Longtime HH lurker and occasional commenter here.
The 2002 World Series had a deep impact on me -- it reminded me I was actually a baseball fan, which I had forgotten. So, after it was over, I wrote a story about my experience, which I never published or made public. Until now. (Though I did give Mike Scioscia and Scot Shields each a copy in Tempe. They're cool guys.) Apologies to Rev and anyone offended by snarky asides about religion and politics, or by baseball ignorance, or by general urbanite snobbery; I could have updated and sanitized things, but decided to leave the essay in its final form from ten years ago.
MY WORLD SERIES
Baseball was waiting for me right where I left it.
by Ivan Drucker
I: The Angels
The Anaheim Angels have won their first World Series, and so have I. Against the odds suggested by historic failure and present-day underfunding, a small-fry team from California vanquished the mighty New York Yankees, the defiant Minnesota Twins, and finally the longing San Francisco Giants to earn Major League Baseball’s highest yearly honor. And I was a part of it.
I wasn’t really a part of it, of course, at least no more so than any other fan is a part of their chosen team’s triumphs and failures, and probably quite a bit less. I didn’t follow the Angels all season; I only tuned in at the end. But not just the end of the season -- the end of twenty seasons. After a twenty-year hiatus, during which I declared a lack of interest in baseball generally and the Angels particularly, I jumped back on the train I had jumped off of in 1982.
That train had derailed badly. The Angels should have gone to the World Series that year, but instead they went nowhere. After being up two games to none in a best-of-five against the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League playoffs, the Angels went on to lose the next three games while I watched tearfully from a hospital bed. I was only twelve years old, but I knew that a sacred baseball rule had been violated: you don’t let down kids in hospital beds. The Angels had failed me in a unique and special way. I’d had enough.
When I reboarded the Angels train this year, I discovered that it was new and different: sleek, smooth, running on time, and confidently heading towards its rightful destination, the World Series championship. The journey made me an Angels fan once again. It took a victory from my hopeless team to once again feel baseball surging through my veins. Baseball was waiting for me right where I left it.
I grew up in Los Angeles, which meant that being an Angels fan was a lonely experience, as I never knew another with whom to share a fan’s passions, joys and pains. Angelenos are Dodgers fans, with little variance, unlike New Yorkers or Chicagoans, whose hometowns are represented by multiple teams. I selected the Angels because my father, a New York expat, was a Yankees fan and Dodgers hater from childhood. I inherited his passions, including enmity towards his ex-Brooklyn rivals. The California Angels, as they were then called, were the next closest team to ally myself with. I was formally introduced to them via a Topps baseball card, and I immediately liked the name and the logo, a red "A" crowned with a halo.
I invested myself in the team with the heavenly pretentions and dove deeply into baseball with the energy that only a child has. I hit balls in my backyard, and whiled away summer days by creating my own virtual ballgames with Strat-o-Matic, a dice-and-cards baseball simulation based upon actual player statistics. I played in local leagues for two years, where I was hampered by insecurity and inexperience, but I was proud to say that I was on a baseball team.
The Angels of the 1970’s weren’t a bad team, exactly, but they weren’t good either. They acquired lights who never shined quite as brightly once they were playing in Anaheim: Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Nolan Ryan. All the same, the team excited me, and I came home every day from school to listen to Don Drysdale report the play-by-play on the radio, and I kept track of each game on improvised scorecharts made of shirtboard. I checked the baseball standings and read every Angels article in the Los Angeles Times, impatiently awaiting its delivery at 5:00 AM each morning. I collected baseball cards as my dad had done 30 years prior, and on special occasions we drove the hour south to Anaheim Stadium to perform the great father-son ritual of attending a ballgame. I can’t say if the Angels were my heroes, but there was no question that they were my team.
In the fall of 1982, when I was twelve years old, the Angels won their Division Title, separating them from the World Series by a mere three victories in the American League playoffs. They won the first two games of the best-of-five, meaning all they had to do was win one of the next three. I was utterly confident that my team was about to give me something to be very proud of.
Unfortunately, I had to watch the rest of the playoff games while interned at the UCLA Medical Center, which I had entered the previous evening in the storm of an asthma attack. I peered around the IV tubing, ready for the Halos to make me feel better. But they lost that night. I couldn’t believe it. Then they lost again the following night, and the series was tied, two games to two. Were they trying to kill me? My lungs were starting to open, yet I felt even worse. The next evening, I suffered the awful final game alone, in my darkened room, visiting hours having concluded long before the final inning. The Angels lost, for the third and final time. No one saw my tears until a nurse mercifully appeared with a sleeping pill. I was discharged from the hospital the next day, and I didn’t look back. My team had broken my heart, and I had no use for them or the game they played. My Angels cap went into the closet.
I am not sure that the Angels’ galling loss in 1982 was the only reason for my decreasing interest in them. After all, since I had hitched myself onto their wagon, they had won their division for the first two times since they were founded in 1961. I knew nothing of the pain that Chicago Cubs fans have resigned themselves to after 94 winless years. But I am sure, as I began to navigate the rocky straits of teendom, that the altering consciousness (and self-consciousness) of adolescence left little room in my life for as trivial a pursuit as baseball. As my family began to splinter and fragment, what room did I have for something so emblematic of childhood innocence? Really, what could be more stupid than being a baseball fan?
The Angels, for their part, went through various mutations which only served to further distance me from them. In the early 1990’s, they (perhaps understandably) redesigned their 70’s-era uniforms. There was less red, more blue, and the halo was downplayed, a small detail in a redesigned logo introducing a "C" onto which the "A" was hooked. Only this year did I discover that this was a throwback to their late-sixties look, but had I known, I wouldn’t have cared; I wasn’t interested in the team anyway, and now I didn’t even recognize them. This uniform was nowhere near as bad, however, as the late-nineties redesign which came with the Disney purchase of the team from founder Gene Autry’s widow, Jackie. The alien blue became dominant, and pinstripes appeared. (A California team with pinstripes?) The cartoonish new logo had no halo at all, but, instead, wings attached to the first letter, creating a double A.
The double A reflected the team’s new name, the Anaheim Angels, and with this, after years of estrangement, the divorce was final. I’m not from Anaheim; Anaheim is the heart of the conservative cultural wasteland known as Orange County, sneered at and rarely entered without good reason by us liberal sophisticates an hour north. The truth is that Anaheim doesn’t look vastly different than a lot of Los Angeles, and without signs a visitor would have a hard time telling where Los Angeles County stops and Orange County begins. But that didn’t matter. The Angels were openly behind the Orange Curtain, and I wanted no part of them.
II: The Yankees
In 1994, I visited New York for a week following my graduation from college, and the city left a deep impression on me. It seemed to have no bounds, and the throbbing human energy made my heart beat faster. I made it a goal to live in Manhattan; it suited me. Even in California people would ask me if I was from New York, which I can perhaps attribute to my parents’ New Yorkness, or my own Jewishness. When I arrived in the big city from the Bay Area four years later, I had little trouble adapting; I slipped right in, and claimed myself a New Yorker. Finally, a place where you can never wear too much black.
At the time, New York was revelling in the height of Yankees dominance, but I didn’t care much. Baseball was some relic from childhood. Despite this, I still enjoyed the passion that my neighbors had for the game. The brilliant and not-so-brilliant clichés pronounced by the back pages of the Post and the Daily News were part of my New York experience. The roots of interest and affiliation were there enough for me to enjoy the experience of being among fans, if not exactly live in their world. After all, my dad was a Yankee and my Mom was a Met. I still wonder if this was my parents’ fatal mismatch.
My girlfriend Caroline is one baseball fan whose passion rubbed off on me, despite my indifference to the sport. I accompanied her to Yankee Stadium several times a year, and these visits seeded my eventual re-entry into the house of baseball. Watching a great, charismatic team play at the peak of their powers had a healing effect, and gradually softened me to the idea that baseball could at least be occasionally entertaining. We watched the playoffs and World Series together each year, and last year I was even interested enough to watch when Caroline wasn’t around. While in midair, we listened to the end of the 2001 World Series, which the pilot was kind enough to pipe into one of the channels, and together we heard the Yanks tragically lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the final moments of the seventh game. We shared the disappointment.
One day this year, Caroline and I were watching the Yankees play the Angels on television during a regular-season game. I expected to root for the Yankees; the Anaheim Angels were just another team to me at this point. And yet, as I watched, I saw something in the Angels that struck a deep and long-forgotten chord.
The halo was back.
The Angels had redesigned their uniforms again. There was not a trace of blue; they were redder than they had ever been. And their logo was, once again, a large "A," proud and alone, crowned with a halo. I recognized this team. Much to my surprise, as I watched the game, I found myself rooting for them. The twelve-year-old fan was ready and waiting, after all these years, to cheer for the Angels again. They had come back to me, and I to them.
