B y T o m D a n e h y
WHEN THE CALIFORNIA Angels began their freefall into infamy last month, sportswriters scrambled to find comparisons. Some saw the 1964 Phillies, who blew a 6 1/2 game lead with 10 to go. Others recalled the '69 Cubs, who went from nine games up to eight games down in about the time it takes Harry Carey to clear his throat (and even though Harry's the Incredible Human Phlegm Machine, that's still not a whole long time.) Still others took us back through the travails of the '78 Red Sox.
For better or worse, the Angels always remind me of my Dad.
That poor dude was the all-time Angels fan, a fact which caused me no small humiliation during my formative years. I mean, here I am, growing up in L.A. in the '60s; the Dodgers are loaded with Koufax, Drysdale, Wills and the Davises. And all my Dad can talk about is Steve Bilko, Bo Belinsky and Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner.
While other '60s families had to contend with generation gap issues involving the Vietnam War, drug use and sexual promiscuity, I had to try to explain to my father the difference between professional athletes and those guys who played in Anaheim.
We used to drive down to Anaheim to see Angels games, bizarre masochistic rituals witnessed by blasé throngs of subdivision people. The games were held in a county named for a fruit, a place which had a world-famous tourist attraction and somehow managed to have a political climate on the cold side of Genghis Khan. In a way, there's something very California about that. But it's not very L.A.
You see, L.A. was, is and always will be a Dodger town. Even though the Angels arrived in Southern California a mere three years after the Dodgers, they will always be looked upon as interlopers. Besides, Dodger games were cool--wild, raucous affairs with an exciting product on the field and a fan base that was fairly representative of the ethnic mix in the L.A. basin.
Dodger Stadium still draws a far more diverse crowd than does Anaheim Stadium. Why, the Dodgers even have something called Hispanic Family Night (although, as my friend Pedro Fajardo points out, anybody who has ever been to a Dodger game knows that every night is Hispanic Family Night at Dodger Stadium.)
I tried to explain to Dad that Dodger fans were real people--blue-collar, hard-working, fun-loving folks. On the other hand, I used to see people wearing TIES at Angels games! They all looked like D-FENS, the character Michael Douglas played in Falling Down.
I used to be amazed when I'd read in the paper that the Angels had drawn a crowd which had five digits in the number. I had the same feeling last year when I read that Fife Symington had carried Pima County. Obviously, there are a lot of THEM out there, but I can honestly say I don't know one person who voted for that guy. Likewise, I didn't know one person who went to Angels games. Of course, I wasn't willing to risk the humiliation by asking.
But my Dad would have none of it. The Angels were his team and he was going to stick with them. I remember July 4, 1962, the day the Angels moved into first place in the 10-team, single-division American League. They were only a second-year expansion team at the time, and it really was quite an accomplishment. If my Dad could have frozen a moment in time, that would have been it. He even kept the L.A. Times sports page with the trumpeting headline, "Heaven Can Wait! Angels In First."
Of course, they slipped out of first the next day, but managed to remain in contention until the end of the season, staying just close enough to the top to break the hearts of all their fans--a pattern which continues today, a third of a century later.
They had that almost-dream season despite having a lineup full of castoffs and Class AA players. Their center fielder, Albie Pearson, was so small he used to get beat up by jockeys in bar fights. At the other end of the Angels spectrum, their first baseman, Steve Bilko, looked like he'd swallowed Albie Pearson whole, and was only slightly more mobile than Babe Ruth, who at the time, had been dead for 15 years.
After that, my Dad was hooked. He would suffer through one mediocre Angels season after another, and, as loving fathers are wont to do, he made me suffer along with him.
He even bought me an Angels cap, the ultimate test of familial loyalty. Should I wear it and risk getting the crap kicked out of me, or should I hide it and risk hurting his feelings? I used to wear it around the house a lot and when we went to ballgames, but after 11 years, there still wasn't a speck of dust on it. He probably thought I was going to grow up to be an interior decorator or something.
He stayed loyal the rest of his life. The Angels finally made the playoffs in 1979, but of course they lost. In 1983, they did the near-impossible by winning the first two games of a best-of-five playoff series and then blowing the next three to miss the World Series.
My dad died in July of 1986. The Angels had been in first place all year. I remember watching Game Five of the then best-of-seven playoff series. The Angels had a 3-1 lead in games and a two-run lead in the ninth inning. They were only a couple outs away from the World Series. I felt bad that my Dad would miss it.
For that one brief moment I forgot these were the Angels. They gave up a home run, blew a great chance to win it in the bottom of the ninth, then lost in extra innings. Boston won the last three games of the series and the Angels were the Angels.
A few years ago, the Angels became the only team in history to play .500 ball and still finish in last place. And now, there's this season, wherein they blew a 13-game lead in six weeks, going 8-26 at one stretch. My Dad would've loved it.
'Course, I like to think he's looking down at what's going on. It's like that old Marine saying, "When I die, I'm going to Heaven because I've served my time in Hell." He was devoted to the Angels down here, so now he gets to hang out with the real ones.
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