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The Region

It's a Jungle Out There for Angel Opponents

Entertainment: An electronic Rally Monkey at Edison Field has evolved from a good-luck charm to a phenomenon for the playoff-bound team.

September 28, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this game of superstitions--a game in which grown men resort to silly rituals just to keep a streak going--there is one undeniable rule: Don't mess with a good thing.

So it comes to this, as Disney's Cinderella team heads into the American League playoffs for the first time in 16 years: Its best good-luck charm is a monkey.

But who cares? The Anaheim Angels, who didn't exactly storm into the playoffs, need all the help they can get Tuesday as they start a best-of-five series against the New York Yankees, a team that has been to the playoffs every year since 1995.

This is no ordinary good-luck charm. For one thing, it's purely electronic.

The Rally Monkey debuted two years ago when Angel staff members at Edison International Field, on a whim, flashed canned video of a monkey on the JumboTron with the words "Rally Monkey" superimposed. The crowd cheered; the team rallied from a six-run deficit.

Then, in a fluke that surprised even Disney's marketing masters, the Rally Monkey evolved into an unofficial mascot--and a full-blown phenomenon.

Now, cheering fans wave stuffed toy monkeys in the stands. He's a staple of video clips on ESPN's SportsCenter. Sports columnists are listing him as one of the intangible factors the Angels have in their favor. He's got a banana drink named after him at a restaurant near the stadium, groupies and a Web site (www.rallymonkey.com) where people leave messages proclaiming, "I believe in the power of the monkey!"

Angel officials soon realized they were onto something special and hired a monkey that had appeared in the movie "Outbreak" and on NBC's "Friends." They dressed him in an Angels uniform and ran him through some stunts.

"I think the silliness of it is half the appeal," said Alex Brewsaugh, 20, of Orange. "I mean, it's a monkey. It has absolutely nothing to do with baseball or the Angels, but it just fits.... The rest of the nation has no clue what we're doing. They're probably saying, 'What are those people smoking in California?' "

For those keeping track, the Rally Monkey's record up to Thursday is 56-41 lifetime and 24-18 this season. Not bad considering the Angels call him out only when the team is losing.

But the Rally Monkey's popularity has a downside. The Angels are careful not to overexpose it--a lesson learned after they hired a real capuchin monkey, brought it out to the field and celebrated the Rally Monkey's birthday with a big, showy tribute. The Angels lost, prompting pitcher Jarrod Washburn to accuse management of "making a mockery of the game."

The only other time a live monkey appeared at a game, the Angels also lost. In a bow to superstition, Angels entertainment manager Peter Bull concluded, "Maybe his place is on the video screen."

So he lives only on the JumboTron at Edison Field. There also are some unwritten rules about when he pokes his head out:

The Angels have to be tied or losing after the fifth inning. Beyond that, the timing is a gut call, perhaps like a manager making a pitching change. Bull consults a few advisors, then decides.

"He's not a mascot," Bull said. "He's like a baseball player with his specialty. He comes out when he's needed. He doesn't go beyond his abilities. He's a role player."

It's hard for Bull to say that without chuckling a little bit. This is, after all, nothing more than a jumping monkey on a screen. But there's a fine line between acknowledging its silliness and respecting its power.

And if it gets into the minds of opposing players, well, all the better. The minute he appears, the fans go bananas. They chant, "Rally Monkey!" and wave the plush animals high.

"Some players hate it and ignore it," Bull said. "Others, I don't know if they can handle it."

Seattle Mariners officials once joked about blasting Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" over the loudspeakers, though they never did. And after a series in July in Anaheim, Seattle Manager Lou Piniella said he was happy he didn't have to see it again until September.

While it may seem like fun and games, those who track sports marketing gimmicks say the Angels have inadvertently created a cult favorite.

"It's become a brand and it's become a point of distinction for the Angels at their ballpark," said Dan Migala, editor of Team Marketing Report, which tracks sports marketing and sponsorship information.

Already, other teams have tried to imitate the stunt. The Milwaukee Brewers last year launched the Rally Rabbit and the NFL Indianapolis Colts created the Touchdown Monkey in their 2000 season.

Neither has become wildly successful, proving that audiences can be finicky.

If there's one routine knock against Angel fans, it's their lackluster cheering.

Not anymore.

"Not since 1979 have I seen the fans, like myself, so up for the games," said Chris Thompson of Anaheim. "The Rally Monkey is a wonderful thing."

Is the jumping simian enough to lift the team past the Yankees?

"Absolutely. Definitely," said fan Brewsaugh.

But he's not taking any chances. "I've got four Rally Monkeys. I have a nice little shrine in the corner of my room."

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