Two weeks later, Caroline and I went to another Angels matchup at Yankee stadium. The Angels lost, but it hardly mattered. This was the first live baseball game that I had really engaged with since I was a kid. I didn’t exactly have the time of my life -- that was to come later in the year -- but for the first time in as long as I could remember, I appreciated the sport of baseball.
However, the sleeping fan hadn’t fully awakened. After the game, I forgot about the Angels. I’d been in the habit of ignoring baseball for twenty years, and I wasn’t about to change overnight. But when they made it to the playoffs for the first time since my adolescence, I felt called. Besides, in the first round of the postseason they were to play the Yankees, and I certainly wasn’t going to miss that.
And there they were, the Yankees, the heroic ballclub in the navy blue pinstripes, invincible even after their 2001 defeat, and I longed for nothing more than the Angels to squash them. It was time. I decided that the Angels were going to have their first postseason victory, and they were going to win it against the Bronx Bombers. If the Halos could do that for me, it would be enough. They could lose after that. I just needed them to win the American League Division Series.
Need? Why does any thinking person need a baseball team to win? Somehow, when your team wins, you feel like youwin, and here I was, a loser all these years. I needed to be a winner for once. All these New Yorkers, they take winning for granted, as though all these other teams hang around just so that once a year the Yankees can remind the world, in case it forgot, that New York’s residents are of a superior strain. I’d show them. I may be a New Yorker, but in October I was going to be a triumphant Californian.
The Angels played well in their first outing against the Yankees, but they were victims of an all-too-familiar Yankee comeback, and I thought it might be New York’s Series after all. Unlike every sports writer on the planet, I didn’t hold it against Angels manager Mike Scioscia that he didn’t bring in his ace relief pitcher, Troy Percival, in the eighth inning with two outs. Instead, Scioscia brought in rookie Brendan Donnelly, who then gave up the game-losing home run. I just shrugged and thought, "That’s how the Yankees win ballgames."
But then something amazing happened: the Angels stunned the Yankees, winning the three following games to take the best-of-five. They hit all over the ballpark; they moved runners like crazy. They made a joke out of the Yankees’ vaunted pitching staff. Time stopped. The universe warped. The Yankees looked dumb, seduced like every other New Yorker into assuming that victory, especially in this first round, was scripted.
My joy was all-consuming. It turns out that it is, in fact, never too late to have a happy childhood: you just need your long-maligned, anonymous baseball team to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs. I was a truly happy child. Happy in a simple, unweary, obvious way, something that I didn’t know was still available to grown-ups in Manhattan.
Not surprisingly, my neighbors didn’t share my elation. I would be naïve to think that it should be otherwise, but I was celebrating, and I thought that perhaps those around me could share some of their happiness from abundant past victories with someone who had never had one. But there was no question that Yankee fans felt deeply violated. The Angels had crossed some undeclared, forbidden boundary. Not only was this a California team, but this was a deeply bogus California team, from some shitty cultureless city on the outskirts of L.A. that no one could locate. This team didn’t have any roots in the east. They didn’t even have any players anyone had heard of. This was fake baseball.
Yet it was all too real. No one could bring himself to say that the Yankees simply failed their fans in the clutch, but everyone felt it. The Angels didn’t cheat the Yankees; the games weren’t flukes, unlike last year’s Game Seven. (When Mariano Rivera loses a game, it’s an accident.) When the Angels outhit, outpitch, and outdefend the Yankees in three successive games, you can’t fault them. They were simply the better team. The Yankees were defeated by their own complacency, their lack of hunger. The Angels were very, very hungry.
Within a couple of days, it seemed that Yankee fans had already converted their shock into angry numbness. I had no sympathy. Suck it up, pussies! How many trophies do you have? 326 or something? In contrast to the sulking around me, I was quite open and bubbly about my excitement for the Angels, and no doubt quite boring to anyone for whom baseball had died the previous week.
I think I underestimated how hurt New Yorkers felt to see their team go down so quickly. Last year, we all suffered an inestimable injury, and the Yankees’ failure to make us all feel better in its aftermath somehow made the pain worse. The bubbles of economic euphoria had popped and the markets were falling, failing. New York was wounded. We had the nation’s and the world’s compassion, for the first time ever, but stoicism and sympathy are hollow substitutes for triumph and envy. What did New York have to be proud of?
In the year that has unfolded, New York has, if not recovered, at least returned to normal; the flags have been put away, and we’re avoiding looking at each other on the street again. But it’s been a hard year for us and the rest of the country. We’re keenly aware that there are a lot of people who have the means to violently express their hatred towards us. Our corporate titans who paved the way through the boom have sold us out. Our unpopularly elected government, in the face of crisis, has succeeded only in making us feel less secure. Not only can’t we trust our public or private leaders to do the right thing, we can’t even trust them to do anything right. You emerge from the New York Times with your heart as black as your hands.
This is where the Yankees come in. The Yankees are a symbol for New York greatness, and we could all use a little of that as the cold winds of winter begin to blow. The Yankees are mighty and proud, clean-shaven and noble, and you can always count on them to pull it out when it counts the most, to give you hope when it all seems so bleak.
Or can you?
The Yankees finished the season with the best record in baseball, and they seemed well on their way to reclaiming what was rightfully theirs, rudely stolen from them the previous year by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Diamondwhats? Whatever. The Yankees’ supremacy was never seriously in doubt, just as New York’s supremacy was never seriously in doubt, just as America’s supremacy was never seriously in doubt . . . . The Yankees were going to make us feel good again. Come on, Jeter. Come on, Bernie. Come on, Pettite. Tell us it’s going to be all right.
It wasn’t all right. It was much wronger than last year. The Yankees creaked, groaned and finally collapsed before New York could even get revved up. A lot of people didn’t even watch the Division Series because victory was assumed, and then all of a sudden they had nothing to watch at all. It was going to be a cold, grey winter.
But, as the song says, no time for losers, and I was inviting anyone around me to take part in my joy, Yankee fan or otherwise. While my motivation may have been to share my happiness and shore up support for my team, it was foolish of me to not see that for some, my enthusiasm was rubbing salt in the wound, a reminder of a humiliation they would just as soon forget. There were those who shared my excitement, but I was stunned by the outright hostility of others. New Yorkers are not famous for wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and it was remarkable to witness the transformation of basic disappointment and hurt into unsolicited nastiness.
I experienced this most profoundly at a dinner party where I met a woman who impressed me and whom I enjoyed talking with -- at first. The conversation turned to baseball, and I’m sure I was responsible, as I was checking my cell phone every five minutes for the score of that evening’s bout with the Twins. Her contempt for the Angels was palpable; she was practically spitting upon speaking their name. "Aren’t they some crappy new team?" she seethed. I could only respond that they were ten years older than I was, which in retrospect probably did not further endear me to her. But I continued blithely along, relating my hospital bed story, sharing how much it meant to me to see the Angels winning after repeatedly seeing them come so close, only to fail . . . . And then, she fixed me with a steely gaze, and offered: "And they will again."
I was floored. Clearly this person had no real awareness of who the Angels were, and therefore she could not have had any strong feelings about them one way or the other as a team. Her only motivation could have been to hurt, and she admitted as much when I called her on it. I could partially understand her prejudice, if not her meanness. I admit that the four teams created since I first became a student of the game seem less "real" to me, despite two of them having won World Series titles. If every game is a reliving of one’s childhood, it makes sense that we would like it to stay as it was, secure and unchanging, free of the divorce of player trading and the new spouses of team expansion and the parental failure of a Yankees loss. This woman felt personally betrayed by the Yankees at the hands of an unwelcome imposter in the house of baseball, and she was taking it out on me, the imposter’s advocate.
Hers were not the only unkind words I received as I burbled about the Angels to my fellow New Yorkers. But why would Yankee fans want to admit their team got beaten to a supporter of the team who administered the beating? Wasn’t once enough? Didn’t the games speak for themselves? I couldn’t really blame them. But I could ignore them, and I was the richer for it.
III: The Twins and the Giants
It was time for the second round of playoffs, the American League Championship Series. As the name suggests, the winner would be declared the champion of the American League, and duel the champion of the National League in the World Series. This is where the Angels had failed three times before. They were to face the Minnesota Twins, another Cinderella story; before the season began, that team had been threatened with "contraction" (i.e. removal) from Major League Baseball due to low revenues, and now they had upended the heavily favored Oakland A’s in their Division Series. The Fox broadcasters tried to make the most of this unexpected matchup, but the network executives must have been reeling in horror. The Angels lost the first game, as they had to the Yankees. But then they won the next two games of the best-of-seven, and my excitement mounted as they looked ready to repeat their performance.
