A Cinderella story in glass cleats
After an inauspicious start, the unheralded and Disney-owned Anaheim Angels vie Tuesday night for a World Series spot.
Oh, those lovable, delightful, Alice-in-Wonderland Anaheim (California) Angels, who finally escaped to the playoffs this season after years of imprisonment in an hourglass 42 years, to be precise, ending in Saturday's win over the Yankees at the Angels' first triumphant postseason series.
Like Lewis Carroll's disoriented heroine, the Angels have spent this season doing everything backward or, at least, in a bizarre and dizzying fashion.
After starting with only six wins in their first 20 games, including a horrible 1-8 record at home, the Angels scored 93 victories in their next 142 regular-season games. It is a team that tried to get into the World Series wearing Disney's 'For Sale' sign on its back, a team whose 20-year-old pitcher threw his first big-league pitch just three weeks ago. Now, Disney chairman Michael Eisner says Disney may retain at least partial ownership of the team.
Tuesday night, the wild-card Angels begin the American League's best-of-seven Championship Series with two road games against the Minnesota Twins. During the regular season, Anaheim won five more games than Minnesota. Head to head, though, the Twins took the season's series from the Angels five games to four.
The Minnesota franchise, which has been undercapitalized and losing millions for years, is a story in itself. Even before spring training, fans were fighting mad at Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and his attempts either to shut down the franchise completely or to move it to another city.
The Twins may also have a built-in defensive edge over visiting players not used to the so-called dirigible hangar (officially known as the Metrodome) in which they'll play on Tuesday: The lighting inside sometimes makes baseballs disappear for seconds at a time.
And the Twins have met such frequent glory on the field this year that the half of America that's not soft on the Angels who haven't been in a playoff in 16 years is pulling for Minnesota.
For Anaheim, it was a daunting beginning to a stellar year. Yet to team manager Mike Scioscia, survival was never a question: Even after their 6-14 start, he says, and in a tough division including Oakland and Seattle, the team had little to prove. "The overall balance and the hitting and the bullpen were already there," he says. "More than that, two veteran pitchers that we had acquired, Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier, had already won more than 100 games apiece in their careers."
"But in order to start fast," he continues, most of the regulars "simply tried too hard. Yet ... once we reestablished our confidence as a team, we were all right." To beat the Yankees, he says, they swept into the playoffs on waves of that confidence.
Scioscia, who handles the press easily but smiles less than an Egyptian Sphinx, was the catcher on the LA Dodgers' last World Series team in 1988. He wears loyalty like a badge. Having eight teammates in front of him every time he caught for 11 years has given him a virtual PhD in how to run a ball game. His two catchers, Bengie and Jose Molina, are brothers. Hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, first-base coach Alfredo Griffin, and third-base coach Ron Roenicke are all former Dodgers.
part of Scioscia's success is also mirrored in the fact that he often platoonshis players. He does this regularly at first base, switching Scott Spiezio for Shawn Wooten, and at second base, switching Adam Kennedy for Benji Gil, and almost as often with his designated hitters. It's a strategy that often upset Yankee pitchers in the Angels' series against New York.
In a season of late glory and odd fealty, it's appropriate that shortstop David Eckstein is the player every grandmother in Orange County wants to knit socks for even though outfielder Garret Anderson (.306 batting average, 56 doubles, 29 home runs, and 123 RBI) has had a near-Most-Valuable-Player-year.
On August 16, 2000, the Angels claimed the 5-foot-8 Eckstein off waivers from the Boston Red Sox.
Asked to rise to the same kind of "you're too small" challenge once thrown at Eddie Stanky, Johnny Pesky and Freddie Patek, Eckstein has been just as important to the club as All-Star relief pitcher Troy Percival, who saved 40 games during the regular season. In 20 relief appearances against Minnesota over the years, Percival has yet to give up an earned run.
In analyzing whether the Twins or the Angels will represent the American League in this year's World Series, one can only go so far before predictions become a grab bag. In fact, one ancient baseball rule is that nobody can juggle the intangibles without erring somewhere.
For example, the 1914 Boston Braves, who were in last place on the Fourth of July that year, not only won the National League pennant, but also beat Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, the defending World Series champions, in four straight games in the finals.
Now, 88 years later, the Angels brought up a 20-year-old relief pitcher named Francisco Rodriguez with only l5 days left in the season.
Of three playoff games the Angels won against the Yankees, Rodriguez got credit for two of them.