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Mike Scioscia turned the Angels from pretenders to contenders

Mike Scioscia turned the Angels from pretenders to contenders
Angels manager Mike Scioscia pauses while speaking at a news conference after the team's season finale on Sept. 30. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Scioscia summoned me into his office and asked me to close the door. He was not happy.

He did not care for whatever I had written about his strategy. He was offended at the notion that I might have considered something that he and his coaches had not. Let me explain my strategy first, he said, so you can understand it before you criticize it.

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The decibel level rose to an uncomfortable level, but the point was a fair one, and a valuable window into how he ran his clubhouse. He did not embarrass me in front of players or other reporters, and he did not hold a grudge. He had made his point, and he turned the proverbial page.

Any workplace is better off when the employees need not wonder what kind of mood the boss might be in on any given day. Scioscia was a rock. He turned the page every day, for 19 years, before he stepped down as Angels manager on Sunday after his team’s 5-4 victory over Oakland in Anaheim.

That is what made his farewell speech Sunday so distinctive, and so human. On his last day on the job, after 3,078 games as manager of the Angels, he finally lost his composure.

He thanked the team owner, the executives, the coaches, the medical staff, and the video guys, and then he could not go on. He struggled to compose himself, wiping away tears. He needed 28 seconds to compose himself, spoke a little more, and started to cry again.

“I’m really happy, guys,” he said through the tears.

He did what we all aspire to do. He left the place in better shape than he found it. In his case, the rock moved mountains.

The Angels have fallen upon hard times recently, but it is impossible to overstate how adrift the organization was when he arrived, at the end of the lost decade of the 1990s.

They spent money, but not freely, and they did not win. They let the kids play, but not wholeheartedly, and they did not win.

“Don’t say ‘contend,’ ” one team official told me during those dark days. “Say ‘compete.’ ”

The Walt Disney Co. bought the team, outfitted the players in pinstriped pajamas, planted cheerleaders on the dugout roof, and installed a team president who once bellowed, “Somebody said to me, ‘You can’t trade 25 guys.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

Disney pushed that president out after hiring Bill Stoneman to run the Angels. Stoneman hired Scioscia, who banished the talk of competing. He was here to contend.

The Angels can’t win the World Series? Why not?

Three years was the average life span for an Angels manager in those days. I gave Scioscia three years, either to join the pile of failed Angels managers or to leverage whatever modest success he might have into a better job.

In his third year, the Angels won the World Series. He transformed the Angels job into a coveted one, and the Angels franchise into a relevant one.

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The Angels won five of six American League West championships, new owner Arte Moreno funded the arrival of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, and fans packed Angel Stadium even when the Dodgers, Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees were not in town.

“Angels fans, don’t let anybody sell you short,” Scioscia said Sunday.

The team that once spit up and chewed out managers suddenly developed them. Joe Maddon, Bud Black and Ron Roenicke all parlayed coaching jobs under Scioscia into major league managing jobs, and all borrowed from Scioscia’s light touch in managing the long grind. So did Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who learned from Black.

Even on Sunday, as Scioscia fought back tears, he did not yell at the reporter whose ringing cellphone interrupted the news conference three times. Instead, he quickly reverted to his usual managerial persona.

“Is that an iPhone 1 that doesn’t have an off switch?” he laughed.

And, for all of his accomplishments that flashed on the stadium video boards Sunday, he certainly appreciated this one: “Mike Scioscia has appeared in two episodes of ‘The Simpsons.’ ”

John Carpino, the Angels’ president, said Scioscia had decided on his own to step away. What if Scioscia had wanted a new contract so he could return next season? It never got to that point, Carpino said.

That is for the best. Even the best messengers can lose their audience. Billy Eppler, the general manager, deserves the same chance to hire a manager that Stoneman got — and that the two Angels general managers in between never got. Scioscia said he would like to manage again.

I don’t buy the claim that Scioscia cannot adapt to the modern game. For all the hype surrounding the “bullpenning” craze now — that is, using a flurry of relief pitchers to overcome the shortcomings of starters — that is exactly how Scioscia won the 2002 World Series. The Angels got 31 innings from their starters in that series, 30 from their relievers.

And the style that Scioscia imported from his playing days with the Dodgers and nurtured with the Angels fell out of fashion less because of anything he did and more because Moreno’s costly acquisitions — Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson — did not pay off for the major league team and deprived the minor league system of the resources necessary to replenish talent.

Scioscia might never have the power in another job that he did in Anaheim. He once kicked Jose Guillen off the team for insubordination, even though the Angels were in a heated pennant race and Guillen ranked second on the team in home runs.

But Scioscia commands enough respect that three prominent players — Mike Trout, Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun — made sure to witness the news conference before heading to the airport, and to the off-season.

“Are your flights delayed?” Scioscia joked.

That is vintage Scioscia. As a catcher with the Dodgers, he played for Tommy Lasorda, a manager who dominated the spotlight. As a manager with the Angels, Scioscia insisted the spotlight belonged to his players.

“This game is about the players,” he said, crying again, “and it always will be.”

He dropped the names of 13 of his former players within 40 seconds, with a description for each. He took a few breaths to describe what he called the “phenomenon” that is Torii Hunter, then threw out six more names within 20 seconds.

The last three names: Trout, Guerrero and Pujols.

Guerrero was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. Trout and Pujols will get there too.

And, although this kind of suggestion would have been within the realm of the magical when he took the job as manager of the Angels, Scioscia will get there too. His halo shines tonight, and forever.

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