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ANGELS / COMMEMORATIVE SECTION | Diane Pucin

Bringing Back the Fun

October 29, 2002|Diane Pucin

On the day after the Angels finished the regular season and headed to New York for the playoffs, there appeared on the median island on a wide, busy Tustin road, a neatly lettered sign.

It said, simply, "Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad."

And the day after the Angels beat the Twins to advance to the World Series, there was another sign, stuck into the ground at Cedar Grove Park. It was hand-lettered too, maybe not perfectly neat, done perhaps by a child. It said, "Tustin Loves Tim Salmon."

On Walnut Avenue, the street that turns into Orangewood and leads to Edison Field, as the playoffs traveled forward, with the Angels completing astounding comeback after incredible rally, little houses sprouted incredibly inventive, carefully designed, clearly heartfelt cheers for the Angels. Big signs, little signs, banners with sparkles used to make the halo around the Angel 'A' glitter even after dark. This was not manufactured, artificially drummed-up enthusiasm.

This was sports at its neatest, moms and dads and kids coming to root for the Angels not because they had always been Angel fans or because they had season tickets or because their dad or grandpa had rooted for the Angels.

It was because this particular team, its players and coaches, its style of play, its humbleness, its all-for-one attitude that wasn't corny because it was real, made baseball fun again.

That's what happened with me.

The only baseball playoffs I had covered from start to finish in my life came nine years ago. It was in Philadelphia and the upstart Phillies, a franchise overcome by malaise in the previous decade, and overcome again in the next, made an unexpected playoff run.

And it was no fun.

The clubhouse was an unfriendly place. The stars -- Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk and Darren Daulton -- dubbed their area of lockers "Macho Row," and it was real estate that gave "macho" a bad name.

There always seemed to be tension. One game in July, the Phillies beat the Dodgers, 7-6, in 20 innings but only after closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams blew a 5-3 lead in the ninth. Afterward, Kruk said, "I came here and I wanted to kill Mitch, but they told me it was against the law."

In an August game, starting pitcher Terry Mulholland broke his right hand because he punched a water cooler after a 3-2 loss. It was that kind of team. Undisciplined, a bit out of control, sometimes scary.

Games were sloppy, players were moody, egos were prominent. And when Williams blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6 by giving up a three-run homer to Joe Carter and handing the Blue Jays the World Series, Williams received death threats and had police protection around his New Jersey home for a week.

What followed, it seemed, was nine years of more ugliness than happiness in baseball. There was labor strife and animosity -- between players and owners, players and fans, media and players, fans and owners -- and the game seemed to deteriorate into nothing but a home run-hitting contest, with discussions of steroid use and a race between the teams that could spend money faster than anybody else.

As beautiful as it is to watch Derek Jeter play shortstop or Bernie Williams play center field, there seemed no sport to watching the Yankees win.

And then came these Angels.

They were never boastful and they had no superstars.

When they started the season badly, when Edison Field was sparsely populated, when their games weren't on TV and barely on the radio, none of the Angels complained.

"I understand why the fans are skeptical," Tim Salmon said one day. "They need for us to prove something to them."

There was a linear progression to the way the Angels played. Singles were followed by doubles. Some games were clinics in the proper way to execute the hit-and-run. At-bats were to be treasured and there was entertainment in watching David Eckstein or Scott Spiezio foul off four, five pitches in a row before lining an offering to left or right.

It was fun watching Troy Glaus learn patience and the reward of going the opposite way and hitting an RBI single and celebrating as enthusiastically as when he hit home runs. It was hard not to root for Spiezio and Eckstein and Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber and all the other Angels who had been cut, released, told to go away.

This was a team in the truest sense and we get that so seldom in sports any more.

These Angels, though, grew up together, most of them. They are signed as Angels for the next couple of years, most of them. They haven't resented being anonymous, they don't mind sacrificing personal gain for a greater team good.

They were classy in praising Barry Bonds and never showed resentment at the way Bonds would stand and admire his grand home runs. Glaus didn't complain about getting dusted. Starting pitchers went to the bullpen. Rookie Francisco Rodriguez was made to feel at home. Rookie John Lackey couldn't stop praising veteran Dennis Cook, who had been left off the World Series roster but who kept pulling aside Lackey to give him tips.

And now I'm a baseball fan again. A team beat individual greatness.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com

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