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Forging Lifelong Angels Fans

The Cinderella team's ascent to its first World Series is just the kind of memory that will create a generation of die-hard loyalists.

October 21, 2002|Scott Martelle and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

The World Series is well underway, but Anaheim Angels fan Alex Horst thinks he's already soared to his season's high, maybe even a lifetime high, though that's hard to say when you're only 14.

The peak came two Sundays ago as the Angels clinched their first World Series berth with a stunning come-from-behind 10-run rally over the Minnesota Twins. Alex was energy unleashed, running through the stands like a madman, foul pole to foul pole, his head helmeted by a self-styled "rally bucket" made from an old popcorn pail.

"It was so jampacked," said Alex, of Garden Grove, his voice still racing with excitement days later. "I didn't sit in my seat the entire game. Everybody would cheer me on. They'd hit my rally bucket with their thunder sticks. When they exploded in the seventh inning, I was just going nuts."

Baseball fans are made, not born, and for many Southern California youngsters these heady days will forge them as die-hard followers of the sport -- and, in particular, of the Angels, a team that has struggled to match the Dodgers in local fan loyalty.

And this is the time of year when true fans -- those who cheered on the Angels before Hollywood stars began filling up the bandwagon -- like to wax nostalgic and when history connects with the present to blaze a path to the future.

That seeming timelessness is part of the mystique of baseball, a game shrouded in superstitions, legends and a sense of history in which each crack of the bat carries the echo of dead heroes. It can be a personal obsession that sociologists say often begins with something as simple as a father and a son in the stands, a bag of peanuts and a ballgame on the field.

The making of a fan usually begins at home. If parents watch games on TV and take the kids to the ballpark, they pass their interest on. Special moments -- an autograph or conversation with a player -- seal the relationship. Though many women follow sports, adult fans overwhelmingly are men who point to bonding experiences with their fathers as key to developing their love for the game, and a given team.

The First Time

"We ask people to think back to their early memories of how they got involved in a sport and a lot of people talk about that first trip to the ballpark or stadium," said Jeffrey James, an assistant professor in the department of leisure studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "And there's something about a parent, specifically with fathers, and this transference of what we might think of as a love for the game. It's the value of the sport that we communicate."

Toss in a World Series for the local team and the average 8-year-old is hooked for life.

Roger Angell, 81, a fiction editor at the New Yorker, has made a side career of writing about baseball. He believes fans are created by atmosphere, and proximity, and that the initial infatuation distilled in youth matures like a good scotch.

"That early childhood team stays with you," said Angell.

Raised in Manhattan, Angell grew up following the New York Giants and the Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, with the Brooklyn Dodgers an irrelevant third. The reason: The Giants' Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium were closer, in the Bronx, than was Ebbets Field way out in Brooklyn. And though the Yankees were powerful -- kids gravitate to winners -- Angell recalls being distrustful of the Bronx Bombers' success.

"Even back then I realized that the Yankees won the title a little too often to make it fun," Angell said, adding that a Yankees-less World Series this year promises a return of baseball drama. "I'm delighted. This pairing is going to be different."

Angell links his love for the game with those long-ago stadium trips with his father, whose long-suffering loyalty was to the Cleveland Indians of the Cy Young days in the early 1900s. The Indians went on to a century of mostly ignominious seasons, winning only two World Series in five appearances since 1901.

"I think in some ways the suffering is what it's all about," Angell said. "You have to have stayed with a team long enough to have your heart broken and then start all over the next year, and every now and then win."

Angels fans know about broken hearts. Since Gene Autry founded the team for the 1961 season, the Angels had thrice gone to the playoffs and collapsed each time. Yet those failures have little effect on whether fans stay faithful or wander off to new loves. Ballparks might be empty during losing seasons, but fans still follow their teams, their interest ratcheting up or down depending on performance.

Overall, baseball attendance has been in a slide under the onslaught of competition from other professional sports, new computer entertainment habits and increased demands on leisure time. Yet teams still attracted 68 million people to ballparks this year.

Always an Afterthought

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