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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Anaheim Thinking Twice

With Ducks getting closer to matching Angels' magical run, the joke's on the rest of the country

May 08, 2003|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

The city was a joke long before it was fitted with mouse ears, getting its first national call-out in a skit on Jack Benny's old radio show, featuring a Union Station conductor announcing the departure of a train headed for the hinterlands of "Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc-a-monga!"

That had them rolling in the aisles back in 1945, 10 years before Goofy came to town and 50 before Georgia left. Eventually, the laughter died down in Azusa and Cucamonga, which appreciated the moment for what it was and let it go at that. Not so in Anaheim, where the ambitious and the foolish mingled regularly in the Matterhorn's shadow, talking themselves into the cross-eyed notion that their deluded little burg was capable of trading fastballs with the big boys, thus ensuring an endless parade of belly-laughs and bellyaches from there to the end of the century.

The Anaheim Amigos.

"We can replace Nolan Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers."

The Southern California Sun.

"Let him run 47 Gap."

The California Surf.

"The Angels lead the 1982 American League championship series, two games to none...."

The Anaheim Oranges.

"The Angels lead the 1986 American League championship series, three games to one...."

The Freedom Bowl.

"And the hockey team will be named the Mighty Ducks."

"No. Really."

The Pigskin Classic.

"The Rams today announced they are exercising the escape clause in their contract ... "

The Anaheim Bullfrogs.

"The Angels lead the AL West by 11 games with 43 to go...."

The Anaheim Splash.

"The Clippers are coming to Anaheim."

The Anaheim Piranhas.

"The Clippers are never coming to Anaheim."

By the turn of the millennium, Anaheim's sporting legacy appeared to be chiseled in the imported polished marble of the Pond: The little city that couldn't win the big one, that couldn't keep the Rams, that wasn't good enough for Donald Sterling, that was stuck with periwinkle and pinstripes and Donald Duck hockey sweaters until the day -- and the city was on the clock -- when Disney decides to up and pull the plug.

Then the calendar hit October 2002, and a mighty wind swept across Katella Avenue, blowing away decades of heartbreak, curses and worse, prompting the crafting of the most incredible yeah-right sentence of our lifetime.

The Angels won the World Series.

More than six months have passed, and we still have trouble believing it, even if we see it every time we pass through the Edison Field turnstiles. There it is, glistening in its glass case, defying history and comprehension -- the World Series championship trophy.

It is Anaheim's, at least through the remainder of the summer, and if the Angels never win another pennant, the city will always have 2002, its one moment of can-do glory.

Unless the Mighty Ducks win the Stanley Cup.

Drafting off the heat across the freeway, the long-hapless Ducks, 13th in the Western Conference this time last year, are four victories from the Stanley Cup finals after sweeping the 2002 champion Detroit Red Wings and upsetting the top-seeded Dallas Stars in six games.

Suddenly, the Katella corridor, usually available for tumbleweed races during the playoffs, is the postseason place to be, a power block drawing so much buzz and national attention, there are rumors of an actual Michael Eisner sighting at an upcoming Duck game.

"We're on a roll, man!" says former Anaheim mayor Tom Daly, whose 10-year tenure ended last fall, just long enough to bask in the Angels' championship confetti. "This run by the Ducks is a little bit like the Angels, except the wait hasn't been quite as long. And in some respects, I think it's more surprising because the Ducks have moved up so quickly.

"The Angels were sort of knocking on the door a few years. But the Ducks, what did they finish, 13th last year? The way [Bryan Murray] has put this team together has been breathtaking."

Tim Ryan, general manager of the Pond, says he and assistant Mike O'Donnell were mulling recent events over lunch Wednesday and "both of looked at each other and said, 'This is unbelievable.'

"You can put me in the group with every other citizen in Orange County, that this is so great. I mean, what every one of us felt during the World Series -- people talked about that for months. And to this day, I talk to an awful lot of people who say that that was the highlight of their life in terms of sports entertainment. And now to have the chance to repeat it is, I think, something that cities dream about the nation over."

Never mind that this sudden surge of success has happened after Disney put both teams up for sale, or that much of the country ignored the Angels' too-far-west victory over the San Francisco Giants, or that most of the Southland is now burning stomach lining over the plight of the Lakers while the Ducks perform their minor miracles under the radar.

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