One thing that I loved about watching the Angels play was that their fans were berserk. They came to the ballpark in red red red, creating a uniform swath from home plate to the bleachers, an awesome and imposing sight. They were louder than hell. This was largely attributable to the much-derided Thunder Stix noisemakers the Angels provided, but you got a sense that even without them the crowd would have been deafening. They were screaming their fucking lungs out. This was not just entertainment for them; this was no mere baseball game. This was Something Big. This was a promise fulfilled, a betrayal made right, a calling of destiny. This was hunger and lust. You felt that the Angels fans were simply not going to let the Angels lose again. They would propel their team to victory by sheer force of will.
The fever had taken me over, and now I was berserk, screaming at the TV, right along with the crowd. I started to feel like I was part of something I had always wanted to be part of -- and yet, alone, far away. Even if I wanted to, where would I find an Angels fan with whom to share my excitement? I could hardly find any as a kid in Los Angeles. But I could see lots of Angels fans on TV -- they were wearing red, screaming and banging Thunder Stix together. Even the Stix themselves had the right idea: "Yes We Can!" they proclaimed, with the ‘A’ haloed, of course. The Yankees can’t say that, because everyone knows they can. The Twins can’t; even they have two World Series titles. But the Angels fans were singing the anthem of the forgotten and ignored, demanding to finally celebrate their first win in the face of historic indifference, to at last have their moment in the sun.
I wanted my moment in the sun! The Angels in the World Series! The dream, fulfilled! Who even cares if they win? Would it be too crazy for me to try to get World Series tickets? That would be pretty crazy. It’s not like I’m some guy who can name every Angel that’s ever played on the team. I didn’t even really get to know them until the postseason. Nah. I’m not entitled, it’s too far, it’s too expensive, it’s just too . . . crazy.
Well, maybe if I could somehow get tickets. It wasn’t just that I wanted to see the Angels play in the World Series; I wanted to be there with other Angels fans, sharing common hopes and desires, absurdly and yet very powerfully projected onto this eminently likable ballclub.
I asked my brother Max, who recently moved from San Francisco to the small Southern California coastal city of Santa Barbara, if he’d be available to go to a game. After taking a moment to swallow the idea that I was serious about this proposition, he agreed, though he warned me that if the Giants were in it, he’d be pulling for them. Now I really wanted to go. What could be better than vicariously defeating those closest to you?
I decided to go for it. I would buy the tickets online, when they went on sale the next day at 12:00 PM. As I watched the seconds tick slowly by, I waited with anticipation, ready to pounce. The moment arrived, and I clicked furiously, but I was clearly not the only person with this idea. I came up empty-handed. Oh well. Nice try. That’s that.
I couldn’t let it go. The thought nagged at me even as I tried to forget it. I furtively cruised eBay for tickets. I knew they would be expensive, but I was still surprised at the cost of a dream. After analyzing the postings of various merchants, I settled on a pair of seats for Game Two in the third row terrace at the left field foul pole for a price near the outer limit of my recalibrated scale. I took a deep breath, and clicked Buy It Now. I knew that I had just bought pure, unmitigated happiness. I never should have doubted.
Still, the Angels had yet to beat the Twins, and I didn’t have the tickets in my hands. I nervously watched the remaining games of the ALCS. In the fourth game, the Angels won again, putting them up three games to one. I trembled with excitement. Just one game from going to the World Series, the Angels and I. This was it. But they had been here before, in 1986, when they imploded with one out to go against the Boston Red Sox. And in 1982, when they let me down so cruelly. It was time to change their fate -- our fate.
Fingers crossed, I watched the fifth game of the ALCS, and the Angels fell behind early in the game. But then, almost as if to prove a point, the Angels rewrote their history in broad strokes. They came back to score ten runs in one inning, unarguably breaking the back of the plucky survivor. The Twins would have to settle for far more than anyone expected, which they should rightly be proud of. On the other hand, the Angels were not ready to settle at all; their part-time second baseman, Adam Kennedy, hit three home runs, becoming only the fifth player to ever do so in the postseason. Every Angels victory seemed to yield a new hero, and I admired them all. My team came through, at last! I was floating on air. We were actually going to the World Series. I didn’t believe it.
Nor did I believe that I would actually be going until I had the tickets in my hands. An eternity passed while I waited for them to arrive. It was the best kind of longing. When the envelope at last appeared, I wanted to show my tickets to the whole world, like a kid with a new toy. I was going to the World Series! I was going to live a dream. How often do you get to do that?
It was a dream fulfilled. My Angels, whom I left behind but who welcomed me back all the same, were now in the World Series. I never thought I would see the day, and if I did, I certainly didn’t think I would care. Was I ever wrong! I cared, and deeply. About baseball. What happened? What did it mean?
The National League Championship Series had not yet concluded, and I eagerly anticipated its resolution. The San Francisco Giants ultimately prevailed over the St. Louis Cardinals, and my opponent was known. It was going to be a California series, south versus north, a battle of my childhood home against my twentysomething home. How perfect.
I was delighted, naturally, but it seemed that for many New Yorkers, this matchup was offensive by its very nature. Both teams were from California, for god’s sake. Obviously, the sting of the Yankees’ loss had not yet worn off, but rarely did I encounter anyone who was straightforward about his hurt. When pride is wounded, New Yorkers fall back on snobbery, an old and comforting reflex.
So New York simply treated this postseason as if it weren’t happening, despite a tremendous amount of drama. The Giants had not won a Series since moving from the Polo Grounds 45 years ago, and featured a team of long-dedicated veterans, among them the arguably best hitter of all time, Barry Bonds. The Minnesota Twins had somehow dodged the scythe of "contraction" and then won both their division and the first round of playoffs, in the face of total indifference by their owner and one of the very lowest budgets in baseball. And the Angels, of course, had never been in a World Series at all, and they had exactly zero team members who had ever been in one, including a guy who held the current record among active players for most games played (1,388) without reaching the postseason. The playoffs and World Series were fantastic baseball, close, unpredictable, and full of bravura performances, debuts of hitherto-unknown heroes, and insane demonstrations of fan loyalty.
So what, New York had to say. My uncle declared that he would boycott an all-California World Series on general principle. Howard Stern stated that he simply didn’t care. Reporters dismissed the Angels’ noisy Thunder Stix and silly Rally Monkey and moved on to football; the New York Giants and Jets secured the back page of the Post and the amplitude modulations of WFAN. It is a kind of executive privilege available to any New Yorker, the right to dismiss the validity of any non-Yankees Series, rather than admit that their team got beat. It works; New Yorkers are pretty good at dismissing the validity of anything that isn’t from here. It’s part of what makes the city great.
As the days leading to Game One crept by, I realized how utterly captivated I had become by the game, in such a short time. Almost anyone who doesn’t know baseball will say it’s boring, and they have a point. Baseball is boring. It doesn’t have basketball’s fluid display of raw athleticism or football’s ritualized sex and violence. Baseball is little blips of action that occur between yawning gaps of guys standing around, and if you’re not actively concentrating on the game, you’ll miss it. If you’re not actively thinking about the game, you’ll be bored. But I wasn’t bored; I was in love with the mixture of strategy, psychology and ability that makes a great baseball game great. Spending this month with my team made it obvious to me how much there is to appreciate. I was reminded that this quirky sport is not about the action, but the suspense. When the pitcher faces the batter, it’s not about the strikeout or the home run, but about the duel itself.
And now I was ready for the Angels to duel the Giants. Despite my love for the Angels, I could feel the pull of my recent home, my first adult home. I could see the glittering San Francisco Bay with its gleaming bridges. I could hear the voices of my friends whom I left when I moved. Los Angeles (and certainly Anaheim) had nothing so vivid to offer me; even my parents had cleared out to find their own new homes. Where did my alliegance truly lie?
There was no question. I am an Angel. I never liked the Giants. They’re just so National League, like some variant of the Dodgers. I also had something of a grudge against them. While living in the Bay Area in 1997, when I could not have been any more uninterested in baseball, I made the mistake of accompanying my friend Brent, a Dodgers diehard, to a game with the Giants, their rivals. I didn’t really care who won -- even my childhood loathing of the Dodgers had faded -- but I love the experience of walking into a ballpark and seeing the green, green grass and the red dirt and the white chalk, so even though the game itself didn’t matter to me, I figured, why not? I had envisioned a take-me-out-to-the-ballgame kind of day, drinking beer, chatting and hanging out in the sun. What I didn’t anticipate was shivering in notoriously windy Candlestick Park for a five-hour, fifteen-inning, scoreless pitchfest, during which Brent was so emotionally engaged with the game that there was no hanging out to be had. A game like this can be considered great, but only if you are involved with it at a deep level, and it had been many, many years since I had been involved with any baseball game at all. For me, it was an endurance test. After that, I didn’t care if I ever went back.
