Fallen Angel

Photo courtesy laughingplace.comBenji Gil has had his moments, and he knows it, because they're the ones professional baseball players always say they play for. "I was fortunate enough to be part of a great team," he says. "I was fortunate enough to win a World Series."

The story of the Angels' improbable scramble to the 2002 World Series title will forever feature Gil's personal subplot—the opportunity he maximized with months of unselfish utility infield work and topped off with a post-season batting average of .667.

"How many superstars played for years and years," he asks, "and never got the opportunity to go to the World Series?"

Gil has had his other moments, too—the kind ballplayers don't talk so much about, the moments that stretch out into games and days, months and careers and maybe amount to something that, someday, might tell them why.

Gil is having some of those moments now in the locker room of the Culiacan Tomateros—the Tomato Pickers—in Mexico's Pacific League. It's a long way from Anaheim Stadium. The concrete walls are dingy off-white, and the carpet is thin and rippled. The sound system is bring-your-own, and soon degenerates into a cacophonic battle of boom boxes. Players buy their pregame meals—tacos, hot dogs, pizza, cups of chopped melon, bags of peanuts—from the vendors whose carts are waiting where the team bus parks.

But none of this is a measure of how much Gil's life has changed since winning the World Series with the Angels. Gil would be here even if he hadn't struggled in 2003 and been cut from the team in late August, left to find his own way back to the Major Leagues as a 31-year-old free-agent utility infielder coming off a bad year. Gil always spends his winters playing in the Mexican League—the past 13, anyway, and the last 10 with the Tomateros—because he is Mexican.

"I think the Mexican players who play in the big leagues have a responsibility to the fans," says Gil, who was born in Tijuana. "A lot of people in Mexico are big baseball fans, but aren't financially able to go to the United States to see a game. By playing here in the winter, we can give them the opportunity to watch their heroes—or whatever you want to call us—play in person. I think that's important."

But now, for the first time in a long time, Gil's winter in the Mexican League is more than a goodwill gesture. An invitation to a big-league spring training camp may depend on his performance here.

"I think it will help quite a bit if I have a good year with the Tomateros," he says. "Since I had a bad season last year, maybe people don't know if I can do it anymore. Sometimes the people who run baseball teams have short memories."

Batting only .261, he's not burning up the league. But he's got 34 RBIs and has scored 22 runs in 43 games. He's got six homers, nine doubles. He's made nine errors, but these fields are funky.

Kind of typical is the game he had the other night against Mazatlan, where he was 1-for-4, but that one hit was a bases-clearing double that broke up a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning. And he was savvy enough to smart himself out of a rundown, too.

Technically, Gil isn't a big leaguer anymore. Rather than a World Series hero on a victory tour, he is more like most of the other players who come to this league of eight farm-town teams named after the crops they harvest. Maybe they are guys who are still on the rise through the minors, or guys who have had their cup of coffee in the bigs and are scratching and clawing to get back. Maybe they're making it, but maybe they're slipping farther away, a moment Gil always knew could arrive.

"At my age and for what I do, I've been around long enough that the Angels can get two young guys in the utility role for the amount they were paying me. Two for the price of one. The finances of the game—sometimes your career just comes down to that."

Gil was the Angels' starting shortstop entering the 2002 season. He was coming off his best year and got off to his best start—batting .360 in April. "I was doing my job," Gil remembers, "but the Angels needed a leadoff hitter."

So manager Mike Scioscia went with a hunch, replacing Gil with David Eckstein, and the rest … well. Eckstein sparked the offense, Gil played part-time at second base, and the Angels won the World Series.

"Getting replaced like that, it's something I could have made a big deal about, thrown a fit, questioned why I didn't get the opportunity. But I didn't. And I think I went on to have a pretty good year. I think I helped. I like to think I did my part. Obviously, I would've liked to have had things go my way—to have had the opportunity to keep my starting job.

"Who knows? Maybe I would have had a great year and signed a multiyear deal and made a whole lot more money and become known as a great shortstop. Instead, you know, things are like they are. I've got that World Series ring."

Maybe that experience—the way Gil played in the pressure of the playoffs—will make him more valuable to a contending team looking for the finishing touches on its roster.

"God, I would like to think so," says Gil. "I hope that is something that would at least give me the benefit of the doubt. But you know, in this game, you win some and you lose some, and you just have to keep playing and let things play themselves out, moment by moment."


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