On December 5, 1977 the Angels traded Thad Bosley, Rich Dotson and Bobby Bonds to the White Sox for two pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost and a 27-year-old Catcher named Brian Downing. It was the second greatest trade in club history, right behind acquiring Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi.
Downing would play for thirteen seasons with the Angels. Nine of them saw him appear in at least 130 games. He made an impact right away, and his second year with the club, 1979, was the best season by a Catcher in franchise history. Boasting a .418 On Base Percentage and a .326 batting average, Downing delivered an OPS+ of 142 with 6.4 Offensive WAR while playing in 129 games behind the plate. After he was injured in both 1980 and 1981 - two seasons that saw him appear in a combined 123 (out of a possible 324) games - the club never put him in catcher's gear again.
Safely ensconced in Left Field from 1982-87 he bashed a majority of the 222 home runs he would hit as an Angel (third most ever by a Halo). In that time he was as likely to lead off as he was to bat cleanup and was a weirdly unstreaky hitter, consistent at the plate with a game based around patience that was twenty years ahead of its time. It is as if he had intuited much of what Bill James had written about getting on base by any means necessary being the most important thing a hitter could do.
Downing played in four eras of Angels baseball. He was a teammate of Nolan Ryan's in '78 and '79, played with Carew and Reggie in the superstar half-decade, was the veteran presence when Wally Joyner became the face of the franchise and played a season with the Langston-Finley pitching duo that would define the early nineties. In each of these eras - in fact in every season he played - he was a solid contributor. He had seven seasons with an OPS+ over 125, four of those seasons are in the club's all time top 50. Four of his Offensive WAR seasons are in the club's top 50 as well.
After delivering an OPS+ of 98 in his first year here he followed the lead of the man he caught - Nolan Ryan's commitment to weightlifting was adopted by Downing. The nickname the stuck in the aftermath "The Incredible Hulk" led to steroid accusations thirty years later. Downing had no acne, no backne, no roid rage and no technology besides dumbbells in the locker room (no that wasn't a description of the sports writers). So, please, don't go there...
The worst OPS+ Downing had in a full season after that was 115 in his 113-game 1983 season. So the worst season of his ten best seasons as an Angel delivered the same offensive output that was the career average of Bobby Abreu, Reggie Jackson and Mark Trumbo. That is the definition of a stud.
But Brian Downing was much more than these numbers, great as they are. Downing personified the California Angels of the 1980s - as much as the team highlighted its past-their-prime imported superstars, Angels fans knew that the likes of Downing were getting the heavy lifting done. His longevity with the club, his production at the plate and his unassuming anti-superstar appearance, wire frame glasses and all, added up to the everyman persona reflected in the stadium. If there was an All-Angels team made up of players who looked like the Angels fans who cheered them on, Brian Downing would be behind the plate catching Troy Percival for sure.
Over the years when discussing the Angels with fans of other AL teams bringing up Downing's name elicits the same response time and time again... "Ohhh, that guy used to kill us!" Just as he broke so many hearts, one day our hearts were broken when the team declined to re-sign him after the 1990 season (because DHs with an OPS+ of 138) grow on trees. Brian had once said he was such an Angels lifer that it would be impossible for him to take up a bat against his old team. Well he did. in two seasons with the Rangers he was dominant DH while the Angels had Dave Parker and Hubie Brooks in 1991 and 1992 respectively - each paid more for less than half of the production Downing gave Texas. It seems unforgivable that the team just cast him aside after he had given them so much. But life went on. The '91 and '92 Angels sure could have used his bat.
Then at Anaheim Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Downing got a base hit against his former team. It was October 4, 1992. He immediately announced his retirement and tipped his helmet to the crowd - his crowd once again. He had wanted to get one last hit in his true home. He turned 42 five days later. and carried a grudge against the Halos for years and rightfully so. The ice thawed almost seventeen years later. In 2009 he was inducted into the Angels Hall of Fame. At the time of his retirement he held nearly every team offensive record for a counting stat and was only surpassed by Tim Salmon and/or Garret Anderson in 2006 and later. Reciting all of his numbers and their rankings would be hard labor, suffice to say this:
He is in the Top Three of more statistical categories for the franchise than he is not. Ladies and Gentlemen, Brian Downing.