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In Angel Heaven With Grandpa

'Angel fandom, like any religion, is fundamentally about loss.'

October 17, 2002|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

I was 6 when I saw my first baseball game. Grandpa Gerry drove the two of us a mile down State College Boulevard from his house to Anaheim Stadium.

I remember watching Rod Carew, mostly a singles hitter, take batting practice and bash long fly balls over the fence, out toward the Orange Freeway. The stadium was open in the outfield then, and the wind made for a chilly evening in the upper deck. I didn't care.

The Angels shut out the Minnesota Twins, 5-0. And on that day in July of 1979, Gerry became my favorite male relative (after all, my bookish father had never managed to get me to a game), baseball my favorite sport, and the Angels, for better and mostly worse, my favorite team.

Last Sunday, I sat in the upper deck and watched the Angels beat the Twins again, this time to advance to their first World Series. A few years ago, Disney demolished the outfield decks and opened up the stadium again, and the breeze brought back 23 years of memories of a team that has been defined by sadness and regret.

For 41 years, Angel stories have been tales of the "not quite." Not quite young enough or not quite experienced enough, not quite deep enough in pitching or hitting, not quite American League champions, and not quite Southern California's team.

My Angel story is also about not quites.

Gerry was not quite my grandfather.

And the Angels were not quite my home team.

Which is why I fell in love with them both.

The son of Californians, I had moved at the age of 3 to China, where my parents were foreign correspondents. My trip to the Big A came on a summer visit to my grandmother, long since divorced from my biological grandfather.

Gerry had married my grandmother on Christmas Day seven years earlier. I'm told now that he was a generous and decent man, a heaven-sent catch for my grandmother, who was not always so lucky in such things. All I knew then was that my own family cared little for baseball, and that Gerry wasn't a blood relative.

The son of a machinist and a seamstress, Gerald LeFrancois was in his late 20s when he first left his native Rutland, Vt., for Orange County. His first wife died young. He kept busy by devoting himself to the Angels from the moment they moved to Anaheim from L.A. He hated the Dodgers, God bless him. The Angels were always kind of a second spouse to Angelenos, and Gerry resented all the attention and season ticket buyers the Dodgers lured away from Orange County.

Gerry worked for years as a certified auto mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership not far from the stadium. The job didn't pay enough for season tickets, but he went to every game he could, usually taking my grandmother, a co-worker or his son, Larry.

In me, he found an eager convert. After the game, I peppered him with questions about rules and statistics. Gerry, a fitness buff and Jack La Lanne look-alike, told me that if I exercised hard, I might play for the Angels some day.

I flew back to Beijing that August wearing an Angels cap. I started reading the International Herald Tribune to check the abbreviated Angel box scores on the back page. When the Angels made the 1979 playoffs, my father, at my urging, bought an enormous shortwave radio so that, from across the world, I could have the first of many experiences with October disappointment. The Angels lost to the Orioles in four games.

Otherwise, the only baseball to be had in China was the Wiffle ball contests I organized in a parking lot next to the Forbidden City. Convincing curious Chinese passersby to pitch, I imitated the batting stance of Don Baylor (think Tim Salmon, with more power). Throwing a ball in Tiananmen Square, I pretended I was Nolan Ryan. (When the Angels let him go to Houston, I finally understood the depths of the Chinese dismay with free markets.)

The following year, we moved back to Southern California, where I could pursue my love affair with baseball full time. I played through high school and started coaching Little League, which I still do. But Gerry never lived to take me to another game.

The same year we moved back, he began to complain of headaches. Brain cancer put him in the hospital. The exercises he insisted on doing next to his hospital bed prompted a heart attack. He lasted only through the Angel season, dying in late October. He was 57 years old.

Angel fandom, like any religion, is fundamentally about loss. Longtime Angel fans can recite the litany by heart: the line drive that cost Art Fowler the sight in his left eye; the brain tumor that took Dick Wantz; the preseason car accidents that killed prospects Bruce Heinbechner and Mike Miley; the shooting death of Lyman Bostock; the suicide of Donnie Moore; the team bus crash that nearly killed Buck Rodgers. On the field, there were any number of late-season collapses that felt like funerals. In 1982 and 1986, the Angels choked on the doorstep of the World Series.

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