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Fans Cheer Heroes From Home Base

Baseball: The Angel backers alter schedules to gather in front of TV sets for the playoff opener in New York.

October 02, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christy Brink had every intention of going to work Tuesday, though she had warned her boss she'd be a little late because she had some "personal business" to attend to on the way in.

But with second-round Anaheim Angels playoff tickets going on sale at 9 a.m. and the playoff opener on television at 5 p.m., Brink decided to call in from the Edison International Field ticket line to say that her personal business was taking a little longer than she'd expected.

"My boss said, 'I know exactly where you are and I know what your personal business is. We'll put you down for a flex day,' " Brink said Tuesday, laughing over the hubbub of 10 people jammed in front of three television sets in her family's home in Stanton.

A lot of bosses will be making a lot of concessions over the next few days as Angels fans struggle with the downside of rooting for a West Coast team and being at the mercy of East Coast television programmers, coupled with what for some has become an unstoppable force: the need to track their team's first run at the playoffs in 16 years.

In many cases that meant trying to find a way to work and watch at the same time.

Darlene Northcutt, 37, a cashier at a Santa Ana grocery store, planned to perch a small television near her register so she could keep one eye on the price scanner and the other on the game. Rob Holman, president of the Anaheim Angels Boosters Club, stashed a small TV in his desk drawer.

"It's killing me," said Holman, 45, of Chino, who works until 8 p.m. as an office manager in La Puente. "It's tough. But it's a huge thing for us fans and we'll do what we have to. These guys get under your skin. It's the team you love to be disappointed by."

The die-hards had a lot of company this year as the Angels defied a broad erosion in Major League Baseball attendance, which dropped by 6.1%--the biggest fall since the 1994-95 strike. Average attendance was 28,168 per game, down from 30,012 last year.

The Angels drew 28,463 per game, for a total attendance of about 300,000 more than last season's 2 million, despite a potential strike that imperiled the Angels greatest season.

But even as the attendance grew, its makeup remained relatively stable. Two out of three ticket buyers are male, their average age is 32 to 34. About half of all the fans are from Orange County. Most come from households with annual incomes of $75,000 per year, compared with a national median of about $42,000.

About one-third of the fans are from Los Angeles County and the remainder mostly from the Inland Empire, usually transplanted fans from New York, Cleveland and Boston who come to see their Yankees, Indians and Red Sox--not the Angels.

"In fact, for Friday and Saturday's games [in Anaheim] we expect a strong contingent of Yankees fans," Angels Marketing Director Robert Alvarado said.

He took the high road when asked if seeing Yankee blue mixed in the stands with Angel red would raise the blood of an Anaheim loyalist: "It's good for baseball. It helps build the sport when you see the stands filled."

Not surprisingly, fan interest in the Angels swelled as the summer progressed. On Opening Day on March 31--a 6-0 loss to Cleveland--there were dabs of red in the stands, like drops of blood, reflecting the Angels' new vibrant team uniform.

In June, attendance was off last year's pace. Then the Angels began winning, and the fans came. On Sunday, the last regular-season game, the stands looked like a rose garden.

"You'd think you were at a Nebraska Cornhuskers game, or a St. Louis Cardinals game," Alvarado said. "It was unbelievable how that conversion went, and the metamorphosis that took over."

Some of the red is being worn by fair-weather fans drawn to a winner. But some is also worn by longtime fans overcoming diminished expectations for a team that hadn't been to the playoffs in 16 years, and even then was bounced in the league championship series.

"Fans have always been leery of the Angels, with the stories of the meltdowns and their past history in the home-stretch," Alvarado said. "People were just waiting to see if this time they were going to move forward or fold."

Missy Bustamente, 17, of La Palma, witnessed nearly every home game of the Angels' miraculous rise. She bought some tickets with help from her parents. "I don't get many birthday presents," she joked. Season-ticket holders she knows slipped unused tickets to her, as did some of the players' families she has befriended.

Bustamente has tickets for the two games scheduled for Edison Field on Friday and Saturday, but will miss the Friday game because she has tickets to see "The Lion King."

Tuesday, Bustamente's seat for the opening game was in front of the television set at her family's house, where they hosted about 10 of Bustamente's friends at an impromptu pizza playoff party.

The scene was repeated across Orange County. At Chapman University, student Alex Brewsaugh reserved a dorm rec room with a big-screen TV for him and fellow Angels fans. And sports bars around Edison Field had busy Tuesday Happy Hours as red-dressed fans piled onto barstools to cheer and jeer.

Brink and her husband had considered joining them, but decided instead to convert their living room into an ersatz sports bar for a few hours. Besides, after shelling out $420 for the next round of playoff tickets, there wasn't much cash left for bar tabs.

"I thought it would be nice to have a good family night at home," Brink said over the din of Angels inflatable "thunder bats" being pounded together.

And the party was on.

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