And what’s so great about San Francisco anyway? It’s always freezing there. A beautiful day in Oakland, where I lived, could easily transform itself into Londonlike bleakness just by traversing the Bay Bridge. Moreover, even though I enjoyed the city and its inhabitants, I always felt there was an irritating pretentiousness about it, exacerbated in no small degree by being at the center of the wild 90’s. San Francisco was an ideal playground for twenty- and thirty-somethings from all over the country, myself included, but I was bothered by the many people there who believed they were very happening indeed just because they were now San Franciscans. They designated those not from "The City" as "the B and T crowd" without a hint of irony, apparently oblivious to both the phrase’s origins, and the fact that there are no T’s to speak of (well, one, but it hardly counts).
San Francisco is, in reality, a lovely medium-sized city with a slightly provincial mentality. Which is fine; it is just not the cosmopolitan center of the universe that its residents imagine it to be. One need only read its daily newspapers to figure that out. If San Francisco’s residents simply accepted their city for what it is, they’d bug me less. New York, on the other hand, is in fact the cosmopolitan center of the universe that its residents imagine it to be, so I don’t mind as much when people act like they’re all that, just for being here, because to a certain extent they are. It’s a better flavor of insufferability.
I settle in for a good fight. San Francisco should be beaten. My former neighbors should not be given any more reasons for thinking they’re more special and sophisticated than they are, especially while New York is licking its wounds. I realize that San Francisco has plenty of its own wounds in the wake of the dot-com debacle, but that is not my concern. I left there to be here, and I’m going to enjoy it when they lose. I have my own wound to heal. The victory should go to the stripmall hordes down south, the ones who are pulling for the Angels with all their hearts and souls.
IV: Games One and Two
I arrived in Long Beach, just outside of Los Angeles, on Saturday morning, the day of Game One. Max and I watched the game on his gigantic television, and, as promised, he cheered on the Giants. We watched intently as the Angels lost a close one, 4-3, and I let him enjoy his victory. Let him have his fun now, I figured, he’ll pay later. The Angels had been here before, and look where they are now. Of course they were going to win Sunday night. They were going to win for me.
The next day we set out from the surf of Santa Barbara for the asphalt of Anaheim. I couldn’t wait to be a part of the crowd I had seen on television. The time would soon be mine to stand proudly in red, brandishing my Thunder Stix. I was going to buy an Angels shirt. And cap. (And souvenir baseball and breath mints, as it turned out.) Angels, here I come.
I wasn’t sure about the rally monkey, however. The Angels’ good-luck mascot appears on the video display in the later innings of the game when the Angels are at the plate and have a man on base. Fans buy their own monkeys and wear them and holler when she shows up. The "appearance" is nothing more than a video clip of the little monkey jumping up and down, or shots of her holding signs that say things like "Rally Time!" She made her first appearance in mid-2000, when some goofs working the display put up a clip of a jumping monkey from the Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and the crowd went nuts. The Angels came back to win that game, and the Rally Monkey was born.
Much had been made of the Angels’ videotaped simian cheerleader during the playoffs, and I admit that I thought the whole idea was pretty stupid. But I realized, as we drew nearer to the ballpark, that my arch attitude was in fact what was stupid. Being a fan is stupid. Baseball is stupid. If you’re going to buy in, if you’re going to root for your team, you do it to be part of your clan, the fans who are bonded to you by a chosen favorite. There is nothing remotely rational about it. You are joining the herd, and it is no place for individualism. The power is in the collective identity. And if Anaheim fans embraced the Rally Monkey, and it was working for the Angels, then I was going to join them. It wasn’t mine to question. I was going to buy a rally monkey.
We arrived at the ballpark about three hours early. Accompanying us was a friend of Max, named Michael, who was prepared to buy a single ticket on the spot from a scalper. Before we could even park the car, we saw that the party had already begun in the parking lot. There were a handful of Giants fans, but they were definitely overwhelmed by effusive people wearing red. There were also a few Jesus enthusiasts evidently hoping to get others on the side of their unscheduled competitor, but on Sunday, October 20, they were in last place. The saving would be left to the relief pitchers.
Across the street, we were awed by what was transpiring. On the front lawn of a sports restaurant, The Catch, was a full-fledged ticket bazaar, with wary buyers, pockets full of cash, inspecting the wares of savvy sellers. Every ticket was different, of course, and the prepared came with seating charts. This was the free market at its finest. We followed Michael around as he wandered among the vendors, trying to bargain as each claimed his tickets to be the best in the house. I bought a "collector’s item" in the form of discontinued Official Major League Baseball Anaheim Angels Breath Mints, just to get into the spirit of things. Michael landed a second row seat in deep right field, where something very important would happen six days later.
We entered the park, and instantly I felt bathed in excitement and cameraderie. After receiving our complimentary Thunder Stix, we figured the first place to go was the Angels Store, but the line was longer than your worst E-ticket nightmare. We settled for the smaller concession booths and bought Rally Monkeys. In fact, they were completely generic stuffed animals with an "Official Anaheim Rally Monkey" tag attached, perhaps because it was difficult to get a half-million Angelic monkeys on short notice.
I still needed a shirt and cap. All the shirts had a player’s name on the back, so it was up to me to choose. I was well familiar with the crew at this point, but did I have a favorite, exactly? Not really. I liked all the Angels. That’s the thing about them, they’re a team, no one ego emerging strongly above the rest. Max suggested I buy a Scott Schoeneweis shirt, as I may as well identify myself with two teams for the price of one. (Schoeneweis is half Jewish, though I later learned that he doesn’t consider himself as such. Still, you take what you can get.) After an interminable wait, I finally arrived at the front of the line, only to discover they had just one cap size left. I anxiously tried one on. It fit! I gleefully squeezed into my replacement for my long discarded childhood Angels cap. Today was my day, and I had the red to show it.
So did everyone else. As we located our seats, I was wordless at the sight of bleacher-to-bleacher red. Red, red, red. In any other context, it would have been terrifying, suggesting the worst kind of collectivist groupthink. Here, it was beautiful and powerful. We all had our energy in the same place, the technically trivial but emotionally monumental identification with the Anaheim Angels. We were all going to win with them, together.
Max and I sat down and opened our Thunder Stix packages. I understood why they were given out for free; they only work if everyone is banging them. They were in fact not sticks at all but inflatable, self-sealing bags which make a plasticky tang when played solo but an overwhelming thud when played en masse. Most importantly, they were red, and they declared, "Yes We Can!" I believed it. Max may not have, but he cheerfully banged his pair alongside mine, and we occasionally smacked each other with them. We were both happy children. I felt myself transported to someplace from long ago. I could smell the core ingredients of every baseball game: hot dogs, peanuts, beer. It was a perfect California day, the sunlight glinting off the fountain in center field, exactly the right hue to make every color look its best. The breeze was just right, not chilling, just refreshing. I was home.
The game opened bizarrely; Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz gave up five runs in the first inning. It was quite a way to get started, yelling and cheering with barely a warmup. Everyone in the ballpark and the rest of the baseball universe assumed it would be a cushy day for the Angels, and I settled myself in for a relaxing ballgame. But this was not to be; the Giants responded immediately, knocking four runs out of Angels pitcher Kevin Appier. By the third inning, both starting pitchers had been pulled by their managers. But the show had just begun. The Angels quickly came back in the bottom of the third to go ahead 7-4. The Giants scored once in the top of the fourth, but then disaster struck, and in the fifth inning they got hit after hit to surge ahead 9-7. There was a lot of game left to play, but my fingernails were getting shorter.
It was the sixth inning, and the Angels needed to stop the bleeding. They brought out Francisco Rodriguez, the twenty-year old from Venezuela who earned his reputation in the playoffs as the pitcher who could not be hit. After joining the major leagues only one month prior, he already earned the nickname K-Rod, after the scoring shorthand for a strikeout. Some have complained that this World Series suffered from a dearth of great pitching, but they clearly weren’t paying attention; Rodriguez was astonishing. He retired the first two Giants with six straight strikes, and with every one, he elevated his heroic status and the crowd roared. Then the almighty Barry Bonds came to the plate, and grounded out on Rodriguez’ first pitch. Awesome!
As the Angels took the plate in the bottom of the sixth, the Rally Monkey made her first appearance of the evening. She demanded that the crowd make some noise, and we shrieked with delight. She rewarded us, with a little digital assistance, by lip-synching Queen’s We Will Rock You, and I was won over. The Rally Monkey is way more entertaining than the tired YMCA dance performed by the Yankees groundskeepers. As if on cue, the Angels rallied, and the game was tied, 9-9. My heart pounded.
