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Fantasyland!

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The halo shines tonight, and forever. Gene Autry’s Angels are the champions of the World Series.

Tim Salmon waved a cowboy hat at the sky. Then he hoisted the championship trophy aloft and skipped around the warning track, a victory lap 42 years in the making. After four decades of seasons that ended in defeat, sometimes painfully and all too often routinely, the Angels proclaimed the first championship in franchise history loudly and proudly.

“I don’t gloat very often,” relief pitcher Troy Percival said. “Right now, we’re the best.”

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That they are, without a superstar.

The Angels spun the pick-a-hero wheel for Game 7 of the World Series, and look who came up in the 4-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants: All-Star Garret Anderson, the other left fielder in this Series, doubled home three runs, the last game-winning hit in his fabulous season. John Lackey, a tall Texan who would not be out of place in one of Autry’s old cowboy movies and a kid five days past his 24th birthday, pitched five terrific innings to become the first rookie to win Game 7 in 93 years.

The score never changed after the third inning, tension and anticipation mounting all the while. Salmon, the right fielder removed from the game in the eighth inning, said he started counting down in the fourth. Second baseman Adam Kennedy said he started counting down in the seventh.

In the ninth inning, as Percival took the mound, Salmon scampered back to the clubhouse. From his locker, he retrieved a white Stetson cowboy hat, with Gene Autry’s signature embossed in gold along the band. Jackie Autry had loaned the hat, from her late husband, when Salmon asked for some memento, some symbolic way to involve the Angels’ founding owner in the celebration he so dearly wished he would live to see.

At 8:19 p.m., Kenny Lofton lofted a fly ball to center field, for what would be the final out. As Darin Erstad awaited descent, waving his arms so frantically no one dared encroach upon his airspace, catcher Bengie Molina rushed the mound.

“My heart,” he said, “wanted to come out of my body.”

Erstad said he could barely breathe.

“I was like, oh my God,” he said. “I wanted that ball so bad. I said to myself that this would be the hardest catch I ever made in my life. I said, use two hands, just like my dad taught me.”

As the Angels charged the mound, and hugged, and piled atop each other, Salmon emerged from the dugout with Autry’s hat, thrusting it to the sky and to every corner of the ballpark.

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And, as Commissioner Bud Selig said upon presenting the championship trophy, “Somewhere, Gene Autry is smiling right now.”

Salmon, the longest-suffering Angel player, lingered on the field, soaking up all the sights and sounds of victory -- the fireworks, the ovations, the streamers, the teammates dressed in black World Series championship T-shirts and gray championship caps.

“Everything is dreamlike right now,” Salmon said. “It just doesn’t seem real.”

Molina said he wouldn’t believe what had just happened until he read about it in the morning papers.

Congratulations, Bengie. The Angels really are champions.

Percival, the veteran closer, got the final three outs. The first 24 came from Lackey, Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez, all rookies, none of whom made the opening day roster. In those eight innings, the Giants managed five hits.

“There goes the theory,” Salmon said, “that you need veterans to win a World Series.”

The Giants had a pretty good one in Barry Bonds. He hit .471 in the Series, reaching base in 21 of 30 plate appearances and hitting four home runs.

But the championship rings will not be worn by the team with the left fielder who snubbed his teammates during the World Series introductions and who nearly came to blows with his second baseman in the middle of a game during the regular season.

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And the Series MVP award was won not by Bonds but by a representative of the winning team -- Angel third baseman Troy Glaus, who hit .385 with three home runs and eight runs batted in.

“I watch other teams win, and you sit and watch how many superstars they’ve got,” Percival said. “To watch this team win the world championship is something special.”

Said Brad Fullmer: “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a team go from February to October without one argument, without one fight. A lot of teams put up with each other, but they don’t actually like each other. This team does.”

The Angels, the World Series champions, had one player selected to the All-Star team -- Anderson, as a reserve. That will change next season, when Angel Manager Mike Scioscia gets to make the selections. As a perk of victory, he will manage the American League All-Star team. In that capacity, he will be introduced by the honorary president of the league -- Jackie Autry.

And so it all came full circle, back to Gene Autry. Red was his favorite color, the one that reminded him of the days when the circus would pass through his boyhood town. In red, he saw happiness.

This year, for the first time in their 42 seasons, the Angels wore red. This year, destiny wore red.

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Rookie on the Mound

John Lackey became the first rookie pitcher since Babe Adams in 1909 to win Game 7 of the World Series. How rookie starters have fared in seventh games:

*--* Year Pitcher Team Opponent Result 1909 Babe Adams Pittsburgh Detroit W, 8-0 1912 Hugh Bedient Boston Red Sox New York Giants No decision 1947 Spec Shea New York Yankees Brooklyn No decision 1952 Joe Black Brooklyn New York Yankees L, 4-2 1964 Mel Stottlemyre New York Yankees St. Louis L, 7-5 1987 Joe Magrane St. Louis Minnesota No decision 1997 Jaret Wright Cleveland Florida No decision 2002 John Lackey Angels San Francisco W, 4-1

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