Yankee Stadium. August 21, 1992. The Angels were in the middle of a late summer East Coast swing, 11 games under .500, 17.5 games back in the AL West. Their regular cast of characters included Von Hayes, Junior Felix and Gary Gaetti, pacing a regular line-up that saw exactly zero guys approach a .400 SLG. Long gone were the days of Bobby Grich, Brian Downing and Wally World. A team that was prime for a rebuild instead gave 300 AB to Hubie Brooks and his 63 OPS+. As a DH.
In their previous trip to Yankee Stadium, the Angels would be swept in three games. To add injury to insult, the team was then involved in a disastrous bus accident on the Jersey Turnpike, injuring many and sidelining manager Buck Rodgers for most of the season. In need of something, anything to hang their hat on in a lost season, the team called up a hot-hitting prospect to jolt some life into a listless team. Batting clean-up in Yankee stadium, three days before his 24th birthday, the King Fish era was officially underway. Tim Salmon went 0-4 with a walk in his debut and two days later would hit his first big league HR, helping the Angels take the series in NY.
Tim would earn a full-time gig the next season, cementing himself in the three-hole and winning the Rookie of the Year award unanimously, batting a robust .283/.382/.536 with 31 dingers. The team would continue to struggle, though the focus had turned to integrating younger players into the line-up, including the newly acquired (and fellow Long Beach native) J.T. Snow and current scumbag Chad Curtis. Salmon would have a nearly identical batting line in the strike-shortened 1994 season before posting a career year in 1995, leading a surprising Angels squad that infamously blew an 11 game lead in August and eventually lost a one game playoff to the Mariners, with Tim staring at strike three as the Big Unit broke the hearts of Angel fans everywhere, ending their season.
And so goes the story of Tim's career. Seemingly on the brink of stardom but never quite getting over that hump. Through his prime, Tim would reliably churn out .290/.400/.500 seasons, consistently leading a team that no one outside Orange County seemed to know existed. A notoriously slow starter, Salmon famously never made an All Star team. He had power, though never crossed the 40 HR mark. He had patience in an era that sorely under-valued the skill. He was solid but unspectacular in right, except when he broke out his canon arm and patented "slide". In 1998 he became an Angels legend by batting .300/.410/.533, despite battling plantar fasciitis that limited him to DH duties. It would be the third and last time the underappreciated King Fish would receive any MVP votes.
Age seemed to be catching up with Tim, as he followed that year with an injury-plagued 1999 before bouncing back with another big offensive season in 2000. Again Tim's greatness went relatively unnoticed thanks to Darin Erstad's 240 hit season and three other Angels topping Salmon's 34 HR. It would not be until his 11th big league season that Tim would finally get to experience postseason play, batting .346/.452/.615 in a memorable World Series, earning himself a ring and cementing his place as the greatest Angel of all time.
Again, even in that moment, Tim would be the forgotten savior. We remember the Spiezio home run. We know the legend of Erstad launching one over the right field fence with a broken wrist. The Troy Glaus double against Nen. The Garrett Anderson double in game 7 to seal the deal. The rock star emergence of K-Rod and fellow rookie John Lackey leading the pitching staff. So many heroes, so many narratives in what many believe to be one of the most exciting World Series ever played.
My greatest memory of that series? It was the sheer exuberance the normally stoic Salmon displayed as he circled the bases after his second home run of the evening during the 8th inning of game 2, securing a wild 11-10 victory and saving his team from dropping to 0-2 in the series. Watching him have his moment on the biggest stage encapsulated what every hardcore Angel fan must have felt: our time had finally arrived. No one is taking this thing from us.
This weekend Tim Salmon will join Dean Chance and Mike Witt in the Angels Hall of Fame. I am not quite old enough to recall the pain of 1986, though I would argue that fans of that era at least got to see a competitive team through most of the 80's. My obsession with this team coincides with the start of Salmon's career. I was always loyal to the team in spite of their many struggles through the 90's, just as Tim was a loyal soldier who never complained, had a contract dispute or demanded any trades. He played through pain. He was active in the community and has his own charitable foundation for children in need. Tim was proud to be an Angel, something utterly unheard of until then. Tim was a freakin' Angel.
At 299 career HR, Salmon fell appropriately shy of a round, psychologically-satisfying number on the back of his baseball card. He will never make the MLB Hall of Fame. Which is fine. The Hall doesn't deserve Tim. He is ours. The man who never wore another uniform will be an Angel for life after this weekend, with only one honor remaining: his #15 plastered on the wall for eternity.
There is a new fish in town, of course, one who will eventually pass all of Tim's milestones and cement his own place in Angels' (not to mention MLB) lore. But Salmon will still be the King Fish, a microcosm of an Angels franchise that until then was best known as the team from the Naked Gun and that regrettable Disney movie. For the current generation being spoiled by the greatness that is Mike Trout, I can only hope those of us lucky enough to have watched Tim Salmon play pass on that joy to the kids that did not, the way my dad shared stories with me about Brian Downing and Bobby Grich. The one place Salmon was not underappreciated was among the Halo faithful. Let us make sure that continues.