Now I truly believed in the power of the Thunder Stix and the Rally Monkey. As I shouted along with the rest of the Anaheim fans, I could feel some primitive part of my brain being stimulated. I found myself sucked into the ritual superstition of the sports fan (and the athlete). One of our most present illusions is that we are driven by good reason, that understanding things in our heads gives us choices about what is in our hearts, but being here, lost in the sea of red, showed me otherwise. I became absolutely convinced that my hollering and banging were keyed directly to the Angels’ fortunes. I put every ounce of myself into every single noisy union of the Stix. We were one. Yes We Can! By the time we arrived at the seventh-inning stretch, I was ready to belt out Take Me Out To The Ballgame like I had never before (I still choked on God Bless America, however. Is it part of baseball indefinitely? Or just until we can take backpacks into the park again?).
K-Rod continued to buy the Angels much-needed time. He opened and closed the seventh inning with three-pitch strikeouts, getting a groundout in between. The Angels went scoreless in the bottom of the seventh, but then Rodriguez came back in the top of the eighth. Three up, three down. Of K-Rod’s 26 pitches, 22 were strikes. Nine outs in a row, every Giant hitter dominated. Three perfect innings. I might have a favorite Angel after all.
The score was tied, and it was the bottom of the eighth inning. The Angels were at the plate. The air was electric. We were ready for something big. Hyperactive shortstop David Eckstein hit one of his trademark key singles, inviting center fielder Darin Erstad to help the Angels take the lead. Erstad instead flied out, but not before wearing down Giants reliever Felix Rodriguez with foul after foul, extracting eight throws in total. Then arrived Tim Salmon, the Angels’ right fielder and longest-suffering team member, the man who had played 1,388 games without reaching a playoff. The Rally Monkey jumped up and down, looming large on the big screen. The crowd screamed. On the first pitch from Rodriguez, Salmon hit a long, high fly ball that seemed to travel very, very slowly.
During the game, I noticed a strange lack of depth perception that occurs when tracing a fly ball. The few seconds of flight become very suspenseful, since it is hard to tell where the ball will land, and in particular which side of the foul pole it will land on. This was true of Salmon’s shot; it looked like it was going to go out, but where? You could almost hear the ball slice through the night; the stadium, bursting with sound just a moment before, was silent. We were all watching, waiting, hoping. Here it comes, right by Max and me. It’s going . . . past us! It’s a home run! The ball finally landed a few sections away from us, and the crowd erupted in glorious noise, drunk with euphoria. I was swept away in it. We were all best friends, hi-fiving away, as though we hit the homer ourselves. This was my most exciting baseball moment, ever. The Angels now had the lead, 11-9, with only one inning to go, and their best relief pitcher coming in. My vigorous sticking had yielded a blowout, but I still knew how to clap and shout, and did so until my hands were sore and my throat was hoarse.
It was the top of the ninth inning, and the Giants were at the plate. The Angels brought out their trusty closer, Troy Percival, to pitch to San Francisco. The Giants were still only two runs away, and the fearsome Barry Bonds was coming up as the third batter of the inning. Obviously, the key was for Percival to get the two guys before Bonds out, so that way a home run couldn’t tie the game. Percival delivered -- and so did Bonds, in a shot I will never forget and I doubt anyone else will either. There seems to be some contention as to whether it ever actually landed (the official estimate was 485 feet). Even the Angels themselves were in awe, as revealed by the replay clips I saw later. I was able to enjoy Bonds’ amazing feat, because I knew that he was not threatening the Angels’ forthcoming victory. I was confident that Percival would dominate Bonds’ successor at the plate, catcher Benito Santiago. He did! I collapsed in my chair, blissfully spent. My Perfect Game was complete.
I had witnessed the Angels’ first victory in a World Series game, and it could not have been any more incredible. Game Two was one hell of a ballgame. It was pure entertainment: constant suspense, endless surprises, joyous release, sheer awe. It was baseball as pure spectacle. I cannot imagine witnessing a more exciting game, even if it were just an ordinary regular-season match. But this was so much more, and I shared it with 45,000 people -- plus the countless others watching at home -- who wanted it to happen so badly. The hospital bed has been left behind; all has been forgiven, and then some. Tears come to my eyes thinking about it now. How could this have happened to me? If you had asked me three months prior, I probably would have told you that baseball is idiotic. But here I am, moved by the power of 25 guys and a string-filled ball. I’d be ashamed of myself if I didn’t enjoy it so much.
The Series wasn’t over yet, though I was ready to die a happy man. In the parking lot, ecstatic people were offering me beer and pumping their fists. There was no sign of the Jesus fans; there was more than enough rhapsody to go around. As we slowly rolled through the parking lot, Max, Michael and I feverishly postmortemed the game, and Max even confessed to pulling for the Angels in the end: "They just have so much heart!" During the game, Max told me that he had never seen anything in Pac Bell Park close to the passion of this crowd, and following the third game, played in San Francisco, the L. A. Times ran an article to the same effect, validating my prejudices about the fans up north and my idealization of the fans down south.
I went directly to Ontario airport to catch the midnight flight back to JFK. I almost didn’t make it because the security guy demanded a rally monkey as toll. Hey, had I known, I would have bought two! I shared a beer at the bar with a guy named Tod, who, like me, was wearing an Angels jersey. With one glance, we each knew the elation the other felt. The last time I had experienced that instant mutual recognition was soaked in sadness; it was the shared suffering of September 11, 2001, during the exodus to nowhere on the streets of Manhattan. It felt good to augment that painful memory with such a joyous one. As we chatted, I told Tod about my Thunder Stix casualty, and he gave me an unopened pair, which I gratefully accepted. I knew I might need them.
I didn’t think I would sleep on the plane, but the next thing I knew, the ESPN highlights on the small TV in front of me were over, and I was once again home, subtly transformed by the last 36 hours.
V: Games Three through Five
Being home was depressing. The weather was a far cry from sunny California, I had work to do, and I couldn’t think about anything but the Angels. I felt a longing to be back with my new friends in Anaheim, the same ones I probably would have taken pains to disassociate myself from before I found the True Love that bonds fans everywhere. The trip had been so far, and so brief, and so wonderful that it took on a slightly surreal quality.
The Angels had yet to win the World Series, but I had already climaxed. Nothing was going to top Game Two. I considered going back the following weekend for the sixth and seventh games to see the Angels win it all, but Max astutely suggested that it might be better to leave the perfect evening a perfect memory, and I immediately knew he was right. It wouldn’t be the same.
There were 44 hours until Game Three, and I attempted to fill every one with baseball chatter, to the disbelief of those close to me. The part of my brain that looks like a baseball had just been unearthed after twenty years of being buried under accumulated sediment, and it needed throwing around. I wanted to go over all the minute details of the Series, to share my Game Two experience, to evangelize my team. I’d turned into a sports freak overnight.
In two weeks, I made up for twenty years of not reading the Sports section of the newspaper. For all that time, I’d considered it to be inexorably dull, a chronicle and celebration of people I didn’t know who did nothing useful, and I couldn’t understand why every major daily has one. Until now. I voraciously consumed the Post, the Daily News, theNew York Times, espn.com, and most significantly the Los Angeles Times, my childhood chronicle of the Angels’ daily fortunes. I soaked up the game recaps, the highlighted players, and the predicted outcomes of future games. Why anyone would want to hear someone else’s guess as to how the completely unknown will turn out is, well, anyone’s guess. But, on the other hand, I savored the reassurances of those who favored the Angels. It’s like a friend who says, "It’s going to be all right," when you know that he has no idea whether it’s going to be all right or not.
Game Three of the World Series was fast approaching, and after my communal high of Game Two, I didn’t want to watch alone. However, no one I knew was both interested and available. I needed to be with a fellow enthusiast, someone like Brent, who so alienated me with his engagement and passion at the fifteen-inning game. I found the person I was looking for at an East Village sports bar. His name was Caesar, and when it came to baseball knowledge, he did indeed rule. He was a baseball geek, as I am a computer geek. I natively recognized the ongoing processing, analysis and storage of atomic-grain detail which conveys profound meaning to the disciple and zero to anyone else. He was siding with the Angels, and we immediately hit it off. He was a perfect companion for the evening.
We discussed the Series in loving detail. We reviewed how the Angels didn’t strike out once during Game Two, which had not happened in the World Series since 1960, and Caesar told me that Angels designated hitter Brad Fullmer’s steal of home plate in that same game was the first by an American Leaguer since 1934. He confided that he was pulling for the Halos, not only because he liked them but because he wanted to see Barry Bonds denied his championship ring on account of his stature as Most Visible Prick. As we yakked, the Angels thrashed the Giants on the projection TV, and we cheered away, to the chagrin of the Giants supporters on the other side of the room. The Angels won, 10-4. Victory is sweet.
