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ANGELS '89 PREVIEW SECTION : 1979 : Winning West Gave Frustrated Franchise Something Worth Celebrating . . . Finally

March 31, 1989|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

Reporter: "What memories come to mind of the Angels' first divisional championship."

Longtime Angel fan: "Mauch should have never pulled Witt in Game 5."

Reporter: "Uh, that was 1986, we're talking about 1979."

Fan: "Oh, yeah. Well, that was 10 years ago. Can you remember what happened 10 years ago?"

Yes we can.

The Angels won the American League's Western Division in 1979, the first divisional championship in their, then, 19-year history. Team-Millstone, 149 games under .500 before 1979, had finally produced a milestone.

It happened one night--Sept. 25--nearly 10 years ago. First baseman Rod Carew went to his right and fielded Kansas City catcher Darrell Porter's ground ball. He flipped the ball to pitcher Frank Tanana, who stepped on first base for the last out in a 4-1 Angel victory.

It was at that point that Angel fans, who endured 16 seasons of finishing 10 or more games out of first place, eight managers, three stadiums and 350 players, collectively flipped out.

"I can remember kids getting so excited that they started running down toward the field on the tops of the chairs," said Hector Lopez, a longtime Angel season-ticket holder. "They didn't care who they bumped or hit. I was both afraid and happy."

Charles Pryor, another season-ticket holder, watched as his wife, Josie, was swept up by a riptide of enthusiastic fans and carried toward the field.

"I got her and we left," he said.

Most remained. Most of them believed they deserved this. They had earned it.

"People had waited so long for a championship," Lopez said. "I could understand them going a little crazy. If I had been 20 years younger, I would have probably done the same stupid things."

Stupid things. For years, that pretty much described the Angels' on-field performance. And for years, numerous Angel fans had asked, and had been asked, why they stuck by a team that seemed terminally stuck.

"I was a kid, I didn't know any better," said Mark Howmann, 31, who grew up in San Clemente and lives in Costa Mesa. "When you're born in Orange County, you're kind of stuck with them."

Hector Lopez, who had season tickets when the Angels played at Wrigley Field, began every season optimistic for a pennant.

"And every year my wife would tell me I was crazy."

The division-clinching victory was Tanana's first complete game since June 5. He hadn't pitched at all between June 10 and Sept. 4, sidelined with tendinitis in his left shoulder.

Being congratulated by former President Richard Nixon after the game, he summed up the night, season and history of the team by saying, "It's been a long road."

Bumps along the way included Bobby Valentine's gruesome run-in with the left-center-field wall, Alex Johnson's walking out ground balls, and five seasons with 90-plus losses.

But the road started to get smooth in 1977, when the Angels jumped head first into the free-agent market and signed Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi. Still, they finished 74-88, 28 games behind division-winning Kansas City.

In 1978, came Lyman Bostock, a player with seemingly unlimited promise, but who was shot to death in Gary, Ind., near the end of the season. (A morbid fact is that Bostock was the fifth Angel player who had died in 13 years. In 1965, rookie pitcher Dick Wantz succumbed to a brain tumor. In 1972, shortstop Chico Ruiz was killed in a car accident. Automobile accidents also took the lives of pitcher Bruce Heinbechner in 1974 and shortstop Mike Miley in 1977.)

Early in the 1978 season, Manager Dave Garcia was fired with a winning record (25-21) and Jim Fregosi, the first Angel hero, was hired. The team enjoyed its best season, going 87-75 and finishing tied for second with Texas, five games behind Kansas City.

The 1979 season began with unprecedented optimism in large part because of the addition of Carew. A seven-time AL batting champion who had hit .334 in 12 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, the Angels acquired Carew by trading away four players.

They started that season with Brian Downing at catcher, Carew at first, Grich at second, 22-year-old Carney Lansford at third, Rance Mullinicks at shortstop, Rudi in left field, Rick Miller in center and Dan Ford--acquired in December, 1978 in another trade with the Twins--in right.

And the Angel front office came up with a slogan: Yes We Can .

Cornball as the slogan sounds, it was quickly taken to heart--and T-shirt and baseball cap--by Angel fans. Yes We Can banners started showing up at Anaheim Stadium. So did a division contender.

The Angels got off to a rocket start. A 10-game winning streak in April started them rolling to what would be the best first-half of a season the team had ever had--55-38.

They had the type of first half one only wishes for in private.

Grich, batting in the No. 7 spot, had 19 home runs--matching his career best to that point--and 60 RBIs. Baylor, whose career high for RBIs had been 99, had 85 by the break.

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