Pity the long-suffering fans of the Anaheim Angels. Their boys have never made it to the World Series--though they were a pitch away in 1986. The club has missed the playoffs every year since, and last season it finished an embarrassing 41 games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners.
And now, when the running-and-gunning Angels are finally in the thick of a pennant race, the season may be lost to a strike.
Angel fans know the real score: The team is jinxed.
"It's the curse of the Angels," laments fan Rob Holman of Chino. "I live and die with these guys ... but mostly die with these guys. Sometimes it's tough."
So tough that in 1978, then-General Manager Buzzie Bavazi talked a Roman Catholic priest into blessing Anaheim Stadium. Rumors persist that the Big A was built atop an old Indian burial ground--proof, some fans say, that a jinx has hovered over the park since it opened in 1966--or 19666, as fans like to call it.
Former Angel pitcher Chuck Finley once toyed with hiring a witch doctor to exorcise evil spirits from the clubhouse, but balked because of worries that his teammates might freak.
"I understand [bad luck] goes with the game," Finley said in 1999, "but I'd like someone to explain to me why it goes more with our game."
Over the years, the Angels have racked up an impressively long list of tragedies and mishaps.
Rookie pitcher Dick Wantz, 25, died of a brain tumor in 1965. Three players died in separate car crashes from 1972 to 1977. In 1978, outfielder Lyman Bostock was killed by a gunshot meant for someone else. Then, in 1992, the team bus careened off a New Jersey turnpike, seriously injuring Manager Buck Rodgers.
On the field, the most heartbreaking moment came in Game 5 of the 1986 playoffs.
In the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Angels were one strike away from the World Series when relief pitcher Donnie Moore served up a gut-wrenching home run to Dave Henderson in the ninth inning.
The Angels lost the game, 7-6, in 11 innings, then lost the next two games in Boston. The team hasn't been to the postseason since. When the troubled Moore committed suicide three years later, his widow said he had never recovered from the stigma of that one hanging forkball, and she suspected it played a role in his death.
"Oh my God, '86," recalls Chino fan Holman. "To this day, you say the word '86' and my blood pressure goes up. I can feel my heart, thump-thump-thump. It makes me crazy. I went into a deep depression for a couple days after that. It was horrible."
The Angels became a bona fide obsession for Holman, who once took to going to so many games his wife thought he was having an affair: "I said, 'Yeah, with these nine guys out on the field called the Angels.' "Another low point came last season, when the Angels finished 41 games out of first place--the worst showing in team history. Columbus Dispatch sports editor Danny Goodwin took this jab:
"The Anaheim Angels? Puh-leeze. The same Angels that in 40 years of play have never qualified for the World Series? ... The franchise that was for sale but attracting no takers? The team that was changing uniforms yet again, perhaps to disguise its players? This team wasn't a sleeper, it was comatose."
Not anymore. Before Tuesday's games, the Angels were in third place behind Oakland A's, only half a game behind the Mariners for a wild-card finish that would qualify the team for the playoffs.
As the Angels took the field at home Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, labor talks continued in New York, where negotiators for owners and players debated revenue sharing and the payroll tax. A Friday strike deadline looms for what could be baseball's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
What explains the team's suddenly improved performance?
Perhaps it's the Angels' new unofficial mascot, the "Rally Monkey." To jump-start the Angels when a game is on the line, an image of the hairy primate is flashed on the scoreboard screen, prompting fans to twirl stuffed rally monkeys in the air.
"Every time he peeks his little head out, something happens for them," acknowledged Mariners infielder Desi Relaford this summer.
Or maybe it's their new look. This year the team shed the blue pinstriped uniforms with the wings emblem and brought back its traditional halo with new scarlet duds--calling it a "Red Dawn."
Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly--a lifelong Angel fan--said this is the first year the players have sported the word "Anaheim" across their chests, making it the smallest city in major league baseball with its name on a uniform.
"I'm especially proud of that," Daly said.
Daly was there on April 9, 1966, when the Angels christened their stadium with an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants. The Angels were clobbered, of course, 9-3.
"A lot of happy memories," Daly said, notwithstanding all the losses.