TEMPE, Ariz. – Feeling sturdy again, athletic again, Garret Anderson spent the winter with a bat in his hands, reintegrating his legs into what once was among the game's pure and potent swings.
He tended particularly to the bat's path to the ball, from behind his left ear through the strike zone, a nice change of pace after a season – or three – spent negotiating his own laborious path to the starting lineup.
The Los Angeles Angels refer to Anderson's various ailments the past three seasons as "lower-body related," not so much to be vague, but to save time. Anderson had played in at least 150 games for eight consecutive seasons. He averaged nearly 30 home runs and 120 RBI from 2000-03.
He has missed 91 games since, but only 91, enduring as best he could, last season through a bone spur and lingering arch issues in his left foot, leading to a limp that in time fouled other parts. Stone-faced throughout, resolute in his intention to do what he could with what he had and then bearing the criticism for an offense that didn't do much around Vladimir Guerrero, Anderson is whole again.
He stood Thursday morning in a corridor outside the Angels' clubhouse here, comfortable and smiling, ignoring a comment about the gray that's sprung in his hair, ready to believe that, at 34, there's plenty of baseball left to be played. Good baseball.
"Last year, I'd get up in the morning and as soon as I put my foot on the floor, I'm like, 'How am I going to get through the day today?'" he said. "It wasn't about who's pitching tonight. It wasn't any of those normal thoughts that most people have about getting ready, you know those pregame thoughts you have before you play. I didn't really have too many of those last year, it was every day thinking, 'OK, can I get through today?' "
Anderson batted a career-low .280, drove in 85 runs and spent more at-bats than he ever had as the designated-hitter, a season most took as evidence of his decline, a season, he said, "I took as a victory."
Two hours later against the Texas Rangers, with Guerrero at first base, Anderson laced a double into left-center field, arriving at second base in time to see Guerrero thrown out at the plate. It was his only at-bat in a rain-shortened game, but it was enough again to conclude Anderson isn't nearly as done as assumed. He's batting .458 in spring, which doesn't come close to describing how he feels, or how the Angels feel about seeing him drive the ball again, and cover ground in left field again, and run the bases again.
They've spent years trying and failing to find a suitable guardian for the free-swinging Guerrero, and now maybe here he is, the swing familiar, the contact true. Anderson will bat cleanup against all right-handers, and fifth – behind Guerrero and Shea Hillenbrand – against left-handers.
Anderson has his own theory on that anyway.
"There's all the talk about having somebody hit behind Vladdy," he said. "You know what? There are situations if he hit behind himself, they still wouldn't pitch to him."
Eventually, though, somebody's going to have to pitch to somebody.
"We've seen him for so long," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said, "through good times and through bad times. And it's just awesome to see him this way. He's looking as good as I've ever seen him.
"I can honestly say, with Garret Anderson swinging the bat like he is, it's going to be the best offense we've had here."
Granted, the Angels have only once this decade been in the American League's top five in runs scored, their offense generally running counter to the current trend of drawing walks and conserving outs and standing around hoping for a fat fastball to leave the ballpark.
Sometimes it has worked, sometimes not, but there is agreement that a sound Anderson gives it all a better chance. Before he began padding his shoes and hobbling to work, he was a dynamic hitter. Beyond that, he was a reliable outfielder for a team that stressed pitching and defense, whose defense – particularly in the outfield – became utterly unreliable last season.
"There were certain times in the outfield I knew I couldn't catch balls I normally would catch," he said. "It bothered me. You start thinking, 'Am I hurting the team? Am I hurting our chance of doing well?' Those things do pass through your head. We're all professionals. We want to do our job well. I don't want to be that weak link that's going to prevent the team from doing things."
There was the other matter, that of age, that by the time Anderson was healthy again, he'd be too far into his 30s to retake his game.
Yet, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, Anderson has not missed so much as a single repetition in any drill in any workout. He's matched up in sprints with speedsters Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits, Scioscia said, "and he's right there with them."
"He's doing things that he did before he was banged up," Scioscia said. "Things are coming easier to him. … I think he has a renewed interest in the game. It's fun."
So, pick the Angels in the West because of their starting pitching, or the back of their bullpen, or even Guerrero. Or, pick them because of Anderson.
"It's not really the numbers," he said. "It's the fact I'm out there competing on that level again where, you know what, they've got to worry about me now. The last few years, they didn't have to worry about me as much. The thought was there. But, they were like, 'Well, we know he's not healthy,' so they always had an edge on me. They don't have that edge anymore. So, it'll make them think a little bit more."