St. Christopher swung from a silver chain around the neck of
Anaheim Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. The coach grabbed
the oval medal, with a likeness of the saint on one side and that
of a ballplayer swinging a bat on the other, and tossed it over
his shoulder so that it hung backward. It was time, Hatcher
figured on Sunday, to turn around the momentum in Game 5 of the
American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins.
It was time, as it would happen, to reverse 41 years of hellish
Anaheim trailed Minnesota 5-3 in the seventh inning when Angels
first baseman Scott Spiezio dumped an opposite-field single into
right. Every deluge begins with a drop. By the time the inning
ended, 10 runs and nine more hits later, Anaheim had salted away
its first pennant (they won the clincher 13-5), minted a
reputation as one of the best rally teams in postseason history
and paid homage to its patron saint.
Officially, St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers,
which has inspired generations of sojourners to wear his medal on
expeditions. These Angels, though they may be owned by Disney and
play on Katella Avenue, down the street from Disneyland, are
rough-hewn characters--"a bunch of vagabonds, guys off the scrap
pile and dirtbags" is how Anaheim reliever Ben Weber describes
himself and some of his teammates. None of the seven players who
joined the club after being released by other organizations (nor
anyone else on the Anaheim roster, for that matter) has been to a
World Series. This band of nomads made it to the majors by way of
baseball boondocks such as Moose Jaw, Nashua and Taipei.
Appropriately, they will be remembered for their relentlessness.
In roughly 18,000 half innings of postseason history before Oct.
5, only once had a team pounded 10 hits during its turn at bat,
and that was in 1929, when the Philadelphia Athletics did it in
the World Series. Then the Angels accomplished that feat twice in
six games. First they ended the New York Yankees' season with a
10-hit fifth inning in Game 4 of the Division Series, scoring
eight times to overcome a 2-1 deficit and win 9-5. Then there was
that assembly-line clincher in the LCS against the Twins. "We ran
into a buzz saw," Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said
after the series. "Sometimes a team gets three hot guys, and they
can carry you for months. But I've never seen nine guys get hot
at the same time."
The Angels are the dripping faucet that keeps you awake at night.
They drive opponents mad with an annoying medley of onomatopoeic
hits: bloops, blips, dinks, dunks, chinks, flips and snorts.
"Everything fell," Mientkiewicz said about that 10-run inning. "I
was praying, Please hit a line drive right at me so we can get
out of this."
To be exact, the rally began not with Spiezio's hit but in spring
training. After a 2001 season in which Anaheim finished 75-87 and
41 games out of first place in the American League West--they
scored fewer runs than any AL team except the Baltimore Orioles
and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays--Hatcher and manager Mike Scioscia
emphasized the importance of situational hitting and making
contact, even in Cactus League games. In April, unhappy with the
hitters' progress, they instituted a fine system in which, for
instance, players would have to cough up $100 if they didn't
advance a runner from second base with no outs. Also, for the
first two months of the season the coaching staff posted in the
clubhouse a running tally of how each player fared in key
situations, such as getting runners home from third with fewer
than two outs.
"We stopped doing it because it was apparent that guys bought
into the concept," bench coach Joe Maddon says. "We didn't need
it anymore--it became part of the culture. It became cool to put
the ball in play and advance runners."
In 2002 only three American League teams outscored Anaheim, which
went 99-63 and won the wild card. No other major league club hit
for a higher average (.282) or struck out fewer times (805) than
the Angels, who were even tougher to get out in clutch
situations. With runners in scoring position, they hit .290; with
a runner on third and fewer than two outs, they hit .396. Maddon
came up with another measurement of their effectiveness: jug
runs. "As in going for the jugular," he says. "Those are the runs
that put the game away, especially when you have the lead and
you're hitting before the other team's last at bat--bottom of the
eighth at home or top of the ninth on the road."
In the postseason Anaheim outscored the Yankees and the Twins by
a combined 27-12 after the sixth inning. That Game 5 spark from
Spiezio, a converted second baseman whom the Oakland A's didn't
re-sign after the 1999 season, was followed by a single from
catcher Bengie Molina. Scioscia then asked second baseman Adam
Kennedy to bunt, even though the ninth-place hitter had already
smashed two homers. Kennedy fouled off one bunt, whereupon
Scioscia took off the sacrifice because of the aggressive posture
of the Twins' corner infielders.
