sneaked into professional baseball and exceeded his goal of lasting two weeks helps explain this new force within the Rangers.

Downing received one slender chance and still will run into any wall and play with any injury not to lose it. He is the self-made player who proves hustle can be a talent and fear can motivate.

"If you put Brian Downing's heart in a lion," former teammate Reggie Jackson said, "the lion would be tougher for it."

Hard times and rejection toughened the heart.

Downing did not make the varsity baseball team at Anaheim (Calif.) Magnolia High School until his senior year. He walked on at nearby Cypress Junior College and rode the bench for one season. Downing kept the score book and had three pinch-hit at-bats all season.

"I've stayed hungry because of things that have happened my whole life," Downing said. "It's been like this for me since my childhood. I never had anything to give me much confidence from about 12 years old on.

"I still go back to a lot of things that happened earlier to me. Being put down. Being overlooked. That's still part of it for me, and it always will be."

When Downing was 9, he attended the third game of the 1959 World Series at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It became "the day when it hit me," Downing said. "From that day on, I gave everything I had to making it."

Downing played in every league and in every pickup game he could find. If none could be found, Downing would play his own game at home in the backyard by hitting bottle caps with a plastic bat. Downing played that solitary game through high school.

Painfully shy, Downing would not talk in class in high school. He never attended a school function and walked to high school and junior college because his parents would not sign a consent form for driver's education. Downing did not learn to drive until he was 23, the year he had his first date.

Baseball was his life, but the passion was unrequited. Downing was small -- 5 feet, 8 inches and 160 pounds as a high school senior -- and lacked the talent to impress high school and junior college coaches.

One man saw Downing differently. Bill Lentini worked for the Chicago White Sox as a "bird dog," a part-time scout who haunted amateur games in Orange County searching for the hidden jewel. Lentini liked Downing for his grit and vowed to find him a professional contract.

It happened in 1969. Because the Vietnam War had thinned the talent pool, the White Sox needed players to fill Class A rosters. Lentini told of a player who had hit .333 in junior college -- Downing singled off future major leaguer Al Hrabosky -- and would sign for nothing. The first time the White Sox saw Downing, they thought Lentini had lost his mind.

"Brian was this scrawny guy back then," said Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond, then a White Sox executive. "I asked Bill what he saw in him, and he said, 'This kid is so aggressive. He loves to play.'

"Bill Lentini might have been the only person who believed in Brian. It's like he's been on a crusade his whole career to prove Bill Lentini was right. Brian's deserved everything that's come his way, because he's made it against all sorts of odds."

The background influenced Downing's reckless style of play. He gave himself up in every way, whether it was running into a wall or hitting behind a runner, to stay. Downing's greatest fear was if he stopped moving, someone would end the dream and send him home.

Consider the first play of Downing's major-league career in 1973. With the White Sox leading, 10-2, he went in the game in the eighth inning to play third base. The first pitch was popped foul near the dugout. Downing dived headfirst and hit so hard he injured his right knee. He missed the next six weeks.

"Brian always played so hard," Hemond said. "You don't like to restrain a player, but I was always afraid his career would be a short one because of what he did to his body."

The White Sox made Downing a catcher, and announcer Harry Caray made him a whipping boy for pitch selection. When the White Sox traded for Bobby Bonds after the 1977 season, they offered California its choice of two players to complete the deal, Jim Essian or a sore-elbowed Brian Downing.

The Angels selected Downing "because he reminded me of Gil Hodges," said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers general manager.

The deal launched 12 fulfilling years for Downing with his hometown team. He had returned to prove wrong those who overlooked him as a youth.

Downing had success, making the All-Star team as a catcher in 1979 and appearing in three league playoffs. He had six 20-homer seasons with the Angels and established club records in nearly every offensive category.

He took up weightlifting, added about 30 pounds of upper-body strength and became "Hulk" to teammates. The weightlifting also gave Downing the first hint of self-confidence. Consistent with his character, Downing went all-out for lifting and now owns a gym in Southern California.

Weightlifting "was something that had to be done," Downing said. "It's a mind thing. It's a mental-toughness thing. It's all related."

As if to prove he could play better when in pain, Downing once started a round of batting practice by letting a throw hit him. Eventually, his body gave into the grind.

The Angels watched tears come to Downing's eyes every time he threw in 1980 and added Bob Boone after the season to catch. Downing played the outfield through wrist and ankle injuries, but his shoulder gave out in 1987. He has not played in the field since 1987.

The steady stream of rich free agents brought in by owner Gene Autry overshadowed Downing. They were the stars. He was the self-made player constantly fiddling with his swing, his confidence and even his position.

Those who played with Downing respected him. They understood why Downing built a batting cage at his home and took an hour of batting practice every day before going to the park.

"Brian made himself into the player he is," said Milwaukee coach Don Baylor, an Angel in 1977-82. "He's stayed around because of the extra work he put into it. Hit, hit, hit, hit.

"Brian had to take that attitude to make it. That's why he is the way he is. He had to be intense. He can't give in to anything."

The marriage with the Angels soured last year. Downing and manager Doug Rader, two strong-willed individuals, clashed over playing time. The Angels brought in Dave Winfield, and there were hints Downing would retire rather than continue a three-year struggle with a damaged right rib-cage muscle.

Downing stayed and had a good second half but saw his career ending with the Angels. He asked for one thing: advance notice of his last at-bat.

The Angels insist there was no such deal. Entering the final series of the season, Rader said he would use only players who "cared about this club and their teammates." Downing never left the bench. Offered the chance to pinch-hit in the ninth inning of the final game, he refused.

In October, the Angels renounced their rights to Downing and allowed him to become a free agent. They were reluctant to keep a 40-year-old player who could not play the field, earned $1.25 million and had physical problems.

"There is no perfect way to do these things," said former Angels general manager Mike Port. "If I did it with my heart, then Reggie and Don Sutton and Rod Carew and Geoff Zahn would still be here. We have to make decisions with our head and consider all the factors.

"We did it with respect and appreciation for what Brian did for this team. I can understand Brian's feelings. He's an intense individual. That's what enabled him to do all the things he did for us."

No other team approached Downing during the off-season. A month ago, Downing prepared for what he called "an alternative lifestyle" of riding his motorcycle along the Pacific coast. The Rangers called in late March, and Downing joined them March 29, the same day Pete Incaviglia was released.

The move embittered Downing, who once said he never could play against the Angels. Now the release carries the same impact as all the people who said he could not play.

"Everything I didn't want to have happen did," Downing said. "I play for myself. I'm not vindictive. I don't look at this as 'I'll show them.'

"I have to play every day like it's my last one. I'm not sure when this will fall apart. But I know every day I get is one more than I thought I was going to get."

The fear remains. When Downing was hit by a pitch in a minor-league game during spring training, he was told to sit out as much as a month. Two days later, he was taking batting practice.

He could not let another slender chance get away.

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