|Sunday, October 27
Angels prove that dreams can come true
By Jayson Stark
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If they'd just had the bad sense to listen to their commissioner, the Anaheim Angels would have known they had no business dreaming this crazy dream.
Teams like this team weren't supposed to be passing the World Series trophy around their champagne-drenched locker room on an insane Sunday night in October. Teams like this team were supposed to have no chance. Remember?
They were supposed to go to spring training knowing they had no more shot at winning the World Series than the Portland Sea Dogs.
The Yankees were supposed to go to the World Series. The Braves were supposed to go to the World Series. And teams that finished 41 games out of first place last year -- and then forgot to sign Jason Giambi -- were supposed to represent everything that was wrong with baseball. Oops.
So wasn't it just perfect that the commish himself had to hand that trophy to the team that had no chance Sunday night, after a 4-1 Game 7 win over the San Francisco Giants in a once-dead ballpark that now quivers with magic?
"What can he say now?" wondered Bengie Molina, a man who could still hear that Bud Selig rendition of the No-Chance Blues in his head Sunday night. "When people say something like that to us, it just makes us stronger. It just makes us believe more and more we can do it. That's why we never talk. We always do our talking on the field."
Sunday, they spoke with their own brand of eloquence one final time. They'd saved their season the night before with their greatest Houdini act ever. And that brought them to Game 7 of the World Series, the most amazing baseball night of any year.
"I remember watching that game last year in Arizona," Molina said. "And I said to my friends, 'Man, I want to be there one day.' And look what happened -- the next year."
What happened? What happened was one final game right out of the Anaheim Angels "How We Did It" documentary.
In the seventh game of the World Series, it's supposed to be a bad thing when the other team takes the lead. But that's another popularly held baseball belief the Angels never seemed to get wind of.
"I wanted that team to score first," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher admitted, "because this team always seems to play better when the other team scores first. When they scored first, I turned to (fellow coach) Joe Maddon and said, 'That's a good sign.' "
"We like them to get the lead first," leadoff live wire David Eckstein said. "That just gets us more focused."
So one strike from being retired 1-2-3 in the bottom of the second, the Angels found life when Scott Spiezio walked. Four pitches later, Molina doubled him home.
"That's a moment," Molina said, "that will never come out of my mind. Forever."
The Angels loaded the bases with nobody out in the third. Then Anderson sliced a two-iron off Livan Hernandez into the right-field corner to empty those bases. And if there has ever been a more raucous place in America than Edison Field was at that instant, you'll need to provide videotape and 75 witnesses to prove it.
"That was perfect," said Darin Erstad, whose 25 hits this October tied the new-generation postseason record. "All season, Garret was our most consistent guy, the guy who always got us the big hit. We just set the table for him, and he did it again tonight."
No World Series winner has ever gotten as many innings out of rookie pitchers as the Angels got in this World Series -- 30 1/3 of them. But the five they got after Anderson gave them that 4-1 lead were every bit as important to this team as the 8 2/3 innings Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson donated to the Diamondbacks' cause in the last Game 7.
Lackey became the first rookie to win a Game 7 in 93 years (since Babe Adams in 1909) -- and the first starter of any variety to win a Game 7 on three days' rest since Jack Morris did it on an indelible Sunday evening in 1991.
Donnelly then blitzed through a two-inning stint that included a pop-up of Barry Bonds, completing the final mile of a journey that has taken him through seven major-league organizations and two independent leagues.
And then it was Rodriguez's turn. One day after throwing 46 pitches -- one of which Bonds conked halfway to Eureka -- Rodriguez came back and struck out the side (around a judicious walk to Bonds).
We know one thing: If you'd told the Angels this spring they would win Game 7 of the World Series, not one of them would have bet that eight of the nine innings of that Game 7 would be thrown by John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly and Frankie Rodriguez.
"No, if you'd told me that in spring training," said pitching coach Bud Black, "I'd have said, well, Jarrod Washburn starts Game 7. I wouldn't have figured on this."
"Nothing out of the ordinary there," Erstad laughed, after Percival let two of the first three Giants to bat in the ninth reach base. "I've been playing behind Percy a long time. He puts guys on. Then he bears down and gets nasty. But I've always said there's nobody I'd ever want out there in that situation more than him."
But wait. This was the Angels, a team trying to wipe out more ghosts than Bill Murray. With two on and one out in the ninth, after a nutty World Series like this, with those ghosts trying to swoop back into the box seats, it was easy to think crazy thoughts.
"I started to think about what happened in the ninth inning of Game 7 last year," said the Giants' Rich Aurilia. "The Diamondbacks gave up the lead, too. Then they came back against the best closer in the American League and scored two runs in the ninth. When we got those two runners on, I started thinking that could be us."
