YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Angels Win the Right to Party On


Heaven, for these Angels, always had to wait.

For more than four decades they were stuck in the shadow of the Dodgers, their big-city neighbors to the north, always struggling, always stumbling, always coming up short in the end

Only three times in their 42 years did they so much as make the playoffs--and each time they lost in the first round.

Until Saturday.

On a sun-drenched afternoon at Edison Field, the Angels finally stepped out of the darkness of their dismal past, chasing away both their demons and the playoff-hardened New York Yankees with a 9-5 victory that advanced them to the American League championship series.

Saturday's victory in front of a red-clad, rally-stick-waving crowd of 45,067 was especially sweet because it came against the Yankees, winners of four of the last six World Series and a league-best 103 games in the regular season.

The Angels, with 99 victories, came into the best-of-five series as the league's wild card, not expected to last long. The Yankees had home-field advantage, which meant the Angels would have to face the mystique of baseball's fabled Yankee Stadium where the dreams of many a previous visiting team had dissolved under the historic facade and the monuments of Yankee greats such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

But on Saturday it was the Yankees who dissolved in the face of relative unknowns such as Angel relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and role players Shawn Wooten and Benji Gil.

Rodriguez, a 20-year-old with barely six weeks of big-league experience, pitched 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief, striking out three of the seven batters he faced. Wooten, a longtime minor leaguer who started the year injured, had three hits, scored three runs and started an eight-run fifth inning with a solo home run that tied the score, 2-2.

As for Gil, Manager Mike Scioscia raised a few eyebrows by starting him at second base in place of red-hot Adam Kennedy. So all Gil did was respond with three hits, , including two in the fifth, when the Angels sent 13 batters to the plate in setting a division-series record for runs in an inning.

All of which helped set up the grandest of finales, a capacity crowd roaring with pent-up anticipation as fireballing closer Troy Percival faced Yankee designated hitter Nick Johnson with two outs and two runners on base in the ninth inning.

Johnson popped a ball up in the direction of shortstop David Eckstein. And what was running through Eckstein's mind as the ball sailed downward?

"Don't drop it," he said.

He didn't, and the celebration was on.

"We did it the Disney team way," said Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., which owns the team. "This is a great morale booster for our whole company, which is going through tough times. It's good for L.A. It's good for Orange County. It's good for the whole Disney organization."

Yet even as he stood soaking in the spray of champagne and beer flying around the Angel clubhouse in the postgame celebration, Eisner conceded that, under the right circumstances, he would still sell the team, which has been on the market.

"We're not out there auctioning it," he said. "But if the right buyer with the right attitude and the right way of doing things came along, we'd be interested."

At Garf's Bar and Grill in Costa Mesa, the celebration began during the Angels' big fifth inning.

"The Yankees are done! Start spreadin' the news!" yelled bar customer George Mejia, who promptly began talking about buying World Series tickets. Never mind that Anaheim still has to beat the winner of the Oakland-Minnesota playoff series to get there.

When the television camera zoomed in on a photo of Gene Autry, the team's first owner, a group at the back of the bar began chanting, "Gene! Gene!"

Formed as an expansion team in 1961, Autry's club started play as the Los Angeles Angels and played its first season in Wrigley Field, the Los Angeles version, where the Angels of the Pacific Coast League had played before them.

After one year, Autry moved the club to Dodger Stadium for four seasons. Desperate to establish their own identity, the Angels refused to refer to their home as Dodger Stadium, calling it instead Chavez Ravine.

Finally, Autry carved out his own territory in Anaheim. But he died without realizing his dream of winning a championship.

"It's overwhelming to all of us," said Jeff Horel, 26, of Huntington Beach, who was at the game. "We all wish that Gene Autry could be here."

"I feel elation. I feel vindicated," said Chris Damore, 34, of Fullerton, who works as a teacher in Santa Ana. "The greatest feeling is going to be going to work to shut down all the ... Yankee fans who aren't even from New York.... You stick with the team you grew up with."

In New York, fans who had stuck with their beloved Yankees were crushed.

"Where is Anaheim?" asked Jerry Siracusa, staring numbly at a television set at Carmine's, a raucous sports bar and restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "Who is Anaheim?"

Los Angeles Times Articles