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What a Wonderfully Wacky Time It Was

December 31, 2002|MIKE PENNER

The calendar on the wall says Dec. 31, if that still means anything in a year when sports rendered the calendar meaningless.

For the last 364 days, in arenas and stadiums from Salt Lake City to South Korea, it has been April 1 on an endless loop, "Groundhog Day" with a whoopee cushion, the world's longest practical joke on a broken record.

The New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

And the Rams never won another game with Kurt Warner at quarterback.

Sarah Hughes won the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating.

And the Russians won the gold medal in pairs figure skating ... and so did the Canadians.

The United States almost made the semifinals of soccer's World Cup.

And lost three games and finished sixth at the men's World Basketball Championship.

Baseball's All-Star game ended in a tie when both teams ran out of pitchers with the score frozen at 7-up.

And Ted Williams remains on ice in a cryogenics lab in Arizona.

Tiger Woods shot an 81 in the third round of the British Open.

And shot a 67 in the final round of the PGA Championship and lost to a former electronics salesman named Rich Beem.

Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy.

And USC and Iowa will play the best-looking Rose Bowl in years in the Orange Bowl.

Day after day, week after week, upstarts and underdogs played a never-ending game of Can You Top This? Indiana stunned Duke in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Pete Sampras stunned everybody by winning the U.S. Open. The New Jersey Nets reached the NBA Finals. The Carolina Hurricanes played in the Stanley Cup finals. Jerry West went to work for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Expect the unexpected became the daily morning mantra before cracking open the sports page. Glass-slipper Cinderella stories became old hat. Shocks to the system began to fizzle because the system had built up a jaded immunity.

But then came the evening of Oct. 27.

Dateline, Anaheim.

Lofting fly ball to Darin Erstad.

Joe Buck is narrating in English, but the words, even when repeated two months later, seem from another galaxy.

"The Angels! World Champions!"





And monkeys will fly high above the outfield fences.

(Actually, that happened too, in the form of a video primate often seen hopping up and down on the scoreboard during Angel home games. Local baseball enthusiasts took to calling the mangy thing "the Rally Monkey" and if the Angels were ever trailing after the fifth inning

The Angels won the World Series.

Six words previously strung together only by science fiction novelists and comedy writers.

The Angels (Luis Sanchez to Cecil Cooper!) qualified for their first playoff berth since 1986 by winning 99 of 162 games.

The Angels (Donnie Moore to Dave Henderson!) defeated the New York Yankees in the first round of the American League playoffs.

The Angels (Mark Langston to Luis Sojo!) defeated the Minnesota Twins to win their first AL pennant in 42 years of trying.

The Angels (An 11-game lead in '95!) rallied from a 5-0, seventh-inning deficit in Game 6 of the World Series and defeated the San Francisco Giants, 4-1, in Game 7.

It was the event of a lifetime, of 6 billion lifetimes, because no one on the planet honestly expected to live long enough to see it happen.

Stranger still was the sight of Jackie Autry, who ran the franchise into the ground before selling it to Disney, and Michael Eisner, who had hoped to dump the team on some poor sucker long before October 2002, standing on the championship podium taking bows for eight months of hard work they had absolutely nothing to do with.

The victory belonged to 25 players who were overshadowed every step of their remarkable climb -- by the Dodgers during the regular season, by Yankee aura and Twin hoopla during the playoffs, by Barry Bonds during the Series.

It belonged to Manager Mike Scioscia and his coaches, who kept the team focused during a 6-14 start, which was an unprecedented franchise low, even for the Angels, and emphasized smart, fundamental baseball -- all but waving the textbook written by the Dodgers in the faces of their freeway rivals.

It belonged to Bill Bavasi, the former general manager who assembled the basic framework and decided to resign rather than break up the core, as certain Disney executives wanted.

And it belonged to the front-office tandem of Paul Pressler, who rattled the Angels' tin cup loudly enough for Disney to capitulate with a few more dollars, and Bill Stoneman, who used those funds to bolster the roster with the likes of Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele and Brad Fullmer.

The Angels' improbable championship was the crown jewel in a rousing comeback year for the Southland, which had been subsisting on the Lakers, bread and water for far too long.

The Lakers did their part again, winning their third consecutive NBA championship, although the Sacramento Kings and their followers will forever credit the officials working the Western Conference finals with the essential push over the top.

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