We are seeing it, if not entirely believing it. The Angels--scratch that: the anti-Angels--come through with another dramatic victory Friday night and edge perilously close to that dreaded time again: the brink of the World Series.
The best thing you can say about this team is that it has failed, utterly and completely, in upholding the Angel Way to Play Baseball. Fundamental chapters--How to Fall Apart After a Questionable Managerial Decision, How to Fail to Get the Final Out, How to Choke--are being blithely ignored.
With every unlikely, unexpected October victory, these Angels chip away at a hoary 40-year tradition uglier than the fake rock formation behind the Edison Field outfield fence. They are doing it in prime time, with a nation, no longer distracted by the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, curiously tuning in. And they are doing it, quite conspicuously, in the wake of another disappointing Dodger season, with an ex-Dodger as manager and three ex-Dodgers on the coaching staff, with a predominantly home-grown roster playing textbook hit-behind-the-runner baseball, the way the Dodgers did decades ago.
It's still early; in truth, these Angels, up two games to one on the Minnesota Twins in a seven-game series, are no further along than the 1979, '82 and '86 clubs that fell short in the American League championship series. But once they are finished, whenever they finish, what will the local landscape resemble?
Will the Angels have taken a chunk of valuable territory, of precious fan base, from the Dodgers, still the dominant team in the area, even after 14 years of resting on their laurels?
Or will the dust from this little exercise be swept aside and quickly forgotten as soon the Angels stumble through their first slump of 2003?
Longtime Angel fans, veteran sufferers who shake their heads at the Thunder Stick-clapping Rally-Monkey-come-latelys, believe nothing lasting will change until and unless the Angels:
1. Reach the World Series.
2. Contend again in 2003.
3. Field a winning, competitive team on a consistent basis.
Mark Howmann of Mission Viejo has been an Angel fan for more than 30 years. He was sitting in the Anaheim Stadium left-field stands on Oct. 12, 1986, which gave him a good view of Dave Henderson's playoff-turning home run.
As soon as Henderson hit it, Howmann said he knew that the Angels "were going to lose the next two games" and the series to Boston. "I guess that comes from being a long-term Angel fan."
He also realized that, for his psychological and physical well-being, it was time to emotionally divest.
"That was a tough fall there," Howmann said. "After that, I basically decided to be an Angel fan, but I wasn't going to get so worked up about whether they won or lost. And that's worked really well.
"I mean, I always track them, because I've been an Angel fan for 30 years or so. But I don't get emotionally involved anymore. I'd be insane. If they win, it's great. If they lose, well, that's what they do."
Howmann believes the Angels' current playoff run will change the local baseball dynamic for a couple months next year. "Then after that," he says, "it comes down to if they can keep winning. As long as they keep winning, the status will change. But they have to win.
"Now if they go to the World Series and win the World Series.... "
Howmann stopped and corrected himself.
"No, I shouldn't even say that. But if they do, it would last longer. It would last through the year."
Jason Bunch of Long Beach describes himself as a fan of both the Angels and the Dodgers, estimating he watched each team play at least 60 times on television this season. He believes nothing less than the Angels winning the AL pennant will change the long-standing notion that the Southland is Dodger country.
"It definitely depends on if they win this series," he said. "Because with success comes credibility. The Angels, right now, have never gotten the championship. The Dodgers have the many World Series behind them, so they have that credibility. And they have that kind of sustained following because they've proven to be a successful winner while the Angels have had that huge monkey since '86 that they finally got off their backs.
"But I don't think it's going to amount to a whole lot if they don't get beyond the ALCS."
At the moment, the Angels are fighting simply to reclaim Orange County from the Dodgers. The Dodgers have a considerable following in Orange County, which provides more than 10% of the club's season-ticket base. And when the Dodgers play the Angels in an interleague game at Edison Field, fan allegiance in the stands is often tilted toward the visitors from Los Angeles.
"Where we were sitting, in the outfield seats, it was certainly Dodgers, by a 3-1 or 4-1 margin," Bunch said. "Along with the fights to prove it. It was literally like going to see the Angels and finding it's a Dodger game."