Talking with Caesar reminded me how much the statistics themselves are a part of the game, and how much I enjoy them. Throughout the Series, the broadcast announcers and newspaper writers plucked conclusions out of the endlessly expanding universe of recorded baseball data, finding patterns in chaos. When fans get together, they don’t just talk about some player they like, they analyze whether he has a better shot hitting right or left handed against a specific pitcher. In this sphere of their lives, the players themselves are equipped with more self-knoweldge than the rest of us achieve in a lifetime of therapy. (Some statistics are actually more comical than meaningful: when the announcers declared the Angels’ Game Three intentional walk of Barry Bonds with one out and men on first and third in the first inning to have never happened before in a World Series game, I was reminded of a Mad Magazine I read when I was a kid in which they described a trophy awarded to the Best Left-Handed Female Bowler In The B’nai Brith of Upper Sandunsky, Ohio, because she was the only one.) The statistics are as much a part of the game as the game itself, and I relished them as my bar buddy and I bathed in numbers.
Game Four was close. I watched at home, and though the Angels got a decent pitching performance from their rookie starter, John Lackey, the Giants got a better one from theirs, Kirk Reuter. They edged out the Angels 4-3. Making it worse was that the loss went to K-Rod, finally penetrated after four straight wins when he gave up two key singles. The Series was tied, two games to two. I was beginning to sweat.
I noticed at this midway point in the Series a most unwelcome development: creeping sympathy. For the Giants. They were no longer a faceless enemy. I knew the players and their stories, and how much they wanted to win after so many years of trying. Many of their players were in their mid or late thirties, and had been working hard year after year for this victory. Their catcher, Benito Santiago, looks like he has been through wars. I could feel the pain of pitcher Livan Hernandez when he cried in the dugout after the Angels snapped his 6-0 postseason starting record like a twig during Game Three. I was even starting to warm up to the dazzling Barry Bonds. Perhaps he deserved his World Series ring after all.
I tried to ignore this disturbing humanism. Obviously, it indicated some serious personal character defect. The Angels could not win with ambivalence. As much as I expected a clear nemesis in the Giants, they were seducing me. As San Francisco tempted me with her familiar images, I recalled the good times I had with my friends when I lived there. The City was calling me back, competing for my love and affection.
Game Five demonstrated the price of such equivocating. As I watched in a bar at a friend’s birthday party (I paid no attention to him; the game was on), I winced as the Giants hammered the Angels’ best starting pitcher, Jarrod Washburn, for six runs in the first two innings. The Halos never recovered, despite closing the gap to two runs at one point. The last third of the game was a nauseating blur, and the final score was 16 to 4. I went home drunk and very unhappy. This was bad. The Angels could not afford to lose again. The only comfort I could afford was knowing that no game in this Series provided any indication as to what would happen in the next, and with this I held onto some thread of hope.
VI: Game Six
For Game Six, I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t about to surround myself with people of unknown energies. I was going to watch it on my TV, and Caroline was going to be my baseball partner. In truth, her interest faded with the Yankees, but she was certainly rooting for me, as she always does, and she had one more good game to watch in her. I surrounded myself with my totems; I wore my Schoeneweis shirt and Angels cap (which has become all but affixed to my head), and in front of my TV I propped the souvenir baseball, the breath mints, the Official Anaheim Angels Rally Monkey Plastic Tag, the Game Two ticket stub, and, most importantly, my deflated Thunder Stix, declaring Yes We Can! That’s right, god damn it. My rally monkey was close at hand, ready for the late innings. I also had the virgin pair of Thunder Stix given to me by Tod, my bar companion at Ontario Airport, but I was not ready to inflate them. Their power would be saved for the final game. I was ready.
The Giants did their part. They had the starting pitching performance of the Series. Russ Ortiz, whom the Angels battered mercilessly in Game Two, threw six scoreless innings. Kevin Appier, equivalently humilated by the Giants in the same game, pitched valiantly for the Angels for four, but in the fifth he gave up a two-run home run to designated hitter Shawon Dunston, who had not homered since April. I felt for Appier; through the whole game, he looked as though he might physically explode from the pressure, and he was redeeming himself admirably. When he gave up the home run, you could see the anguish on his face (and the profanity from his mouth), and after leadoff man Kenny Lofton doubled, Angels manager Mike Scioscia pulled Appier from the game, kicking and screaming all the way. Poor guy.
In came the still-awesome but no longer invincible Francisco Rodriguez, fresh off the previous evening’s loss. While his performance in that game might have been unfortunate but forgivable, tonight he could not have done worse; he wild-pitched in a run, and then the genuinely invincible Barry Bonds homered to lead off the next inning, and culminated his victory lap by kissing his son, who was proudly waiting for him at the dugout. The Giants were now up 4-0 in the sixth, and Rodriguez gave up yet another run. 5-0. Three innings from the dream falling just a little bit short. I had not given up hope, but I was preparing my concession speech.
Russ Ortiz put a couple of men on base in the top of the seventh, so Giants manager Dusty Baker pulled him out, after a commendable performance, to finish things off with his relief staff of Felix Rodriguez, Tim Worrell, and closer Robb Nen, who all performed frustratingly well against the Angels in the previous three games. In a touching moment, Baker, who apparently thought the game was a faît accompli, offered Ortiz the game ball, which he proudly accepted; normally, the game ball isn’t given to anyone until the end, after someone has won.
Well, isn’t that nice. The Giants are kissing their children as they complete their home run jogs, Ortiz gets the game ball, didn’t he pitch a great game?
No! It is time to for my bleeding heart to coagulate! This is no time for sympathy. Not one ounce of me can enjoy one ounce of the Giants’ success. I have no respect for Barry Bonds’ talent. The Angels are about to be out of it and they’re not even going down fighting. I reach inside me for all the reasons I loathed the Giants. I must shake off the way they have subversively grown on me. Is it part of their strategy, to soften me, to soften the Angels just enough to beat them? I need hate now. A fine brew of hope and prejudice is what is called for. Why should I settle for less than a full dream, when I’ve come this far? Why should the Angels? It’s time to show these motherfuckers. It’s time to deprive cocky Barry Bonds of his long lusted-after World Series ring. It’s time to give the Anaheim fans something to truly celebrate, the fans who paid five dollars to watch the away games in a hockey rink, just to be with other fans. It’s time to give me what I’ve been waiting for since keeping score beside the radio twenty-plus years ago. This is a cause.
My stomach is churning violently. Every muscle in my body is taut. I am lost in the frenzy of the crowd; I stupidly snap at Caroline just because I am so nervous. I don’t get nervous like this, and certainly not over some baseball game! I take a breath. The Angels might lose, but I’m going to stay with them for every pitch, willing hits for them and strikes for the Giants. Every painful pitch. By now, most of America has turned off their televisions and gone to sleep or returned to their regular distractions. Not me. Caroline is right next to me, but I am only half aware of her. It’s me, and the Angels. Everything else is secondary.
It’s the late innings, so I invite my rally monkey to watch the game with me. K-Rod at least closed out his disappointing performance with a rare Barry Bonds swinging strikeout. There’s something to take away from this. Russ Ortiz is out, Felix Rodriguez is in, there’s one out in the bottom of the seventh, and there are a couple of Angels on base. Scott Spiezio, the would-be rocker with (what else?) red streaks in his hair, is at the plate. Ball one. Long pause. Foul, strike one. Long pause. Foul, strike two. Very long pause. Foul, still strike two. Long pause. Ball two. Pause. Foul. Long pause. Ball three. Very, very long pause. It’s a full count. The Rally Monkey is calling. The fans are screaming, furiously pounding their Thunder Stix. Yes We Can! Omigod that looked like a good swing. It’s one of those balls that might be a home run, but you aren’t going to know it until it happens; you’ll live lifetimes watching it chart its predestined fate, known to physics but secret to you. It looks like it might just be a pop fly which Reggie Sanders is waiting for. Yeah, he’s gonna catch it. Oh well. It’s been a great season.
Plop, right over his head. Right into the second row of far right field, over the short wall, where Michael had bought his ticket in Game Two, right there in Edison Field where I stood and shared six days prior. Holy shit! Did that just happen?
Am I dreaming? Where am I?
I am, of course, on my bed, furiously shouting, involuntarily pumping my fist. This is deliverance. It’s defiance. It’s belief. It’s everything that I want to be. The Angels are coming through for me, after all those years ago when they couldn’t, when they didn’t have enough spirit. These are My Angels. This is My World Series.
Of course, the game is hardly over; there are a mere eight outs to go, and three runs to score, and the nastiest part of the Giants’ bullpen is yet to arrive. I need more runs, but the Angels can’t keep it going, and while they exit the inning with Spiezio’s heroism, it is not enough to win the game. They’re still down by two.
By now, I am ready to join the ranks of armchair management. Loquacious Fox commentator Tim McCarver opines that the Angels should be bringing out Troy Percival to pitch, so that if they lose, they know they lost with their best. I challenged McCarver as though my TV were bidirectional: why bring out Percival when he hasn’t pitched two full innings all season? And if he succeeds, he would be too tired to pitch in Game Seven! And if they lose? What kind of an announcer are you, writing off the game before it’s over? What a jerk. I’m smarter than these guys on TV. This is the real joy of being a baseball fan, second guessing the experts. When you know better, you’re not just watching the game, you’re playing it. You’re on the team.
