Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of a series. Here, you can find Part 1 and Part 2.
On a Friday afternoon, on the fourth day of October in 2002, long suffering Angel fans finally got to witness their favorite team field a playoff game at home. A little over 45,000 revelers in red showed up for this shindig, and all of them had been handed a pair of uninflated ThunderStix after having ended up on the other side of the turnstile at the entrance gate. These red, polyethylene noisemakers, which were a little bit longer than an adult’s forearm once blown-up, were quite the novelty, and they helped to make the ballgame seem more like a party that had the neighbors at the door, threatening to report this ruckus to the police before they saw how much fun everyone was having and decided to join in and cut loose themselves as well.
The ThunderStix had actually made an appearance earlier in the year at Edison Field during a mid-season series with the Mariners, and then they reappeared in the season’s final series at home (against Seattle, as well). The Stix had originated in the frenzied stands of those party-like Korean Baseball Organization games, and the Angels were the first MLB team to utilize them stateside. They were just as visually striking as the white, twirling Homer Hankies used by Minnesota fans, but they were much, much, much louder. And when 45 thousand pair were being randomly banged together, the deafening noise they created was just the touch that this special occasion called for.
Some of the celebrities on hand for this game were Hall of Famer and former Yankee/Angel Reggie Jackson, who owned a home in Orange County; former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who was heading up an investment group with the intention of purchasing the Angels from Disney; and actor Jack Nicholson, who apparently appreciated more sports other than just basketball.
Angel legends Bobby Grich and Brian Downing, the only Halo players to compete in all three playoff series in the first golden age of Angel baseball, were on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitches. Shortly thereafter it was time to play ball, amidst the clapping of the 45,000 pairs of ThunderStix and the massive swirl of the excited, fluttering hopes held by the sea of Angel fans lucky enough to have been able to secure a ticket for this long anticipated event.
The starting pitchers for this game were Ramon Ortiz for the Angels, who was a fifteen game winner that season, and Mike Mussina for the Yankees, who had just finished an even more impressive eighteen-win campaign for New York.
Unfortunately for the Angels and their fans, Ortiz looked like a fidgety bundle of nerves on the mound, and his results aligned with that perception. He lasted just two and two-thirds innings, walking four batters, hitting another, throwing a wild pitch, and giving up three hits (a single and two doubles). Manager Mike Scioscia was forced to intervene in the third inning and remove his starter much sooner than anyone not rooting for the Yankees had hoped. He brought in the rookie starting pitcher John Lackey, who had been moved to the bullpen for this short series, to work as the long reliever here. But by the time Lackey had mopped up that third inning, the Yankees had been staked to a daunting 6-1 lead.
Could the Angels really battle back and overcome a 6-1 deficit in the third inning, to the Yankees, in the playoffs, with Mike Mussina on the mound for New York? The prospects should have been bleak, but while this current situation made Angel fans truly nervous, they also felt hopeful because they knew the mettle of this 2002 Angel team. This was a team that came back to win 99 games after having began the season with a 6-14 record, the worst twenty-game start in franchise history. This was a team that you knew had a viable chance to win, no matter the deficit, as long as they still had at least one out to work with. And wouldn’t you know it -- the Angel bullpen shutout the Yankees for the next six innings to give the potent Halo offense the chance it needed to get back in this game. It was an opportunity that the Angel offense took advantage of, as they immediately started chipping away at the Yankee lead and scored runs in five of the remaining six innings.
The Angels had tied the game in the seventh inning, and finally got the tide to turn in their favor in the eighth inning, which had for some reason been the key inning in every game so far this series. Adam Kennedy led off the frame by pulling a double into right field off of Mike Stanton. David Eckstien followed that with a terrific bunt that moved Kennedy over to third. Darin Erstad then ripped another double into right field, scoring Kennedy and giving the Angels the lead, to both the relief and the joy of the thousands of fans jumping up and down in front of their seats, cheering and pounding those ThunderStix together as if they themselves were crushing right out of existence whatever hope the Yankees had that they still might be able to win this series.
Joe Torre lumbered out to the mound to make a pitching change, but it didn’t matter. Nothing the Yankees would do from here on out would seem to matter. To prove this point, the first batter up after the change in relievers was Tim Salmon, and he crushed the very first pitch from Steve Karsay over the wall in left field for a two-run homer to leave absolutely no doubt that the Angels were going to emerge from this series the champion.
"I had goosebumps," Salmon admitted after the game about his eighth inning blast. "I've got to somehow come down so I can go to sleep!"
In the meantime, Troy Percival came in to close out the ninth. He got the first batter he faced, Alfonso Soriano, to ground out to Troy Glaus at third base. He then got Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi to send harmless fly balls out to Garret Anderson in left field. Once Anderson had secured the final out, Percival threw his fist up into the air, and the players almost started to jump up and down on the field in celebration, but quickly they regained their composure and lined up for the congratulatory, post-game, high-five assembly line. They were floating on air as they smacked their teammates' hands, but at the same time they understood that there was more work to be done.
After having celebrated this tremendous victory with each other in the stands, the fans were still beaming with unbridled joy as they made their way out of the stadium, many of them joining in the ringing chant of "Let’s-Go-Angels!" while simultaneously beating on their poor, abused ThunderStix as they flowed down the crowded ramps into the night air with the knowledge that their team was just one more victory away from claiming the first post-season series victory in the franchise’s long, 42-year history.
Said Mike Scioscia in an interview later about this particular contest: "What this game showed our club was that we have the ability, in a playoff environment, to come back and score runs against a really good pitching staff. We scored eight unanswered runs after the third inning. You know, when you go into the playoffs for the first time, there is always an unknown element. You don’t always know how your team is going to react to the pressure. After this game, we knew -- we were reacting just fine."