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WHAT’S HAPPENED TO WALLYWORLD? JOYNER’S HOMERS, POPULARITY, FADING

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The latest All-Star vote count shows Wally Joyner a distant eighth among American League first basemen, which proves - if nothing else - that popularity is fleeting.

Three years ago, Joyner was the first rookie ever to be voted into an All-Star starting lineup. Two years ago, he had a season worthy of MVP consideration. But one year ago, he was baseball's comedown player of the year, and the voting public appears reluctant to forgive him.Perish the thought. Wally Wonderful batted only .295 last year and drove in only 85 runs - solid stats for a mere human, perhaps, but not in the realm of baseball relativism.

Baseball's obsession with the home run has turned Wallyworld into a ghost town. He went from 34 homers to 13 in the space of one season and is threatening to drop out of double digits this year. He also is threatening to drop out of the public consciousness, if All-Star voting is any indication.

"When you stop hitting home runs, you're just a regular baseball player," said Joyner. "To answer the (popularity) question, no, I'm not getting as much attention as I did in my first two years. It's interesting. I've thought about it a lot."

Joyner is not the philosophical type, but on this issue, he does not have a stock answer. He can lapse into Wallyspeak ("We're playing good baseball. If you keep doing the little things, everything will work out. You have to take it game by game," etc.) at any time, but he does not sound like Everyplayer on this one.

"When you have two years like I had (in '86 and '87), it's a lot of fun," he said. "I'm not saying that it won't happen again, but I did it, I enjoyed it and maybe now it's someone else's turn.

"No matter what happens the rest of my life, that happened to me and it's something that doesn't happen to a lot of people."

The public All-Star snub does not seem to rankle, even though the game will be played on his home turf. He has bounced back from a horrible start to hit safely in 20 of his last 21 games and raise his average to .284, but he has just one home run and 22 RBI.

These are not All-Star numbers, but the voting usually is as much a popularity contest as it is a measure of performance. Oakland's Mark McGwire is the clear leader in the first-base category, and he is outpolling Joyner by a ratio of 8 to 1.

"I think that (the low vote count) is just an indication that I didn't get off to a very good start," Joyner said. "There are a lot of really good first basemen in this league. If you don't get off to a good start, you're in trouble."

If public acclaim is a narcotic, Joyner perhaps did not stay on top long enough to get hooked, because he does not seem uncomfortable with his regular-guy status. But even Manager Doug Rader finds it hard to believe that the dramatic drop in popularity does not affect him.

"It did me," said Rader, referring to a playing career that had its share of highs and lows. "You want to look like nothing bothers you, that all you care about doing is hitting, catching and throwing the ball. But you're still affected by how people feel about you. The way you're accepted affects your performance on the field. People like to be liked."

Joyner will admit that his popularity has waned, but he will not admit that it bothers him. The demands of instant fame made it hard to live up to his nice-guy image, especially when it was not an image he set out to create.

He is not the nicest guy in baseball, though he has his moments. He is businesslike in his relationships with the fans and the media, gets along well with his teammates and is a pillar of the community. But he knows how to say no, and there have been a couple of times when he has not said it politely.

He has done nothing, however, to alienate his fan following except fail to live up to the tremendous expectations he built for himself during his first two seasons.

"Wally's fine," Rader said. "He never lost his looseness even when things were going real bad. He's very much a pro."

There are varying theories on why the home runs disappeared and Joyner's average wallowed in the low .200s during the first two months of the season, but Rader thinks he has the most plausible one.

"He's very contact conscious," Rader said. "They (pitchers) would throw him slop outside, and he's so conscious of putting the ball in play that he makes a lot of soft outs, instead of taking a strike and waiting for a pitch he could drive.

"The first thing people do when you come into the league is pitch you hard in. I'm not saying that Wally has been stubborn, but he hasn't adjusted as quickly as the pitchers."

Joyner does not dispute a word of this. When he arrived in the major leagues in 1986, he must have thought he had died and gone to fastball heaven. He was on a 40-homer pace until a systemic infection (the result of a foul tip off his shin) sapped his strength in the second half of the season.

He came back in 1987 to hit 34 home runs and collect 117 RBI, and there was no reason not to think that this was the real Wally Joyner.

No one dared to suggest Wallyworld might be an illusion - that Joyner might be playing just a bit over his head. Everyone conveniently forgot that the minor-league scouting reports said little of home runs and a lot more about batting average.

Former manager Gene Mauch outlined his expectations in the spring of 1986, soon after the Angels took a chance on Joyner and said goodbye to seven-time batting champion Rod Carew. If all went well, Mauch said, Joyner would bat .300, hit 10-15 homers and drive in 80 runs.

He said it again after Joyner hit his 15th home run in June that year, but no one wanted to listen - not even Wally Wonderful, who was starting to believe all those press clippings.

"I think the first thing I said after I hit my first home run in the big leagues was ... I told everybody that I'm not a home-run hitter," Joyner said. "But as it turned out, the hardest thing for me to do was understand that I'm not a home-run hitter.

"I had 56 home runs in two years, and I'm not a home-run hitter? You say to yourself, `Hey, maybe I just turned into one.' It was almost like I was looking at Wally Joyner in the third person and saying, `Hey Wally, you hit 34 home runs (in 1987). If you're not a home-run hitter, what are you?"'

He was a sensation, to say the least. His success, rising so quickly and dramatically out of the controversy that surrounded Carew's unhappy departure, made him a national coverboy. Walley World, the fictional amusement park in the National Lampoon film, "Vacation," became Wallyworld, aka Anaheim Stadium.

"I was as surprised as anyone that first year," he said. "People were saying, `Let's wait and see what this guy is going to do next.' I was saying the same thing. `What's going to happen next.'

"I appreciate what happened more now. I think more than anything, it makes you appreciate the game. It's not an easy game, and because it's not an easy game, you appreciate the fact that you did so well."

Now, he has entered a process of re-education. Hitting coach Deron Johnson is trying to remove his inbred aversion to the strikeout. It's not that the club wants him to strike out more (the Angels already have plenty of guys to do that), but his obsession with making contact early in the count was costing him a lot of hittable pitches.

The early results have been promising. Joyner's power numbers have not increased, but his average has risen 63 points over the past three weeks.

"If you called my coach at BYU, I think he'd tell you I had the same problem in college," Joyner said. "It's a good problem to have sometimes, but every time I swing at a strike, I have a good chance to hit it. So I should wait until there are two strikes to swing at (less hittable) pitches.

"I have to get it into my mind that it doesn't matter if I strike out if I have a good at-bat."

Joyner's strikeout ratio hasn't risen appreciably since he altered his attitude at the plate, but he is in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak and is striking the ball with much more authority.

"Now he's getting better pitches to hit, and he's hitting them harder," Rader said. "He's laying off a lot of bad pitches and putting the ball in play hard when he should be."

So now that he is doing better in the batter's box, perhaps doing better in the ballot box is only a matter of time.