PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Looking confused, balancing a carry-out tray of ballpark food and making sure 4-year-old Katie was still with her, Michelle Langston asked an usher at Angels Stadium for help finding her seats.
Before she found the section for families of California Angels' players, she had to ask a second usher. When the Langstons finally got to their places, none of the other wives greeted them. They sat, with their hot dogs and peanuts and lemonade, and seemed the only ones rooting for husband and father, Mark, pitching that day last week against the San Diego Padres.
No players with an afternoon off sat there, dangling babies on knees, checking out their team - if only for an inning or so.
It was far different from Tempe Diablo Stadium where, for six springs, the Langstons had been a focal part of a familiar, chummy scene, part of the Seattle Mariners.
The circumstances are well-known that wrought their change of teams, of scenes, of lives - and, of course, of finances. And as surely as there is resentment in Seattle and Montreal, towns and teams that hoped to keep Langston before and after he became a free agent last year, there is polite, but obvious, distance from the other Angels and their kin, all still strangers.
``We're the new kids on the block,'' Michelle Langston said, one eye on Katie, another on the mound where Mark, not having a good spring, was being pounded by the Padres. ``Everyone is looking at us.
``Starting over is difficult for us here. We really don't have any friends yet. Even in Montreal, we knew Spike and Gayle Owen, and they helped us get settled. This is really . . . different.''
This is part of the price, the parcel, of signing the longest major-league contract in years for the most money in years. Langston, a one-man California gold rush, got five years and $16 million from Angel owner Gene Autry.
``The contract makes you a little self-conscious,'' she said. ``Whether Mark wants to admit it or not, there is pressure. He isn't admitting it, not even to me. But he's only human.''
On the field, Langston's humanity is showing, with all its frailties. He is overthrowing. He is high with his pitches; and when he comes down, the Padres jump all over him.
By the time he finishes his five innings, he will allow seven hits and four runs. ``Give him back to Seattle!'' screams a man in an Angels' hat sitting in the stands behind home plate. ``He's not worth three bucks a year, never mind $3 million!''
The performance that so enraged the fan gave Langston 16 hits and seven runs allowed in 11 innings this spring, an earned-run average of 5.73 going into his last start Saturday.
``I used to be just a bum, now I'm a $3 million bum,'' Langston explained later. ``I expect that kind of reaction now. But down here, I'm just working out the kinks, working on my breaking ball.''
And there is no reason to doubt that, at 29 and in his seventh season, the immensely talented left-hander will not go on to meet Autry's expectations.
``We've seen nothing to make us unhappy,'' said Marcel Lachemann, Angel pitching coach and brother of former Seattle Manager Rene Lachemann. ``He's just got to go with the simple things, to be Mark Langston.''
Lachemann said he has heard of Langston's renowned intensity, the after-loss anger that caused him to blow up at two managers in Seattle, Dick Williams and Jim Lefebvre, when he felt he was left in games too long. ``I'd rather have that than someone who is disin-
terested,'' the California coach said.
And Lachemann and Angel manager Doug Rader are prepared to deal with the pressure Langston will feel and has been feeling already. They brought young Jim Abbott through a lot worse last season as the one-handed rookie had much of the world inspecting him.
Step One was their decision not to start Langston on Opening Day against his old club. Instead, he'll pitch against the Mariners Wednesday.
``The pressure will be on Mark,'' Lachemann said. ``But he's got to realize the money, the contract, isn't going to make a better pitcher of him. He was fortunate to wind up in a situation everyone dreams of, but he's just got to be Mark.
``That's easier said than done. He's got to resist the temptation to be better than he was. He was good enough to get that money, and that says it all.''
When the question of pressure is put to Langston, his icy gray-blue eyes look away, his blond head begins a negative shake.
``I don't feel the pressure everyone thinks I do,'' he said. ``The pressure has nothing to do with the money. I just feel the need to prove myself in a new situation.''
Langston says it's an old and familiar feeling. Like most, he gets it in any new situation. ``The first time was going from Little League to Senior Little League. You get comfortable, then you move to a new group. I got good in high school, then, boom, I headed for college,'' he said.
The Angels' cramped clubhouse is like nothing Langston encountered at San Jose State, or even joining the Mariners as a rookie in 1984. Seattle clubs always welcome live arms, and Langston's was the liveliest ever to join them.
But the Angels are a veteran team that has won, though not a pennant for the aging Autry, and has seen many great arms - Bo Belinsky, Frank Tanana, and Abbott, just to name left-handers. Some on the team and many around it wonder why they signed another starting pitcher when they had more need in the bullpen or in the everyday lineup.
No one has complained. Staff leader Bert Blyleven, with two decades of wisdom and the Opening Day starter against the Mariners tonight, welcomed Langston publicly. ``If he helps us get into the World Series, no one should care what kind of contract he got,'' Blyleven said.
Blyleven welcomed him privately, too. The veteran right-hander is a major-league prankster, from hats filled with shaving cream down to the classic hotfoot. The first day Langston went to the Big A in Anaheim for a workout this winter, he made the mistake of asking Blyleven how to get from the clubhouse to the bullpen.
``He told me to take a right,'' Langston recalled. ``I knew it was a left and I knew all about Blyleven, but I'm a new guy and I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Besides, it was my first day and no one is going to mess with me right away, right?''
Langston went right and wound up lost in the maze of dark tunnels under the stands. It took him 20 minutes to get to the bullpen.
``There is always an adjustment period,'' said Langston. ``Once you go to war and prove yourself, you get accepted, you get to be part of the team.''
Langston has kept a low profile in training camp. Yet his entrance to L.A.'s lifestyle has been the subject of some scrutiny in the press. For instance, he is friends with musicians Bruce Hornsby and Alan White (the drummer from Yes) and with hockey star Wayne Gretzky.
