1993: The Year in Review. The Mighty Ducks Steal the Show : Ducks: Diamond in a Rough Year

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They wear some of the ugliest uniforms ever seen outside the Hot Dog On A Stick stand at your local mall--an unsightly, unholy union between a California Raisin and a pair of Donald Duck pajamas.

They have a team name that makes grown men blush, a team name that was borrowed from a patently unoriginal kids movie that should have been subtitled, "The Bad News Bears Go Skating."

They exist, first and foremost, as a marketing tool for the Walt Disney Co., which was eager to tap into the sporting goods/paraphernalia business because it simply wasn't making enough money in the children's home-video field.

They are an anonymous collection of grunts and working stiffs, unwanted in their previous ports of call, most of them either over the hill or not much into hiking in the first place.

They are also the most exciting thing to happen to the Orange County sports scene since Jim Everett the Great ventured north to San Francisco for the 1989 NFC championship game . . . and never came back.

The Mighty Ducks--for better or for worse, where would the paying sports fans of Orange County have been in 1993 without them?

Watching the Angels turn Anaheim Stadium into the largest-scale garage sale this side of San Diego?

Covering their eyes while Everett melts down like a dime-store candle at mid-field, Chuck Knox ages faster than the picture of Dorian Gray and the Rams wink and giggle as the city of Baltimore whispers sweet nothings into their ears?

Drumming their fingers while waiting for Rod Baker to turn the UC Irvine basketball program around--and wondering how going from 7-22 one season to 6-21 the next can be classified as "rebuilding"?

Sidling up to their relatives from Chicago and Dallas, proudly thumping their thumbs into their chests and announcing, "Well, we have the Bullfrogs"?

If not for ice hockey, 1993 would have been mighty chilly around here. The Ducks caught a county's fancy because they were everything the Rams and the Angels and the other resident underachievers were not--new, fresh, hard-working, feisty, pleasantly surprising, heart-warming rather than heart-breaking.

Beginning life as table scraps from such notoriously underfed households as Hartford, Ottawa and San Jose, the Ducks have succeeded beyond the tritest Disney "high concept"--winning the first road game in their history (over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden); sweeping a November road swing through the Western Conference (going 4-0 at Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg); winning 14 of their first 38 games; taking more standings points (28) into Christmas than the cross-town, defending conference champion Kings, and taking 60% of their defeats down to the wire. Thirteen of the Ducks' first 21 losses were decided by one goal.

The first half of the Ducks' first season has been startling, especially when one considers these inauspicious milestones in the franchise's infancy:

March 1, 1993--Disney CEO Michael Eisner is joined by Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Goofy, the Disneyland brass band, beaming Disney cheerleaders and a hundred or so pee-wee hockey players on the confetti-strewn floor of Anaheim Arena to announce that Disney's hockey team would begin play in 1993, would be named "the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim" and would play its home games on "The Pond." As purists from Newfoundland to British Columbia sobbed in their Molsons, Eisner handed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and King owner Bruce McNall, president of the league's board of governors, duck calls and led them in a group quack.

June 24--The Ducks and their expansion brethren, the Florida Panthers, draft their inaugural rosters. The Panthers select the best goaltender on the board, former Ranger all-star John Vanbiesbrouck, and pay the price; Vanbiesbrouck earns more than $1 million a season. The Ducks, keeping a constant eye on the bottom line, counter with Guy Hebert ($400,000) as their first goaltender, Alexei Kasatonov ($650,000) as their first defenseman and Steven King ($365,000) as their first forward. Eventually, the Ducks enter the 1993-94 season with a payroll of $7.9 million, the lowest in the NHL.

Oct. 8--The Ducks play their first regular-season game, are routed by Detroit, 7-2, and are completely upstaged by a garish pregame show that features exploding rockets, flashing lasers, rainbow-colored spotlights, a flying duck mascot, skating sequined cheerleaders, ear-splitting heavy metal music, a Zamboni from Space Mountain and a singing/shouting guy named "Iceman" whose express purpose that night was never clearly defined. (Apparently, he was there to annoy the crowd. "Iceman" succeeded at this so thoroughly that he lost his job the next day.)

Cost of pregame show: More than $450,000, which is more than the annual salary of every Duck player except Kasatonov and goalie Ron Tugnutt--in case anyone was still wondering where Disney had placed its priorities.

Despite these foreboding obstacles, or maybe because of them, the Ducks pulled together by the end of October, playing an aggressive, no-frills brand of hockey that belied the goofball cartoon logo on their chests. Coach Ron Wilson rallied his troops around an us-against-the-world work ethic, leaned heavily on the unflappable goaltending of Hebert and Tugnutt, and prayed for two or three goals a game.

