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Book Review

A Baseball Team So Unlucky You Could Almost Believe in Curses

THE ANAHEIM ANGELS: A Complete History by Ross Newhan; Hyperion; $14.95, 304 pages paperback.

May 05, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sports is life, but it's also literature. Its stories play out in the real world but follow conventions as strict as those of the cat mystery or the Regency bodice-ripper. The fun, in which fans and journalists knowingly conspire, comes from pretending that sports is more important than it really is--that words such as "heroic" and "tragic" can apply to the outcome of a ballgame, or that the Anaheim Angels' failure to win a pennant in 38 years must be the result of a jinx, a hoodoo, an unholy concatenation of occult forces.

Ross Newhan, who has covered the Angels for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and The Times since 1961, when they were a brand-new expansion team playing in Los Angeles' minor-league Wrigley Field, doesn't believe in curses, of course. But he also knows better than to debunk one of baseball's most compelling hard-luck stories.

Winning teams don't attract the most dedicated following--otherwise, New York Yankee fans would be baseball's best. Nor do hopeless teams, like basketball's San Diego Clippers. The key, as the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox have found, is to lose narrowly, agonizingly, repeatedly, inexplicably.

So the notion of the curse keeps coming up in "The Anaheim Angels," though Newhan finds plenty of non-supernatural reasons for the team's inability to parlay the efforts of Hall of Fame players (Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew), gifted managers (Bill Rigney, Dick Williams, Gene Mauch) and respected front-office people (Fred Haney and the Bavasis, Buzzie and Bill) into a championship.

If Gene Autry, who owned the Angels for their first 36 years, hadn't been so well-liked, Newhan suggests--if he had been, say, George Steinbrenner--he might have hung that pennant in his bunkhouse decades ago. Instead, to "win one for the Cowboy" and to compete for market share with the Dodgers, the club kept mortgaging its future for immediate results. Over and over, it adopted a "build from within" strategy, then traded away young prospects for fading stars.

"I think it's fair to say we didn't stick with one plan long enough," former general manager Mike Port told Newhan, who, whenever possible, lets the victims and perpetrators speak for themselves. "There was a tendency to look for the quick fix, to try and cut corners instead of taking time to let the young players develop." Former club president Richard Brown put it differently: "It's been like a black cloud hanging over that franchise."

For longtime Angels fans, only the worst moments stand out, such as Dave Henderson's homer off Donnie Moore in the ninth inning of the fifth game of the 1986 American League playoffs against the Red Sox. The Angels, leading the series 3-1 and the game 5-4, were one strike away from the World Series when Henderson's blast denied the team that experience forever, drove a stake through manager Mauch's heart and was widely assumed to have contributed to reliever Moore's suicide a couple of years later.

But Newhan, as knowledgeable about the business side of the Angels' history as about their antics on the field and in training camp, brings it all back in detail--the bad trades (sending away Ryan!), the freak injuries (such as Mo Vaughn's stumble on the dugout steps in last spring's opener), the off-field deaths (Lyman Bostock, Minnie Rojas), the front-office turmoil.

Can such a run of misfortune be ascribed purely to chance? It's so much more fun to believe otherwise. The Red Sox curse is ancient: Once they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919, the baseball gods turned their backs. But for the Angels to contract a full-blown hex in modern times, in sunny Southern California, well, it's failure only in the narrow, win-loss sense of the word. As literature, it's a success, and Newhan duly celebrates it.

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