|Angels fans search for ultimate victory|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Editor's note: The occasional earthquake, wild fire and public power crisis notwithstanding, people from California will pretty routinely tell you it is the best place in the country to live.
Beautiful Pacific Ocean views, dazzling cultural diversity and ridiculously good weather notwithstanding, folks from everywhere else are sometimes quick to run the golden state down.
But if we're talking baseball in the late summer and fall of 2002, there really isn't any debate; California is the place to be. The Angels, A's, Dodgers and Giants are all in the hunt heading into the last three weeks of the season -- even fighting each other for potential playoff spots.
We asked our man in Cali, Eric Neel, to keep a close eye on the doings out West by keeping a daily California baseball diary.
Tuesday, Sept. 10
Status: The Giants and Dodgers are tied for second place in the NL West and tied for the lead in the NL wild-card race (82-61). The Athletics are 3 games up on the Angels in the AL West, and the Angels lead the AL wild-card race by 4 over Seattle.
Giants fans are loyal, and they have that peculiar L.A. loathing going for them, so they get a good rabid lather going at a time like this. Dodgers fans (despite what Skip Caray says about them) are schooled in the old ways and loyal to a fault. (They're sometimes cool, but they never waver -- call it the Vin Scully factor.) Your typical A's fan brings a little blue-collar love and anger to the park every night; he's righteous and rowdy.
But make no mistake, there is only one kind of fan worth being right now and that's an Angels fan.
It's simple, really: Giants, Dodgers and A's fans can summon stories and memories of past championship glory. They can talk Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson and Vida Blue. They can believe in their teams. On those cold, dark nights of doubt and despair, they can console themselves with the knowledge that good things have happened before and convince themselves that those things are the evidence, and the promise, of future glory.
The Angels and their fans, by contrast, have no world championships; they have never even been to a World Series. Their limited postseason history is full of brutal heartbreak and anguish. All their "Yes We Can" euphoria evaporated like it was never there in Baltimore in '79. In 1982, they were up 2-0 on Milwaukee only to lose three straight. In '86, Donnie Moore threw ... I'm not even going to get into it, because I have close friends who are Angels diehards, and just invoking that day does harm to their hearts. And in 1995, they were on the losing end of the Mariners' first run to the playoffs, after blowing an 12½-game lead over Seattle in the last six weeks of the season.
Angels fans are wounded souls. They know nothing of the sweet grape of ultimate victory. They can't leaf through their scrapbooks and recall the giddy days when Anaheim was title town. They can't gather at the feet of their elders and soak up the stories that would sustain them. They can't gaze out past the center-field wall and spy a world championship pennant, flying stiff and proud in the wind.
Which means that Angels fans' devotion is utter, pure; it does not lean on the easy proof of past glory, but flies blind and brave in the face of doubt and discouragement. The Angels fan holds on to the stuff of hope. He clings, as the Apostle Paul once said, to the "evidence of things not seen." He does not believe in his team; he has faith in them.
Right now, as I write this, in the moments after their team has lost the first game of this four-game series to the A's and fallen three games back in the standings, the demons of doubt are gathering around Angels fans, who are thinking of September 1985 and losing three out of four to the Royals.
At home alone in a studio apartment just blocks from Edison Field, a man who bought season tickets from the Singing Cowboy back in 1960, and hasn't missed a home game since, is quietly, desperately, digging his fingernails into the arms of his barcalounger, trying to fend off the coming of the darkness.
On a tree-lined street in Long Beach, a man and his son are pulling into the driveway after a silent drive home from the ballpark. The father turns off the engine and stares straight forward, the son puts his feet on the dash and rocks back and forth ever so slightly.
They are staring into the abyss, steeling themselves for the possibility of yet another fall collapse.
But tonight, as they have for years now, Angels fans somehow manage to stare down the meanies and gather themselves for tomorrow. They walk by faith. They rise above.
The old man in Anaheim starts to whisper something ... it's a classic line, poetic ...
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers ..."
It's the St. Crispin's Day speech, from Shakespeare's "Henry V," the one Henry gives to stir his rag-tag troops into an impossible fight against the great and powerful French army.
Miraculously, the father and son in Long Beach hear him and they pick up the thread ...
"... for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother ..."
And now, driveway by driveway and block by block, it's a chorus, rising up all over the southland. Boys and girls are saying it before bed like a prayer, night watchmen and residents working the late shift at the hospital say it as they make their rounds. Cabbies and cops say it to each other as though it were a secret password.
"... and gentlemen in England now a-bed," they say, "shall think themselves accursed they were not here."
Every one of them is willing to risk looking like a fool. Each of them is ready to scorn convention and history. Their profession is perhaps absurd, but it is undeniably bold and great.
In the end, Angels fans know they may have to endure another painful collapse, but nevertheless they hold fast. Theirs is a glorious and stirring faith. It is the height of the form, the Platonic ideal, the essence of rooting. Any other brand of fandom, no matter how intense or enduring, no matter how true, is cheap by comparison.
Monday, Sept. 9
It was the sort of situation the A's have survived a lot more often than not during their insane run these last few weeks. And as it turned out, they survived this one too, because Zito struck out Hunter on a high outside fastball and then took down Bobby Kielty on a 3-2 curveball to get out of the inning.
The pitch to Hunter was impressive -- looking sweet and hittable before climbing up and away -- but the pitch to Kielty was a killer. It was a Zito curve, a wicked, diving, shooting-star-across-the-night-sky thing. It hung in the air forever. Didn't look anything like a strike until it was in the catcher's glove. For most of the 60-odd feet to the plate it was ball four, just wagging and floating out there somewhere way left of the plate.
Zito's ball has so much drama in it. It moves so quickly from the grotesque to the sublime. It's comical, then it's beautiful. It's ball four and the bases are loaded, then it's strike three and the A's are out of the inning and the Twins don't threaten the rest of the way.
As I watched the pitch (and watched it again six or seven times on tape), I got to thinking about thin margins of error and about how, as hot as the A's have been, the pennant race is still so incredibly, blissfully up in the air right now. I thought about how Zito's pitch was all the more amazing because it might have missed. The inning might have gotten away from him and the A's might have headed into Anaheim tonight up only 1 game on the Angels, instead of 2.
Oakland has won 22 of 23 and managed no more than a two-game lead on Anaheim, which has taken 10 straight of its own. So much depends now, so much is uncertain and unpredictable, hanging in the balance, hanging on some barely perceptible point on the arc of a curveball, waiting to bend just right or not enough for one team or the other.
Some of how things end up will be determined by skill, some of it will be luck, and some of it will be strategy. When it's over, when one team or the other has taken the title, we'll come up with stories and theories about how and why the playoff race broke the way it did. In the meantime, though, over these next three weeks, we'll be treated to the good stuff, the tortuous twists of fate from pitch to pitch and inning to inning, the anxious energy that surrounds every play. Things are so tight now between the Angels and A's (and the Dodgers and Giants) that almost every little action and reaction will matter ... but how? and when? and why?
It's sweet torture now. You want and wish and hope against hope. You fear and dread and cringe and pray. You care at the most basic levels, in the deepest channels.
Zito's ball bends and tumbles and you are right there with it, every uncertain inch of the way.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.