It was anything but flashy, but Orange County appreciated the effort. Through their first 18 home games, the Ducks were averaging 16,637 in attendance--nearly 97% capacity. A Dec. 26 meeting with the Kings brought a sellout crowd of 17,174, which was more than half the audience at Anaheim Stadium earlier the same day, on hand to watch the Rams lose to the Cleveland Browns, 42-14.

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That Ram crowd--34,155, the lowest total for a non-strike game in the team's 14 years in Anaheim--was the culmination of one of the worst seasons in the franchise's history.

Oh, sure, the Rams have lost more games in a single season than they did in 1993. At 4-11 with one game remaining, they are a shoo-in to better 1991's 3-13.

But those are merely numbers. The wretchedness of this Ram season must be measured in other terms--in indictments (cornerback Darryl Henley's, for alleged drug trafficking), in irritating rumors (the Rams and Baltimore have discussed a mutually beneficial franchise shift), in career-shattering benchings (Everett's, after 3 1/2 seasons of declining production), in shaken confidence in a system (Knox's) that appeared to be firmly on track 12 months earlier.

In 1992, the Rams finished 6-10, doubling their victory total from 1991. Then they added free agents Shane Conlan, Henry Rolling and Fred Stokes to the defense. Then they added Jerome Bettis, 1,300-yard rusher and NFL rookie of the year candidate, to the offense.

And they backslid.

By Christmas weekend, the Rams were playing the worst football in the league. Their 28-point loss to the Browns prompted one Cleveland assistant coach to remark that the Rams were the worst NFL team he had seen in two years. Only one club, 3-12 Cincinnati, had a poorer record than the Rams, but that record included a 15-3 victory over them on Dec. 19 at Riverfront Stadium.

Who's to blame? Everett was the most obvious target, since his personal undoing triggered the Rams' unraveling. After four games, the Rams stood at .500, 2-2, before Everett turned in back-to-back clunkers against New Orleans (a 37-6 loss) and then-winless Atlanta, the latter prompting an angry chair-throwing incident between Ram teammates in the Georgia Dome locker room.

The season began to swirl down the drain that Thursday night in Atlanta. Finally, the defense, which had performed respectably to that point, became demoralized. Finally, Knox lost faith in Everett, one of the primary reasons he hitched up, at age 60, for the Herculean assignment of returning the Rams to the playoffs.

When Knox looked at this team in early 1992, he saw a lot of major problems, but quarterback, he thought, wasn't one of them. In Everett, Knox figured, he had a player to rebuild around. With most projects of this nature, quarterback is the last, nagging piece. In Everett, Knox thought he was arriving in Anaheim one big step ahead in the game.

A year and a half later, Everett was on the sideline while a former ninth-round draft pick from Tulsa, T.J. Rubley, was lining up over center, getting a crash course in on-the-job training.

Rubley, as green as the grass beneath his feet, was the people's choice, largely because he wasn't Everett. By Game 11, he was Knox's choice as well, albeit reluctantly. Rubley forced Knox's hand by energizing the offense in two relief appearances against Detroit and Washington, but not nearly as much as Everett, who compounded his collapse in the pocket by criticizing Knox's offensive strategy as "obsolete."

Knox kept Rubley on a very short leash, allowing him, basically, to throw 10-yard out patterns and hand the ball to Bettis. For one game, Dec. 12 in New Orleans, it worked spectacularly well--Bettis rushed for 212 yards, a Ram rookie record, and the Rams upset the Saints, 23-20.

But Rubley was shaky when throwing deep and a bigger threat running than passing, and the Rams closed out their schedule resigned to the prospect of looking outside the organization for a new quarterback in '94.

They were also looking into the prospect of moving the organization outside the organization--to Baltimore or St. Louis, two cities slighted in the NFL's latest round of expand-o-rama. The Baltimore Rams? In a late December interview with The Times, the first she had given in eight years, owner Georgia Frontiere didn't say yes, but she didn't say no, either.

By the end of 1993, the mood of the fan on the street had turned surly. The prevailing sentiment: Move the Rams anywhere you want, Georgia--and please, take the Angels with you.

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The Angels' Great Youth/Austerity Movement (the choice is yours) had one great month, April, where so many things went so well that it was widely presumed Whitey Herzog had sold his crew cut to the devil.

J.T. Snow, acquired in the much-reviled trade that sent local hero Jim Abbott to the Yankees, reprised the Wally World splash of '86 and then some--batting .343 with six home runs and 17 runs batted in.

Scott Sanderson, acquired in an attempt to fill Abbott's spot in the rotation, won his first three starts.

Tim Salmon, one of four rookies force-fed in the everyday lineup, hit five home runs with 14 RBIs while another, Damion Easley, batted .298.

The Angels recorded back-to-back sweeps of Cleveland and Boston, beat Roger Clemens and Frank Viola, won 13 of their first 19 games and jumped to the top of the American League West standings.

Then, the Angels were forced to play the next five months.

