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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

A Classic Fall With Heads in the Clouds

August 10, 2003|Ross Newhan

The free fall since the All-Star break has merely accentuated this flop of an Angel season. The fallout is, and will continue to be, extensive.

In reversing their captivating performance and personality of last year, the Angels have ...

* Revived images of their historic mediocrity and reawakened ghosts thought to be buried by their World Series victory.

* Generated the perception that October was an aberration amid a series of .500 or sub-.500 seasons and left the certainty that a roster brought back almost intact for defense of the Series title will not be so fortunate next year.

Was 2002 a fluke?

Is anyone in the Angel family angry, teed off, upset -- or will this disappointing season continue to be played out amid a strange lack of visible reaction?

Kevin Brown gives up a run and he's apt to put a fist through a clubhouse wall.

The Angels glide through a 9-20 spring and fail to put a 2002-type streak together until two weeks before the All-Star break. They go 5-19 afterward, close on the American League West basement and the possibility of becoming only the second team since the start of division play in 1969 to finish last after winning the World Series -- and there has been no hole discovered in the clubhouse walls, no Gatorade container tossed onto the field.

Maybe that's merely an extension of Manager Mike Scioscia's self-controlled demeanor, his play-them-one-at-a-time mantra. Press the play button on Scioscia's postgame tape recorder and it continues to spin out praise for his team's effort and "incredible character."

Bill Stoneman, the even more impassive general manager, says he will dispute anyone who claims there has been a lack of effort, and, OK, it's hard to dispute him.

No one, for example, can say definitely that the Angels have been victimized by complacency, although there is a greater risk of that when no jobs are at stake and a team is coming off its first taste of champagne.

It's just that, well, the closest the Angels seem to have come to a dented clubhouse wall was when Tim Salmon called a players-only meeting in Seattle in mid-June, hoping to blow off steam and get his team refocused.

It worked briefly -- before the break.

The Angels have displayed no punch -- on or off the field -- and continue to be plagued by inconsistent starting pitching and injuries extensive enough to delight the ghosts.

The question is, what are we to make of the Angels as the memory of '02 fades? How do you measure the championship caliber core that Scioscia and Stoneman like to boast about when, in fact, the pattern of the last five years suggests '02 was the exception?

Consider that the Angels finished fourth at 70-92 in a rebellious 1999, third at a modest 82-80 in Scioscia's first year in 2000 (when a 2-19 finish erased playoff hopes), third again at a miserable 75-87 in '01 and now, in the aftermath of last year's 99 regular-season wins, a tailspinning, long-out-of-contention third and headed toward the cellar. This in a division in which Seattle and Oakland are again displaying the core that has enabled them to remain championship-caliber teams.

"If you look at it, last year was the first year of all those years that we stayed away from the injury bug, and good things happened," center fielder Darin Erstad said. "It just seems like the same old story every year. We can't stay healthy. It's frustrating. That's the biggest difference I can see."

The ultimate answer man is Stoneman.

After all, new owner Arte Moreno has already extended his contract into the next millennium.

It was Stoneman and Scioscia's decision to give the '02 personnel a chance to repeat, and it will be their decision regarding the extent of the '04 shakeup.

"We had good health in bunches last year and we've had bad health in bunches this year, but I'm not an excuse guy and I don't like players who are excuse guys," Stoneman said.

"I simply believe we had people play up to their capability last year without playing beyond their capability. In general, that hasn't happened this year, and I'm surprised and disappointed. There have been exceptions, but too few exceptions."

Among the exceptions, Stoneman cited Garret Anderson and Bengie Molina, starting pitcher Ramon Ortiz and the overall performance of the bullpen.

Otherwise, he said, the balance of the club has been down, and no one could have predicted that or done anything meaningful to prevent it, such as juggling personnel.

"If someone is going to say to me that the players on this team aren't good players, I'd have to say, 'Time out,' " Stoneman said. "They've proven they're good players. If someone is going to say to me that last year was luck or a fluke, I might suggest they see a doctor. Things don't work that way. We just flat-out played well last year and we aren't this year, and it's a general thing. It's not one or two or even three guys dragging us down. It's far more general."

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