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Record Season Heaven-Sent for the Star-Crossed Angels

September 30, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunday afternoon, after a regular season of unexpected achievement, after a glorious send-off from a red-clad sellout crowd of 42,878, the Angels drove to Long Beach and boarded a charter flight to Newark, N.J. On Tuesday, they will open the major league baseball playoffs at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have won 26 World Series titles. In their 42-year history, the Angels have never played a single World Series game. Yankee fans consider it a lost year if there is no World Series title. Angel fans have known only lost years.

The best-of-five-game playoff series this week will pit the Yankees, the most revered, copied, hated, loved, envied team in baseball, against the Angels, a team known less for on-field achievement than for episodes of human tragedy and laughable, ludicrous collapses.

"I guess," said bench coach Joe Maddon, "that if we have a national identity, it would be the so-called jinx."

Maddon has been a member of the Angels as a player, scout or coach since 1975. "I have some moments," Maddon said, "where I wonder about that so-called jinx. I don't believe in it. But other people do."

And why not?

The Angels have suffered through epic late-season collapses--in 1995, they blew an 11-game lead in August and lost a one-game playoff to the Seattle Mariners--and epic playoff collapses. In 1982, they squandered a 2-0 lead to the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1986, with a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Red Sox, one strike from the World Series, Donnie Moore gave up a home run to Dave Henderson that turned around the game and the series.

They have suffered through human tragedies. Moore, the troubled relief pitcher who threw the fateful pitch to Henderson in Game 5 of the 1986 American League championship series, committed suicide four years later and his widow said one reason was that 1986 game.

In 1978, outfielder Lyman Bostock, a prized free-agent acquisition, was killed in Gary, Ind., by a gunshot meant for someone else. A promising rookie pitcher, Dick Wantz, died in 1965 of a brain tumor at age 25. In 1968, Minnie Rojas, a talented relief pitcher, was paralyzed in a car crash that killed his wife and two of his three children. A rookie relief pitcher, Bruce Heinbechner, was killed in a 1974 car crash. A shortstop, Mike Miley, was killed in a 1977 car crash.

And they have suffered through absurd accidents.

A 1992 bus crash on the New Jersey turnpike injured 13 members of the organization and put manager Buck Rodgers in the hospital for three months. A flying bat broke the orbital bone of their pitching ace, Chuck Finley, in spring training in 1997. Their starting shortstop, Gary DiSarcina, stepped into the swing of coach George Hendrick during practice and had his arm broken in 1999. The same year, their prized and high-priced free agent, first baseman Mo Vaughn, took a wrong step into the dugout chasing a pop fly and badly sprained his ankle. In the first inning of his first game as an Angel.

"But this has a different feeling," Maddon said. "This team is different. It is built for the long term. It is built to withstand injuries and it has a different attitude. It really does."

That attitude showed as the Angels shook off a 6-14 start to win a team-record 99 games, qualifying for the playoffs as the wild-card team in the American League. When the Oakland A's threatened to run away with the West division title by winning 20 consecutive games, the Angels responded by winning 10 in a row. The A's won the division title, but not until the final week of the season.

Jarrod Washburn, the 28-year-old ace of the Angel pitching staff who will start Game 1 Tuesday, said he pays no attention to talk of jinxes. "What happened here five years ago or 10 years ago, that doesn't matter to me," he said. "All I'm concerned about is this team right now, and we don't have jinxes. We're a good young team that has worked hard and earned what we've gotten. That's all that matters."

Kevin Uhlich, Angel senior vice president of business operations, says that "baseball, more than any other sport, is entrenched in history, whether it's good or it's bad. Either way, there's no getting away from it."

Uhlich, 44, was born and reared in Anaheim and has been involved with the Angels since he became a bat boy when he was 18.

Even while he was insisting the Angels aren't jinxed, Uhlich had to admit that Angel history was tilted heavily toward the bad. "Tragedies such as we've had do leave a mark. It hurts an organization if its defining moments are more negative than positive. What's happening now is that maybe we haven't had much of a national identity and we're gaining one."

Sunday morning, there was George Will on a network TV show using Angel shortstop David Eckstein as an example of the perfect American success story--the undersized, overlooked, hard-working, never-give-up optimist who finally gets his big-league chance and runs with it.

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