Year Zero

Nothing will ever outstrange what happened to the Angels in 1986

The Angels will be contending for the pennant this year, and to a generation of coming-of-age baseball fans, that seems as natural as the fact that the Dodgers won't.

Turns out the World Series title of 2002 really did kill the so-called curse that so cruelly haunted the Angels throughout their first 40 years, even if some remnants occasionally still give a disturbing twitch . . . most recently when the city of Anaheim blew millions of dollars and immeasurable goodwill by futilely suing a team that has won the last two West Division titles just for diddling a little with its name. How weird was that?

Anyway, the upshot is there are kids well into their teens who are unable to relate to the overwhelming preponderance of their favorite team's history. Someone says "Angels," and they think "good team." How weird is that?

Until the Angels unexpectedly rally-monkeyed the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 Series, their tradition was a horror story—some chapters tearjerkingly tragic, others Three Stooges-style comic. They created constant athletic fiasco out of murder, suicide, paralysis, partial blindness, blood disorders, concealed weapons, bean balls, a pitcher breaking his hand while celebrating a division-clinching win, a staph infection, a bus crash, a crack bust, a phenomenal rookie second baseman taking a screaming line drive into his fresh young face and a just-signed, big-money, superstar first baseman severely spraining his ankle in the first inning of his very first game. Meanwhile, an old, rich and kindly singing cowboy played and paid on.

But blissful amnesia—and three playoff appearances in four years—has enabled Angels fans to reinvent themselves into sporting dynasts, replete with an array of instantly entrenched customs. They show up at Anaheim Stadium dressed in red, thwack their Thundersticks, cackle at their Rally Monkey and otherwise await, in the catch phrase of their radio announcer Rory Markus, "just another Halo victory," as though all of this has been their habit from birth. That may be Angel history's weirdest twist of all.

Okay, maybe the second weirdest.

Nothing will ever out-strange what happened to the Angels 20 years ago, when a team of last-gasp superstars, offbeat castoffs and flash-in-the-pan newcomers charged to within one strike of reaching the World Series . . . and then, in a life-draining instant, found themselves another 16 years away.

The 1986 season in general, and Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in particular, summarized and epitomized what it meant to be an Angels fan during the team's first 26 years of existence. Maybe you've heard of it. You'd have to be, oh, 30 years old to remember it. That's how old I was when I experienced it.

On Sunday, Oct. 12, 1986, I was in the Anaheim Stadium press box, a sports reporter completing my second year of covering the Angels, the team I had grown up loving, for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the newspaper I had grown up reading. As it happened, there were a few other reporters like me on the beat that year, homegrown boys-to-men who had always gravitated toward Southern California's "other" big-league baseball team for who-knows-what reasons.

Me? I lived in Los Angeles County. Most of my friends were Dodgers fans, glorying in their team's tradition and success and, when they weren't ridiculing my daily dying with every Angels pratfall and failure, wondering what possessed me to choose this life of constant pain.

I don't know if I did choose the Angels, exactly, so much as I identified with them. Maybe they were a kind of metaphor for a kid who wrapped his earnest idealism in a dark doomsday complex, who believed he was a good person and knew he had good intentions but sensed that wasn't going to count for enough—who feared that somehow, inexplicably, he was destined to fail in the most humiliating possible manner. Yeah, I was a barrel of laughs.

*   *   *

Yet when the Angels—represented by Hall of Famers like Reggie Jackson and Don Sutton, space cases like Ruppert Jones and Rob Wilfong, debutantes like Gary Pettis and Dick Schofield—took a three-games-to-one lead over the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-seven playoff series while twice beating Roger Clemens during his first Cy Young Award-winning season, I dared to hope.

And when the Angels entered the ninth inning of Game 5 leading 5-2—three outs from the World Series—and their best pitcher, homegrown Mike Witt from Servite High, painting a masterpiece, I dared to believe.

At least one person in the stadium wasn't so gullible, though. Peter Schmuck, the reporter for TheOrange County Register, came over and intoned, public-address-announcer-style, into my ear: "Ladies and gentlemen . . .please prepare yourselves . . . for the biggest disappointment . . . of your lives."

I laughed. Then Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner opened the inning with a single, and, one out later, former Angel Don Baylor smashed a home run. The Angels' advantage was now only 5-4.

