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`Mr. Angel' Has Earned His Wings

Tim Salmon looks back at his lengthy career, which will come to an end Sunday at home.

September 28, 2006|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

It is the first day of the last week of his distinguished career. The weekend will come soon, and with it the pomp and circumstance of retirement, the ceremonies and farewells and standing ovations.

But this is Monday morning, so Tim Salmon is alone, at 38, hanging out in a "Jack's Surfboards" T-shirt at the family summer home in Newport Beach. The sand is a few steps away, the Pacific Ocean a few more.

The boys of summer are just about gone, and not just the ones with bats and balls. The beach is empty. The lifeguard tower is boarded shut.

His wife has packed up and driven their four children back to their Arizona home, back for the school year. The kids left behind their affection, in pretty colors, on a banner hanging on a wall: "Daddy, We Love and Miss You."

The wife and kids will see him again this weekend, and forever. The thousands of fans that make up his extended family will see him this weekend, and who knows when after that? For the Angels loyalists that embraced him as he steered a wayward franchise toward glory, this is a weekend for joy, sadness and appreciation.

They thank him at the stadium and in the streets of Southern California. They are the fans who cheered for the Angels before the Angels were cool, before Arte Moreno plastered billboards all over L.A., before Vlad and K-Rod, before the Rally Monkey and the World Series. They are the fans who bought tickets for decades on blind faith and unrequited loyalty.

They are the fans who shake Salmon's hand, hug him, even cry upon meeting him.

"They're the lifelong fans," he says. "I relate to them."

Sellout crowds and pennant races should not be taken for granted. The young players these days don't know any better, so Salmon tells them.

"They don't know how good they've got it," he says.

The Angels might be a model franchise now, but they were a joke back then, to the extent anyone cared enough to joke. As the population of Orange County grew, their attendance plummeted.

And then came 2002, and with it the first playoff berth in 16 years and the first World Series, period. The Angels sold 3 million tickets for the first time in 2003, and in every year since then. They won consecutive division championships for the first time in 2004 and '05, and with this season they have posted three consecutive winning records for the first time.

"People want to be a part of this organization now," Salmon said. "When I came up, it was like everyone had given up trying to buy the pennant. The organization was floundering a lot. We were.... "

And here he bursts out laughing.

"We were a small-market team," he said.

Gene Autry spent freely on free agents but did not live to see his beloved team in the World Series. Jackie Autry, his wife, defined Orange County as a relatively small market, did not challenge the Dodgers in Southern California, reined in the spending and told Angels executives to play the kids.

In 1992, in his first game in the major leagues, Salmon batted cleanup, in Yankee Stadium, because the Angels had no one better.

In 1993, he was the rookie of the year, still the only Angels player to win that award. The Angels coughed up an 11-game lead in 1995, but a young core emerged, including Salmon, Troy Percival and Garret Anderson. Darin Erstad arrived the next year.

When the Angels finally got to the playoffs, seven years later, Salmon had played more games than any active major leaguer without getting there. When they won the World Series, in Game 7, Anderson delivered the game-winning hit, Percival earned the save and Erstad caught the final out.

And then Salmon stood for the fans, and for history. He waved one of Gene Autry's cowboy hats at the sky. He hoisted the championship trophy over his head and circled the warning track, beaming, sharing the spoils of victory with the long-suffering fans.

In the spring, after the Angels unveiled their championship flag, Salmon raised it. Who else would? He is Mr. Angel, and not just because no one has hit more homers for the club.

Salmon played for Autry, for Disney, and for Moreno. He represented California, Anaheim and Los Angeles without leaving his team. He is the only player to wear the yellow halo, the silver halo and the hideous Disney mix of periwinkle and pinstripes.

The Angels and their fans celebrate him. In his heyday, he skipped free agency twice rather than abandon his flailing franchise to play for a winner. When he signed his first big contract, he skipped the announcement and went home to mow his lawn.

He bought out a section of right field for years, dubbed it "The Fish Bowl," and donated 300,000 tickets to charities and youth groups. He and his wife Marci befriended troubled children in two Orange County group homes, sharing their Christian faith, impressing a sense of responsibility and community on those kids, and on their own kids.

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