Brian Downing: Still Driven

When I had the pleasure of covering the California Angels of the ’80s, my favorite person was Brian Downing.

Oh,  Downing was a fave player, too. An ultimate gamer, who turned early-career criticism into the motivation to work hard to become a truly impact player. His hard-nosed conversion to the outfield after an arm injury rendered him unable to throw from behind the plate — he was originally a catcher, for both the White Sox and the Angels — was stupendous.

But the person was even more special. Thoughtful, articulate, passionate, selfless. Nearly two decades after his final Major League at-bat, I just became aware of another example of his admirable make-up … more on that in a few graphs.

My view of Downing certainly wasn’t isolated. Teammates felt about him the same way.

A special memory is of Downing receiving a standing ovation — from the Angels dugout — when he got his last career hit in Anaheim Stadium on Oct. 4, 1992 as a member of the Rangers.

Downing played the last two of his 20 seasons in Texas and, having already disclosed retirement plans, as Karma would have it the schedule had the Rangers in the Big A to end the ’92 season. Rangers manager Toby Harrah played along, starting Downing at second base — a position he had never played in his first 2,344 games.

Didn’t play it in this one, either — Downing singled in the first, dashed down the line as the crowd appreciatively erupted, and was replaced by a pinch-runner.

As he made his way off the field for the final time, all the Angels moved to the front of the opposite dugout and joined the ovation. Class.

Now for that Downing update … 

He and former lefty ace Chuck Finley were chosen in the spring as the first inductees in 15 years into the Angels’ Hall of Fame, a ceremony scheduled to take place at Angel Stadium on April 9.

Downing was always a nervous flyer. As a player, he had no alternative, but the experience drained him. Now he simply won’t fly, so he made the long drive from his Texas home to southern California for the induction.

It never happened, tragically. Nick Adenhart and two friends were the fatal victims of a drunk hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of April 9, and that night’s game against Oakland was postponed.

Downing respectfully stayed out of sight the whole time, and left as stealthily as he had come, driving back to Texas.

A couple of weeks ago, Downing climbed back into that SUV, got back on the highway, and again made the long drive, finally taking his well-deserved bows on Aug. 27 as he and Finley donned the red jackets emblematic of the Angels’ shrine.

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