``The press digs a bit more in L.A. than in Seattle; our lives are more on display,'' Langston noted. ``I don't like it, but it's part of the show here. I didn't pick the California team for the celebrities. I don't know how all that got started.''
However it started, it surfaced as the first question asked of him by a Montreal writer at a press conference after Seattle traded him to the Expos last May 25. ``I was ready for `How do you feel?' `Have you ever been to Montreal?' Even `Do you speak French?' '' Langston said. ``But the question was: `Is it true you want to be an actor?' ''
Langston says he met the big-name musicians while he played in Seattle and expects to see more of them in California. ``Because I like them as people,'' he added. ``Star-chasing isn't my style. I love music and use it to help me relax so I can pitch better.''
Langston, who owns a keyboard and ``a lot of technology that makes me sound better,'' wrote a piece of music and played it for Hornsby. ``He said, `Hey, not bad . . . you mean this.' Then he played it, and it sounded out of sight. I mean this guy is fabulous.''
However, there will be no album of Mark Langston's Greatest Hits. Nor any more visits to Spago, the L.A. in spot where the stars go to be seen. The Langstons' visit made the paper.
``I went there once as, like a tourist,'' Langston said. ``No table-hopping. No, `Hi, Liz' or `Howya-doin', Frankie.' No one even talked to us.''
Michelle Langston may have been disappointed by that. She has aspirations to be an actress. ``I took lessons in Seattle for two years, and Mrs. Autry said she would help me find an agent and talk to casting people when we settle in,'' she said. ``I want an identity of my own, not just to be a ballplayer's wife.
``But it was not like everyone has written, that a big part of our decision was to go with a team near Hollywood. If I make it, great. If not, that's OK, too.''
When she refers to ``our decision,'' she is not exaggerating. Langston uses her counsel in career decisions. She was in on the Mariners' melodramatic last-minute effort to sign Langston before the May trade. And she was in the middle of the mess in Montreal.
For her husband, last year had its ups - a taste of a pennant race - and its downs - the trade and the Expos' late-season collapse. But for her, there was only alienation in Montreal, where the press, especially the French press, treated her harshly after an incident where her check - ``from a Montreal bank account,'' she says - was turned down at a local grocery store.
``We couldn't read what they wrote in French,'' Langston said. ``But we were told they wrote a poem or song about her.'' They referred to Michelle as ``The Prom Queen.''
Mark had his own troubles with the press, telling off one Montreal writer, whom he claimed made up quotes. ``They asked me every day if I liked Montreal,'' he recalled. ``It was the first time I ever ran into this kind of thing. But I nearly signed back there.''
And he swears he considered returing to the Mariners after George Argyros sold the team to Jeff Smulyan.
``My focus as a free agent was to go with a winner, a team that has a solid chance to go all the way,'' he said. ``Yet when the Mariners' new owners called, I had to listen to them. You've got to understand. I love Seattle. My home is in Seattle. My best friends are there.''
So Langston put his bitterness at his treatment by Argyros aside - treatment that included refusal to pay him Bruce Hurst money ($4.5 million for three years) in January, then Dwight Gooden ($7 million for three years) in May. ``They made me a scapegoat,'' he said. ``They made it sound like I wanted out, when all I wanted was what other pitchers were getting.''
Smulyan, one of few who believed Langston's sincerity about burying the past, blew open Seattle's vault. He put the Mariners' in the big leagues of the bidding wars with an offer of $10 million for three years.
``I was stunned,'' Langston said. ``I was impressed, and I still am. Those new guys mean business in Seattle, and I'm happy for my friends there.''
Smulyan would have gone to $13 million for four years, but not much higher. However, his hopes and those of other owners - the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner offered $18 million, plus $2 million in guaranteed incentives, a house in Greenwich, Conn., and a part in a soap opera for Michelle - all went south in the space of five hours Dec. 8.
Langston said it was not the money. ``This sounds stupid,'' he has said more than once since that profitable day, ``but the money was secondary to a lot of other things. I'm grateful for the money, but meeting Gene Autry was what convinced me to sign.''
The Langstons met with Autry at his Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles a week before the signing. They were impressed by the memorabilia of his famous career as ``The Singing Cowboy,'' his tales of old Hollywood and the Old West, of recording ``Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' in one take.
``Most of all, it was the way he treated people,'' Langston said. ``The museum was open, and the people were all over him. He gave out autographs and had time for everyone. He was such a gentleman. I just decided that was the kind of person I wanted to play for.''
What followed was the sudden contract, the media scrutiny and fan skepticism of his spring struggles, and - showing that $3 million a year has its pluses - The House, the six-bedroom, one-weightroom, one-sauna, one-50x25-pool house the Langstons are building in the Anaheim Hills. They call it ``the resort.''
``We'll be open in June,'' he said with a laugh, ``but not take reservations until July.''
``It's far enough away from all the craziness in L.A. to suit us both perfectly,'' Michelle said. ``I'm a city person, but Mark would live in Yosemite and be a park ranger if you let him.''
``She tells me to go ahead, take my truck and my music with me, and she'll visit me on weekends,'' Mark countered.
Both say they miss Seattle already. ``I'll never sell our house in Bellevue,'' Mark said. But Michelle noted, ``When Katie starts school in a year or two, we'll have to come to California year round.''
Meantime, Mark's quest is to pitch as well as he has in past years, to settle down the skepticism and the scrutiny and become just another Southern California millionaire. In other words to stop being, in the words of the title of an L.A. Times magazine story on him, ``The Angels' $16-Million Question Mark.''
``I feel like I'm heading off on an adventure,'' he said. ``I'm anxious, but I'm not worried.''