A game 29 years ago between the slumping Angels and a bad Indians team remains burned in my memory to this day, but only for what I missed. This was the game that cemented my years-long stance of never leaving a baseball game before the final out.
I have since relaxed this personal rule — everyone has their own schedule, and should enjoy things as much as they want to enjoy them — but at age 15 I was young and idealistic. I was also too young to drive, meaning I was at the mercy of my two older brothers, my ride and companions to a July 28, 1991 game against the Indians at Anaheim Stadium.
To this point in my life, I’m not sure exactly how many major league games I attended in person, but it couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so. I lived in Palm Springs, roughly two hours from either Anaheim or Los Angeles, but without a car it might as well have been a million miles away.
The Angels were on the periphery on contention entering this game, only four games back of the Twins in the American League West but also tied for fourth place in a seven-team division. The Halos were also in the midst of an horrific slump, tied for first on July 3 before a seven-game losing streak. The Angels scored only 17 runs in their previous nine games heading into a four-game series with Cleveland, and 10 of those runs came in one game.
Starting pitching was on the mind of general manager Dan O’Brien, looking to add an arm to what was essentially only a four-man rotation of Chuck Finley, Mark Langston, Jim Abbott, and Kirk McCaskill. Among the Angels’ targets were Ron Darling of the Mets, Chris Bosio of the Brewers, and Greg Swindell of the Indians, per the Sporting News (Dave Cunningham, July 22, 1991)
“There are only six or seven clubs in a position to trade what we need, which is a starting pitcher,” O’Brien said. “That doesn’t give us very many possibilities. And the only thing they’re interested in is prospects. Virtually everybody is talking about our young guys. They all want us to give up futures. And that’s something I don’t like to do.”
Among the “futures” former GM Mike Port gave up in building the 1991 team was outfielder Dante Bichette, sent to the Brewers for a 40-year-old Dave Parker. Port was fired at the end of April, with O’Brien taking over.
Abbott started the series opener for the Angels on Thursday night against Swindell, who was still embroiled in trade rumors on a Cleveland team that would lose 105 games. “I need the piece of mind of knowing where I’m going to be for the next three years, so I don’t have to listen to trade rumors every day,” Swindell told the Los Angeles Times.
Both pitchers were on top of their game in Anaheim, combining to allow only three total batters to reach base in the first six innings. One of those was an error by Albert Belle in left field, putting 39-year-old Dave Winfield at second base. Parker, the only Angel older, drove him in with a single. Cleveland scratched across the tying run with three singles in the eighth inning, with Glenallen Hill driving home the equalizer.
This is where this game became personally important to me. It was probably around 10 p.m., or close to it (it was a 7:35 p.m. start). It’s completely reasonable that both of my adult brothers — ages 25 and 30 — wanted to get home at a relatively reasonable hour, and both lived in Corona, a reasonable drive away. But I was on summer vacation, and had no such burden. So I was stunned when they suggested we leave in the top of the ninth inning.
I can only paraphrase the ensuing conversation, unaided by neither brother even remembering this game when I asked them about it 29 years later.
“Why are we leaving early? The game isn’t even over yet,” I asked.
“We’ll beat the traffic home,” one of them probably said (my dad, who passed away four years earlier, was notorious for his ability to flee a stadium and arrive home in record time).
When a 24-year-old Belle singled home 22-year-old Carlos Baerga, none of us thought we were watching two linchpins for a budding American League juggernaut. But it did gave the Indians a 2-1 lead, strengthening my brothers’ desire to bolt.
I was complaining on the way to the car, though both brothers noted at least it wasn’t a Dodgers game (we were all bigger Dodgers fans than Angels fans, sorry). By the time we got the car, it was 4-1 Cleveland thanks to a Mark Whiten double.
I had to admit, the case for leaving early was strongest here. To start the bottom of the ninth, the Angels’ win probability was just 4 percent, and even that seemed high. Remember that offensive slump I mentioned? They had just four multi-run innings in nearly 10 games, and three of those came in one game. The odds of them scoring at least the three runs they needed seemed extremely low, if not impossible.
Though we left the stadium, I couldn’t give up the ghost just yet. I convinced my brothers to turn the game on the radio as we drove home; they owed me at least that, I told myself.
Polonia opened the inning with a single, then after a walk, Wally Joyner singled home a run, cutting it to 4-2. Dave Winfield walked to load the bases, ending the night for Indians reliever Shawn Hillegas after just four batters and no outs.
This is when things turned for the worst for Cleveland. Jesse Orosco entered and got Parker to ground out, but that brought made the score 4-3 and put the tying and winning runs in scoring position. After that groundout, Indians pitchers threw two more strikes.
Gary Gaetti was intentionally walked to load the bases again, and Jeff Shaw was brought in to pitch. Lance Parrish ran a 3-1 count, then flew out to center field, delivering the tying run. This spawned yet another intentional walk, this one to Max Venable. Shaw couldn’t find the strike zone, and Dick Schofield didn’t even need to take the bat off his shoulder, taking four pitches for the walk-off walk, a shrimp alert long before shrimp alerts even existed.
Vindicated in the back seat, I spent the better part of the ride home gloating that I was right, that we should have never left the game early. I probably even said some of this aloud.
It made me never want to leave a game early ever again. Because you never know what you might miss if you don’t stick around.