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Bill Plaschke

Angels Who Went Where Others Fear to Tread

October 18, 2002|Bill Plaschke

Moose Jaw, Salinas and Parkersburg.

Not exactly Tinker to Evers to Chance, but these being the Angels, mythology isn't always so neatly packaged.

Sometimes, the three most important things in your clubhouse aren't your best infielders. Sometimes they're your three worst memories.

Sometimes, a championship race is not only about chasing. Sometimes it's also about running away.

The splendid desperation seen in the Angels during the last two weeks didn't spring only from the sight of the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.

It also came from the thought of places like Moose Jaw, Salinas and Parkersburg.

Three independent league outposts where Angels were dumped after losing their way.

Three places where they found themselves.

The itinerary for this club's unlikely World Series journey begins there.

Ben Weber once played for the Salinas Peppers, a team whose owner was so slow in paying the average $800 monthly salaries, Weber led a team walkout.

Moments before the start of a game.

In the middle of a pennant race.

"Unbelievable," recalls Weber with a grin. "We walked off the field and climbed on a bus and drove away."

What did the fans do?

"What fans?" Weber said.

Shawn Wooten once played for the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs, a Saskatchewan team that was so cheap, it had a total of 15 baseballs.

"You hit a home run during batting practice and one of the workers had to chase it down and bring it back," he said.

And the bats?

"If you broke one, you taped it up and used it for batting practice," he recalled.

Brendan Donnelly once played for the Ohio Valley Redcoats, a Parkersburg, W.Va., team that played in a city park against neighborhood kids.

"I remember holding the ball on the mound, looking in at some kid right out of high school, and thinking, 'What am I doing here?' " he recalled.

What were any of them doing there?

They had failed, that's what.

They had been cut from conventional minor league teams for lack of talent or promise or hustle.

They had been cut, as David Eckstein and Jose Molina had once been cut.

They had been ignored, as 33rd-round draft pick Orlando Palmeiro and 38th-round pick Scot Shields had once been ignored.

The history of these three independent league survivors typifies the history of the Angels.

So too does their resolve.

"Once I got out of Moose Jaw, I said to myself, 'If I ever get to put on a major league uniform, nobody is taking it away from me,' " Wooten said.

Slow-forward from Moose Jaw in 1996 to Edison Field two weeks ago. Wooten homered, singled twice, scored three times and drove in two runs in the Angels' clinching 9-5 win over the Yankees.

Each time he crossed the plate, he had to fight through teammates to find a seat in the dugout.

He remembers Moose Jaw, and a fight of a different sort.

At the Diamond Dogs' ramshackle home field, players had to walk through the stands to get to the tiny clubhouse. One night, a team from North Dakota bought tickets after its game in a nearby town had been rained out.

Coming off the field after a victory, the Diamond Dogs were mugged by their beer-swigging rivals, starting a brawl that required police intervention.

"The wildest thing I've ever seen in baseball," Wooten recalled. "Guys in uniforms and spikes fighting guys in tennis shoes and jeans. It started to rain. Beer was everywhere.

"I told myself, 'I'm never going back to a place like that again.' "

Donnelly said the same thing after his summer in Parkersburg, where he'd signed in July 1994 after having been cut earlier that summer by the Chicago Cubs' organization.

He wasn't thrilled about playing in a West Virginia sandlot, but his only other option was continuing in his job as a private investigator, serving subpoenas to those who didn't want them.

He once dressed as a pizza delivery man. Another time, he pretended he was a florist.

Eight years later, he was striking out John Vander Wal to preserve a lead in a Game 2 victory over the Yankees.

"What I always tell people is, 'Keep that uniform on, and maybe somebody will find you,' " Donnelly said.

When Weber ended his 1996 season in Salinas, nobody could find him.

That's because he was dressed as the team's green pepper mascot.

He had already been the team's hero earlier that year when the walkout shamed ownership into paying the players regularly.

Now he was going to celebrate what he thought was going to be his final year in baseball by running around the field like a red-hot fool.

Then came the traditional race around the bases between the mascot and a child picked out of the stands. This time, against all rules, the mascot won.

"I go sliding across home plate and get up dancing and everyone is stunned," he said. "Then I look over and see this little girl crying."

The quick-thinking public address guy immediately announced that the mascot had missed home plate, and so the girl was the winner.

Weber's teammates then pulled off his mask.

"Most fun I ever had playing baseball," Weber said.

Until, of course, right now, the World Series providing a happy ending to three fractured fairy tales.

"Before these playoffs, everybody was talking about how we were so inexperienced," Weber said. "Lemme tell ya, I was experienced. Maybe not on the right levels. Maybe in some places you wouldn't want to tell your kids about. But I was experienced."

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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