Now my throat is even tighter than before. I can’t breathe. I can feel every drop of blood flowing through me. The Angels, based on their last couple of outings, are still perfectly capable of giving up late-inning runs, and the amazing kid from Venezuela just let them down pretty badly. Had he done better, the Angels might be ahead. Brendan Donnelly, perhaps the ultimate Cinderella story, takes the mound. Donnelly toiled for ten years for nearly as many teams in the minor leagues, and was let go from almost all of them. And here he is, in his rookie year, being asked to pitch three of the most vital outs of the Angels’ history. He had some good innings in the postseason, but he also had some bad ones. He gave up the game-losing home run to the Yankees in Game One of the ALDS, seemingly so long ago.
Donnelly delivers, with two strikeouts no less! The Giants go down, the Angels are up. Ok. It’s still a game. Darin Erstad, the virtuoso get-dirty center fielder, is at the plate. Home run! No way. Is this possible? It’s 5-4. They can still lose, but you can feel the momentum radiating from the television. Caroline and I stare straight ahead at the screen, transfixed. Tim Salmon, the Game Two hero, singles, and is replaced by a speedier runner from the bench, Chone Figgins. Team MVP Garret Anderson dings a crappy little single to left field, the kind of crappy little single that has won games for the Angels all year, and it drops right in front of Barry Bonds. Figgins decides to take third base. Bonds sees him, and grabs the ball barehanded, intent on the throw arriving before the runner.
Well, that’s clearly the idea. But Barry Bonds, the best player in baseball, the imminent MVP Barry Bonds, the famously arrogant Barry Bonds, bobbles the ball. It scoots away from him, and in the brief time it takes him to retrieve it, an eternity has passed in this game where microseconds matter. Anderson capitalizes on those microseconds, as the Angels have all season, and takes second. Bonds gets the error. That’s the game-winning run, unearned, on second base. A single brings him home.
The Giants bring out their closer, Robb Nen, but up comes the Angels’ ersatz superhero, third-baseman Troy Glaus. He delivers a just-out-of-reach double. Figgins scores! Anderson scores! I am screaming. My heart is racing and my head is light. It’s 6-5, Angels ahead. Man on second. No outs. I am definitely dreaming.
The Angels strand Glaus, leaving the game close. Troy Percival, fortunately, is the man you can count on to guide you safely through the ninth, as he had done so gracefully in Game Two. During the regular season, he saved 40 games in 44 opportunities. Percival knocks out the first two Giants, and then pitches two balls and two strikes to second baseman Rich Aurelia. One pitch to go. Whiff! Aurelia swings and misses. That was it. The Angels survived! The Series is tied, somehow. I exhale for what feels like the first time in an hour. My body goes limp with exhaustion, ready to finally close the adrenaline valves.
There is still Game Seven to play, but I know the heart has been ripped out of the Giants. Even my best attempts at coldheartedness fail me. That’s just got to hurt, and then hurt some more. They look like broken men. They’ve been waiting for another championship for longer than the Angels have existed . . . .
Shut up. No sympathy, no mercy. I am excited beyond description. The Angels have never won anything. They deserve it. They play the game well. They are the better team! They have their own legacy of pain and sorrow they’ve been living with for all these years after their own tragic near-win collapse. Fuck the Giants. Go Angels!
VII: Game Seven
The Angels had done, well, the miraculous. They stared death in the face and decided they were having none of it. How could they lose Game Seven? Very easily, based upon history, but already the Angels’ postseason performance suggested that they had wrangled with fate and prevailed. They were going to the Promised Land.
I watched most of Game Seven by myself; Caroline was with me, but uninterested. I think she had ridden the Angels train long enough and was satisfied after the draining thrill of the previous evening. I blew up my spare Thunder Stix which I was saving for the occasion (thanks, Tod!) and banged them together to spur the Angels on and rattle the opposition. My rally monkey, who served me so faithfully the night before, was close at hand, waiting to be called on if necessary.
Game Seven was like no other in the Series, in that there was not much hitting. Though slow by comparison, it was never dull, given what was at stake. The Giants took an early lead in the top of the second, 1-0, but the Angels immediately tied it up and then scored three runs in the following inning. From there on out, it was a pitchers’ duel. The score was Angels 4, Giants 1, which was just narrow enough of a gap to for me stay vigilant, but wide enough to not sweat every out. The Angels were entitled to have one game in which they got a really good performance from their starter, and rookie John Lackey gave it to them, despite pitching on only three days rest. In his five innings, he gave up only the one run, and that was what the Angels needed.
After the fifth inning, I migrated to a sports bar; Caroline wanted to go to sleep, and I wanted to share my victory, or at least not lose alone. I joined a friend there, though he was pulling for the Giants on account of being annoyed with the Angels for beating the Yankees. I paid no mind, and moved over to be with the Angels supporters at the other end of the bar. I was, of course, decorated in full regalia: I was Schoeneweis, crowned with my bright red World Series cap which can be seen from outer space. I wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the Thunder Stix and my rally monkey at home, and the bar patrons were eager to see the celebrity objects.
The score was still 4-1, and it was the sixth inning. Lackey was followed by two more heroic rookies. Brendan Donnelly threw two scoreless innings, again proving to the world (or at least those still watching the Series) that dedicating yourself to a dream can, in fact, pay off. Then arrived K-Rod, in the eighth, again earning his good name. He threw three strikeouts in his one inning, and with each we cheered louder, bound ineffably closer as the Angels concluded their victory march, pitch by pitch. We could feel destiny waiting; even though they were the Angels, we knew they were going to win this time. Of course, Troy Percival was brought in to close the game, and after offering a dramatic scare (just for good measure, I like to think) by putting two men on with one out, he brought the Angels to glory with a strikeout, followed by inducing Kenny Lofton to hit a long fly ball, fittingly sent to the Angels’ de facto team leader, Darin Erstad, out in center. And with that, the Anaheim Angels became the World Champions of Major League Baseball.
We in the bar hollered wildly, enjoying long-denied fulfillment at last, and I drank some terrible champagne to celebrate. I am pretty sure that whatever the Angels were spraying on each other was better stuff, but I didn’t mind. They looked like the happiest people on earth, and, for a moment, I was one of them.
The loudest cheers in the bar came from a guy named Mitch, who was ten years my junior and an authentic, passionate Angels fan from Los Angeles. Just like me! Who better to share my delight with? He was deleriously happy, or drunk, or both. He was awed beyond belief just to see authentic Anaheim Thunder Stix, so I gave them to him. He assured me that he would be telling his grandchildren about this guy named Ivan from West L.A. who gave him World Series Thunder Stix. I was thrilled to be able to make a fellow fan happy, and besides, at home were my real Game Two Stix, the popped ones, for me to bore my own grandchildren with.
I was finally able to able to enjoy the moment fearlessly. There was nothing left to win. No one could take it away from the Angels now, not even themselves. They couldn’t self-destruct. They were our best selves, overcoming their own past and overwhelming odds to triumph at last. I had been delivered. Tranquil waves pulsed through me as I slowly tuned out the bar surroundings to be there with my team, whom I watched celebrate on the TV in front of me. Even in victory they seemed modest and teamlike. This was a team with no rock stars (well, one wannabe rock star), just guys who play baseball really well together. Troy Glaus deservedly got the Most Valuable Player award (he hit seven home runs in the postseason), but it just as easily could have gone to lots of guys on the team, and he said as much. I liked them. I admired their humbleness and unaffectedness. They seemed like nice guys. They were perfect idols for the twelve-year-old who had been controlling me all October.
My mom called to congratulate me that evening, as did Brent; Max didn’t, which I confess some disappointment about, as he was my World Series buddy. (I was later amused to learn that this was due to depression from losing a bet he had on the Giants; he did indeed pay later, literally!) I did receive his and my dad’s well-wishes later in the week. It occurred to me that it seemed ridiculous to be personally congratulated for the Angels’ win, as though I had something to do with it, but I now realize that the whole thing about identifying yourself with a team is that you imagine that you do have something to do with it. Why shouldn’t others play along and allow you to fully feel your triumph?
I had a drink or two more and went home. Caroline semi-consciously asked who won and I told her, and she smiled generously before lapsing back into her own dreamland, quite apart from the one I was in. I kissed her and went to sleep.
The next day, Monday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I was hung over, and still happy, though I felt directionless. I tried to remember what I had been thinking about a month ago, before baseball took over my cognitive processes. I watched the Angels’ victory parade, thanks to the miracle of internet video, and smiled as I saw my extended family in Anaheim, gathered to receive their heroes. I listened to the athletes deliver the requisite follow-your-dreams and we-all-did-this-together and we-couldn’t-have-done-it-without-you speeches and I had a wistful desire to be there. What I was really longing for was the sense of common purpose and hope that I shared with 45,000 other people one October evening, a family bound not by blood, but by baseball. I longed for a pride of identity that could be worn with no shame. It felt lonely being back among the tall buildings and the preoccupied individualists who make up our fair city, each trying to chart a unique destiny rather than a common one.