Everybody else stopped laughing too. It was as though more than 60,000 perfectly practical people were simultaneously sensing the presence of a horrible power much greater than themselves—that the Angels Curse might be more than a series of unfortunate coincidences or cheap excuses for poor management and bad ballplayers by people unable to accept pain and failure at face value. Maybe some pernicious fallen spirit really had adopted the team as a pet project to earn extra credit in hell.

But Witt, who had won 18 games during the regular season, responded forcefully, inducing power hitter Dwight Evens to pop up weakly, and everybody kind of chuckled in embarrassment at their own paranoia. There were two outs. The batter was a so-so hitter named Rich Gedman. The anticipation of a wild celebration returned with a rush—until Angels pitching coach Marcel Lachemann began to walk slowly toward the pitcher's mound, coming to take Witt out of the game. Some people booed, irritated by this interruption in what seemed like unstoppable momentum.

In the dugout, however, Angels manager Gene Mauch had noted that Witt hadn't gotten Gedman out all day, surrendering a single, double and homer. In the bullpen, the Angels had left-handed relief pitcher Gary Lucas, who had struck out Gedman in the seventh inning of Game 4 and in another tight spot during the regular season. Statistically, Lucas looked like the better choice to get the final out—and a micromanager like Mauch always took measurable performance over fuzzy concepts like momentum.

Lucas threw his first pitch: it hit Gedman, sending him to first base. Among the fans, irritation turned once again to fearful anger.

But Mauch responded by calling for Donnie Moore, one of the best relief pitchers in the league. Moore had been worked hard all season, had a sore arm and had struggled down the stretch, but statistically he still looked like a pretty good bet—especially since his opponent was Dave Henderson, a reserve outfielder who had batted only .196 for the Red Sox.

Moore threw four pitches: two balls and two strikes. The Angels were one strike away from the World Series. The fans lapped against the railings like earthquake-roiled water against a dam, waiting only for the final strike to flood onto the field.

Moore threw another pitch. Henderson fouled it off. Somehow, the exhilaration intensified even more.

Then Moore threw another, his signature split-fingered fastball. It whizzed toward the plate and dropped, suddenly becoming almost unhittable. Almost. Henderson swung low and connected perfectly, launching it over the wall for a two-run homer and a 6-5 Red Sox lead.

In more than 30 years of covering sports, I have never felt a more profound change in emotion, a more collectivized reaction, than in the moment after Henderson's home run landed beyond the fence. The hysterically happy cheering that had had Anaheim Stadium vibrating evaporated in less than a second. Henderson circled the bases in complete silence, his gestures of personal celebration coming across like the exaggerations of a mime.

That wasn't the end of the game, however. That wasn't the final score. That wasn't the end of the rush and retreat of the crowd's emotions.

Moore got the next batter out. The Angels tied the score, 6-6, in the bottom of the ninth and failed in three attempts to get the winning run home—the last two when Doug DeCinces popped up and Bobby Grich lined out with a runner on third.

The Red Sox won the game, 7-6, in 11 innings, sending the series back to Boston, where the Angels never really seemed to recover from their emotional devastation. They lost the next two games by scores of 10-4 and 8-1.

Moore, the relief pitcher, became the scapegoat for the loss. Fans booed him mercilessly during his next two seasons, especially when he failed to regain his effectiveness—ignoring his claims that his arm was injured. In July of 1989, in the kitchen of his Anaheim Hills home, he shot his wife and then committed suicide by putting the gun to his own head.

*   *   *

I'm still an Angels fan, but not the way I was. I enjoy watching their games on TV, keep track of their story arc and their statistics in the newspapers, and feel it's a little-bit-better day when they win than when they lose. But tickets are much more expensive, good seats are harder to get, and when I get to the stadium I don't feel I have very much in common with the other fans—and not only the ones in the luxury boxes or eating dinner behind home plate.

The Angels fans of today are not the same kind of people who lived and died with the team through most of its history, maybe because they don't have to die nearly so much. They are there because the Angels win. They are satisfied customers who are getting what they pay for. Nothing wrong with that.

But the new Angels say something about their fans, the same way the old Angels said something about me. The success of the new Angels—and the affection I still hold for the team—tells me that all things really do change, eventually, and that success is ultimately possible. They teach me that I have changed too, and gently challenge me not to be resentful of those I consider bandwagoneers.

Still, I wonder where fans like I used to be—idealistic and fatalistic, as fiercely loyal as they are cynical—can go to watch a ball game among their own kind anymore.

Maybe Dodger Stadium.

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