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Ferguson: Downing helped change the game in the '80's

Scott Ferguson
1/10/2014 11:04:41 AM
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When I look at the Hall of Fame ballot and wonder how baseball will ultimately deal with the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, I try to think back to when the game and its ethics really changed.

I can't pinpoint a date, but I do remember a player from my youth. Brian Downing was with the Chicago White Sox at a time when I listened to every game I possibly could on the radio. That particular season the late great Harry Caray was calling the White Sox games. What struck me as unusual was Caray almost seemed to have a vendetta against Downing. He was always finding fault with him and ultimately the pressure of playing in Chicago wore Downing down. On December 5, 1977, Downing was part of a huge six-player trade with the Angels that sent him back home to California.

Downing had always been a player who battled adversity and beat the odds. He made his Magnolia High School team, but hardly played and was cut. Same story pretty much at Cypress College. It looked as though his baseball dream was over. But then he went to a White Sox open tryout camp and was signed.

When Downing played his first game with the White Sox he was a third baseman and believe it or not on the very first pitch he severely damaged his knee when he tried to make a diving catch near the dugout and tumbled down the steps.

When he returned, he was converted to catcher and became a back-up to veteran Ed Herrman. But he never was much of a hitter and could never please Harry Caray.

Downing didn't fare much better in his first year with the Angels and realizing his career could be slipping away, he committed to a "serious weight training" program in the off-season of 1978, changed his batting stance dramatically and even had a batting cage installed in his home.

From there his career began to take off, though not particularly fast. Downing was so good at getting on base he often batted lead-off and he once led the American League in walks.

He ran into more adversity in 1980, when he suffered a broken ankle and was ultimately forced to move to left field. Though not a great fielder, through hard work, he become more than adequate and actually didn't make a single error in the 1982 season.

Downing played with the Angels right through the 1990 season before the Angels effectively forced him out in a bit of contract dispute. He played his final two years in Texas as a designated hitter. By the time he left the Angels though Downing had built up franchise record numbers in games played, at-bats, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, RBI's and walks.

He retired on the final day of the 1992 season at age 41. His final game and last at-bat came at the Angels ballpark, and he ended his career with a pinch-hit single off his former teammate and future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Downing received a prolonged standing ovation.

Ten years later Brian Downing was honoured as a member of the Angels All-time team and still later on August 27, 2009 he was named to the Angels Hall of Fame along with his former teammate Chuck Finley.

The point of this is, Brian Downing was one of the very first to get involved in weight training. By all accounts, he transformed his long lanky body into a muscular physique with nothing more than dedication and extremely hard work.

Others perhaps inspired by Downing's success followed his path. Others learned of the shortcuts to building a new body with PED's and created the era that still clouds baseball to this day.

Downing carved out a career that is to be admired, but his nickname then - "The Incredible Hulk" - is strangely ironic now considering the brand of baseball it may have helped span over the last 35 years.

Changes in Philly

It was sad for me this week to see that Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews were let go by the Phillies as broadcasters. "Sarge", as Matthews is affectionately known, had a great career as a player and worked with the Blue Jays as a batting coach, and even spent two years in the Toronto radio booth with Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth. I only had the pleasure of working with "Sarge" for one year, in 2001 and enjoyed every minute of it. He was insightful and funny and a good friend. He is apparently staying with the Phillies in another capacity but he will be missed on the air.

A couple of interesting notes on Gary Matthews' playing career. He slugged seven homers in 19 career post-season games. If that's not impressive enough, in his final Major League at-bat "Sarge" singled off Texas lefty Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, only to be immediately picked off first base to end the game. What a way to end your career.

All the best "Sarge"!

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