Opening Day (April 1, 2013) is 71 days away. We are counting down the 100 Walk Off Home Runs in Angels franchise history. Today we look at #71, a Darin Erstad solo shot in extras early in the tumultuous 1999 season...
April 26, 1999 - On opening day a few weeks earlier, the stadium roared with anticipation during the player introductions. Free Agent Mo Vaughn had signed with the Angels for over $80 Million and the free agent buzz that had been so familiar in Anaheim from the mid-1970s thru the last half of the '80s was back. The Angels had signed the power bat of the offseason to take them to the postseason for the first time since 1986. General Manager Bill Bavasi had put all his eggs in Mo's basket.
While attempting to field a popup on the second batter of the top of the first inning, Vaughn strayed toward the visitors' dugout. Do you ever wonder why the Angels have that long railing in front of their dugouts? Did you always think they were there? They were actually installed in 1999. Problem is, they were installed after the season had begun, after Vaughn had fallen into the dugout and severely sprained his ankle.
Vaughn was DHing during this Monday night game. In a few months, his teammates would pile onto the disabled list, the team would sink in the standings, regulars would be traded at the deadline and Vaughn would step up and be the team leader... not in the clubhouse to help get the most out of his teammates, no, he would be the leader in a mutiny against manager Terry Collins. When there was a bench-clearing brawl, where was Vaughn to be found, back in the dugout, watching 24 teammates take care of business.
Despite his injury in 1999 and a torn bicep that caused him to miss all of the 2001 season, Mo Vaughn put up great numbers as an Angel in 99 and especially a full season in 2000 - in 300 total games with the team, he hit 69 home runs and accrued an OPS+ of 117 - higher than what Reggie Jackson totaled in his 687 games under the halo. He ended up the most hated Angel among fans of the team this side of Jose Guillen. When he was traded to the Mets for Kevin Appier prior to the 2002 season, he went off on a tirade at the Angels with the memorable quote "I don't see any friggin' flags flyin' at Edison Field". A month after his mutiny in 1999, Terry Collins was fired. The GM who signed Vaughn, Bill Bavasi, was let go as well.
Meanwhile, the Angels had amongst them a player who was the antithesis of everything Mo Vaughn stood for and came to represent. Where Mo Vaughn lamented the lack of an East Coast glamor to all things Anaheim, this player was from such humble roots that Anaheim was about as big city as he could handle. Where Mo Vaughn was all about hitting for power out of the cleanup spot, this player happily advanced runners, bunted, ran the bases as if his life depended on it and excelled in the field defensively. While Mo Vaughn had aches, pains, excuses and a me-first attitude, this player came to epitomize the team first ethos that makes believers out of fans and team mates alike. Mo Vaughn was a flashy free agent signing, this player was drafted and worked his way up through the minor leagues.
The anti-Mo was of course Darin Erstad. While Mo Vaughn came to epitomize everything that a baseball player should not be, Darin Erstad forged a legacy of what it meant to be a team player. Mo Vaughn was gone but a season when Erstad made the Game Seven catch that led to the friggin flag flyin forever over the Angels home stadium.
In the bottom of the fifth inning on April 26, 1999 Mo Vaughn broke a scoreless pitchers duel between Toronto's Chris Carpenter and the Angels Chuck Finley with a single to bring in shortstop Jeff Huson. The Blue Jays made 3-2 in the top of the seventh and chased Finley from the game but Vaughn doubled home Randy Velarde to tie it at 3 in the bottom of the inning.
Scot Schoeneweis pitched a scoreless eighth, ninth and tenth inning. Peter Munro matched him, setting down Angel after Angel. One-dimensional Mo Vaughn had been taken out for a pinch runner back in the seventh and his replacement, Tim Unroe, struck out in the bottom of the ninth. Troy Percival took the mound in the top of the eleventh. He walked Tony Fernandez, who then stole second base, but Percy got out of it.
The Jays brought in Nerio Rodriguez to pitch the bottom of the eleventh. He threw nary a pitch, as Darin Erstad hit an 0-1 fastball deep into the left field bleachers to end the game, to give hope to a suddenly scary season, to extend that hope for a little while as it soon all collapsed, fifteen players on the disabled list, Terry Collins ineffective and then scorned, Randy Velarde and Omar Olivares traded for prospects, Collins fired, the team getting no-hit by Eric Milton (who?) in Minnesota, just the whole sad tale of no Angels player or fan ever wanting to party like its 1999.
The final score was Angels 4 - Blue Jays 3 ...and the player who most embodied what it means to be part of a team was around in the end to make a difference. Darin Erstad, the #1 pick in the 1995 draft, the only player to win a Gold Glove in the outfield and infield, the only player to drive in 100 runs in a season form the leadoff spot. Darin Erstad walked off on this night, but he never walked out on his team, ever.
Oh and one last thought - I looked it up on Baseball Reference Dotcom - Mo Vaughn ended his career with 24.5 Wins Above Replacement. Darin Erstad? 29.8 career WAR.