By the end of July, Snow was in the minors, Sanderson had been released, Easley was out for the season, facing leg surgery, and the Angels were 48-55, 9 1/2 games out, fading from front-office indifference.

The front office did nothing to help Manager Buck Rodgers in midstream, primarily because this unexpected contention thing was proving to be a royal pain in the wallet. Keep winning, and you know how these kids are. Next thing you know, they'll be asking for a raise.

September became an open tryout for any prospect in the organization, real or imagined--Mark Holzemer, Brian Anderson, Jim Edmonds, come on down! --and the Angels finished their schedule 71-91, one game worse than their 1992 record, despite a career-high 112 RBIs from designated hitter Chili Davis and rookie of the year numbers (.283, 31 home runs, 95 RBIs) from Salmon.

Intent on whittling their payroll to an anorexic $19 million, the Angels devoted the first three months of the off-season to dumping the contracts of leadoff hitter Luis Polonia, valuable utilityman Rene Gonzales and saves leader Steve Frey. They also dangled Mark Langston and his $4 million salary to see if there were any takers--there have been some nibbles; stay tuned--and announced they were raising season ticket prices on certain premium seats.

Oh, they also made one acquisition of note: shortstop Spike Owen, who batted .234 in 1993 and will be asked in '94 to play second base, a position Owen hasn't handled since high school. Owens makes a lot of money--his contract calls for $4.25 million through 1995--but the Angels, shrewd dealers, were able to talk the Yankees into agreeing to pay $3.25 million of it.

On the college level, nothing much proceeded according to plan, with the possible exception of Cal State Fullerton football.

Expected to play no games in 1993, the Fullerton football team (1970-1992) did just that.

Elsewhere, Fullerton's baseball team, seemingly headed back to Omaha for a second consecutive College World Series appearance, didn't get out of the regionals; Fullerton's basketball team, expected to struggle under first-year coach Brad Holland, was surprisingly competitive, finishing 15-12, and UC Irvine's basketball team, christened by many preseason magazines as a Program To Watch, could be seen winning six of 27 games--one fewer victory than the previous season's 7-22 finish.

The long-dormant Fullerton-Irvine rivalry exploded again on Jan. 16, in an ugly postgame brawl prompted by a kick to Titan forward Bruce Bowen's head by Irvine reserve Uzoma Obiekea. Obiekea drew a two-week suspension for the incident, a sad headline-grabber in an Anteater season best forgotten.

Orange County's community college and high school championship roll call included the Rancho Santiago College baseball team, the Golden West College water polo team, the Orange Coast College women's swim team and the Brea-Olinda High girls' basketball team--State champions all--and the Los Alamitos High and Irvine High football teams, both three-time Southern Section titlists.

Ultimately, though, Orange County athletes were at their best competing in sports most commonly associated with Canada and Brazil. Hockey and soccer. As a warm-up act for the Ducks, the Anaheim Bullfrogs won the county's first professional championship since 1977 by going 13-0-1 in the new Roller Hockey International league. The Bullfrogs averaged nearly 9,000 for home games at Anaheim Arena, despite the fact you couldn't tell the players with a program, despite a bare concrete playing surface--known, in professional roller hockey circles, as "the slab"--that more closely resembled the oil-stained floor of your Uncle Leo's garage.

Two soccer teams based at Cal State Fullerton, Al Mistri's Titans and the Salsa of the American Professional Soccer League, advanced far into the playoffs--the Titans reaching the NCAA final four, the Salsa falling to Colorado in the APSL final, 3-1, in front of an overflow crowd of 11,000 at Titan Stadium.

It was a controversial defeat, too, as Salsa Coach Rildo Menezes, hoping to protect a 1-0 lead, decided to pull his best scorer, league MVP Paulinho, and replace him with a better defender with four minutes remaining. The strategy worked about as well as Gene Mauch's decision to pull Mike Witt in Game 5 of the 1986 playoffs. Colorado rallied for three late goals to win, and Rildo found himself out of a job a week later.

But a loss in a finals is a loss in a finals--rarefied ground in Orange County. The Rams haven't been to a Super Bowl since 1980. The Angels haven't been to a World Series in 34 years of existence. Neither has made the playoffs, or even placed above .500, since the 1980s.

And the Ducks?

Well, at last check, they had 30 points in the Pacific Division standings and were on pace for 66, which would be a post-1968 expansion record. Eighty points are generally the minimum required for an NHL playoff berth, so this Christmas what-if talk is probably a tad wide-eyed.

Remember, the Angels also got off to a good start in 1993.

But at the very least, the Ducks have given local fans a reason to peek at the morning sports section, a reason to come out to the arena, a reason to root for the home team without risk of persecution or humiliation.

This is Orange County, circa 1994.

This is Orange County, a.k.a. Hockey Country.

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