Our littlest 'Angel'

The dog was small and scared, her tan fur matted with burrs. She stood, utterly lost, in the shade of the lone tree in the parking lot of the Urban Youth Academy in Compton. We made eye contact; she wagged her tail.

I was there on a June afternoon to work on a story about the academy's mission to return baseball to the inner city. In 2006, Major League Baseball invested $10 million in the 10-acre facility, which sits in a corner of the El Camino College Compton Center campus near the junction of the Artesia (91) and Long Beach (710) freeways.

I wanted to speak with the academy's managing director, Ike Hampton, about how it was going. Was the game making a comeback in the city where Al Cowens, Eddie Murray, Chet Lemon, Chili Davis and Ozzie Smith had grown up? Was the academy making a difference in the local kids' lives?

As I walked into the clubhouse, the dog followed.

"So, Ike," I said, with a nod toward my new best friend, "what do we do about this?"

Hampton shook his head.

"We get this too often," he said. "People are having hard times around here, and their dogs get abandoned when they have to move."

Hampton, a catcher who played for the California Angels in the 1970s, and his wife, De, own two rescue dogs.

One day a German shepherd had shown up at the academy — "a beautiful dog," he said — and Hampton managed to find it a home.

This dog wore no collar, no I.D. tag.

"I'll try to find a home for her," I said without much enthusiasm. "I mean, if nobody from the office can take her."

But everyone there already had dog or cat commitments. So Ike made a leash and collar out of a length of rope. When our interview was done, I put the dog on the Angels' blanket we take to the ball games and drove her home to Corona del Mar. I did not call ahead.

When we arrived, the upper Dutch door was open to catch the ocean breeze.

I called out to my husband Dan: "We, um, have a houseguest. And it has four legs."

Dan, who was captain of the hall monitors in high school, can rightfully appear stern, should an unauthorized dog show up at the door.

"What have you done?" he asked. Actually, he said more than that.

He relented after hearing the story.

"You did the right thing," he said. "But no way are we keeping her. We haven't had a dog in more than 20 years."

The next day, the vet examined her.

A mix of lhasa apso and shih tzu, she was healthy, though underweight, in need of a bath and a flea pill.

"Look at her nails," he said. "They're all worn down. She's been on the streets for awhile."

Then he found an embedded I.D. chip and scanned it. I struggled between relief — there was an owner and regret — and the fact that I really liked this dog. I called the (800) number and left my phone number.

"Don't be surprised if no one calls back," the vet said. "This happens a lot. People move on."

Meanwhile, the dog had fallen asleep on the floor.

"This isn't normal," he said. "She's exhausted."

With a hard look at me, he added, "You know, she's a very nice animal. She deserves a good home."

A few days later, Dan called the number again. No response.

But afraid to bond with her, we continued to call her "dog." She was heartbreakingly tentative, grateful for each meal, each pat and each kind word. She seldom barked and was a Will Rogers-kind-of animal, never meeting person or beast she didn't like.

Most dogs adore our backyard, which sits on the edge of Buck Gully and attracts possums, skunks and other varmints. This dog was definitely non-sporting. She didn't chase birds and rarely sniffed the brush. The nightly serenade of frogs in the canyon frightened her.

"I think we should name her," Dan said one afternoon after returning from a walk with the dog.

"You sure?" I said. That seemed like a commitment.

"Yes, I'm sure," he replied. "She's too good a dog to just turn over to someone else."

As in taking her to a shelter.

"Call her 'Pretty Woman,'" suggested our son Matt, noting that she had gone from gritty urban streets to Newport Beach.

But Dan retained naming rights.

"I'm calling her 'Angel,'" he said. "After all, you found her at the academy, which the Angels support."

Besides, the Angels Baseball Foundation funds Angels for Animals, which supports OC Animal Care, Santa Ana Friends for the Animals, and Old English Sheepdog Rescue.

When I spoke with Tim Mead, vice president of communications for the Angels, he recalled that his last five dogs had been adopted. Besides, Dan himself had once been an Angel, signing a contract in the franchise's inaugural year, 1961.

"Angel" it was.

After Angel had been with us for about six weeks, I asked Dan when he decided he wanted to keep her.

"Oh, after about the first 10 minutes," he replied. "I kept hoping no one would claim her."

He prizes their early morning walks to the beach, reporting back on the dogs and people they meet along the way.

For her part, Angel has developed an interest in the scented mysteries of our yard. She's been known to bury her nose in the pink roses that carpet the slope of the nearby OASIS Senior Center. She likes to take her time on her walks, sniffing out every tree and bush — the dog equivalent of reading the morning newspaper.

With each week she acts more like a family member. She's also picked up a pound and a half in weight. She now makes her preferences known with a discreet dance — another walk, please. Most of all, she covets the company of the people she adopted, as we've come to think of ourselves.

When an Angels game is on TV, she sits on one of our laps, inning after inning. She never flinches when we yell "No!" at a late-inning meltdown, though I swear she averted her face when pitcher Jered Weaver blew his cool in Detroit in July.

It's the end of September now. With a full summer of Little League, high school and college events, the Urban Youth Academy is doing fine.

Hampton, after being away from the game for years, finds an abiding joy in working with the kids of Compton. Few may make it to the major leagues, but the kids are learning about more than baseball through the reading, math and SAT prep classes that Angels owner Arte Moreno funded this season.

As I write this, the Angels have just been eliminated from playoff contention, which would normally throw Dan and me into an end-of-September funk. Instead we have a small tan dog who offers us welcome solace for this lost season — and so much more.

We can't imagine life without her.

JEAN HASTINGS ARDELL, a freelancer writer, lives in Corona del Mar.

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