Reporter: “What memories come to mind of the Angels’ first divisional championship.”
Longtime Angel fan: “Mauch should have never pulled Witt in Game 5.”
Reporter: “Uh, that was 1986, we’re talking about 1979.”
Fan: “Oh, yeah. Well, that was 10 years ago. Can you remember what happened 10 years ago?”
Yes we can.
The Angels won the American League’s Western Division in 1979, the first divisional championship in their, then, 19-year history. Team-Millstone, 149 games under .500 before 1979, had finally produced a milestone.
It happened one night--Sept. 25--nearly 10 years ago. First baseman Rod Carew went to his right and fielded Kansas City catcher Darrell Porter’s ground ball. He flipped the ball to pitcher Frank Tanana, who stepped on first base for the last out in a 4-1 Angel victory.
It was at that point that Angel fans, who endured 16 seasons of finishing 10 or more games out of first place, eight managers, three stadiums and 350 players, collectively flipped out.
“I can remember kids getting so excited that they started running down toward the field on the tops of the chairs,” said Hector Lopez, a longtime Angel season-ticket holder. “They didn’t care who they bumped or hit. I was both afraid and happy.”
Charles Pryor, another season-ticket holder, watched as his wife, Josie, was swept up by a riptide of enthusiastic fans and carried toward the field.
“I got her and we left,” he said.
Most remained. Most of them believed they deserved this. They had earned it.
“People had waited so long for a championship,” Lopez said. “I could understand them going a little crazy. If I had been 20 years younger, I would have probably done the same stupid things.”
Stupid things. For years, that pretty much described the Angels’ on-field performance. And for years, numerous Angel fans had asked, and had been asked, why they stuck by a team that seemed terminally stuck.
“I was a kid, I didn’t know any better,” said Mark Howmann, 31, who grew up in San Clemente and lives in Costa Mesa. “When you’re born in Orange County, you’re kind of stuck with them.”
Hector Lopez, who had season tickets when the Angels played at Wrigley Field, began every season optimistic for a pennant.
“And every year my wife would tell me I was crazy.”
The division-clinching victory was Tanana’s first complete game since June 5. He hadn’t pitched at all between June 10 and Sept. 4, sidelined with tendinitis in his left shoulder.
Being congratulated by former President Richard Nixon after the game, he summed up the night, season and history of the team by saying, “It’s been a long road.”
Bumps along the way included Bobby Valentine’s gruesome run-in with the left-center-field wall, Alex Johnson’s walking out ground balls, and five seasons with 90-plus losses.
But the road started to get smooth in 1977, when the Angels jumped head first into the free-agent market and signed Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi. Still, they finished 74-88, 28 games behind division-winning Kansas City.
In 1978, came Lyman Bostock, a player with seemingly unlimited promise, but who was shot to death in Gary, Ind., near the end of the season. (A morbid fact is that Bostock was the fifth Angel player who had died in 13 years. In 1965, rookie pitcher Dick Wantz succumbed to a brain tumor. In 1972, shortstop Chico Ruiz was killed in a car accident. Automobile accidents also took the lives of pitcher Bruce Heinbechner in 1974 and shortstop Mike Miley in 1977.)
Early in the 1978 season, Manager Dave Garcia was fired with a winning record (25-21) and Jim Fregosi, the first Angel hero, was hired. The team enjoyed its best season, going 87-75 and finishing tied for second with Texas, five games behind Kansas City.
The 1979 season began with unprecedented optimism in large part because of the addition of Carew. A seven-time AL batting champion who had hit .334 in 12 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, the Angels acquired Carew by trading away four players.
They started that season with Brian Downing at catcher, Carew at first, Grich at second, 22-year-old Carney Lansford at third, Rance Mullinicks at shortstop, Rudi in left field, Rick Miller in center and Dan Ford--acquired in December, 1978 in another trade with the Twins--in right.
And the Angel front office came up with a slogan: Yes We Can .
Cornball as the slogan sounds, it was quickly taken to heart--and T-shirt and baseball cap--by Angel fans. Yes We Can banners started showing up at Anaheim Stadium. So did a division contender.
The Angels got off to a rocket start. A 10-game winning streak in April started them rolling to what would be the best first-half of a season the team had ever had--55-38.
They had the type of first half one only wishes for in private.
Grich, batting in the No. 7 spot, had 19 home runs--matching his career best to that point--and 60 RBIs. Baylor, whose career high for RBIs had been 99, had 85 by the break.
Lansford was batting .308. Carew had been injured through the first half, but a chubby rookie named Willie Mays Aikens filled in and hit 14 home runs and had 53 RBIs.
Downing, whose highest batting average in his previous five years in the major leagues had been .284, was leading both leagues in hitting at .352.
Pitcher Nolan Ryan had 12 wins and took five no-hitters into the fifth inning. A 23-year old rookie reliever named Mark Clear had 10 wins, eight saves and 68 strikeouts in 73 innings.
Things weren’t good. Things were ridiculously good.
