Could a monkey be the next Mr. October?

Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2002

A monkey is in the running to become baseball's next Mr. October.

Which means a mouse can't be far behind.

People who said Walt Disney Co.'s ownership of the Anaheim Angels would have an effect on the game, take a bow.

This is what happens when the Yankees have to sit out the occasional World Series. The National League sends the San Francisco Giants and Barry Bonds, a superstar with more candlepower than Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens combined. Meanwhile, the most recognizable mug on the AL pennant-winners belongs to a grinning simian.

And the strange part? If the rally monkey has as big an impact on the final round of the postseason as he did on the first two, teammates might vote him a boatload of bananas as a series share.

''The monkey has been great for us,'' said David Eckstein, the 5-foot-8 shortstop who's been responsible for a few Angels rallies himself. ''We wait until he comes out, I guess.''

Who knew?

For most of the 40 or so years of their existence, the Angels were called cursed, haunted, star-crossed and worse. Turns out they were just biding their time, waiting for the right cue.

Two years ago, two kids on the video crew at Edison Field were bored, so they slapped a clip from the movie ''Ace Ventura: Pet Detective'' on the stadium scoreboard. While the furry little fellow jumped up and down on all fours exhorting the team, the kids superimposed the words ''rally monkey.'' The Angels came back to win. A tradition was born.

The monkey's facetime increased as the ballclub got off to the worst start in franchise history. What was different about this edition, though, was how calmly the team responded.

Manager Mike Scioscia, familiar to Los Angeles fans because he once wore Dodger blue, could have panicked. Instead, he spread the burden around. Instead of letting his ballplayers blame one another, he taught them to pick each other up.

He coaxed production from warhorse Tim Salmon, the longest-suffering Angel, and fire from rookie Francisco Rodriguez, who's become the understudy for closer Troy Percival. The veterans in between, guys like Darin Erstad and Garret Anderson, responded to Scioscia's levelheaded approach by playing with more joy or confidence than the Angels' gloomy tradition should have allowed. Contributions came from unlikely places at critical junctures. The rally monkey just turned out to be the last piece of the puzzle.

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

The high point?

That's easy: Sunday night, about an hour after Adam Kennedy hit his third home run of the game to finish off Minnesota in the AL championship series and write the perfect end to a new chapter. Kennedy is a ninth-place hitter with all of 23 career homers. Up until he left the on-deck circle for that fateful at-bat, he was sure Scioscia would send up a pinch-hitter.

But like the rally monkey, he sparked a postseason-record-tying 10-run outburst in the seventh inning and sent the Angels to their first World Series in four decades of trying.

And the lows? There are almost too many to know where to begin.

Maybe the best place to start is the absolute bottom, the night reliever Donnie Moore killed himself, three years after surrendering the deciding run in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS.

The Angels lost the next two games and the series to Boston. In the summer of 1989, tired of drink and depression, Moore committed suicide.

Things didn't seem much better the night Gene Autry died. The ''Singing Cowboy'' bought the Angels as an expansion franchise in the 1960s and for four decades, he dreamed of seeing his Angels in the World Series, just once. He died in 1998, at age 91, his heart still aching.

Maybe that's why his widow, Jackie, got to present the ALCS trophy to Scioscia, and why the manager told her, ''We've had a lot of Angels looking down on us. This one was for Mr. Autry.''

As recently as spring training, just-departed slugger Mo Vaughn said he was glad to get away from everything the Angels represented. After signing with the Mets, he said, ''They ain't got no flags hanging at friggin' Edison Field.''

Turns out he might have spoken too soon.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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