The Los Angeles Angels were banking on a journeyman — a player who had been claimed off waivers three times, traded three times and...

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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Los Angeles Angels were banking on a journeyman — a player who had been claimed off waivers three times, traded three times and released once, coming off a career year — to help solve their center-field and leadoff voids.

They certainly weren’t expecting to get involved with a player who allegedly purchased human growth hormone in 2004. And neither side anticipated a five-year relationship being strained just three weeks into it.

Like baseball and Barry Bonds, the Angels and Gary Matthews Jr. are stuck with each other. Matthews’ five-year deal includes a full no-trade clause for the first three years. Not that the Angels would be able to trade him anyway — a $50 million contract many see as overpriced and his alleged involvement in illegal actions makes Matthews undesirable for most any other team.

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While Matthews, 32, said he never used human growth hormone, it took him more than two weeks from the time the story first came out to make a public statement. Angels owner Arte Moreno vented his unhappiness and frustration with Matthews’ inability to face the daily questions, and the team looked into several disciplinary actions against their new center fielder.

To say that attitudes were frigid would be putting it nicely.

Yet Matthews doesn’t appear subject to suspension anytime soon by Major League Baseball, so he will be leading off when the Angels open the season.

Coincidentally or not, the day Matthews made his statement, he had his first multi-hit game of the spring.

“I think he was relieved,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “I think he was a little anxious. I think he wants it over with. I think hopefully it’s taken a big step toward that. We’ll see.”

Matthews denied feeling pressure then and has said he hasn’t felt any pressure to live up to his contract.

“I’m being completely honest when I say that I am a father, a son, a brother first,” said Matthews, who hit .313 with 19 homers and 79 runs batted in last season for Texas. “These are real-life responsibilities. My biggest challenge is how I raise my kid. How you mold them into the person you want them to be. We’re a family first.

“I have an opportunity to come out and play a baseball game.”

It was Matthews’ son, 8-year-old Gavin, who helped lead him to the Angels. Gary Matthews was born in San Francisco, where his father played for the Giants. Matthews went to high school at Granada Hills in Southern California, and he wanted to return to the area to be closer to Gavin, who lived in Santa Monica.

After a poor season from Chone Figgins and an injury-plagued season from Darin Erstad, the Angels needed a leadoff hitter and someone to roam center field.

Things seemed to piece together perfectly. Local player does good, gets his big payday and returns home. It dripped of Disney. Now it reeks of scandal.

Matthews will largely be asked to replicate something close to his 2006 season, when he became an All-Star and even received an MVP vote. However, not many are sure that he can remain the player who posted career highs in just about every offensive category but stolen bases.

After all, this was a player who was a career .249 hitter before last year.

“I’ve played against Gary since Double-A,” said Cubs second baseman Mark DeRosa, who played with Matthews for the Rangers last season. “He’s always been a guy who you knew it was just a matter of time, he’s got all the tools in the world, so last year was not a shock. He was our leadoff hitter from day one of spring training. He’s a phenomenal defender. It was a real good story for a lot of people who have been around him, for him to have that year, get the contract he got, to go to Anaheim to be with his family and his son. I congratulated him.”

Matthews will be asked to help solidify a defense that committed a league-high 124 errors last season and fill in the ever-growing gaps between oft-injured Garret Anderson in left field and right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, who has been bothered by sore knees and a bad back as he has gotten older.

“Gary does a real good job of covering a lot of ground, we saw that last year,” said bench coach Ron Roenicke, who also serves as the Angels’ outfield coach. “Our park is a big park and balls don’t carry as well out there. I expect him to cover more ground in our park than in Texas because in our park, the ball hangs up there a lot longer. We need to position those guys well. Garret knows the league, and so does Vlade. When Gary tells me where he’s positioned, I can move the others with him. Hopefully if we do that, we can make the gaps smaller.”

The honeymoon is over between the Angels and Matthews. But if he comes out hitting and making highlight-reel catches as he did last season, the Angels will love him all over again.

Matt Hurst covers the Angels for

The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif.

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