John Travolta at a baseball game. “K-Rod” as a setup man. And Gene Autry’s hat being paraded around a baseball park in Orange County, CA.
Those were the postseason scenes in 2002, when the then-Anaheim Angels reached the World Series for the first time, completing an improbable run to a title in a series that featured two wild-card teams, both from California.
Now, recent player moves are another reminder how fast things change in baseball. Pitcher John Lackey and infielder Chone Figgins have both left the Angels in this off-season, essentially the last two top-line players left from the 2002 team. Only setup reliever Scot Shields remains, and he appeared in just 20 games in 2009, saving none, before his season ended with knee surgery.
The Angels have been among baseball’s most successful teams in this decade, winning the AL West the past three seasons. Yet it was a workmanlike bunch that ran the table in 2002, featuring role players like Scott Spiezio, Darin Erstad and David Eckstein. Right fielder Tim Salmon was the team’s leader, and in the twilight of his career, he was longing the most for a series title. “K-Rod,” aka Francisco Rodriguez, was a setup reliever for closer Troy Percival.
The Angels’ closest previous brush with a World Series came in 1986, when they were one strike away from beating the Boston Red Sox for the AL title. But reliever Donnie Moore allowed a home run to Dave Henderson, and Boston kept the Angels’ hex alive. Only then was the world able to remember Bill Buckner’s famous fielding error that gave the New York Mets the World Series title.
But the Angels’ hitters showed remarkable patience in the first playoff series against the New York Yankees in 2002. The hitters used bat control to force aging pitchers such as Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte into repeated deep counts. The strategy also worked against the Minnesota Twins in the AL title series, in which Salmon celebrated by hoisting one of late owner Gene Autry’s hats on the field for fans to see. Also memorable was the sight of Disney CEO Michael Eisner in a stadium box with actor Travolta. (Disney bought the team from Autry, the original owner, in 1996 and sold it to billionaire Arte Moreno in 2003.)
In the World Series vs. the San Francisco Giants (managed by Dusty Baker and featuring Barry Bonds), Spiezio was memorable for homering in a long at-bat in Game 6, with the Giants just three innings away from a title. Anaheim rallied to win, then won their first world title in Game 7. Lackey became the first rookie starter in 93 years to win a Game 7.
Now “Anaheim” no longer is the focus of the team’s name. Moreno inserted “Los Angeles” in an attempt to broaden the team’s marketing appeal against the Dodgers up the road. But the move has alienated many in Orange County and once spawned a legal battle with city leaders in Anaheim. Manager Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers star, remains from the 2002 team.
Baseball being the most nostalgic of sports, it’s fun to remember the Angels in 2002, a year in which they got off to a 6-14 start. It’s fun remembering the Rally Monkey. (I lived in The OC from 1994-2007.) More baseball fun will happen in Orange County, but it’ll be a different kind.