"I'll admit it," said Tim Salmon, the Angel who has seen it all. "I was sweating. I'm on the bench by then (for a defensive replacement). And all of a sudden, they've got something going and I can't do anything about it. I'm just praying there, saying, 'Please, Lord. Help me relax.' The tension in the air right then was so thick, it was unbelievable."
But Percival reached back for a much-needed 96-mile-an-hour bolt of lightning and struck out Tsuyoshi Shinjo for the second out. Shinjo turned and trudged back to the dugout, handing his bat to little Darren Baker, who dragged it sadly to the bat rack.
So this was it. Two outs. Two on. The tying run at the plate in the hands of Kenny Lofton, the man who had driven in the run that won the NLCS in a very similar spot.
Lofton had swung at Steve Kline's first pitch in that game. He hacked at Troy Percival's first pitch in this game -- and launched a fly ball into the Edison ozone that hung there in the night, 44,000 pairs of eyes transfixed on its flight pattern.
"I thought it had a chance," Aurilia said, the hope still in his voice.
"I'm an optimist," said Erstad, who began to track it into deep right-center. "I never think that way."
"I never thought it was out, because I was catching, and I heard it," Molina said. "The way it sounded off the bat, it never sounded very good."
Erstad settled himself in a spot 10 feet in front of the warning track. He could see one white, rotating baseball -- and 41 years of tragicomic Angels history -- heading right for him.
"I remember saying to myself, 'This is the hardest catch I've ever made,' " Erstad said later, soaked in champagne. "I said, 'Just use two hands like your dad taught you.' "
Molina started to run to the mound, where Percival had turned to watch. It was one of those moments when the earth seemed to forget to keep spinning.
"I'm just waiting for that ball to come down," Molina moaned. "It felt like it was up there a half-hour. I just wanted to hug Percy, but the ball wouldn't come down."
And then Erstad made a waving motion with both hands -- a motion that told them all, "You can breathe again. I'm going to catch this baby."
"I did that?" he said afterward. "I didn't even know I did it."
But everyone else saw it. In fact, they'll never forget it.
"He waved his arms," Molina said, "and everyone went crazy."
All those customers in their red shirts let out a human sonic boom. Percival pumped his fists into the sky. The baseball settled into Erstad's glove. And the Anaheim Angels -- the team that had no chance -- had won the World Series. Who'd have thunk it?
Right fielder Alex Ochoa wrapped Erstad into a giant hug. Fireworks shot out of the rock pile. Red and white streamers floated out of the rafters. Angels were running in every direction. Bengie Molina tried to jump into Percival's arms.
"I went into his arms, and then I went right out," Molina laughed. "I know I'm so heavy, he couldn't handle it."
For that matter, could any of them handle it? A year ago this time, they'd just finished more games out of first than the Devil Rays. And here they were ... champions?
"I started reflecting on all the great clubs that could have been here, but they're not, and we are," Salmon said, almost incredulous. "The Mariners and the A's and the Yankees and the Twins. You want to tell people, 'You don't realize how hard it is to get here.' And nobody knows that like I do. You want to stand here and say, 'We'll be back next year.' But heck, it took me 11 years. Come on."
Yeah, come on. Who'd believe they were here this year, let alone next year? They were 41 stinkin' games out of first last year -- 41. The last team to make that kind of turnaround was the 1898-1899 Brooklyn Bridegrooms. And these Angels were the first team since the 1912 Red Sox to win it all without having one player who had ever played for a World Series winner.
"I don't know how you explain that," Black said. "Especially because we were bringing basically the same group back. It wasn't like we made major changes. We brought in a couple of starting pitchers (Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier, neither of whom won a postseason game) and Brad Fullmer. Beyond that, it was basically the same core."
But they were managed by Mike Scioscia, a man who had once done this as a player. And their hitting coach was Hatcher, a man who had once done this. And their pitching coach was Black, a man who also had once done this. And when they saw the pieces start to fit together, these Angels began to believe in miracles.
They were a team that didn't fit into this age of big flies and big swings. They poked those line drives. They ran the bases like the Olympic 400-meter relay team. They led the world in foul balls. And they saw what was possible if you just pieced together so many little things until they grew bigger than everyone and everything around them.
"I really think everyone started to believe back in spring training," Erstad said. "Guys kind of looked around and said, 'Hey, we've got a pretty good team here.' We just developed this attitude, and we kind of fed off that. Scioscia creates a real good atmosphere. And that atmosphere and a little success breeds momentum. This team's been through so much, we just said, 'Enough's enough.' "
But it wasn't until that last fly ball settled into Erstad's glove that enough was officially enough. And if you know anything about the 41 years that led up to that fly ball, you understand why these were the happiest men on the planet when it came down.
"Look," Salmon said two hours later, pulling up his championship tee-shirt. "I've still got my uniform on. I don't want to leave. I want to hang on to this moment."
And who could blame him? Moments fade. But trophies are forever. Just ask the team that got to accept one Sunday from the commissioner who told us this dream could never come true.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.