And it was all made sweeter by the fact that the Dodgers were suffering through a miserable first half with a 36-57 record. The Angels had always been overshadowed by the Dodgers, whom they could never compare with in success or popularity.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that the Angels were never in competition with the White Sox or the Royals as much as we were in competition with the Dodgers,” said Buzzie Bavasi, then Angel general manager, who had been in the Dodger organization for 30 years. “It meant a lot whenever we beat them (Dodgers) in the Freeway Series.”
By the All-Star break, the Angels and their fans were thinking of a series of another kind.
“Around that time, I thought we had a real chance of going all the way,” Bavasi said.
But the second half was filled with injuries. During one Eastern swing, Fregosi had only 17 players available.
“We kept battling,” Fregosi said. “But I can remember I just wanted to get this team home alive.”
In their place came veterans Willie Davis, Merv Rettenmund, Ralph Garr and Bert Campaneris.
“That club had an interesting mix of youngsters and people on their last legs,” Bavasi said. “And they all had something to prove.”
What the Angels proved was that they could score runs. Boy, could they score runs. They averaged 5.39 runs a game, the most for an AL team since the 1956 Yankees had averaged 5.60.
“We beat up on some pitching that year,” Fregosi said.
They also proved they were a bit lucky to be in the Western Division. Their 88-74 record would have left them in fifth place in the East.
But who was counting on Sept. 25?
Fregosi remembers shoving photographers out of the Angel dugout as they prepared to shoot the victory celebration. If playing for the Angels had taught him anything, it was that nothing was for sure.
Fregosi had been the Angels’ first bona-fide star, the unquestioned favorite of fans until Nolan Ryan started throwing no-hitters. He was also a darling of Angel management. As early as 1970, when he was only 27, Gene Autry briefly considered hiring him as a player/manager. But in his 11 seasons with the team (1961-71), the six-time All-Star played on teams that went 847-932.
“I kept screaming for them (photographers) to get out,” Fregosi said of the closing moments of the game. “I take nothing for granted.”
When the end finally came, when Carew flipped the ball to Tanana and thousands of fans poured onto the field, grabbing whatever they could--caps, dirt, infield grass--Fregosi remembers an overriding sense of relief.
“When you wait 20 years for something and finally get it, well, I was just relieved that we finally won,” he said.
Bavasi walked down to the Angel locker room to see Autry being showered with his own champagne. Thanks to the crush of fans on the field, Grich was late to the celebration, finally needing a police escort to make it to the clubhouse.
“That was the highlight of my career,” Fregosi said. “I went in my office, sat down and just let it all soak in.”
Baylor was named the American League’s most valuable player. He hit 36 home runs and led the league with 139 RBIs. Grich hit 30 home runs and had 101 RBIs, and Ford hit 21 homers and had 101 RBIs. Aikens hit 21 home runs, and Downing ended the season as the league’s No. 3 hitter--the top right-handed hitter--with a .326 average.
The Angels set an attendance record with 2,523,575 spectators, a sizeable leap from the previous high of 1,755,366 in 1978. That kind of enthusiasm produced tents in the Anaheim Stadium parking lot as fans camped out, waiting to buy tickets for the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles. One die-hard fan, Bill Thomas, told The Times that he had quit his job as a mechanic so he could line up for tickets.
The Angels lost the first game of the league championship series, 6-3. They had been tied, 3-3, with Ryan on the mound in the sixth inning when he was forced to leave the game with a hamstring injury. And, as Bavasi puts it, “the wind went right out of our sails.”
The Angels were trailing, 9-3, after six innings in the second game of the series, but they scored three in the eighth to pull to 9-6. In the ninth, they scored two more to come within 9-8, and had Downing at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs.
Downing grounded out.
Down zero games to two, in the days when the championship series was the best three-of-five, the Angels won the third game with a two-run, ninth-inning rally. Downing scored the game-winner on a one-out double by Larry Harlow, a former Oriole.
But the end came in the fourth game, which the Angels lost, 8-0.
Of course, Angels fans will forever wonder what might have been had Oriole third baseman Doug DeCinces not fielded shortstop Jim Anderson’s smash down the line.
There were two outs in the fifth inning and the Angels trailed, 3-0. But they had loaded the bases when Anderson pulled the ball. DeCinces, playing the line, dived and gloved the ball on a hop. He tagged third, then threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
“Anderson had not pulled a ball all year,” Fregosi said. “Why DeCinces was playing there, I’ll never know.”
Equally mystifying was the Angels’ 1980 season. Seemingly on the brink of something big, they lost 95 games and finished 32 games out of first place. Fregosi believes it was injuries. “We probably had the highest payroll ever on injured reserve,” he said.
Among them was Baylor, who broke his wrist.
Ryan was lost to free agency. Bavasi had quipped that the Angels could easily replace him by getting “two 8-7 pitchers"--referring to Ryan’s 16-14 record in 1979. What the Angels got was Bruce Kison, who went 3-6, and John DeAquisto, who had no decisions that season.
But, what are those facts in the face of history? Nineteen seventy-nine will always be the sweetest of seasons.
“No matter what happens, that was the first and I was there,” Fregosi said. “No one can take any of that away, and no one can ever duplicate it. There’s only one first time.”