Angels overcome 'California curse'

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They were the team that couldn't win, the team that's cursed, the team that choked just one strike away.

The Anaheim Angels were unloved and without star players. They were known as the Mickey Mouse team founded by ''Singing Cowboy'' Gene Autry.

Now, finally, they have made it to the World Series, a stunning turnaround for a franchise with a star-crossed past.

Goodbye Dodger blue, hello Halo red.

''My mouth is hurting because I've been smiling so much,'' outfielder Tim Salmon said. ''You know what? It's just joy. I'm so excited.

''To be with this organization as long as I have and to feel the emptiness of the fans all these years, and the pain and frustration, the history is long.''

He's been with the Angels for the last 11 of their 42 seasons. He remembers the days when Edison International Field -- it used to be called Anaheim Stadium or the Big A -- was so empty that actor Charlie Sheen once bought all the seats behind the left-field fence just to try to catch a home-run ball. Nobody hit one to him.

Now, the ballpark is as congested as the I-5. There was a 90-minute wait to get into the gift shop Monday.

La-La Land has embraced these Angels, caught the wave, is trying to ride it all the way to a World Series title over the San Francisco Giants.

On Monday, about 75 fans lined up outside the ballpark, hoping returned tickets from other teams would be put on sale and willing to wait days just in case seats became available at prices up to $175 a game. The Series starts Saturday.

''I've been rooting for the Angels since I was a baby,'' said Kari Thomason, a 24-year-old fan from Buena Park. ''If they won the World Series, maybe we'd buy season tickets.''

Joe Santana, a 38-year-old Dodgers fan from Long Beach, arrived at 6:15 a.m. and was near the front of the line to try to get tickets for a friend.

''These people are bandwagon fans,'' he said. ''All of a sudden everybody is wearing the jerseys. See 'em all break their ankles jumping on the bandwagon?''

Talk about identity crisis -- the team keeps getting renamed.

Born as the Los Angeles Angels when Autry founded the team in December 1960, it was renamed the California Angels in 1965 and the Anaheim Angels in 1996 after The Walt Disney Co. took control. Because of the name and logo switches, new World Series pins had to be made this year, replacing ones that were never used.

Before getting their own ballpark in Orange County in 1966, the Angels shuttled from Wrigley Field in Los Angeles to Dodger Stadium.

The only constant was losing, and tragedy.

For years, the team has talked of a curse. The ballpark was rumored to have been built on an Indian burial ground.

In 1965, rookie pitcher Dick Wantz, just 25, died of a brain tumor. Three years later, reliever Minnie Rojas was paralyzed in an auto accident that killed his wife and two of their three children.

Infielder Chico Ruiz was killed in a car crash in 1972; rookie reliever Bruce Heinbechner died in another accident in 1974; shortstop Mike Miley was killed in still another in 1974. Outfielder Lyman Bostock was killed in Gary, Ind., in 1978, struck by a bullet intended for someone else in the car they were in.

In 1989, reliever Donnie Moore killed himself, three years after giving up a home run to Boston's Dave Henderson when the Angels were one strike from the World Series.

''Some weird stuff has happened,'' reliever Scott Schoeneweis said. ''We can probably say the curse is over.''

The Angels have never finished over .500 in three straight seasons, and last year they ended up 41 games out of first place in the American League West, behind the Seattle Mariners.

Anaheim drew 2.3 million fans this year, just 16th among the 30 major league teams and 800,000 fewer than the Dodgers, who faded in the final weeks and haven't won a pennant since 1988.

Less than two months ago, on Aug. 30, a crowd of 18,820 threw debris onto the field after a game against Tampa Bay. Fans were angry players were about to go on strike.

''I would have hoped that our fans would have a little more class than what they showed tonight,'' Schoeneweis said then.

Now the fans fill the ballpark in a sea of red shirts, whack together red inflatable Thunder Stix and pay $20 and $15 for ''rally monkeys'' they drape around their necks. The monkeys seem more popular lately than Mickey.

Disney, which took control of the team two years before Autry died, became the sole owner in 1999. It has said it would consider offers for the team.

Still, all the focus now is on the Series. The failures and tragedies, while not forgotten, have receded.

''I think,'' manager Mike Scioscia said, ''there is some portion of relief with some of the guys that have been through the wars here.''

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