On an 0-and-2 pitch, southpaw reliever Johan Santana, who did not
yield a home run to a lefthanded hitter all season, hung a
breaking ball that Kennedy lashed with his awkward, looping cut.
(Even though he hits few home runs--23 in 1,652 career major
league at bats before the postseason--he swings with a pronounced
uppercut.) "Our reports said his swing was unorthodox, but that
it gets the job done," says Anaheim general manager Bill
Stoneman, who acquired Kennedy from St. Louis in March 2000.
Kennedy lofted that Santana pitch into the rightfield seats,
putting the Angels ahead 6-5. His third home run of the day--he
had only two daytime homers in his career until Sunday--placed him
alongside Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett and Bob
Robertson as the only players to hit three homers in a postseason
game. Now it was time for the jugs.
"The hardest thing to do in baseball," Mientkiewicz said, "is to
get [a rally] started again, after a guy hits the big home run to
put your team ahead. As a hitter, you have to refocus when
everybody is celebrating. I don't think people realize how hard
that is to do. David Eckstein was the best guy to have up in that
Eckstein, who is generously listed as 5'8", has the rosy face of
a cherub and still calls his father, Whitey, every night. The
27-year-old Eckstein signed with Anaheim after the Boston Red Sox
released him from Triple A Pawtucket in 2000. He became the
Angels' starting shortstop the next season, wowing purists with
his mastery of fundamentals and an old-school hitting style in
which he slaps the ball while choking up two inches on his
"My son is amazing," says Whitey, one of 13 family members whom
David flew in from Florida for the LCS. "He was never the best
player on any team he ever played on, but for some reason he
wound up winning. There is no substitute for heart. You know,
somebody asked me what was the worst thing David did growing up.
He was the perfect child. He never caused any trouble."
Eckstein has since carved out a career as a troublemaker. After
Kennedy's homer, Eckstein scratched out a two-strike infield
single. The Angels would add six more singles, a walk and a
bases-loaded hit by pitch. One of those hits was by DH Shawn
Wooten, whom Anaheim signed from Moose Jaw, an independent team,
Righthanded relievers Weber and Brendan Donnelly are also
independent-league refugees. Weber, 32, was ready to quit
baseball and enroll in chiropractic school after playing for the
Salinas Peppers in 1996, but he received an offer to pitch in
Taipei. He spent two seasons there before signing with the San
Francisco Giants, who released him in 2000, whereupon the Angels
picked him up. Having once supplemented his minor league income
with a $4.50 hourly wage on an off-season assembly line (Weber
says the work was so boring that he can't recall what he
assembled), he was beside himself on Sunday: "I'm going to the
World Series! Any guy in an independent league can look at me and
say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"
Donnelly, 31, toiled for two independent teams (Nashua and Ohio
Valley), as well as seven other organizations (not including his
off-season gigs digging ditches and exterminating pests) until he
rather mysteriously added velocity to his slider and fastball,
and made the Anaheim roster last season. The best bullpen in the
AL (2.98 ERA) grew more ferocious in the postseason with the
emergence of 20-year-old prodigy Francisco Rodriguez, who has
already tied an American League single-season record with four
postseason victories, this despite never winning a regular-season
Until Sunday the Angels' franchise had been 0-6 in games that
would have put the team into the World Series. That changed when
the final out, a pop-up, alighted poetically in the two-handed
grasp of Eckstein. Then it became hard to tell one end of Katella
Avenue from the other. Was this Edison Field or Cinderella's
A celebration 41 years in the making ensued in the home
clubhouse. As it began to wind down, Eckstein suddenly remembered
something. He reached into a wooden lockbox atop his locker--he
had to stand on a chair to do so--and pulled out a baseball. He
pressed it into the hand of his father. "Here," David said. "It's
the last out. It's yours."
Whitey took the baseball and stuffed it into the left pocket of
his beige jacket. He didn't say a word. He simply smiled. All
around him the Angels hugged one another in a clubhouse wet and
sweet from champagne. It was the happiest place on earth.
gets three hot guys. I've never seen nine guys get hot at the
independent league can look at me and say, 'If he can do it, I
can do it.'"