Well, no one says that I have to stop being an Angels fan, and I don’t think I could if I tried. I don’t need to be in Anaheim (Lord knows, I don’t want to be); I’ll tune into internet radio broadcasts of next year’s games. I’ll read the L.A. Timesonline. Already I want to go see the Yankees again, and I have tickets for their three May dates against the Angels. Maybe I’ll take a train to see my team in Baltimore and Boston. I’ll wear my cap and shirt and official jersey I’ll have made with my name on it. I’m an Angel, for now and ever. Take me out to the ballgame. I don’t care if I ever come back.
I feel surprised by the depth of my sudden adult-life baseball fervor, but I really shouldn’t. Both my parents had baseball in their veins; my dad worshipped the 1950’s Yankees and my mom wrote her first two books about baseball players (Tom Seaver, and George Foster). My father fulfilled his own baseball dream fifteen years ago by attending Yankee Fantasy camp, where he got to be a Yankee, and play baseball with Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. I watched many baseball games with my grandparents during summers on Long Island, and had my grandmother lived another year or so she would have been overjoyed for me, as she really knew how I loved this ballclub.
I guess I thought that this was kid stuff. Now I see that it was some closet I closed and all these years later the toys inside are still fun. Now I get what all the Yankees fans around me have been so excited about. It simply feels great to have your team win.
Once the World Series was over, divisive passions ebbed, and I discovered that there were plenty who were now willing to share in my delight, but only after confirming the authenticity of my allegiance. While a random person wearing a Giants cap is plausible enough, someone wearing an Angels cap after they have won the World Series must be assumed to be engaging in crass bandwagoneering. I mean, the Angels, after all? I identified a pattern: suspicion, verification, acceptance. While in Minneapolis for a weekend, I ate at a diner where the waiter wore a Twins cap; after about fifteen minutes of us cautiously sniffing each other, he finally put forth: "So are you really an Angels fan?" Once I assured him that I was, he relaxed and we both gave props to each others’ teams. While visiting a former employer, an executive challenged, "What, and you were wearing a Yankees hat two years ago?" When I explained that I was Always Angel, he conceded, "Enjoy it while it lasts." I’ve had a lot of exchanges like this, and they always yield at least mild congratulations.
The most memorable interchange came a couple of days after the Series ended. I was proudly bearing my Angels cap while having breakfast at Joe Jr., a downtown diner with lots of regulars. There I encountered a woman, probably in her fifties, who said to me on her way out, "You know, it’s not really a World Series without the Yankees." I should have been annoyed, but I was used to this sort of thing by now, and I was still in too good a mood. I responded, "That’s what they tell me, but I’ve been an Angels fan since childhood!" Her resentful facade faded, and she joined me in my pleasure when considering what it must feel like to have one’s team win for the first time. "You must be so happy," she said, smiling warmly. Here was the alternative to the spite of the woman who wished for me an Angels defeat. The woman in the diner still carried her hurt, but in the end she loved the game even more than her team, and welcomed me into her family. She was every aggrieved Yankee fan: snide, yet caring, a consummate New Yorker. We may have had our differences, but we both belong to baseball.
Not everyone challenged me, and in fact I encountered quite a few well-wishers -- all the doormen in Caroline’s building were hi-fiving me, one of them going out of his way to say that he hadn’t seen a team hit like that since the ‘96 Yankees. High praise indeed! One calls me Champion, which I won’t argue with. Caroline’s work associates relayed their congratulations. On the subway, a teenager spoke of his pleasure at seeing the Angels overthrow the Yankees, and asked where he could get a cap like mine. Never have I been so warmly supported for doing so little, but I’ll take it. Why shouldn’t we all have it?
IX: The Offseason
Baseball is over for now, and I have resumed my pre-October life. Only I know I am not the same. Never have I experienced such a sudden personal about-face. When I am lying awake and trying to clear my mind for slumber, I have to switch off my newly installed baseball gears and pulleys. I suddenly feel like I have some appreciation of the game’s texture: the grace of the players, the hidden details of the statistics, the baroqueness and balance of the rules. Why is it not three balls to draw a walk? Or five? I don’t know, but the game wouldn’t work if it were so. It is like a finely machined, handmade clock. All the parts are in alignment, and convey real beauty when you experience them. I can’t say I feel the same way about football, or basketball; those sports can reveal dramatic performances, and offer intense competition, but the games themselves aren’t beautiful. It feels presumptuous for me to say this as a born-again fan in a city of the devoted, but it struck me, again and again. There is something beautiful, spiritual even, embedded within the game of baseball itself.
I now see why sports are important to so many. Worshipping your team amidst your fellow fans is, like religion, both primary and primal. I was engulfed by the pure tribalism of declaring one’s allegiance to a team; it was what called me to Anaheim for Game Two. I felt how I was engaged in a little representational war. Southern California is not really at war with Northern California (at least in the view of Southern Californians), but through this game our age-old need to identify ourselves by dividing ourselves is powerfully expressed. By rooting for your team, you get to experience the full weight of Us and Them, where you can fully love your own and fiercely hate the Other, free of responsibility for political correctness, cultural awareness, or any other contextual constraints on your passions. Let it out! Go Angels!
What I enjoyed most about being a fan was this absolute clarity which I was permitted (and encouraged) to have. There is no place for relativism, and no need for compassion. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to recognize and stomp on my bleeding-heart tendencies. Of course, it would be wrong to deny the tragedy of loss, and one would have to be truly hardhearted to not feel for the Giants; it is this very drama that is part of what makes the game so rich.
But it doesn’t matter. There are no two ways about it. The Giants were the enemy, and there was no alternative but for the hero, the Angels, to vanquish them. There is no ambiguity in baseball. There are no tie games. There are no diplomatic negotiations, no compromises: someone wins, and someone loses. And for the Angels to defy odds, to fight until the end and triumph proudly, is what it is all about. We fans are Angels-by-extension. Sure, it would be easy to fall back on my own pain and loss to identify with the Giants, but what for? This year, we Angels fans are all winners, and no one can tell us that we have to be sympathetic to the losers, for whom there is no time; we are the champions. Of the world.
Baseball, in particular, doesn’t just offer the joy of winning or the pain of losing. There is a hopeful quality to baseball. It’s the game of dreams. Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism, "It ain’t over ‘til it’s over," is incredibly inspiring, and all the more so when you see it happen, for real, as it did in this very World Series. The fact that every team has their fair shot at winning the game until the last out is played, regardless of how badly the odds are stacked against them, speaks deeply to our American ideal of everyone having the opportunity to succeed.
Baseball players, while of course fantastic athletes, still look like people we can roughly identify ourselves with; football players are too wide, basketball players are too tall, hockey players have too few teeth. Baseball makes exceptions, too: on the Angels alone, catcher Bengie Molina can inspire heavy kids everywhere, and lovable shortstop David Eckstein makes up for his lack of height (he is 5’6") by playing twice as hard. My brother, who is the same size, particularly likes him; why shouldn’t he? You can find yourself on a baseball team, and if your team is successful, you can find your dreams in that team too. Even if your team isn’t successful, you know that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and your time will come when your hopes can soar. After the Angels’ success this year, everyone is asking, "Who’s next? The Cubs? The Red Sox?"
Cheering along with the Angels is an experience I’ll never forget: the pyrotechnics of Game Two, the gut-wrenching drama of Game Six, the dragon-slaying of the Yankees. It was more than a diversion; my postseason odyssey had a healing effect. I was finally ready to hear my team’s message, and I might not have if they hadn’t waited this long. I have left the hospital for good. The Twin Towers will be rebuilt. As the World Series recedes from view, and the twelve-year old baseball fan yields to his present-day counterpart, I am enjoying the melancholy realization that I cannot consider being a Major League Baseball player among my career options at this point. But as an adult, I know that I have other dreams to fulfill, and I am grateful to the Angels for reminding me of that. My team brought me home.
I think part of me just wants to be a kid again. Maybe that’s what’s most exciting about once again falling in love with our national pastime. When you’re watching a game, you are your childhood self. Unlike so many other preadolescent pursuits which fall by the wayside in the wake of encroaching awareness, baseball maintains all of its purity, charm and innocence. The game is what you know. The players might be a little better, and the rules a little different, but it’s the same as it ever was. The feelings I experienced this October were what they were twenty years ago. Well, they were better, of course, because there’s nothing like winning. After years of wandering, the house of baseball welcomed me back. I’ve never felt so at home. Play ball!